POSTED ON JUNE 29, 2011:
The Paper, The Word
A look to the past, a vision for the future. The gathering and dissemination of news is essential to a thriving metro. Who can do it best?
Andy Rieger, a 30-year veteran of the newspaper business in Oklahoma who now serves as the editor and general manager of the Norman Transcript, has a daughter, Hannah, who graduated from journalism school last year. When she approached a small Oklahoma weekly newspaper about doing an internship there, the publication's management had several questions for her.
Did she know how to build a website? Did she know how to post information on a Twitter account? Did she know how to do an email blast? Her answer to all those questions was yes.
"Good," she was told, "because we need somebody to come here and teach us."
Rieger tells that story to illustrate the challenges facing the dozens and dozens of newspapers that remain across Oklahoma in an age of rapid and constant technological change. While some have done an outstanding job of staying on top of those changes and have altered their business model to reflect them, others have struggled to keep up.
"There are pockets of technology," he said, citing the Sequoyah County Times in Sallisaw, owned by the Mayo family, as a newspaper that was way ahead of the curve in embracing those changes. "But one of the problems you find in Oklahoma is that there are a lot of areas out there that don't have broadband access. You can be doing all this whiz-bang stuff, but if the person you're trying to reach doesn't have broadband access and is still using dial-up service, it doesn't matter."
It is certainly a reflection of the times that an examination of the state of the newspaper industry in Oklahoma begins -- and probably ends -- with discussion of those new technologies and how they have impacted the business. But in between, there still lies the issue of how the newspaper is faring in its traditional print form and what the future holds for that medium.
Many observers, of course, have been eager to throw dirt on the grave of the traditional newspaper for at least the last 15 years. Those who (still) work in the business have heard of its demise so many times that many have grown numb to it.
"The obituary has been written, it just hasn't been published yet," Rieger said.
The Paper Chase
Oklahoma's newspapers -- whether the metropolitan dailies or small town clarions -- tend to be pro-establishment masters of the mundane, hardly the pugnacious, rabble-rousers of print's golden age.
That's probably not surprising, given the medium's long, oft-sordid history that dates to the pre-Civil War era when the future state's newspapers tended to be operated by a particular religious denomination -- Baptists, for example -- or a tribe.
What followed in the 20th century were, for the most part, status quo-oriented, religiously and fiscally conservative newspapers.
"The way the two territories were organized and opened, you had the business of 'instant cities' and you had all occupations represented from Day One in Oklahoma after the land openings," said Dr. William W. Savage Jr., a University of Oklahoma history professor.
"In the 19th Century when towns sprang up for whatever economic reason -- usually there was instant growth because of some sort of boom or the arrival of a new means of transportation -- the typical event was towns would begin with five or six newspapers and then over the next couple of years those are thinned out. You might wind up with two, maybe three and then, as time goes on, there was the tendency toward one newspaper communities."
There was newspaper competition for years in Oklahoma's two largest cities.
According to Carolyn Foreman's "Oklahoma Imprints," published in 1936 by the University of Oklahoma Press, Tulsa enjoyed two periods of intense newspaper creation -- the first in the mid to late 1890s and the other in the early 1900s.
Among the newspapers Foreman catalogued were the Tulsa Chief, the Tulsa Democrat weekly, the Tulsa Democrat daily, the Tulsa Guide, the Tulsa Review, the Tulsa Times, the Tulsa Tribune and the Tulsa Daily World.
In the modern era, Oklahoma City was a serious two-newspaper town in the 1960s and 1970s when the Gaylord-owned Daily Oklahoman (morning) and Oklahoma City Times (evening) competed against the upstart Oklahoma Journal (morning).
The Journal was in the tradition of the golden era of print journalism when newspapers often sprang to life as weapons in ongoing grudge matches between entrepreneurs or political foes.
The Journal was launched by developer W.P. "Bill" Atkinson, regarded as the father of Midwest City (adjacent Tinker Air Force Base), to settle a score with E.K. Gaylord and his Oklahoma Publishing Co.
