POSTED ON SEPTEMBER 19, 2012:
The New Journalism
Vibrant media landscape exists in Oklahoma despite vexing questions of sustainability and coverage
No one would confuse TulsaNow with The Tulsa World.
Unlike The World, TulsaNow is certainly not a media company. The self-described grassroots organization formed in 2001 as an effort to rally citizens on land use and urban development issues in Tulsa.
But both have an audience, making their similarities -- as well as their differences -- worth pondering when considering the Tulsa media landscape and broad questions about the future of journalism.
The World newspaper, founded in 1905 and the embodiment of old media, boasts that it reaches 53 percent of adults in the Tulsa designated market area. It not only publishes a daily newspaper, it frequently reminds readers they can view iPad and mobile editions as well as a continuously updated website -- for a fee. In April of last year The World began charging for access to news posted on its website, using a metered model that requires payment after viewing so many articles.
TulsaNow produces "a few times a month" an email newsletter devoted to development news, in addition to hosting an online community forum that on a recent weekday had about 50 new posts. Were they news? If not news, they were certainly informational; posters reported a new business moving into an older building, as well as observations about drivers having difficulty navigating a new traffic circle on East 11th Street downtown.
It's hard to estimate how many people visit the site, but TulsaNow can claim more than 2,200 Twitter followers despite sending out barely more than a half-dozen tweets this year. In 2009, heavy web traffic to the forums required an overhaul to create a more robust website capable of handling what organizers described as thousands of visitors.
Those who visit pay nothing for content. "Generally, our budget is in the hundreds of dollars a year," said Scott Grizzle, president of TulsaNow. While The World must aggressively pursue enough advertising dollars and other revenue streams to pay salaries and cover the costs of printing and delivering the newspaper, TulsaNow relies on dedicated volunteers to keep things moving.
So which has a brighter future? It's a question that extends beyond these two specific examples, highlighting a crucial but often overlooked fact about today's news and information landscape: Even as traditional media outlets struggle to maintain their advertising revenue -- turning to options like online pay walls to boost income while making information less accessible to the public -- people looking for news find many, many more options and ways to get information through outlets like TulsaNow.
"People are switching more to an a la carte way of getting their news," Grizzle said. "They pick and choose their sources."
This leaves The Tulsa World, along with other media companies, struggling to be among the chosen.
Tulsa World President John Bair wrote in an email that the company's metered model has been "an overwhelming success." He described a 59 percent increase in unique web visitors in July of this year compared to July 2010, before the implementation of the metered model.
If people instead are turning to TV news websites -- as has been postulated by some in the industry as a likely outcome of more newspapers nationally moving behind a pay wall -- Bair noted that The Tulsa World still has the largest audience, by far, in the region.
According to promotional materials provided by Bair, The Tulsa World had just over 1 million unique monthly visitors according to an Aug. 1 report by Quantcast, a service that measures Internet audiences. By comparison, the free news website for News on 6 had fewer than 400,000 monthly unique visitors.
But where do those unique visitors come from? Houston Hunt, vice president of marketing for Griffin Communications, LLC, which owns KOTV, broadcaster of News on 6, provided Quantcast data showing that the News on 6 website has slightly more unique visitors in Tulsa than the website for The Tulsa World.
The web numbers do nothing to salve the newsroom cuts that have taken place at The World as well as The Oklahoman, the daily newspaper in Oklahoma City.
In some ways, this has been a long process that even precedes the advent of the Internet.
Arnold Hamilton, editor of The Oklahoma Observer, recalled how in the early 1980s, four daily newspapers provided everyday staffing to cover statehouse affairs -- including the still-missed Tulsa Tribune, which printed its final edition in 1992 -- as did two wire services and some TV and radio stations.
"Now, none of the TV stations have a presence at the capital full time," Hamilton said. Public radio's KOSU provides the lone day-in, day-out radio coverage, while The Tulsa World has one person covering the capital when it once had three reporters working the beat, said Hamilton.
"The daily papers have cut back as advertising has fled, particularly classified advertising," Hamilton said. He has edited the Observer for six years, but once headed the Oklahoma bureau of the Dallas Morning News, a position that has been eliminated by the daily newspaper.
