It's been a tough few weeks for our monopoly daily newspaper, the Tulsa World.
First, a pressroom fire halted production of their Sunday, February 17, edition. Most subscribers received only the preprints on their porches--the TV listings, the ad inserts, and the classifieds. (Ironically, those sections are the sole reason that many Tulsans still bother to buy the paper.)
Then came the city primary election on March 4. The World took aim at the man they consider Public Enemy Number Two--District 1 Councilor Jack Henderson--and missed. The northsider's independence and his opposition to the proposed county sales tax increase for river projects made him a prime target for the paper.
The daily's editorial board pushed mortgage banker Emanuel Lewis, who was funded by more than $14,600 in contributions, at least $12,000 of which came from donors outside District 1.
That might not sound like a lot for a campaign, but it's an unheard-of amount for Tulsa's least affluent district, and it doesn't count any money that came in during the last two weeks of the campaign.
Lewis, the editorial board said, "would be a welcome progressive addition to the Tulsa City Council."
Despite the claim that there is no coordination between the editorial board and the newsroom, it's curious that the daily's reporters failed to notice that Lewis and his wife were defendants in an active small claims case, a fact easily discovered in a docket search on the Oklahoma State Courts Network website (oscn.net).
The Lewises failed to appear in court date on Jan. 24, and Judge Charles Hogshead ordered them to pay $868.74 to Tulsa Regional Medical Center, plus attorneys' fees and interest. On Feb. 15, a garnishment affidavit was served on Great Plains Mortgage, Lewis's employer.
Creditors generally go to great lengths to settle unpaid bills before they involve the courts. That someone seeking public office would let an unpaid bill go to court, then fail to appear in court, then fail to pay the judgment, casts serious doubt on the candidate's judgment and personal responsibility.
In the past, the daily has been eager to report on long-ago legal troubles involving political candidates. For example, a Jan. 30, 2004, story reported on court cases involving four city council candidates, including one charge that was 15 years in the past. That the daily would fail to inform its readers of the present-day legal trouble of its editorial board's favorite candidate presents an appearance that its news coverage is being warped to match its editorial position.
Despite the help Lewis received from the daily and big-time midtown contributors, Jack Henderson won a clear 55% majority on the strength of grassroots support.
We can expect the daily's energies to be focused now on the man they regard as Public Enemy Number One, but whom UTW readers have twice dubbed Tulsa's most believable councilor: District 3 Councilor Roscoe Turner.
Turner has been a frequent target of the daily's editorials. He refuses to kowtow to the paper and its allies in the Money Belt, putting his constituents' interests and those of the City of Tulsa ahead of the desires of city power brokers.
While Turner is a consistent friend to neighborhoods, David Patrick, his perpetual opponent, was renowned during his years on the City Council as a water-carrier for the developers' lobby. Shortly before the 2004 election, Patrick was the lone vote in favor of a rezoning at 41st and Harvard that all eight of his colleagues rejected.
In that same race, Patrick received more than half of his funding from board members of F&M Bank and Trust Co. A few months earlier Patrick not only voted for a controversial zoning change sought by the bank, he voted to prevent protesting residents from speaking about their unjust treatment at the hands of zoning bureaucrats.
The daily endorsed Patrick, as they have in nearly all of his electoral battles with Turner, but they failed to disclose the relationship between the paper and F&M Bank, on the board of which then-publisher Robert E. Lorton Jr. and current Robert E. "Bobby" Lorton III have served.
As the April 1 general election approaches you can expect Patrick to attract large amounts of outside-the-district campaign contributions along with plenty of favorable ink in both the news and opinion pages of the daily, just as Emanuel Lewis did in his race against Henderson.
The latest trouble for the World, however, is financial in nature, and it came to light last week, as the paper shut down its weekly community editions, laying off all 17 members of the Community World's staff.
As UTW's Brian Ervin reports elsewhere in this issue, the decision caught all but the very top levels of management by surprise. Two of the dismissed workers had been hired within the past few weeks.
Not only were the workers given no time to seek other employment, the severance package was stingy beyond belief--eight days' pay and benefits only through the end of this month.
One might expect that kind of shoddy treatment and tight-fistedness from a publicly traded company, scrambling to show positive end-of-quarter numbers to demanding institutional investors--or unwary buyers. It's almost unbelievable that this would happen in a family-owned business with immense wealth and a reputation for generosity in the community and loyalty to its employees.
If they could afford to keep a long-in-the-tooth Ken Neal around for several years past his sell-by date, couldn't the Lortons have managed to provide a couple of months' severance to these up-and-coming reporters and editors?
It's not surprising that the daily needs to cut costs. Circulation is declining rapidly, falling from 162,186 in 1998 to 138,262 in 2006, and it might fall even faster if it weren't for aggressive discount subscription plans.
Fewer and fewer people find that the daily paper fills a need in their life. For many Tulsans, the World has gone from beloved to despised to irrelevant in the space of a few short years.
The daily's troubles are only likely to get worse. Advertisers are finding more affordable print media options that are more effective at delivering local news to the metro area. Other print media such as Tulsa Kids, the Greater Tulsa Reporter, Oklahoma Monthly, Tulsa People are all options.
Accurate and dependable local coverage is the one competitive advantage a local daily might have over the wealth of Internet sources for national and global news. But with every new edition of the World, there's at least one more Tulsan who discovers a discrepancy between an event he witnessed and the way the World reported it.
The latest example is the paper's campaign against the idea of neighborhood conservation districts. Misleading headlines falsely paint supporters of the concept as trying to "fight infill."
Sunday's story quoted extensively from opponents of the concept, referring to them as "mere homeowners" without telling the reader enough about them to determine whether they might have a professional interest in the matter. Despite the existence of an organization, Preserve Midtown, devoted to the concept and many individual homeowners who support the idea, the only proponent mentioned was City Councilor Maria Barnes.
Janet Pearson's Sunday op-ed on the topic also mentioned only one supporter by name--Councilor Barnes--while quoting several opponents, including an unnamed developer who claimed that the proposal caused him to halt plans for a project on 15th Street, even though the project would be unaffected by an ordinance that hasn't even taken its first step toward approval.
Thanks to national media bias scandals, people are quicker to spot media bias and quicker to ignore a news source that is spinning the news to fit a hidden agenda. For example, there was the attempt by CBS's Dan Rather to denigrate President Bush's military service with documents that were obviously forged.
Alternative sources of information on local news, from Urban Tulsa Weekly to blogs to talk radio to live telecasts of public meetings, give Tulsans the chance to measure the World's view against what really happened. When the paper endorsed former Councilor Randy Sullivan, they praised him for his "keen intelligence" and "pleasant demeanor." Voters who'd watched Sullivan curse and fume on TGOV knew better.
At the heart of the World's local news coverage and editorial stance is a disdain for popular sovereignty. In issue after issue, the paper opposes efforts to give ordinary citizens more control over their government.
Some of that bias may be in service of the business interests of the family that owns the paper. Most of it, I suspect, is pure elitism, the sense that most of the public--most of its current and prospective readership--is too stupid for self-governance.
That's not a winning attitude in the competition for Tulsans' attention, respect, and disposable income.
We hope the Tulsa World survives as a locally-owned publication. We have great respect for the reporters and staff, most of whom appear to really care about Tulsa. It would be a shame if the paper were being prepared to be sold to a national chain.
But in the meantime, the leadership of the Tulsa World is way off track and out of touch with Tulsa and the citizens it was founded to serve.
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