The Finch Formerly Known As Gold

18 February 2005

Crosstown rivals

If you're twenty-five or younger, you've never known a time when the Oklahoma Publishing Company wasn't the only newspaper game in town: The Daily Oklahoman ruled the morning, the Oklahoma City Times had the afternoon to itself. (Now, of course, there's only The Oklahoman.) But for one brief shining moment — okay, it wasn't all that brief, and it didn't shine all that much either — there was actual newspaper competition in the Big Town.

W. P. Bill Atkinson was a bright fellow with one special gift: somehow he was a step ahead of the rest of the movers and shakers and developers. It was Atkinson in 1941 who snapped up the property north of what is now Tinker Air Force Base, before the power structure was even aware that the facility was going to be built. In the 1950s, while the rest of the Big Boys worked on acquiring land along SW 59th Street in anticipation of a new Southwest Expressway, Atkinson bought up plots along SW 74th — and guess where the road was built?

This sort of thing got under E. K. Gaylord's hide, and it festered. In 1958, Atkinson decided to run for governor on the Democratic ticket. Gaylord, incensed, refused to accept any advertising from the Atkinson campaign. With the state's largest paper officially ignoring his candidacy, Atkinson bought lots of TV time, but viewers found him less appealing than the telegenic J. Howard Edmondson, who swept to victory.

Atkinson was not in a forgiving mood five years later when he decided, once and for all, to get his revenge on Gaylord. The prevailing belief at the time was that the Oklahoman and Times were aimed at the plutocrats on the northwest side of town, and Atkinson's power bases, the areas he had developed, were to the south and east. He had some background in journalism — he'd taught it, briefly, at Oklahoma City University — and he figured that ought to be enough to qualify him as a publisher.

In 1964, the first issue of The Oklahoma Journal rolled off Atkinson's shiny new offset press at SE 15th and Key in Midwest City, bearing the slogan "The Paper That Tells Both Sides." (Note to Fox News Channel: "Fair & Balanced" is nothing new.) The editor was Forrest J. "Frosty" Troy, lured away from The Tulsa Tribune's Capitol bureau with the promise of at least equal bucks and a substantial stock position. Troy was enthusiastic at first, but a chill set in when Atkinson suggested that local stories be vetted by a county commissioner (who happened to be his partner in various local businesses), and that stock position eventually proved to come with a stiff price tag. Troy departed, to be replaced by John Clabes.

The nascent Journal, technically competing with two papers, ran into difficulties rather quickly: top-drawer syndicated offerings were snapped up by OPUBCO, and rather a lot of its news was recycled UPI wire stuff. Still, there was enough local resentment of the Gaylord machine to keep the Journal subscriber lists from going dry, and while the front-page design was generally hideous — even the smallest stories had monstrously huge headlines — the paper's state-of-the-art press was producing high-quality ad inserts, good enough that even businesses who weren't advertising in the Journal would still have them print their material, which they would then truck over to the Oklahoman. E. K. Gaylord, once he got wind of this, refused to accept any ad inserts printed at the Journal; Atkinson sued and won.

Eventually, the Journal settled down into the same sort of comfortable mediocrity as the Oklahoman, albeit with a smaller subscriber base. E. K. Gaylord died in 1974; his son Edward L. proved to be just as intractable a foe, and the younger Gaylord's wheeling and dealing under the auspices of the Oklahoma Industries Authority, which you'd never see covered in the OPUBCO papers, would have been perfect fodder for the Journal — except that in the late Seventies, Atkinson wearied of the constant negative cash flow, and persuaded a faraway publisher of community shoppers and weekly papers to take the Journal off his hands.

The last issue of The Journal, having truncated its name and its slogan (now "Both sides of the news"), appeared in 1980. The Oklahoman reported its demise on the back page of the business section, with the single-column headline "Midwest City Paper Folds." In retrospect, the Journal might have done better had it tried to be a Midwest City paper rather than trying to take on the Oklahoman. Still, the Journal's 40,000 or so circulation had cost the Gaylords dearly — in an effort to swat the pesky competitor, OPUBCO had slashed some of its ad rates, and at one point cut its newsstand price from a quarter to a dime — and in 1981, a year after the Journal called it quits, the circulation at the Oklahoman had hardly budged at all, suggesting that there were forty thousand people in town who would rather read nothing than read the Oklahoman.

Newspaper competition was over in Oklahoma City; it continued in Tulsa until 1992, when the Tulsa World announced it would not renew its Joint Operating Agreement with the Tribune. The Tribune, perhaps remembering the untidy death of the Journal, opted to fade quietly away.

(Per assignment; my thanks to Frosty Troy, some of whose reminiscences are incorporated herein.)

Posted at 8:15 PM to City Scene

TrackBack: 5:04 PM, 19 February 2005
» Okie bloggers on newspapers from BatesLine
Here's the round-up on this week's Okie blogger bash consortium writing assignment. I picked newspapers as the topic of the week: Charles G. Hill remembers Oklahoma City's non-Gaylord owned newspaper. Jan, the Happy Homemaker, offers ten "snippettes" a......[read more]

Good read.

Speaking of Frosty; did you save the the story where he (or should I say his wife) turns out to publish one of the finest news journals in state history for another day?

Posted by: MikeH at 1:04 AM on 19 February 2005

The story behind the Troys' acquisition and transformation of the Observer does deserve a piece of its own. Maybe I'll scribble it down one of these days.

Posted by: CGHill at 9:03 AM on 19 February 2005

Wow! Very interesting!

I noticed that Atkinson also owned the land northwest of the Memorial Road/May Avenue intersection for some 20 years or more. Now it is a hot bed of growth. That is some kind of foresight!

Posted by: Jan at 9:30 AM on 19 February 2005

The man knew his stuff. Whether he was clairvoyant, possessed of superior insider connections, or simply very lucky, I leave for the biographers.

Posted by: CGHill at 10:39 AM on 19 February 2005

Fascinating story. I moved to Oklahoma in April of '05 and I've often wondered why just a weak paper could hold a virtual monopoly on OKC news stands. I finally gave up reading it a few years back, except on-line.

Posted by: michael dennis at 8:08 PM on 19 February 2005

I moved to Oklahoma in April of '05...

That long ago!? Wow! ;-)

Posted by: McGehee at 9:26 AM on 21 February 2005