Between the Truth and the World

by Jeff Kauffman

12/26/2011

People said it to me as an aside, as if they didn’t want anyone else to hear. Like they were attending the funeral of an uncle who happened to be their favorite, while their other, less-favorite uncle was within earshot.

“You know, I always thought the Tribune was the better paper.” It’s been almost 20 years since Tulsa’s evening paper folded for good. These whispered words served what I knew, even then, was their intended purpose. They were a consolation and a bit of empathy in the face of loss. I—and many other people far more experienced and talented—was suddenly out of a job, in an economy that sucked in general and, even then, had few options for professional journalists.

The truth is that the Tribune may or may not have been the better paper, but it certainly made the Tulsa World, and the press in Tulsa in general, better.

For the better part of 80 years, Tulsa’s two dailies chronicled the events and personalities of a city and a state still in its infancy. Both papers won awards, both did investigative reports that exposed corruption, both advocated for improvements in the community and both were the primary media for local businesses to advertise their wares.

While it was comforting to know that some people thought the Tribune the better paper, the circulation told the real truth. At its end in 1992, the Trib had half the number of daily subscribers of the World and had nothing to compete with the Sunday World circulation of more than 200,000. All things being equal, the Tribune lost out because it was an evening paper.

* * *

A brief history: The Tulsa Tribune was founded in 1908 as the Tulsa Democrat, before being purchased by Richard Lloyd Jones in 1919. His sons would be editors and publishers, and his grandson would be the editor on the masthead of the paper until it closed.

The Tulsa World first published in 1904 and was purchased by Eugene Lorton in 1913. The publisher’s grandson Robert Lorton learned the news side of the business and took over as publisher in the 1960s. Robert Lorton III is now publisher of the Tulsa World.

The World hit readers’ doorsteps in the morning; the Tribune was the evening paper. Politically, the World was thought of as the more liberal paper, though both papers were conservative by any coastal, blue-state standard.

The two papers entered into a partnership called a joint operating agreement (JOA) in the 1940s whereby they shared presses, advertising sales, delivery and some administrative functions. JOAs were common in two-paper towns, and they made sense. Newsgathering and editorial content remained separate, while everything else (printing, distribution, sales, and operations) was shared. Importantly, the two shared a circulation department, the department responsible for building readership.

JOAs were fine arrangements before TV became a fixture in every home, before cable created the non-stop cycle, before anyone had ever heard of the Internet. Newspapers were the sole purveyors of news, of opinion, of icebox cake recipes. Freed from the costs of duplicated efforts, the two papers thrived for the next 40 years.

* * *

Competition defined the two newsrooms. They occupied floors five (World) and seven (Trib) of the World Building. They competed for newsroom talent. The newsrooms drank together and often slept together. They fought for the same parking spaces and rode the same elevators. They competed for scoops day in, day out.

Jerry Pogue spent 50 years in the news business and is one of many who experienced working at both papers. He recalls that his boss Bill Connors, bastion of the World sport desk for 35 years, didn’t want his reporters even talking to their Tribune counterparts, lest they accidently spill some juicy sports detail. The competitive fire diminished somewhat during the 1980s and before the closing, Pogue said, but it was the Tribune that put a higher premium on getting the story first.

Getting it first wasn’t just about seeing it in print first; it also meant you got beat to a source. A scooped reporter often had to go to the same source—who may not have been happy about the initial story—and ask the same questions and somehow get a different, better story the second time around. It was a constant pressure for the reporters on the city beat but it also extended to business reporting, the health and education beats, and, of course, the sports section.

“I’d come in at the Tribune before the sun was up and find stories from that morning’s World on my desk, sometimes clipped to a nasty note from my editor,” said David Fallis, a former Tribune beat reporter who joined the World after the closing.

I was a writer on the entertainment beat, but I wasn’t a journalist. David Fallis was a journalist, with a square jaw, spiked hair and dressed like Clark Kent minus the fedora, Fallis was, and is, a reporter’s reporter. Hard news was literally in his blood; his grandfather, James Downing, was a columnist at the World, and his father Buddy Fallis was a longtime Tulsa County DA. Fallis knew all the ropes in the ring.