To Hamilton, the results have been clear: "You don't have nearly as many trained professional journalists out knocking on doors, peeking behind the curtain, going through the campaign contribution reports, connecting campaign contributions with legislation -- those sorts of things that give people a real understanding of the world around them."
What Is News?
Benjamin Peters, an assistant professor of communication at the University of Tulsa, takes the long view of trends in communication, including journalism.
Despite the constant change caused by economics and technology, journalism will remain "a local enterprise," Peters said. "It will be a set of activities that are carried out for and by and on behalf of the local community."
Through this lens, it's easier to see the efforts of TulsaNow as journalism -- and organization president Grizzle seems to agree.
"I think to some degree it is (journalism)," Grizzle said. "I would say it's probably more akin to like a special investigative kind of journalism. ... We're kind of more that kind of investigative kind than, you know, the daily news kind."
Along with providing forums where people trade information about new real estate ventures and details of land use planning, the organization seeks to inform the public about certain specific issues, like a city planning concept or tax ballot measure.
To be sure, TulsaNow makes no claim it goes out of its way to present all views on a topic. The group's mission statement says it's focused on "the development of Tulsa's distinctive identity and economic growth around a dynamic, urban core, complemented by a constellation of livable, thriving communities."
Recently, TulsaNow came out in opposition to the Vision2 sales tax proposal, stating a goal to put together and share information about the ballot measure. Would it be a balanced presentation with both sides of the argument? Not so much. The organization stated in an article that "those in support of Vision2 already have a website that we suggest you read and review."
It's a passionate approach that comes at the expense of balanced reporting. But it's passion that makes the "democratization of journalism" possible in general, Peters said. "The things that make those people so successful is a self-driving passion and commitment."
TulsaNow, along with perhaps Batesline, the political blog of always-opinionated Michael Bates, might be the most visible local examples of what Peters called "geek-like investment in a particular topic."
Such "geek-like investment" need not be overtly political to be newsworthy and journalistic, of course.
Britt Greenwood, 27, started the online venture Tulsa Art Spot last year to highlight Tulsa-area artists and art events.
"It just seemed like Tulsa needed a hub for all the arts happenings and arts organizations and a place to promote artists. There's lots of different organizations, but nothing really bringing them all together," Greenwood said.
Much more than a business or even solely a community project, Greenwood said she wanted to get back in touch with her roots as an artist.
"It was a passion project for me. I'm a mother of two pre-schoolers, and it was just kind of an outlet get me back into the community," Greenwood said. While she sought community funding through an online fundraising site, her family provided the money to get the project started.
She found it tough in the beginning -- "Basically, last year I didn't know what I was doing," she said -- but she gradually learned how to manage her website and aggressively reach out to introduce herself to Tulsa artists.
Her efforts have picked up steam over recent months. Greenwood, who had no journalism background when she started the venture, said she tries to post new content at least two to three times weekly. Her recent work has included an interview with Ken Busby, executive director and chief executive officer of the Arts & Humanities Council of Tulsa, along with artist profiles and blurbs about events.
Greenwood said she considers herself a "creative journalist" as well as an artist. While she dreams of getting an intern to help shoulder the burden of a one-woman operation, her long-term goal is "to see the community take more of a role in Tulsa Art Spot," she said. "I've thought about partnering with a university. I've thought of partnering with an already out-there publication."
If perhaps collaboration comes naturally to artists, it has never been essential to journalism -- until perhaps recently.
In 2009, The Oklahoman and The Tulsa World entered into a content-sharing agreement, which has become a point of pride for The World's Bair.
"Our content sharing agreement with the Oklahoman actually gives us a larger presence in OKC than we have ever had before," Bair wrote in an email.
Hamilton said that in the past, the two papers "would have never dreamed of sharing content like they do now."
But collaborations between journalism outlets can be tough to pull off. Warren Vieth, interim editor of the nonprofit Oklahoma Watch, said the nonprofit, founded in 2010, tried to establish partnerships with the state's two largest newspapers as well as the local PBS TV station affiliate, among other media partners.
"Those organizations are still media partners, but Oklahoma Watch is essentially trying to develop the capacity to do stuff by itself," said Vieth, explaining that unbalanced partnerships previously had left other media outlets wondering about the worth of Oklahoma Watch.
