The Finch Formerly Known As Gold

27 September 2003

A state of one-newspaper towns

A couple of days ago I posted a bit about the squabbling between the two Seattle dailies and the Joint Operating Agreement that, for now anyway, binds them together. Incorporated therein was a reference to the JOA between the Tulsa World and the now-departed Tulsa Tribune, about which I wrote in Vent #317.

Tribune fan Michael Bates remembers the Tulsa JOA and its unraveling in the early 90s, and given the Tribune's penchant for innovation, he wonders if the paper might have survived without actual, well, paper:

Just a few years after the Tribune was closed, and about the time the JOA was set to expire, the World Wide Web came into being and London's Daily Telegraph began publishing an electronic version. I have often wondered whether the Tribune might have soldiered on as a web-based newspaper. They were always the first to try something new, and I think they would have beaten the Whirled onto the web and could have made a successful venture out of it.

And probably without charging $45 a year for everything but the classifieds and the static displays, as tulsaworld.com does now.

Oklahoma City was never affected by the Newspaper Preservation Act; by the Fifties, the surviving OKC papers — The Daily Oklahoman and the Oklahoma City Times — were both owned by the Oklahoma Publishing Company. In 1964, Midwest City founder W. P. Bill Atkinson, always at odds with OPUBCO's E. K. Gaylord, started a rival morning paper, The Oklahoma Journal, and positioned it as Fair and Balanced; the Journal's slogan was "The Paper That Tells Both Sides".

The Journal seldom outsold the Times and never came close to the Oklahoman, but it held on until 1980 — Atkinson had sold out a couple of years earlier — and its death was noted tersely by the Oklahoman on the last page of Section A, under the headline "Midwest City paper folds". And the Times, like many afternoon papers, was eventually absorbed into its morning counterpart.

While there is little local newspaper competition, the national players — USA Today, The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times — are happy to play at this level, and The Dallas Morning News has a substantial presence here. Suburban papers like the Norman Transcript and the Edmond Sun are staying alive. But head-to-head competition in a single market, even outside Oklahoma, is all but dead; only a dozen or so JOAs remain, and even fewer cities have newspaper rivals who don't pool their resources.

I suppose I can take comfort in the fact that we're technically no worse off than most of the rest of the country, but still I lament the death of direct competition: it's what keeps a news organization on its toes.

A lesson CNN, for one, is only just now starting to learn.

Posted at 8:57 AM to Soonerland