Reporters at both papers used banks of antiquated green-screen terminals to log their stories. The rows of common terminals looked like Mission Control in Houston and reporters would drop into any available space to work. Fallis seemed to have a blur behind him; he was never sitting still for long, always trying to put the finishing touches on today’s story and get a head start on the next.

I recall being completely disheartened when he flew in beside me one day, police scanner squawking. He started typing out a story, picked up the phone and talked to grieving parents who’d just lost their son in an accident of some sort, hung up, called a police detective to pump him about a stalled murder case, hung up, banged out a story about a robbery, and then flew out of the room, probably done for the day. In the same span of time, I had misquoted a forgotten pop star visiting the Mabee Center.

For newspaper readers, the way you read a paper is a ritual that says a lot about who you are and what you value. If you were a sports nut, you read Mike Sowell in the sports section first. If you were a political junky, you checked out Dave Simpson’s cartoons first. If you were in business, you looked for D.R. Stewart’s byline. If you wanted to know more about Springer spaniels or gambling or how bad movies and television are these days, you read columnist Jay Cronley. (You still read him for that, only now in the World.) The Tribune just seemed more folksy, while the World was distant. The Tribune was local; the World was global in a boring soup-to-nuts way.

Hard local news and investigative reporting were the Tribune’s hallmarks. “Tribune” derives from the Latin for tribunus, or tribe. A tribune in ancient Rome protected plebeians from the petty whims of their leaders. A tribune is also a raised platform. The Tulsa Tribune held itself up as a defender of the little guy and a voice for the people.

* * *

Both were family-owned, but the Tribune was the “family” paper. Robert Lorton certainly knew the newspaper business and chose dedicated newspaper people to run the World, but the Tribune newsroom was seemingly full of Joneses. Publisher and editor emeritus Jenk Jones Sr. put his sons Jenk Jr. and David, and daughter Georgia Snoke, through their paces teaching them the business from the ground up.

Jenk Jones Jr., is the kind of newsman who would visit employees in the hospital, regardless of where they worked in the organization. At the same time, when you were on the outs at the Tribune, it didn’t take much to get fired.

Pogue worked at the World from 1960-1968 before joining the University of Tulsa’s sports information department. Then he joined the Tribune in 1972, primarily as a copy editor, until it closed in 1992. He had attended school with Robert Lorton and worked with him when Lorton was learning the news game. Lorton hired Pogue after the closing and put him on the copy desk full time until 2002 and then part time until 2008. While neither paper lavished extravagant salaries on employees, the World was known to pay less for its talent than the Tribune, Pogue said. It wasn’t uncommon for a talented writer or editor to leave the World and make more money at a smaller community paper. The Tribune gave out Christmas bonuses every year, a practice the World stopped in the 1960s.

Although both families were dedicated to the business of the newspaper, the Jones emphasis on newsgathering was clear.

“Jenk Jones [Jr.] had a desk out in the middle of the newsroom, whereas the Lortons, you never saw them,” Pogue said.

* * *

“We were always playing with a short stick,” said sports editor and current OSU professor Mike Sowell, of being the evening paper. Surveys indicated that if people were going to read the paper, the majority of them wanted it in the morning, Sowell said.

The shared circulation department part of the JOA wasn’t motivated to increase the Tribune’s readership, Sowell reasons. When someone moved to town, they were given the option to choose one paper or the other. The World had both the morning slot and the Sunday paper. The Tribune never stood a chance.

Society changed, technology changed, and the JOA that helped both papers for so long became a critical lifeline for the Tribune and a lead anchor for the World. The agreement was set to expire in 1997, but negotiations had to begin five years prior.

The World’s management did its homework, saw the same surveys that showed that people had begun to depend on the local paper for the local story, preferring to get national news from cable programs and evening broadcast news. To face the competition, new computer systems were required, modern presses were needed to bring photographs and graphics to life. Changes had to be made and the Tribune was in no position to dictate conditions.

“The World said, ‘We have no intention of negotiation,’ ” said Pogue. “You can close up shop now, or you can wait and die.”

At the time of the closing, in September 1992, I was annoyed that my journalism career had been derailed. Suddenly there were dozens of professionals in town, virtually all with more experience than I had, competing for the few open slots at the World. Time to get a corporate communications gig, or find a non-profit that was hiring.

