Inside the ‘Guide’

by Holly Wall

12/21/2011

I’d heard murmurs of Uptown News for years. I wasn’t familiar with the publication, but folks would ask me about it, almost identically phrasing their questions: “Do you remember Uptown News? That was a great paper.” Or, “Do you remember Uptown News? I wish that paper were still around.”

I didn’t remember Uptown News because I was seven when they stopped publishing in 1990. But I have its six-year catalogue splayed across my living room floor now, and I’ve spent weeks devouring issue after issue. It was a Tulsa-based monthly alternative newspaper founded by husband-wife team Russell and Celina Burkhart and fashioned after New York City’s The Village Voice.

It was 1984, and downtown Tulsa was suffering from disrepair and a bad reputation. Downtown Tulsa Unlimited—a nonprofit founded in 1957 for the purpose of attracting merchants to downtown; it handled nearly all of downtown’s services and events until it disbanded in 2009—was out to improve the area’s image and supported, noncommercially, the creation of an alternative newspaper that would promote downtown. Celina, after researching the market for another paper that never got off the ground, decided to do it herself. The preview issue of Uptown News—which quipped, below its flag, “A Guide to Urban Tulsa”—debuted on Tuesday, July 17, 1984. Its cover featured a black-and-white photo of shoppers bargain hunting at a sidewalk sale in downtown’s Main Mall, accompanied with a story about DTU’s mid-year luncheon, as well as a short blurb about an award given to the architects of the Civic Center’s parking garage.

Inside, a publisher’s note promised that “UPtown” News would be more than just a newspaper; it would “become an indispensable guide to urban living.”

The paper focused on inner city news and arts and entertainment reporting, which wasn’t being done by anyone else at the time, the Burkharts say. They took their cues from papers they admired—The Village Voice, for example, which is the nation’s first and largest alternative newspaper, founded in New York City in 1955 by Dan Wolf, Ed Fancher, and Norman Mailer.

“When we first met (in 1980), we both had a trunk of newspapers from around the country that we had collected,” Celina said. “So we had models of publications, and after listening to restaurants and clubs say they really needed an avenue to publicize themselves in,” they took the leap. Russell acted as editor, while Celina was responsible for production and design.

The first few issues read sort of like promotional pieces drafted by PR firms—they could have been Downtown Tulsa Unlimited’s newsletter—but they include beautiful photography by David Blust, who’s still regarded as one of Tulsa’s foremost fine-arts photographers. In its second year, Uptown began to feature the work of local artists on its covers; the artists donated their work in exchange for a review in the paper and an audience of 30,000, the paper’s circulation at the end of its run.

The design visibly improved—still pleasant by today’s standards—with large art, plenty of white space, and respectable fonts. It only got better with time.

In Vol. 2, No. 5, the description line changed from “A Guide to Urban Tulsa” to “Tulsa’s Monthly Urban Guide.” The content focused on arts, entertainment, and nightlife, offering reviews of art, theater, music, and food, as well as calendars of events and other news items: offbeat stories focused on Tulsa’s quirks, highlighting the idiosyncratic people, places, and things its writers and editors thought made Tulsa special. Topics that hadn’t seen any ink in this town until then.

“The [Tulsa] Tribune was still around and the [Tulsa] World, and they were on opposite sides on some topics, so ours was just an alternative view,” Celina said. “There was nothing in Tulsa that did art or entertainment.”

The paper really hit its stride in 1986. The design and editorial content began to show a lot of sophistication; the kitsch was pretty much gone—what remained was left there on purpose and intended to be ironic.

Uptown did some news reporting, “but other times it was kind of Dennis the Menace doing commentary on what bothered us, what was wrong with Tulsa, or what needed to be fixed,” Russell Burkhart said. “And with the idea being an intentional sort of propagandist, [saying], ‘Tulsa can be just as cosmopolitan.’ It presented the Tulsa nightlife and the arts scene and the fact that there are creative people, artists and writers [here]. It was sort of a sandbox for us to play in.”

Features like the “Why I’m Embarrassed to Be an Oklahoman” essay contest offended some Okies, but it gave the paper—and its readers—the opportunity to try to effect change by pointing out some of the backward ways of the country’s backwoods.

“Things were kind of stuffy and staid, so we were trying to present Tulsa in a way like we’re going places and sort of be a hoorah champion of better things to come,” Russell said.

And it did. Celina said downtown was on a downward spiral when they began publishing—“downtown was going down the toilet pretty fast”—but to read the paper, one would think Tulsa and its urban core were as hip as that weird little city seven hours south of us. In fact, today’s readers might thumb through the pages with a wistful glean in their eyes, longing for the days of yore, when Tulsa was cool without knowing it.

By the time its seven-year run was winding down, the Uptown News masthead read like a who’s who of Tulsa’s future dignitaries, including, at various times, contributors like Ray Pearcey, Terry Simonson, Dwain Midget, Glenda Silvey, Barry Friedman, Alexandre Hogue, Ted Kachel, and photographers Lavada Nicholls, Gaylord Herron, John Southern, and Dewey F. Bartlett Jr. The up-and-coming actress Jeanne Tripplehorn was a regular fixture, modeling for the cover and inside photo spreads at least a few times a year.

