The sale of the Tulsa World left G.T. Bynum "very surprised," the city councilor and fifth-generation Tulsan said.
For fourth-generation Tulsan and businesswoman Sharon King Davis, the sale to Warren Buffett's BH Media Group "was a total surprise."
Longtime Tulsans may not have seen it coming. But Mary Jane Pardue, author of Who Owns the Press?, a book on family-owned newspapers, wasn't shocked at the sale.
"I don't know that it's ever a surprise today when you hear about newspapers being sold," said Pardue, who interviewed World publisher Robert Lorton III in 2005 and visited The Tulsa World for a chapter in her book.
Lorton is the son of Robert E. Lorton, also known as Bob, chair of World Publishing Co., the paper's parent company. With the sale to Buffett's group still pending, the paper has been owned and controlled by the Lorton family since 1917.
To be sure, Pardue claimed no inkling of a sale based on her Tulsa visit. However, industry uncertainty has left the future of newspapers up in the area as advertising revenue migrates to a seemingly endless array of digital outlets.
In more flush economic times, the younger Lorton discussed with Pardue his take on retaining family ownership of the paper.
"It takes some family members still wanting to work here," Lorton told Pardue. Lorton and two sisters had "equal stock in the company," Pardue wrote, adding that his sisters were not interested in running the paper. The paper has five shareholders, according to a statement of ownership published in September, including the elder Lorton and his wife, Roxana, as well as their children.
Pardue reported that ownership is structured as a "Sub S" corporation. In this type of organization, taxes are paid by individual shareholders.
She hinted in the book that family ownership may have hinged on the younger Lorton's decision to live in Tulsa. "Had he not returned to Tulsa from Colorado where he went to college, his father may have put the newspaper out for bid when he decided to retire," Pardue wrote.
The book continued with the younger Lorton's thoughts on what selling the paper would mean: "If he sold, he said he wonders what he would do. 'I wouldn't move out of this marketplace. I like Tulsa. We have places to go visit and vacation places, but we still always choose to live here. We like the community.' Ultimately, though, 'you have to enjoy what you do, period.'"
The Lorton family has not spoken publicly about their reasons for the sale since it was announced Feb. 25. In meeting with employees, no mention was made of any attempt to seek out a potential local buyer, according to Susan Ellerbach, World managing editor.
Asked if the family sought a local buyer, Robert E. Lorton wrote in an email: "While we would like to accommodate you and all Tulsans, the parties to the transaction have a very strict confidentiality agreement with stringent restrictions and thus Tulsa World and its shareholders are prohibited from commenting on the sale or the terms of the sale."
Pardue said in an interview that, at family-owned dailies, "families are, I guess, still very close to their communities locally, and their communities feel close to them also."
However, she voiced optimism at the ownership of Warren Buffett. "In tough times for newspapers, I think it's just very, very important to preserve newspapers," she said, noting that Buffett's investing acumen is well regarded.
Both Davis and Bynum spoke about the role the newspaper and the Lorton family have played in the community, even apart from providing news coverage.
"To hear that it's gone to the big conglomerate was sad, and I'm not sure anybody likes big changes," Davis said. "But we kind of have to trust in their judgment that this was a good thing not only for them, but also for Tulsa, because I do believe they had that in their thoughts."
She added: "The Tulsa World has been a huge sponsor of a lot of events and been a great giver to the community."
Bynum said, "Certainly there is a part of you that's sad to see local ownership leave, especially when it's ownership like the Lorton family that's done so much for our community and led that paper in doing so much for our community outside of just reporting the news."
In Pardue's book, the younger Lorton states that "we contribute on average between $1 million and $2 million a year in actual cash back into charities in the marketplace."
Of course, Warren Buffett is well-known as a philanthropist, but his giving has largely been to causes outside of Oklahoma.
One notable exception involves the Buffett Early Childhood Fund, which is listed as a partner of Tulsa EduCare, an early childhood education initiative. The fund is chaired by Susan A. Buffett, daughter of Warren Buffett, who has reportedly provided funding for her philanthropic efforts.
Tulsa's local billionaire George Kaiser is also a strong financial backer of early childhood education, and among the very wealthy to sign a pledge put forward by Buffett and Bill Gates to donate a substantial portion of his wealth to charity.
Ken Levit, executive director of the George Kaiser Family Foundation, said he didn't know much about Buffett as a newspaper owner, but he praised the Lorton family.
"The Lortons certainly showed their deep commitment to the Tulsa community in their newspaper work and beyond, and I'm confident that they'll continue to be deeply active in the community," he said.
Pardue spoke about the commitment required to keep The Tulsa World truly local even with out-of-state ownership -- and it doesn't necessarily start with Buffett.
"I think that it's up to the staff and the people who are running the newspaper day-to-day to maintain that connection with the community," Pardue said, adding, "I think what's going to be important is that the community feels like the paper is still their newspaper."
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