The relationship between Atkinson and Gaylord soured over a business deal -- some say it was because Atkinson, acting on an inside tip regarding Tinker's future location, gobbled up all the land adjacent what would become Oklahoma's largest employer. Gaylord reportedly gambled on a possible site near Will Rogers World Airport.
When Atkinson refused to cut Gaylord and Co. in on the deal, Gaylord seethed. In 1960, when Atkinson became the Democratic nominee for governor, Gaylord refused to sell him advertising in the Oklahoman and Times. Atkinson lost the race -- to Oklahoma's first Republican governor, Henry Bellmon. Atkinson retaliated by founding the Journal, which lasted nearly two decades before he sold it to a California company that eventually closed it.
In his final years, Atkinson swore he had inside information that Early California Industries, the company that purchased the Journal, actually turned out to be a Gaylord front.
Weight of the World.
The Tulsa World and Tulsa Tribune engaged in fierce editorial competition for a half-century, but the two companies were the first in 1941 to negotiate a joint operating agreement -- they combined their business, printing and circulation operations, but kept their newsrooms independent.
The Democratic-leaning World took the morning slot, the Republican Tribune the afternoon -- a decision that would prove part of its undoing. As television, particularly network newscasts, came to dominate American interest in the early 1960s, afternoon newspapers lapsed into a downward spiral from which they never recovered. The Tribune, which introduced provocative, new ideas and great writing, was a popular publication among the educated and sophisticated movers and shakers of the era, failed, possibly, because it didn't control the presses and administration.
The Tribune ceased publishing in 1992, a year after Urban Tulsa, then a monthly alternative newspaper, was founded by editor and publisher Keith Skrzypczak.
For much of the 20th century, newspapers wielded a big stick in their communities, often helping shape development and culture. Some publishers, like the Gaylords, delighted in exerting the power their printing presses afforded.
The Oklahoman was notorious for its page one editorials, often a broadside against Democrats or a glowing testimony to the wisdom of Republicans -- reflecting E.K. Gaylord's conservatism that included involvement with the virulently anti-communist John Birch Society.
"They brought the cannon out on the front porch, and fired it down the street," said Ben Blackstock, 85, the longtime head of the Oklahoma Press Association.
Famed Oklahoma U.S. Sen. Robert S. Kerr, widely revered as the uncrowned king of the Senate, predicted in the 1950s that Oklahoma -- then dominated by the Democratic Party -- eventually would become a Republican-controlled state.
Incredulous reporters asked how. Two reasons, he said: "The Daily Oklahoman and the Southern Baptist convention." Kerr was prescient: Oklahoma hasn't supported a Democratic for president since Lyndon Johnson in 1964. In 2008, Democrat Barack Obama failed to carry even one of the state's 77 counties. Today, Republicans not only control both houses of the Oklahoma Legislature, but also every statewide elected office.
Even after E.K. Gaylord died in 1974 at age 101 and his son, Edward L., took the Oklahoman's helm, front-door diatribes were a staple -- one of the reasons it was named America's worst newspaper by Columbia Journalism Review in 1999.
In the early 1990s, then Democratic Gov. David Walters was one of the paper's chief targets. Walters, a well-heeled Oklahoma City entrepreneur who now builds power plants around the world, often joked about his morning routine when he went out to retrieve his copy of the Oklahoman. He'd take the stick and poke the newspaper -- just in case a snake slithered out.
Dr. W. David Baird, a noted Oklahoma historian and Pepperdine University professor, said newspapers were especially crucial to Oklahoma's development in the 20th century.
"We always used to say when I was working with (then-U.S. Rep.) John Jarman -- he always used to say -- E.K. Gaylord couldn't elect you, but he could sure defeat you," Baird said. "That was true politically but it also was true in terms of the moral issues they chose. And all of these tended to be evangelical morals."
The Oklahoman, for example, waged a page-one editorial war against liquor by the drink and pari-mutuel gambling. The newspaper also was known for refusing to accept advertisements for X-rated movies.
Baird, a former Oklahoma State University and University of Arkansas professor, said a daily newspaper wielding a big stick wasn't unique to Oklahoma.