Some of the best cover art was created by the likes of Otto Duecker, Gailard Sartain, Tim Jessell, Cameron Clement, and P.S. Gordon. An archive of the paper’s publishing history would make quite a compendium, a gem for any historian, art collector, or literary scholar.

Unfortunately, Uptown News was a good thing that came too quickly to an end. The Burkharts knew they had picked a bad time, economically, to start a paper, and it was that bad economy that finally did them in.

“We were operating under tight margins,” Russell said. “We made sort of enough to live on, but basically it was a classic mom-and-pop business. Celina was about to have a baby. It wasn’t making enough money to make a viable living to raise a family on.”

The advertisers who utilized the paper to promote their businesses were practically transient—shops, restaurants, and nightclubs that opened and closed seemingly overnight. When times got tough, they stopped advertising, or they shrunk the size of their ads—and the amount of money they paid for them. The more established businesses—the Utica Square tenants; just about anything south of Brookside or corporate-owned—didn’t like the taste of Uptown’s offbeat flavor.

“We were very pro-Tulsa and pro-urban feel, but we weren’t necessarily what mom and Aunt Polly, your more staid advertisers, were interested in,” Russell said.

“I think Tulsa needed the publication, and obviously we had a fair amount of advertisers, but every month something was shutting down,” Celina said. “Brookside wasn’t nearly as full as it is now. There weren’t a lot of independent shops. Downtown was going down the toilet; there wasn’t much at South Boston (the 18th Street and Boston Avenue intersection); there was no Brady District. Tulsa wasn’t the same Tulsa it is right now.”

The editors attempted to amend some of their content to attract and cater to advertisers—three or four pages’ worth of health- and fitness-focused stories to appeal to gyms, for example—but quickly decided that, if they couldn’t publish the paper they wanted to publish, then they’d publish no paper at all.

The last issue of Uptown News was distributed in August 1990, then it stopped—unexpectedly and without much fanfare. The Burkharts gave no warning of its end; in fact, they’d planned a September issue. They had attempted to negotiate with the Oklahoma Gazette, Oklahoma City’s alt weekly—published by Bill Bleakley since 1979—and Mark Matthews, publisher of Info magazine, to continue publishing Uptown, but those attempts failed.

“It was just time to call it quits,” Celina said.

Uptown News would be missed—but its replacement would come quickly.

Keith Skrzypczak began contributing to Uptown News in May of 1987. After a three-year stint with the Tulsa Tribune, writing about religion and entertainment, he freelanced “here and there and everywhere.”

“When Jim Langdon (TulsaPeople publisher; he started his magazine in 1986) came to town, he found out where the talent was and gave me a call,” Skrzypczak said. “I did cover stories for TulsaPeople five years in a row. I did the important stuff he wanted done well. Then I said, ‘I’ve been doing all this work for everyone else; I should start doing my own thing.’ ”

Skrzypczak published the first issue of Urban Tulsa, which started out as a monthly publication, in July 1991, nearly a year after Uptown closed. Skrzypczak claims the paper was still in business when he began contemplating his venture.

When Skrzypczak’s first issue hit stands, it looked an awful lot like its predecessor—same style, same design. It even borrowed its name from Uptown’s original tag line. Urban Tulsa shifted its format to weekly and amended its name in 1997. UTW’s annual “Absolute Best of Tulsa” readers’ survey resembles Uptown’s “Best of Tulsa” annual readers’ survey.

The Burkharts are quick to point out that Urban Tulsa Weekly is “totally different” from what Uptown News was. They say the editorial style is different but don’t really elaborate. They do point out differences in advertising and the effect that had— real or perceived—on the papers’ editorial content.

“The advertising base was poor due to the economy, unless we also sought out strip clubs, tobacco sales, and more beer bars, which didn’t match up with the artsy side of the Uptown,” Celina said. “We would have ended up with a publication that neither of us was interested in reading ourselves.”

Today, Urban Tulsa Weekly is exactly what Uptown refused to be: a conservative paper packed with ads for strip clubs and massage parlors. It has the curious distinction of being the only conservative alt weekly in the U.S., a characteristic that barred it from membership to the Association of Alternative Newsmedia for years— though Skrzypczak said it’s because Tulsa is conservative, not because his paper is.

“Outsiders don’t like Tulsa a lot,” he said. “They think Tulsa is very conservative or very this or very that, so people look at Tulsa with very skewed lenses. They don’t quite understand Tulsa. So it took a while for us to get elected.”

And when Celina Burkhart rattles off her list of local must-reads, Urban Tulsa isn’t on it.

“I currently read the Tulsa World daily; I appreciate the changes they made over the last 20 years. I pick up This Land—not always on the same page with editorial slant. If anyone is interested in burying our past, the best way would be to remove the Brady name of Tulsa streets, etc. I read Tulsa People to see who went to what event. That’s about it.”