Tulsa World: April 2011 Archives

Tulsa's sole daily newspaper, the Tulsa World, will launch its new paywall this coming Monday, according to a story at PaidContent.org, which, ironically, is free. The paywall will allow viewing only 10 locally-produced stories a month without a subscription. According to the announcement in the World (see it free while you can), an online subscription will cost $16.99 per month, with discounts for paying for six months or a year in advance. Print subscribers will get the online version free; $12 per month will get you a Sunday-only print subscription plus "unlimited access to [the paper's] digital products."

The PaidContent.org story notes that this is not the World's first paywall:

The paper decided to charge $60 a year for an online-only subscription in 2000--and had attracted 2,000 online-only subscribers by the time it was taken down in 2005, according to a Newspaper Association of America report. Publisher Robert Lorton III told the NAA that the removal of the paywall resulted in a tripling of the newspaper's online pageviews and online ad revenue that was more than seven times what the World had been able to bring in from online subscriptions.

I can certainly appreciate the need to generate revenue to pay for news coverage. And as someone who likes delving into local history, I appreciate the archival importance of print publications -- not just newspapers but also telephone directories, city "criss-cross" directories, and street, highway, and fire insurance maps. However incomplete or biased that record may be, at least with a newspaper you have a contemporaneous record that some significant event occurred.

To the paper's credit, it appears that the World is making an effort to minimize the annoyance factor to subscribers and to occasional visitors drawn to a local story of national interest. The metered approach should keep the paper from being shut out of search engine results; that was a problem with their earlier paywall. PaidContent.org quotes the paper's web editor as saying the system was developed in-house by a team of 13 designers and developers. That will allow them to control the site's inner workings and to avoid software license fees. On the other hand, with custom software, they will lose the formal and informal product support that comes with using a commercially available or open-source platform in wide use.

That said, the likely result of the new, friendlier Whirled paywall will be an increase in visitors to the websites of local TV and radio stations, who will continue to offer their local news content online free of charge, as they already do over the airwaves.

The paywall won't fix the Whirled's biggest problem: The paper long ago lost the trust of the very people who ought to be a local paper's lifeblood -- the Tulsans who are passionately engaged in civic and political activism. These people from across the ideological spectrum are the sort who want details about, e.g., this week's planning commission meeting, who would value local in-depth news content enough to pay for it -- if they felt they could trust it.

The problem for the Whirled is that many, perhaps most, of these people have experienced the cognitive dissonance that comes from attending a public meeting and reading about it in the paper the next day. Perhaps a key point in the debate was omitted, perhaps a seemingly harsh statement was run without its ameliorating context, perhaps an especially unflattering or (occasionally) flattering photo of one of the protagonists ran with the story. And there's the suspicion that the significant omission, the sneering photo, and the comment out of context weren't the result of carelessness but were deliberate. Even if the bias is the result of ideological blind spots and group think, the effect on the potential readership is the same as if it were the result of a grand conspiracy.

Over the years I've been involved in local politics, it's been my observation the Whirled has consistently chosen to side with the few and against the many. That's a problem when numbers, the larger the better, are at the heart of how you make money.

Pro-lifers, historic preservation advocates, people concerned about illegal immigration, neighborhood activists, Tea Partiers, Tulsa City Councilors, and tax hike opponents wouldn't expect the Whirled to take their side all the time. They'd just like to be treated fairly and respectfully, not as a lunatic rabble. But that kind of evenhandedness seems to be beyond their Ken.

I've said before that I think it will take some sort of public mea culpa, some acknowledgment that the paper has been unfair and unbalanced in its coverage of local issues, before many local activists are willing to trust the paper enough to pay for a subscription.

My trust in the Tulsa World began to erode in 1991, as a result of their coverage of a controversial zoning decision in Brookside.

Any lingering trust dissipated in 1992, when (according to Tribune editor and publisher Jenk Jones, Jr.,) the World's publisher refused to extend a joint operating agreement that had been in place for a half-century, leading to the closure of Tulsa's afternoon paper, the Tulsa Tribune. (I can't find the quote online, but it was in TU's daily student-run newspaper, the Collegian, about a month after the demise of the Tribune.)

I decided then never again to subscribe to the Whirled. While the World had the right to refuse to extend the agreement, the paper forfeited any claim to having Tulsa's best interests at heart, and I didn't want to see them benefit by picking up any new subscribers as a result of (for all practical purposes) killing our city's second newspaper.

On Twitter, I follow hundreds of active, involved Tulsans who represent a diverse range of interests and opinions. A similar group of hundreds (with a fair amount of overlap) are friends of mine on Facebook. So it's telling that my Facebook and Twitter feeds each had only three mentions of the new World paywall. It's another indication that the World isn't even on the radar for the very people who should be its most loyal constituency.

RELATED: In the December 1992 issue of American Journalism Review, investigative reporter Mary Hargrove wrote about the last days of the Tulsa Tribune. It includes this interesting tidbit:

Tribune staffers debated slogans for the back of the final edition T-shirt, playing off the name of the surviving Tulsa World. "Good-bye Cruel World" and "The World Is Not A Perfect Place. The Tribune Just Made It Seem That Way." The suggestions were posted on the wall along with a few harsher sentiments including, "Roses are red/Violets are blue/The World got it all/And we got screwed."

The slogans ignited the lingering animosity between the two papers as an angry World publisher had one of his photographers shoot pictures of the T-shirt doggerel. (The Tribune rented space in a building owned by the World.) World Publishing Co. President Robert Lorton called Tribune Chairman G. Douglas Fox the night before the closing and demanded the slogans be taken down. The signs were removed.

On the last day, Tribune staffers were warned they could not re-enter the building after 3 p.m. Maintenance workers began changing the locks at 11 a.m. as staffers watched in disbelief -- one more humiliation.

About this Archive

This page is a archive of entries in the Tulsa World category from April 2011.

Tulsa World: February 2011 is the previous archive.

Tulsa World: February 2013 is the next archive.

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