"I was in Arkansas for 10 years," he said, "and we always said that about the Arkansas Gazette. It's influence was pervasive, but wasn't any more pervasive than the Oklahoman or the Tribune."
A former Oklahoman city editor, Randy Splaingard, who later helped launch the alt-weekly Oklahoma Gazette, helped with Walters' campaign, became a journalism professor at Oklahoma City University and later returned to daily journalism in New Jersey, was quoted as saying:
"I'm always encouraging my (OCU) students to read newspapers, but I never require that they read The Oklahoman. The Constitution forbids cruel and unusual punishment."
The state's major dailies don't wield the influence they once did, thanks to television and the Internet. Declining circulation for both the World and Oklahoman begat declines in advertising that begat declines in staffing. The two papers now share content.
There is no better example of the decline of daily print journalism than the state Capitol's fourth floor pressroom. Three decades ago, its tenants included five major dailies -- the Oklahoman, the World, the Tribune, the Oklahoma City Times and the Journal -- as well as two wire services -- the Associated Press and United Press International. Thirteen full-time, year-round reporters. Of those remaining in business, the Oklahoman, World and AP have one full-time, year-round reporter each.
"They've been trying to kill it (daily print journalism) for 200 years or more," said Blackstock.
In the past, he said, success or failure of daily newspapers depended on the publisher -- and it likely will be so in the future.
"When you get right down it, it depends on the kind of person under that hat," Blackstock said. "Does he have any spark of idealism in him? Has he been infected with any liberalism? How much is he a drop-a-wrench-in-the-machinery-type guy or how much of a kind of guy is he who's interested on making deals for himself and his friends."
And yet, as others point out, most newspapers have not gone away. Few have managed to emerge unscathed from the downturn that has struck the industry in recent years, but the same can be said of businesses in just about every other field, as well.
"I don't think I've seen the death throes of newspapers as much as we heard about several years ago," said Doug Dodd, a Tulsa lawyer specializing in First Amendment issues who once was a broadcast journalist. "I'm not as pessimistic about the future of print publications or dailies as I was a few years ago."
Still, there is little doubt that the first decade of the 21st century has been perhaps the most difficult time for American newspapers in their history, with several large metropolitan dailies -- the Cincinnati Post, the Rocky Mountain News, the Albuquerque Tribune, the Tucson Citizen and the Baltimore Examiner, among others -- having fallen by the wayside.
Oklahoma newspapers have experienced their share of problems, as well, with a number of layoffs having taken place at the state's two largest papers, The Oklahoman and the Tulsa World, over the past few years. Whether the industry has hit bottom yet remains to be seen, but Rieger sees signs that things are beginning to turn around. The steep personnel cuts and circulation losses that had become commonplace are slowing down or stopping, he said, and several smaller papers are slowly beginning to add staff members.
Skrzypczak believes the industry is definitely in a recovery period. But he said newspapers are still in the process of figuring out their new role as partners of new media.
"And they can't forget their core responsibilities," he said, noting that all that new technology often leads to the temptation to produce pulp instead of substance. "Information gathering and connecting with the community, each publication in its own way, is still what it's all about."
As the publisher of an alternative newsweekly, Skrzypczak is used to being tagged as an outsider in the newspaper field, even though he's never felt that way and believes that's not a distinction most readers make.
"I hate these genre tags, even though it's always been there," he said. "Readers can see through the fluff. That's why the intelligent, influential reader picks us up, because they can see through the clutter. Do we have our own agenda?
"Sure, we've always covered arts and entertainment well. We have given voice to the voiceless. And, in the process, we've developed a really good news function, too."
Tulsa World executive editor Joe Worley was e-mailed a list of questions regarding his thoughts on the state of the newspaper industry but had not responded by UTW's deadline. Publisher Robert E. Lorton III did not return calls seeking comment.
Joe Foote, the dean of the Gaylord College of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Oklahoma, was more circumspect in his assessment.
"It's a complicated process because you're going to see both," he said, indicating there would be successes as well as failures in the years to come. Newspapers that are able to erect a quality pay wall for their website and reverse the losses they have suffered in recent years by taking advantage of new technology will fare well, he said.
