The Stories Matter

by Tom Boettcher


Recently I received a note from This Land’s managing editor that I found highly flattering: She wanted to republish articles I had assigned about 40 years ago when I was editor and publisher of Oklahoma Monthly magazine. I welcomed this opportunity for our Oklahoma Monthly writers and This Land’s readers. The first Oklahoma Monthly article to be republished by This Land is “Our Daughter Was an Only Son” by Mike Boettcher.

In starting Oklahoma Monthly, I was inspired by Texas Monthly, which was only a few years old at the time. I was candid about that. When Oklahoma Monthly started taking off, I ran an ad in a prominent advertising journal that read, “Texas Monthly proved it could happen in Texas. Oklahoma Monthlyproved it could happen anywhere.” Not long after, I received a certified letter from Michael Levy, the publisher of Texas Monthly, warning us not to use its name in our advertising. He was not ill-humored about it; he knew I held his publication in the highest regard. I was determined to duplicate the quality ofTexas Monthly’s lively mix of politics, history, profiles, arts, sports, and business.

The staff of Oklahoma Monthly was composed almost entirely of young people in their 20s. At the start, I was the second-oldest at 31. The turbulent ‘60s had been our formative years. We were fraught with a sense of optimism for the country as a whole and the confidence that we could make Oklahoma a better place. I sensed similar demographics about the staff of This Land when I first spotted a copy on newsstands.

Initially, the full-time staff of Oklahoma Monthly was small—a layout/production person and a person who tried to sell ads. After two years, we had 28 staffers, a level that stabilized for about four years until the Great Recession of the early ‘80s pulled us down.

The editorial staff consisted of four full-time writers/editors and a photographer/editor. We also worked with another 25 writers who wrote for Oklahoma Monthly on a freelance basis, yet a high percentage of content was written by the full-time staff writers. Though young when I hired them, our writers had lots of experience. They were also loaded with talent. Many were graduates of the OU School of Journalism; I hired most of them after they had worked atThe Daily Oklahoman.

Once hired, these writers stayed multiple years as recognition increased and career options multiplied. When staff writer Boo Browning moved to Washington, D.C., with her husband, she was hired by The Washington Post.

While an editor/writer at Oklahoma Monthly, David Fritze won a Rotary Foundation Scholarship for graduate study in South America. He later spent more than 20 years with The Arizona Republic and served as senior editor.

Editor/writer Mike Boettcher, my younger brother, was hired away by the Oklahoma City CBS affiliate. About a year later, he was doing live shots from Cuba after interviewing Fidel Castro on CNN.

In 1979, staff writer Lynn Englehart was a principle reason that the University of Missouri School of Journalism cited Oklahoma Monthly, along with nine other magazines, for excellence. Lynn’s cover story for that issue was “Growing up Jewish in Oklahoma.” In terms of newsstand sales, her story was one of our most popular.

But we also assigned and published wrenching articles that were not popular, such as the one about living as a severely handicapped person in Oklahoma. In researching it, David Fritze lived with such an individual for about a week. We did stories that no one else wanted to do and were proud of it.

By 1979, Oklahoma Monthly’s paid circulation that year was more than 39,000 copies per month, which included paid subscriptions as well as single-copy sales. This incredible figure, even today, represents a remarkable achievementWe tried to stand for something in journalism, we tried to make things better, and we tried to do the right thing. We tried to do stories that no one else would do, and I think we were successful.

Oklahoma Monthly  published about six years. I had no doubt we could deliver a quality editorial product. The problem would be whether the number of large retail advertisers was large enough to sustain it. Alas, the answer was no, during tough economic times anyway, most pronounced at the time by the failure of Penn Square Bank in 1982.  The economy during the early 1980s was very difficult. Inflation and then interest rates soared. Oklahoma Monthly ceased publication because of these conditions.

After my five years running Oklahoma Monthly, I wrote two narrative histories published by Little, Brown & Company. The first was Vietnam: The Valor and the Sorrow. A reviewer in The Sunday New York Times Book Review wrote: “Readers searching for a comprehensive, even-handed account of our longest war need look no further than this excellent volume.” It had multiple printings. My second book was First Call: The Making of the Modern U.S. Military. It received a starred review in Publisher’s Weekly. Before practicing law, I was editor and publisher for five years of Trade & Culture, an international business magazine built on the idea that to be successful in the global marketplace, one had to understand the culture of the people with whom you were conducting business. I had been approached by some investors to develop a publishing idea. Trade & Culture is what I came up with.

Originally published in This Land, Vol. 5, Issue 11, June 1, 2014.