For decades in Oklahoma City, it was really more lament than question: Do you think the Gaylords will ever sell the Oklahoman?
That is the sort of antipathy that can build over generations in a small state where the wealthiest family wields the era's most powerful news medium as a bludgeon to advance its personal, financial and (ultra-rightwing) political interests.
How bad was it? Blue and white bumper stickers sprouted across Oklahoma in the late '70s, declaring Will Rogers Never Met Eddie Gaylord.
In September 2011, the Gaylords finally answered the prayers of many who wearied of the Oklahoman's heavy-handedness, selling the paper to Colorado billionaire Philip Anschutz.
Oh, happy day?
More like: Be careful what you wish -- you just might get it.
In this case, the newspaper reading public in the western half of Oklahoma got an even more reactionary rightwing publisher who clearly thinks Fox News isn't conservative enough and whose 19th Century editorial sermonizing punishes political enemies and extols the capital's corporate elite.
The reason for the history lesson, of course, is last week's blockbuster news that the Tulsa World, too, will no longer be locally, family owned -- the Lortons cashing in 18 months after publicly expressing disappointment they weren't given the opportunity to buy the Oklahoman and create a statewide print juggernaut.
The World's surprise suitor was billionaire Warren Buffett, who evidently loves newspapers and thinks many are solid long-term investments (his real loyalty).
As owners of the monopoly daily, the Lortons, like the Gaylords, had their detractors -- and not without cause.
Almost as soon as word of the sale began circulating, I received an email from a veteran journalist that capsulized much of the criticism aimed at the Lorton-operated World: "Southern Hills golf course is said to be littered with sacred cows that all died of a heart attack this morning."
Not surprising, some uber-right Republicans were preoccupied with the politics of the new owner, foaming that Buffett is (a) an Obama financier, (b) a Democrat, (c) a liberal, (d) a Kenyan-born socialist ... ooops, sorry, that last label was from their descriptions of Obama, not the Oracle of Omaha, as Buffett is widely known.
So will the World suddenly begin asking the toughest, most impertinent questions of Tulsa's elite, probing deeper than ever -- without fear or favor into the city's corporate or political realms? Will its editorial page suddenly tilt far left now that a "Nebraska liberal" -- an oxymoron? -- owns the presses?
No one can know with certainty, of course, but the early signs are that it will be businesses as usual (prime example: the new publisher was a member of the Lorton team). Indeed, Buffett's track record is to buy newspapers, sit back and let the pros run them while he counts his money.
As Forbes' magazine noted when he began his newspaper buying binge last year, "Buffett loves newspapers, but he doesn't love them all equally. What he loves best are smallish papers in smallish markets where civic feeling runs high and competition is at a minimum. Those are the papers whose readers are most likely to be willing to pay for them once they erect paywalls, as Buffett intends them to.
"If Buffett's newspaper buying binge were chiefly about subsidizing community journalism, putting that journalism behind a wall would be counterproductive. Fortunately, Buffett's ethos about what's good for society dovetails nicely with his ethos about what makes a good investment."
Buffett clearly isn't a romantic about his newspaper properties. His BH media group recently closed the 143-year-old News and Messenger in Prince William County, just outside Washington, DC, unable to make it profitable.
But it's also added jobs -- reporting, not just income-generating positions like ad sales! -- at some of its papers.
There is at least one particular noteworthy difference between Buffett's purchase of the World and Anschutz's takeover of the Oklahoman. Like Anschutz, Buffett's group intends to share content from his other properties. But the real difference is Buffett's newspapers are real newspapers, not wholly political rags like Anschutz's Washington Examiner.
The Examiner produced the most vile, journalistically embarrassing pre-election tabloid attack on Obama that was inserted into the (Sunday Oklahoman) -- a not-so-thinly veiled attempt to hoodwink readers into mistaking editorial opinion for serious reporting.
So far as I know, Buffett has shown no signs of similar gamesmanship with his media properties -- but that may simply reflect differences in personalities: Anschutz is a political ideologue while Buffett's politics clearly tend to be more middle-of-the-road.
Remember, after all, Buffett rather vocally declared he doesn't think it's fair he pays a lower effective tax rate than his secretary, just because he can take advantage of all sorts of tax breaks designed to make the rich richer.
One of the obvious problems with family- and locally-owned newspapers is not what they tell their readers -- it's what they hide from them.
You'll know it's truly a new day in Tulsa journalism if sacred cows -- yes, the Southern Hills' cocktail types -- suddenly appear in the news columns in less-than-flattering situations (as opposed primarily to smiling society-page party pics or heartwarming philanthropic endeavors).
There are some excellent journalists at the World who no doubt have dreamed of the day they would be unshackled to peer into the darkest intersections of Tulsa commerce and politics -- telling the unvarnished stories of who's getting rich off sweetheart deals cut with city or county decision-makers.
I'll admit: I'm an ink-stained wretch. I've loved newspapers since I was a little boy. Over the years it's pained me watch newspapers -- like the (Tulsa Tribune,) a fabulous daily where I once worked go under or their staffs slashed to the point of irrelevance.
The industry's decline has become a self-fulfilling prophecy as Wall Street bean-counters dictated the terms of a newspaper's success. An eight or 10 or 15 percent return wasn't enough.
Buffett obviously sees things differently. As his investments reveal, newspapers are not dinosaurs on the verge of extinction.
Not everyone will want the content in print -- the way I prefer it. But even if accessing the news via their smart phones or tablets, civic-minded Americans will continue to covet what only good local newspapers can deliver: fair and accurate reporting and analysis that provides a greater understanding of the community.
One that doesn't hide news to protect relationships with cocktail buddies or slant the news to promote personal, political or financial interests above the greater good of the community.
When it comes to the World, whether past is prologue remains to be seen. But there can be little doubt that Tulsa is much better off with a Buffett-owned daily newspaper than an Anschutz-styled alternative.
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