Oklahoma Watch, founded in part with funding from the George Kaiser Family Foundation and the Tulsa Community Foundation, is based at the University of Oklahoma, where Joe Foote is dean of the Gaylord College of Journalism and Mass Communication.
He said that more media organizations are reaching out to work with students.
"There's probably not another area of the university that has as many co-curricular opportunities as you find in journalism schools these days. There's just incredible opportunities to practice your craft and get real world experience while being in the university," Foote said.
Despite an uncertain industry outlook, there is no shortage of interest in journalism among college students, said Derina Holtzhausen, director of the School of Media and Strategic Communications at Oklahoma State University in Stillwater.
"Our enrollment is absolutely through the roof," said Holtzhausen.
She credited a change that has become commonplace in journalism schools. In 2010, OSU did away with majors in broadcast and print journalism. Students now have the option of earning a degree in multimedia journalism, as well as a newly created sports media major.
In multimedia journalism, students study video production and new media like blogging. Holtzhausen said that ethics are also studied along with a heavy dose of technology.
"Our students will not find jobs if they don't have that broad range of skills," Holtzhausen said, adding that she is optimistic about the job prospects for those seeking journalism careers.
Coming to Oklahoma four years ago from Florida, Holtzhausen said she was "pleasantly surprised about the vibrant nature of journalism in the state."
She cited the large numbers of community newspapers as a sign that journalism remains strong statewide.
"They are trying and they all are making it in this very complex media environment, and I just do not believe for a moment that journalism is dead," Holtzhausen said.
Foote also cited the strength of local news in smaller communities.
"I think Oklahoma is unusual in that it has so many small town newspapers and weeklies and smaller dailies that have been quite resilient and are depended on mightily by the people in those communities," Foote said. "There's a bedrock foundation of journalism there that we have that you don't find in every state."
Not every community publication meets with continued success, however. This year, for example, saw the closure of Tulsa County News, a community newspaper in the southwest Tulsa region that had been published since 1922.
What Is and Isn't Working
In 2010, This Land Press began publishing later moving to twice-monthly editions. The organization's self-described mission is to "chronicle life in Oklahoma through courageous, compelling stories" told in print, online and through video and audio reporting.
Despite the promise of ventures like This Land and Oklahoma Watch, each has obvious shortcomings when it comes to producing journalism.
Vieth noted that when reading This Land, "I'd say at least 75 percent of the content, probably 85 percent of the content is not news driven." Instead, This Land is more likely to fill its pages with historical retrospectives and fiction and poetry. And while backers say it's following an expected trajectory toward profitability, they have admitted that the publication isn't there yet.
As far as Oklahoma Watch, the dearth of content is obvious from looking at the organization's website. Months-old stories remain on the front page.
Vieth explained that the organization currently has no full-time employees. He said the organization is hiring a full-time executive editor. Vieth said that after the hire, he expected "several" staff members to be brought on board.
Vieth, an OU journalism instructor and a former staff member of the Los Angeles Times, acknowledged that cuts to mainstream news outlets like The Oklahoman and The Tulsa World have resulted in fewer working professional journalists.
"The fact that mainstream media have been contracting and reducing the number of staffers obviously means they aren't able to do as much enterprise journalism as in the past," Vieth said. "Nobody in the industry, in the kind of mainstream category, can do as much as they used to."
But in general, Vieth sees lots of people and ventures at least giving journalism a try.
21 Years of Journalism. The cover of the first issue of Urban Tulsa Weekly, July 1991.
"It's just a big wide open frontier. All sorts of people are popping up. A lot of them don't survive for very long," Vieth said. "I would think that at some point, a new business model will emerge and make sense."
Peters noted however that many of the small "mom and pop" news ventures struggle to succeed. If passion is the clear prerequisite for success and gaining an audience, "what this doesn't answer is how people are going ... to make it a professional activity," Peters said.
Ultimately, for any journalism to take off and be a success, "we need a local readership that's willing somewhere to spend money to support what they read," Peters said.
M. Scott Carter, president of the Oklahoma chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists, acknowledged perceptions that professional reporting is on life support.