"Those that can't will face a rocky road," he said.
Foote believes the state's smaller newspapers will have an easier time of it than the large metro dailies, given their relative isolation and lack of competition.
"That business model is holding up pretty well, he said.
The numbers seem to bear out Foote's claim. Mark Thomas, the executive vice president of the Oklahoma Press Association, said that while the number of Oklahoma newspapers that are OPA members has fallen over time, there hasn't been a dramatic decline. A quarter century ago, he said, OPA boasted a membership of approximately 235 papers. The current number is 201 -- the same as last year and the year before, he said.
What has changed, he said, is the frequency with which some newspapers are published. Many of them that formerly were published every weekday have eliminated their Monday edition as a cost-saving measure, although Thomas believes that has not had a negative effect on their ability to cover their communities.
"In fact, it's probably improved the quality of the paper for the remaining four days," he said.
As for the overall decline in the number of papers over the past 25 years, Thomas said much of that can be explained by consolidation. In a number of suburban markets, where each community formerly had its own paper, one company has bought those newspapers and merged them, he said.
"So instead of having two weeklies, you now have one twice-a-week newspaper covering both communities," he said.
The most striking example of that, he said, is eastern Oklahoma County, where seven separate papers formerly existed to cover various communities. Several years ago, one company bought all those papers and merged them into one.
"So we essentially lost six papers," he said.
Thomas said some of the best-known examples of papers that were lost include the combining of the Enid News and Enid Eagle into the Enid News Eagle, and the closure of the Oklahoma City Times and the Tulsa Tribune.
Thomas said the key to survival for the state's newspapers is recognizing that the economy has changed, just as it has for countless other businesses.
"People who can adapt to those different circumstances are going to be OK," he said. "If you're sitting there on your hands waiting for the economy to come back, you're not."
That means a willingness to explore new ways of doing things has become very important, according to Thomas.
"You better learn to be innovative in good times and bad times," he said. "In good times, you better be saving your pennies so you can afford to be innovative in bad times."
Few publishers would disagree with that, but, so far, no consensus seems to have emerged in regard to what form that innovation should take. Of the 201 papers that are OPA members, Thomas said only 84 have websites -- though the ones that do appear to have embraced that side of their existence, with many print weeklies providing new content daily in their online edition.
Only a handful of those papers -- approximately 25 percent -- have installed a pay wall on their site, he said.
Rieger's Norman Transcript is part of the majority that still offers free content in its online presence.
"That horse left the barn 15 years ago, and we should have done it then," he said of establishing a pay wall. "The deal is, there's so much thievery out there and people take stuff from you (without attributing it). I think that's going to be the next battleground, when newspapers start to protect the things they produce."
Dodd said the need for newspapers to reinvent themselves in their online incarnation closely resembles what the television news industry went through with the proliferation of cable TV late in the 20th century. The sudden addition of dozens of additional news outlets to the traditional four-network lineup changed the landscape dramatically, he said.
"People are able to choose a cable TV news operation that fits their needs, whether that's liberal, conservative or comedic," he said. "The same thing is happening in print journalism."
Skrzypczak looks at the changes that have taken place in his industry over the course of his career and shrugs off many of them, pointing out newspapers certainly aren't alone in having to fend off challengers.
"I'm old enough to remember when disco was going to kill live music," he said. "Now, this is the age of DJs, but live music is still around. And papers are always going to be there. It's about tangibility. Machines and devices fritz out. Papers are going to be here a long, long time. They're going to outlive me."
Even so, Skrzypczak said he wouldn't mind if newspapers moved to a completely electronic format. For him, what newspapers represent is not the paper they're printed on. That's simply the medium that has been most accessible and to them, he said, explaining that American newspapers evolved from pamphlets in the early days.
"That was the only thing they had available to them aside from yelling and screaming," he said. "Paper was the cheap vehicle."
The major issue for newspapers these days is transferring the value that long has been accepted for their print versions to their online versions. That has been an uphill battle, and it's a riddle no one has really solved yet, Foote said.
