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Magazine

The Billionaire’s Garage Sale

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Posted 12.19.11

On January 29, 1903, an ambitious 29-year-old named Edward King Gaylord purchased interest in a struggling newspaper called The Daily Oklahoman.

Just two months earlier, the young newsman had left a cushy management job at the St. Joseph Dispatch in western Missouri. He didn’t want to work for a newspaper—much less one run by his brother—he wanted to invest in a publication of his own. Gaylord traveled to Oklahoma City, a bourgeoning Wild West town of 10,000, and found Roy Stafford, publisher of the nine-year-old Oklahoman.

Stafford was the fourth owner of the troubled paper and was struggling to keep it afloat. He welcomed Gaylord as someone who could not only share in the financial burden but actually manage the paper’s business dealings and day-to-day operations. Along with two business partners, Ray Dickinson and Roy McClintock, Gaylord paid Stafford $15,000 for 45 percent ownership of the paper. Together, Stafford and his new partners formed the Oklahoma Publishing Company (OPUBCO), of which Gaylord was first named Secretary-Treasurer. Gaylord managed The Oklahoman, and under his leadership the paper’s circulation ballooned. By 1918, he’d purchased Stafford’s remaining interest in the paper and was named company president.

Nearly a century later, on September 15, 2011, Gaylord’s granddaughter, Christy Gaylord Everest, announced that OPUBCO and all of its holdings would be sold to Denver billionaire Philip Anschutz, a secretive tycoon with interests in energy, sports, entertainment, and publishing. Anschutz’s own business sensibilities and political leanings seem to eerily reflect those of the Gaylord family.

“His interests align with ours, right down to his love of the West,” Everest, OPUBCO’s outgoing CEO, said in the announcing press statement.

The Oklahoman is the state’s largest paper, and the influence of the Gaylord name reaches far and wide across the state and beyond. The University of Oklahoma’s Gaylord College of Journalism and Mass Communication is a respected, competitive J-School thanks in large part to the millions of dollars the Gaylord family has invested in the program.

Through its century of growth, OPUBCO remained a privately run, family-owned operation. When E.K. passed away in 1974 at the age of 101, his son Edward Lewis (E.L.) took over as leader of the empire. In 2003, E.L.’s daughter, Everest, inherited the mantle. Various other family members have been involved in the family business. All the while, the Gaylords have played an important role in the shaping of our state’s history and culture. Through economic investment, philanthropy, and political activism, the family has permanently imprinted itself on our state—E.K. Gaylord has more than once been called the “Father of Oklahoma.”

Today, OPUBCO is a billion dollar empire comprised of holdings in numerous diverse businesses throughout the Midwest. Besides publishing, the company has its hand in everything from railroads (Manitou and Pike’s Peak Railroad Co.) to frozen food (De Waffelbakkers), hospitality (Hyatt Regency Lost Pines Resort and The Broadmoor), and communications (Suddenlink). It founded Oklahoma’s first radio and television stations with WKY and WKY-TV, and, in the ‘70s, acquired the Grand Ole Opry, Country Music Television, and The Nashville Network. Water rights, real estate, energy—OPUBCO’s financial interests can be found across a wide swath of diverse industries.

The Gaylords have spent an entire century amassing wealth and influence. And yet, suddenly, in 2011 they sold nearly everything they owned to an outsider, a billionaire from Denver. The majority of OPUBCO’s assets are of little interest to the average citizen, but The Oklahoman is the most powerful news voice in the state. Yet, media analysis of the sale rarely went beyond the mere perfunctory acknowledgment that it did indeed occur. But Oklahomans ought to know what to expect.

POLITICAL INDEPENDENCE

In 2003, David Dary, a Pulitzer nominee and one-time head of the University of Oklahoma’s Gaylord School of Journalism, authored The Oklahoma Publishing Company’s First Century: The Gaylord Family Story. It’s a rosy, criticism-free salute to the most powerful family in Oklahoma journalism, published by OPUBCO itself.