"We fight the perception all the time that newspapers are dead, nobody watches TV anymore unless it's some reality show and nobody listens to the radio. Everybody gets their information from the web," Carter said.
While Carter said there is definitely a "difficult market" for media companies, he maintained that online news stories often originate from the work of professional journalists.
"I think that how people get the news has changed a lot, but there's the need for professional reporters who understand how to track down information and provide analysis," Carter said, adding, "That hasn't changed and that's not going to change."
Industry professionals continue to believe in the importance of journalism, including Keith Skrzypczak, founder and editor of Urban Tulsa Weekly.
"Information is going to continue to be the power to move things in a positive direction," Skrzypczak said.
Journalism is "a very egalitarian thing," Skrzypczak said, describing it as how "a community gets to know itself."
Critics have long predicted the demise of radio, but Skrzypczak said he expects printed news to endure apart from the "distractions" that can overwhelm with electronic media.
And apart from questions of what form journalists deliver news, "I still believe that the importance and salience of news and community information -- true non boosterism news and information -- to your clientele is going to bring eyeballs and change your community and be a powerful agent."
Grizzle noted that it doesn't necessarily follow that if The Tulsa World would simply just somehow do a better, more comprehensive job, it would satisfy all readers.
"Obviously, a lot of people have decided they want to sort of kind of tailor their own news. Where instead of reading The Tulsa World in the morning or watch the evening news, they say well 'I'm not interested in sports. I'm more interested in politics' ... so they follow the political blogs," Grizzle said.
He added: "Traditional news outlets -- print, TV, radio -- are trying to hit such a wide audience and trying to be a little bit of everything for everybody. But that's not 100 percent possible."
Though Grizzle doesn't have the journalism credentials of many industry watchers, his view seems to be echoed -- at least somewhat -- by OU's Foote.
"I think we're in a transition, where we're moving from the day when everyone read the paper as if it were one source of information, to now there are multiple sources of information," Foote said. "News organizations have to differentiate themselves and find a business model to support it."
John Durkee, news director at radio station KWGS, said National Public Radio has partnered since 2010 with Oklahoma public media outlets to create another journalism effort, StateImpact Oklahoma. It produces not only radio news but also a news website.
Durkee recalled seven Tulsa radio stations with news teams when he first started in the industry more than 30 years ago, with the number dwindling to two. But "the people are being served in Tulsa by the media," he said. "I think there's a niche for everyone, and for us here, it's more the issue- oriented stories and that's where we're going to focus."
Questions of bias or undue influence remain an issue in journalism. Hamilton noted there have also long been questions from critics about the family-owned major newspapers in Oklahoma.
"Obviously, you're still dealing with the problem of the agendas that the owners of the major papers have," Hamilton said. "There are certain sacred cows that they're not willing to explore or hold up to the light."
Despite the grumbling about The World, Foote said it remains a vibrant force in journalism.
"I've been impressed with their investigative coverage that they do. I'm sure they've had cutbacks but when you look at the quality that they are exhibiting, it's hard for a layman to see where how they've slowed down very much," Foote said.
Hamilton said he's optimistic that people will see the value trained news reporters who "fairly, accurately and without bias provide information."
His publication supports what it calls progressive views and is often at odds with Republican lawmakers, but he said he doesn't want people to rely on it as their sole source of information.
"You have the mainstream media in the middle, trying to provide straight news, trying to keep opinions out of the news column and just report the facts as best they can gather them," Hamilton said. But he said he's concerned that "fewer and fewer" people are paying attention, "locking in instead to viewpoints on the right, particularly in Oklahoma, obviously, or on the left and sort of reinforcing their worldview without challenging themselves to get a better understanding of the total picture."
Foote didn't speak with frustration about the business uncertainty, but he did express one clear worry about working to find a business model that pays.
"In some cases, news is becoming the province of those who will pay for it, the more elite information-seeking audience paying for content and getting specialized content and the average person falling back to more commodity news. So we've lost, to a certain extent, the idea that everyone in the community reads the same thing at the same time," Foote said.
"What I worry about is that by doing that, while you might be able to get business models that work for people who can afford to pay for content ... there will be a segment that is not getting a healthy diet of news and is falling back on a junk food diet of fairly vacuous information. That would indeed be unfortunate."
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