"A lot of very good news organizations are doing the right thing online, delivering information on multiple platforms," he said. "But when your online product is producing only 20 cents on the dollar compared to your print product, that's almost an insurmountable challenge. If your content is not valuable enough to put behind a pay wall and you rely almost exclusively on advertising, I just don't see how you do that."
A number of industry observers believe the days of print publications are numbered, that newspapers will survive only by adopting solely an online presence.
Tulsans got a taste of that last winter when the World was unable to deliver its print edition for the first time in its history because of record-breaking snowfall. The Oklahoman published print editions throughout the blizzard, as did Urban Tulsa Weekly.
Then, on Sunday, June 19, problems with the World's printing presses caused some sections of the paper to be combined in the same section. For younger readers who have always been accustomed to reading their newspaper online, those disruptions were likely no big deal. For older readers, it may have been an uncomfortable glimpse of things to come.
For the time being, Dodd said, it's still important for newspapers to appeal to both those markets.
"I'm one of those people who love to hold a newspaper in their hands," he said. "I do, I love that. But as other generations move in, we're going to see that change."
While they may have their adherents, Foote still foresees plenty of tough times ahead for newspapers in their traditional form.
"There is going to be a shake out," he said. "If the business models continue as they have, there is a finite time you can continue to make sufficient money publishing as a newspaper, so some of these are going to go away. That's going to be a big dislocation."
But he doesn't doubt that others will figure out a new business model that allows them to endure the current difficulties and emerge on solid ground.
"That could be a radically different landscape," he said.
The Lay of the Land
Michael Mason and Vincent LoVoi are among those exploring new and different business and media models.
Mason founded This Land in the spring of 2010. A monthly publication and digital outfit billed as "Oklahoma's First New Media Company," This Land is part literary journal and art publication that, in any given issue, devotes entire swaths of its oversized pages to essays, first-person color features or stylish photos.
This Land has an atypical, two-tiered system for selling ads. There's a standard rate-card for large companies; small businesses with fewer than 50 employees bid on ad space through an auction. The publication only sells ads to businesses "based and capitalized in Oklahoma," according to its downloadable media kit.
This Land has received critical praise, including a March write-up in Columbia Journalism Review, which wrote that the unique publication is "a bet against some of the more demoralizing trends in recent media history."
In 2011, LoVoi, a venture capitalist, invested in the publication and came aboard as publisher. Mason, This Land's editor, declined an interview with UTW.
On the publication's website, thislandpress.com, LoVoi wrote that This Land's mission is about chronicling community life, not cataloguing information.
"Information is ubiquitous. We don't need it dropped on our driveway. This Land may give you access to information, but it will not be our purpose," LoVoi wrote. "Our purpose will always be the story of Oklahoma itself, over time, as a culture and a place. That's what great journalism is all about. To enable a community to better understand itself, to see itself more clearly, to move forward with greater certainty."
LoVoi also made it clear that while 4,000 copies are published each month, This Land isn't a newspaper.
"Or a website. Or any particular form of media," he wrote. "News providers can no longer dictate to you what form the news shall take. You tell us. This Land will be ready and able to offer choices, with many stories in more than one media."
Engaged and Energized
Foote is encouraged by the fact that, even in the current environment, a handful of news operations are thriving.
"The Economist has the highest circulation in its history and its highest profits," he said. "That shows people are still willing to pay for information. The success of the Bloomberg news operation shows that information is valuable and people are willing to pay for it. Look at the success of sporting publications around the world. People interested in sports are not hesitant to pay for it."
Rather than be discouraged about what has happened to newspapers in recent years, Skrzypczak takes a different approach.
"This is really an exciting time, a demanding time, and it makes us all work harder and think harder," he said. "If we like what we do and we're committed to what we do, we have the talent to do it and the will to do it."
There's a lot of opportunity out there, Foote said. Whether general interest newspapers are able to take advantage of it depends on many factors, but most are making a serious effort, he said.
"The industry is more attuned, more engaged and more energized for change than any time I've ever seen it," Foote said. "While newspapers are in crisis, they're not burying their heads. The people leading them are thinking in a more visionary way than they have in a century. There just has not come a reward for their actions."
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