In chapter five, “Political Independence,” Dary recounts Gaylord’s purchase of the Oklahoma City Times in 1916, and a subsequent editorial published in the Times declaring a new policy of political independence for both papers:

The editorial in the Times admitted that the change in policy left Oklahoma City without a Republican mouthpiece among newspapers, but added, “there is no more valid reason for having a Republican newspaper in OKC than for having a Republican dry goods store, a Republican telephone system, a Republican preacher, a Republican lawyer or a Republican bank … We don’t mix politics with business in anything else and the day is rapidly passing when it is successfully mixed with newspaper making … A party organ serves a limited clientele; an independent newspaper serves every reader except the office seeker.

With the editorial both the Times and The Oklahoman established its independent attitude toward politics that to this day remains the policy of The Oklahoma Publishing Co.

The policy governed hard news, but the editorial page was another matter. E.K. Gaylord was an aggressive conservative with strong opinions who routinely wrote front-page editorials championing or decrying some cause, candidate, or piece of legislation. (It was because of his campaigning that the state capital moved from Guthrie to Oklahoma City.) The Oklahoman was rightly recognized as a political force that shaped its city and state in the image of its publisher; it has also come under repeated fire from critics who’ve accused the paper of political bias.

Front-page editorials are generally considered taboo in American journalism. In a recent Slate story, Robert Turner, a professor of journalism at Northeastern University, explained to columnist David Haglund:

What’s more, Turner says, American newspapers are generally wary of “confusing the reader by mixing fact and opinion.” By placing editorial opinion right next to its most prominent news coverage, a newspaper risks raising questions about its objectivity.

“I used to get dozens and dozens of letters—and I’m not exaggerating—sent to The Observer that The Oklahoman wouldn’t publish,” says Frosty Troy, founding editor of The Oklahoma Observer, an OKC-based publication known for its left-leaning political commentary. In his 40-plus years as a journalist and publisher, Troy has been a steadfast critic of The Oklahoman’s politics. He claims to have coined the paper’s famously pejorative nickname, “The Daily Disappointment.” “We were a small publication, a tabloid, 20 pages, but I would always run a few of those (letters) and I would always note in there ‘this was declined by the Oklahoman.’ ”

Troy acknowledges that E.K. at least kept the political bias out of hard news, but contends that when E.K.’s son E.L. inherited the paper in ’74, the conservative slant became more pronounced and the line between opinion and news began to blur.

“E.L. was just incredible,” Troy recalls. “He was the one that went up to the Church of Christ College in Edmond and called Henry Bellmon ‘The senator from Moscow.’ Can you imagine? He was really, really bad.’ ”

Troy’s opinion was echoed in 1999 when, famously, the Columbia Journalism Review dubbed the E.L.-run Oklahoman “The Worst Newspaper in America” in a cover story. Reporter Bruce Selcraig eviscerated the paper, calling it out for myriad issues beyond political bias:

Want lots of enterprising, in-depth stories with plenty of world and national news in your newspaper’s front section? How about praline recipes instead? At The Oklahoman, which runs a front-page prayer every day, the news-lite front section is larded with cooking contests, horoscopes, Dear Abby, Billy Graham, Zig Ziglar, and women’s fashion tips. Need a good chuckle? Try the six-day-a-week column on page two by “clean, keen, and topical” stand- up comedian Argus Hamilton, the son of an Oklahoma City Methodist minister. Hold on to your funny bone: “A whale is dead after a whale-watching boat hit it Monday off Boston Harbor … no wonder Monica Lewinsky won’t come out of her apartment … ”

Selcraig, a former U.S. Senate investigator and, at the time, a Sports Illustrated staff writer, honed in on the editorial page and went for the kill:

Where else can you find a big-city editorial page—run by a Christian Coalition devotee plucked from Washington D.C.’s right-wing Free Congress Foundation—that not only demonizes unions, environmentalists, feminists, Planned Parenthood, and public education, but also seems obsessed with lecturing gays? From an Oklahoman editorial titled, “Sin no more”: “There’s no solid proof that anyone is born a homosexual … Homosexuality is a sin … But to deny that a sin is a sin and wallow in it is the first step toward damnation. To recognize bad behavior as a sin, repent of it and ‘go and sin no more’ is the first step toward salvation.”

“That CJR article hurt The Oklahoman, it really stung,” a former Oklahoman reporter told me, speaking anonymously due to Gaylord connections at his current job. “People [in the newsroom] talked about it. It was something you didn’t refer to when the big editors or the managers were around, but it was certainly on everybody’s minds.”

