BY KEN NEAL
The Tulsa World I knew has been gone for years.
This is more lament than criticism of the World, the newspaper for which I worked for more than 50 years.
That was the Tulsa World of the Eugene Lorton family and newspaper/publishers of the genre of William Allen White, the famous crusading Emporia, KS publisher who used the editorial format of his newspaper to share his views on topics of the time. His fiery editorial, “What’s the Matter with Kansas?”, published in 1896, attacked the Populist movement for its negative influence on the state and gained national attention.
Lorton and many other owners of that era believed that newspapers should take unpopular positions they deemed good for their communities [and their newspapers]. Lorton, for example, crusaded against the Ku Klux Klan at the height of that racist organization’s popularity nationally and in Tulsa when sadly, many, if not most, white citizens sympathized with the Klan.
Lorton’s editorializing prompted Tulsa to bring pure Spavinaw Creek water to the city over heavy opposition from many leading citizens. That crusade is the most important civic project in Tulsa history. It made the city what it is today.
Newspapers once relied on circulation that brought advertising that brought the income that allowed them to be independent. Even readers who disagreed with their often unpopular stands bought the newspaper, if only to write nasty letters to the editor. Frankly, a strong advertising base made for a profitable newspaper. Lorton could ignore a complaining advertiser.
In a small way, I got in on the heyday of that newspaper model at the Tulsa World. Let’s be clear: We were not William Allen Whites; we just admired him.
The Oklahoma Observer’s founder, Frosty Troy, and the current editor, Arnold Hamilton, are in that mold. Follow the facts, speak the truth, damn the torpedoes! Makes you unpopular, but a dandy publisher!
Berkshire Hathaway Group, current owners of the World, did not kill this model of the newspaper. In fact, I would argue that Robert Lorton, grandson of Gene Lorton, sold the newspaper to BH News because the advertising model no longer worked.
The Lorton era business began changing years ago. Veterans will argue about exactly when, but we all remember the competition of television, the shrinking of local advertising in favor of national advertising, and finally the gradual loss of nearly all advertising to the internet.
I am out of depth in discussing the business side of the newspaper, having been, as one of my old colleagues described, “an ink-stained wretch of the newsroom” most of my working days.
My friends still hold me responsible for the newspaper, despite the fact that I have been gone from the newsroom 10 years. They are free with their criticism. They think they compliment me by downgrading the paper.
They look at me blankly when I try to explain that the newspaper is very good considering the situation. To stay afloat, management has cut everywhere possible, including substantial reductions in the newsroom. Reporters and editors are doing double, even triple duty.
Without reporters, some areas of the city are not covered in detail. Tulsa and her citizens will suffer ultimately. Reporters are the bird dogs of public life and no matter how public officials complain, it helps the quality of government to have a reporter looking over governmental shoulders.
I frankly admire and like officeholders, judges, lawyers and other folks in and around government. But human nature being what it is, the corners of government need light.
Editorially, the new BH publisher hit town denouncing the World as “too liberal,” promising to “reflect the views” of our readers. That’s impossible, of course, resulting editorials that say everything, but nothing. Actually, it was an excuse for a dramatic turn to the right, per the bias of the publisher and admittedly the majority of readers.
As the guilty “liberal,” I admit to advocating for schools, higher taxes for adequate public services, fairness in taxation and equal treatment for women and “different” people of color and religious views.
Who fought for open public meetings? The newspapers. Who hates a secret meeting most? The newspaper. What happens when there is no newspaper? Who really represents the people at all phases of government out of the reach of most people? The newspaper.
Television stations can’t or don’t support newsrooms adequately and the internet so far will not support a newsroom the size needed to cover a city the size of Tulsa.
Newspapers are struggling all over the country. I have not seen the latest figures, but they are greatly reduced or out of business in many cities and towns.
Back to the World. The BH owners apparently want to side, at least editorially, with the greatest number of their readers. Thus like a politician, the game is to sense which way the wind blows, not ascertain the facts and take a stand.
Now mea culpa. We were not nearly as good as we should have been or wanted to be, but I don’t ever remember putting a finger in the air to determine an editorial stand in the 30 years I wrote them. Our positions probably irritated readers more than pleased them, thus, thousands of letters, most arguing with us. We worked hard over the years to devote more space to letters.
An editor friend once suggested replacing editorials with letters from readers. If editorials are only to reflect the majority opinion, that might be a good idea.
I believe the writing in the World is very good and much more entertaining that the who, what, why and sometimes how that we perhaps were too stuck in.
Finally, to the critics of the World, I suggest you subscribe. Increased readership will result in a bigger and better newspaper. You want a better paper? Support it.
Write the editor; give them the same hell you gave me but subscribe to it.
It is still the best game in town.
– Ken Neal is former editorial page editor of the Tulsa World