For the 11 months I was at the Tribune, a full three months of that time was spent knowing I’d be out of a job. I was a kid then, and I don’t pretend to know all of the players and all of the reasons why the Tribune had to be bought out.

But I believe that the Tribune ownership saw the writing on the wall. An evening paper might have a dedicated following, but never enough to compete head to head in the market. And the start-up costs (financial and emotional) were too high for the Jones family. In the end, the World won out, because the world runs on money, not truth or anyone’s version of the truth.

The Jones family—dedicated news people who worked side by side with the reporters, editors, photographers, and designers in their hire—was genuinely concerned for the people in the newsroom and made a difficult decision that gave the staff time to say goodbye, time to find new work elsewhere and have a little severance to make the transition easier.

The Tribune closing did me a favor, forcing me to evaluate my career. I realize that for many at the Tribune (those who had mortgages, mouths to feed, college semesters to pay for), the folding of the paper was catastrophic. I know of a few who never fully recovered. But for me the closing was a first hard slap of economic reality, and the lesson learned that good guys don’t always win.

After the Tribune closed, with its main rival gone, there was a void at the World. Fallis, one of about 10 newsroom staffers who made the jump, wrote, “I think there was a noticeable vacuum in Tulsa news coverage, like all the air had gone out of the room. But I think as months stretched into years, the World embraced its role as the only print game in town and in turn recognized its greater responsibility to readers.”

The World, responding to competitive forces bigger than the Tribune, expanded its investigative coverage. Fallis worked at the paper from 1992 to 1999 and he said the lack of a direct competitor gave him breathing room to explore stories in-depth.

Unable to compete with the TV stations for breaking news, the paper expanded in other areas. It had been a rather dry paper, and the flashy full color photos and graph-heavy look of McPapers like USA Today were looked upon with its disdain from more traditional publishers. But eventually many of the visual advances that the Tribune attempted in dying days were implemented and expanded at the World. The paper invested heavily in the development of distinct community editions published weekly, which eventually were shuttered.

It hired Simpson and Cronley, and the immensely talented arts writer James Watts. It launched an ambitious effort to serve the local arts and entertainment with the Spot, which for a while became must-read content you could get nowhere else. After some false starts, the World’s online presence is solid, though the effectiveness of its online subscription model—which gives print subscribers free access and offers tiered pricing for non-print audiences—remains to be seen.

“Having two respected Tulsa daily papers publishing at the same time gave readers a rich, pushy coverage that only comes from newspaper-war type competition,” said Fallis. Each paper was forced to cover—and beat if possible—the other’s stories that otherwise might have been ignored or missed.”

Was the Tribune really the better paper? In the end, it doesn’t even matter. Actually, the when and the way it folded were perfect.

The folding of the Tribune was a blessing of sorts. The World let its intentions be known that it wanted out of the JOA agreement. Whether the Tribune could have survived on its own, with the millions of dollars that would have been required to start a “new” paper, it’s impossible to know. When the Tribune closed, local television stations had been winning the breaking news game for a long time, even if they did it sloppily or by scanning the newspapers for clues. Research clearly indicated that if they read the newspaper at all—people wanted that news in the morning and didn’t make time to read in the evening.

When the Tribune closed, there wasn’t the Internet to compete with for eyeballs and ad revenue. The Tribune staff didn’t have to endure the round after round of layoffs that would have been inevitable. It never fumbled with clumsy online versions, trying to mash a square paper in the round hole of the Internet. Its standards for journalism, story telling, accuracy, and adherence to style were high until the end. It won awards and it revealed crooks and it made a difference in the community. What more could you ask from a local newspaper?

My grandfather is a spry 85 years old. He was a dream subscriber for the Trib and then the World for many years, reading every single page, every single day: the obituaries, the sports scores, even the ads. He’s still a huge Cronley fan. He’s retired and he lives alone. He exercises regularly and he’s active in his children’s and grandchildren’s lives. He watches a lot of sports and cable news programs now.

I recently found out he’s cut back on his subscription and is only taking the paper on the weekends. I asked him why, after all these years, he’s not taking the daily paper anymore.

He said, “I don’t really have time to read it.”