“It was not the worst newspaper in America, believe me. I see lots of newspapers.” Terry Clark is the director of the Oklahoma Journalism Hall of Fame, a journalism professor at University of Central Oklahoma and a former reporter and copy editor for The Oklahoman. “I think really the problem on that article—and I’m not excusing or disagreeing with some of their comments—but they certainly didn’t like the newspaper’s politics. Well, just ’cause you don’t like a paper’s politics doesn’t mean it’s good or bad. Okay? That’s really not how you should judge a newspaper’s effectiveness.”

Several days after the announcement of OPUBCO’s sale, CJR called out The Oklahoman yet again with the story, “How Not To Cover Your Paper’s New Owner.” The author of the piece was business writer Ryan Chittum, who grew up in Oklahoma and attended OU’s Gaylord School.

Chittum accused reporter Randy Ellis of softballing the more controversial aspects of Anschutz in his profile of the billionaire, “Purchaser of OPUBCO Has Widespread Interests,” using slanted euphemisms and disabling the comments forum so no readers could chime in with reactions.

While Chittum estimated The Oklahoman had grown considerably more reputable since the ’99 CJR drubbing, he also concluded that the Ellis piece signaled an “inauspicious start to a new era for the paper.”

Joe Foote, current chair of the Gaylord School of Journalism, disagrees.

“I don’t think it’s unusual at all to just herald a new owner at face value,” says Foote. “You’ll find very few examples in business of someone beating up on the person who’s just purchased it. It’s just good etiquette, in a sense, to give a new owner a chance to do whatever they do with a business.”

Foote also disagrees with the initial criticism leveled by CJR in ’99.

“Clearly, The Oklahoman has had a longtime reputation for conservative thought, what with the front-page editorials by E.K. Gaylord. And they’ve had a pretty singular point of view during the second generation of the Gaylords, as well. That’s changed somewhat in the third generation. But I grew up reading The Oklahoman and clearly separated that from its news coverage. I never gave it a second thought.”

The unnamed former Oklahoman staffer says he never personally felt any pressure from editors to slant a story one way or the other.

“What went on in The Oklahoman’s editorial pages was certainly no reflection of what went on in the newsroom. They’re obviously a family-oriented newspaper, and conservative, but when I was there, there were never any weird mandates to change things or alter content. I reported on lots of stuff that could’ve felt that kind of pressure, but there were no creepy neo-con conversations with any dark Republican lord telling me to change my story. I think a lot of that gets overblown.”

If critics of The Oklahoman like CJR and Troy are to be believed, the Gaylord-Anschutz hand-off should be a seamless transition of values. Like OPUBCO, Anschutz Corporation is a privately held empire driven by one man’s vision, and like the Gaylords’, Anschutz’s conservative politics loom large over his wide-ranging assets. His philanthropic giving has gone to support conservative efforts to limit the rights of homosexuals, promote “intelligent design,” and fight abortion. He’s produced Christian family films like The Chronicles of Narnia through his company Walden Media. He owns the conservative periodical The Weekly Standard (which he bought from Rupert Murdoch). Under his ownership, the Washington, Baltimore, and San Francisco Examiners (free dailies, the latter two of which Anschutz no longer owns) were the target of the same accusations of conservative agenda-pushing often leveled at The Oklahoman.

“He sounds like a great fit for an Oklahoma newspaper,” the unnamed former reporter says with a wry laugh. “It’s one rich, super-conservative family selling its conservative paper to an even more rich, more conservative billionaire. It sounds like a match made in heaven.”

“I assume that the journalistic world will be vigilant during the time of new ownership,” Foote says. “Similar to what you saw with the Wall Street Journal and Rupert Murdoch assuming control. It’s natural to examine [The Oklahoman] very closely to see if there’s any difference in the coverage.”

THE BILLIONAIRE’S GARAGE SALE

“I was not surprised it was for sale,” Clark told me. “I’d been talking to other newspaper people around the state, and given some of the things the paper’d been doing, the general talk was ‘Well, we think it’s for sale.’ But frankly you just never really thought you’d see that happen.”

“I was not surprised that a newspaper was selling in 2011, regardless of who it is,” Foote concurred. “I was surprised that the Gaylord family would not be operating the paper.”

“You could see some writing on the wall,” Chittum told me during a phone interview. “After E.L. died, there were some noticeable changes in the paper. It changed quite a bit.”

Clark, Chittum, and the former Oklahoman staffer all pointed to the paper’s mass layoffs in recent years as an early indicator that something was brewing.

“Yes, they’re trying to trim it and cut costs like every other major newspaper in this country,” Clark continued. “But it just looked to me like they were trying to make it more desirable as a property. And metropolitan papers are not exactly the most desirable properties in America anymore.”

“The last couple of years leading up to Anschutz has been a really dark time for The Oklahoman,” the unnamed former staffer told me. “Regular, routine layoffs. There was a hiring freeze, there were no raises. That’s not going to make for good morale. The 8th floor is a wasteland now. They’ve replaced all the empty desks with conference tables to fill up the space.”

Clark saw further evidence of an impending regime change in the abrupt exits of publisher David Thompson and editor Ed Kelley. Both Thompson and Kelley had been with the paper in some capacity since 1974. They both resigned within two weeks of each other last summer. “When your top editor in the state—a respected newsman, a company man—leaves, and then your publisher leaves, it’s just a signal.” Thompson retired while Kelley took a job as editor of the Washington Times.

Predictably, both Anschutz and incoming OPUBCO CEO Gary Pierson denied requests for interviews. Anschutz has granted only two interviews in the last 30 years, and Pierson is now operating under his authority.

I spoke briefly to Anschutz’s right-hand man Jim Monaghan, who bristled when I suggested that his boss had a reputation for being reclusive.

“He’s not a recluse,” Monaghan replied. “He goes out like normal people, he just doesn’t talk about himself.”

Monaghan told me that the 72-year-old tycoon is more modest than secretive, “the opposite of Donald Trump.” He equates media interviews with self-promotion, which he considers uncouth.

“It’s interesting because OPUBCO does not have a PR person and Anschutz Corporation does not have a PR person. I’m not used to dealing with that,” Allison Scott told me. She’s director of communications at The Broadmoor in Colorado Springs, a luxury resort and one of the assets sold to Anschutz under the OPUBCO umbrella. “We have no photos, he really is that private. He’s very much like Mr. Gaylord in that respect; it’s not about him, it’s about the business and it’s about running the business.”

Scott continued, “If you want to know something about [Anschutz], go

onto YouTube—that’s what we did. He’s a member of the Horatio Alger Association, and there’s an absolutely fascinating interview with him.”

The clip is four minutes long and is strictly biographical in nature. Anschutz, in black turtleneck with a faint Midwestern drawl comes across as a relaxed, rugged grandfatherly-type. He tells stories of his childhood in Russell, Kansas, under the guidance of a deeply religious mother and a good-hearted father plagued by alcoholism and money troubles—a life of lemonade stands and odd jobs, and a law career deferred to rescue the family oil business. He shares an anecdote about an oilrig blowout that threatened to put the company under unless the massive fire could be quickly extinguished. Anschutz called Red Adair (the famous oil well firefighter), but Adair refused to come out until Anschutz could guarantee payment. Unable to provide that guarantee, Anschutz was forced to improvise. His solution provides a glimpse into the kind of resourceful, ingenious thinking that can earn a billion dollars.

“I found out that a movie studio was wanting to make a movie about Red Adair,” Anschutz remembers in the interview. “So I called them and said if they could hurry out, I’d allow them to shoot real footage of an oil well on fire, and they paid me in advance. I called up Red Adair and told him to get up there, I could pay him now. And he came up and put the fire out.”

“It helps to have your back against a wall,” he continues. “Adversity is a huge advantage.”

Scott said the YouTube clip and a meeting with Anschutz upon announcement of the sale helped to re-assure her that the hotel would be in “good, solid stewardship” under Anschutz Corp.

ROSEBUD

“I’ll tell ya the rumor that has the most legs,” said Troy. “What (Anschutz) wanted was the hotel in Colorado Springs. He’d made three offers to the people at OPUBCO, but they didn’t want to split up the empire.”

The Broadmoor is nestled against Pike National Forest on the southwestern edge of Colorado Springs at the foot of the Rocky Mountains. The lavish 3,000-acre, 744-room resort holds three golf courses, six restaurants and 25 retail shops. It’s often described as the “Riviera of the Rockies.”

A mining entrepreneur from Philadelphia named Spencer Penrose built the palatial getaway with the assistance of 700 Italian artists and craftsmen. Penrose, a friend of Will Rogers and a globetrotter with wanderlust for the American West, sought to imbue in The Broadmoor the kind of European elegance he’d experienced in his travels. With the help of his wife, a sophisticated, culturally aware woman named Julie Penrose, he did just that. The initial 350-room hotel was erected in a mere eight months and its doors opened to the public in 1918, the same year E.K. Gaylord became president and principal shareholder of OPUBCO.

Penrose passed away in 1939, the same year Philip Anschutz was born. Mrs. Penrose continued to oversee the hotel operations until she died in 1957. The El Pomar Foundation, which handled the Penrose trust, ran the hotel until 1985, when tightening government regulations forced not-for-profits like the foundation to shed any for-profit business ventures. E.L. Gaylord stepped in and purchased The Broadmoor, adding it to the OPUBCO complex. Meanwhile, Anschutz, lording over his own ever-widening empire, faithfully vacationed at the resort he’d first visited as a five-year-old.

In retrospect, it’s easy to speculate that The Broadmoor was the primary motivation behind Anschutz’s purchase of OPUBCO. “He has a tremendous affinity for the property,” Scott said. “He’s actually made offers to purchase us several times in the past.”

One can’t help but imagine a scenario wherein a Kane-like Anschutz, desperate to acquire his own Rosebud but repeatedly denied by a protective CEO in no hurry to dismantle the kingdom her family had built, finally made an offer to buy the whole enchilada with the promise of keeping the empire intact and under mostly the same leadership. The Gaylords could keep the family legacy, knowing that under the stewardship of Anschutz—a modest man of Midwestern values and conservative principles—OPUBCO would continue to represent the vision of its founder.

It’s a theory posed by nearly every journalist, publisher, and editor I interviewed. I asked Scott if she thought possession of The Broadmoor constituted Anschutz’s primary motive for the purchase.

“It’s a chicken-egg question,” she answered, coyly.

The editor of a Denver publication summed up the mystery in an e-mail exchange: “Your guess is as good as mine as to what Anschutz was really after in that deal; looked like a billionaire’s garage sale. What do you think?”

THE OKE’S FUTURE

“I had written in an op-ed piece earlier that Oklahoma is distinct because it’s the only state in the U.S. where the two largest metropolitan newspapers are family-owned, and that will no longer be the case,” Joe Foote mused. “But I thought it gave Oklahoma this special quality that has led to this consortium for investigative reporting, Oklahoma Watch, which I’m not too sure other states could duplicate. It’s those private corporations and family corporations that can be much more agile and deliberate. As I understand it, the Tulsa World and The Oklahoman consummated their collaborative agreements on a handshake, nothing written.”

Foote is referring to the content-sharing agreement made three years ago by the Tulsa World and The Oklahoman’s digital arm, NewsOK. com. The deal served to prop up both organizations by boosting web traffic through traded news stories. Foote is disappointed to see the Gaylords exit, but he believes comfort can be taken in the fact that The Oklahoman will at least stay in private hands.

“We always talk when we see a strong owner come into the picture like the Anschutz operation, or it could be the Gaylords or the Lortons or any of these privately held companies, there’s a natural suspicion of that. But it also brings with it a very positive quality, just a very firm hand on the tiller. You’re not subjected to the inefficient and sometimes poor judgments made by publicly traded corporations.”

As for how Anschutz will run the paper? The general consensus so far appears to involve a lot of breath holding. The common philosophy among those I interviewed was “just wait and see.”

“Everything I’ve heard from people who work up there, post-Anschutz announcement, is a cautious optimism,” the former Oklahoman reporter told me.

“It’s too early to tell,” Terry Clark insisted. “Because you really don’t know what’s going to happen. As long as that current news staff is there, I believe it will continue to be a trustworthy news source. I’m separating that from the editorial page, but that, to me, is really not that important.”

“That’s something that you just have to watch and see and give this company the benefit of the doubt,” Foote agreed. “Hopefully, they’re going to be good stewards of the Gaylord properties, and use their good judgment to guide it in a way that Oklahomans can be proud.”