Across the street from a Fastenal hardware store in the shadow of Tulsa’s aging art-deco skyline, the staff of what is perhaps the best for-profit local journalism startup in the country has yet to reinvent the craft. Eleven full-time editorial employees sit at desks scattered across the rooms of a bright red house with Astroturf carpeting, telling stories about their community. As This Land Press founder and editor Michael Mason would argue, if this sounds unremarkable, it’s because journalism’s vision of its own future has become overly complicated.
In its short existence—one year as a passion project and another 18 months as a venture-capital-backed multimedia company—This Land has consistently produced the kinds of in-depth features and investigations that much of the industry is looking to nonprofit models to sustain. While still in its pre-investment days, it published a groundbreaking, internationally cited profile of Oklahoma native Bradley Manning, the army private accused of funneling thousands of pages of classified documents to WikiLeaks. Last September, it took an historical approach to investigative journalism, revealing that a founding father of Tulsa was a member of the Ku Klux Klan and an architect of the city’s notorious race riot in 1921. More recently, it published an investigation into sexual abuse of students at a school run by a local megachurch.
This Land is on pace to become cash-flow-positive next spring—which means that, in two years as a fully functioning business, it will have found a way to earn more money than it spends. If it stays on track thereafter, it will continue to expand its newsroom while earning a profit for its owners. It’s far too early to tell whether that will happen, but the trajectory is promising. No equivalent organization (and, granted, there aren’t many) has come so close to financial self-sufficiency so quickly. Most noteworthy is the fact that if This Land becomes profitable, it will have done so not in spite of its investment in locally focused, literary journalism, but because of it. Rather than hoping that the market might one day find a way to support great journalism—as the current discussion about the future of news suggests—This Land is betting that it can do so now.
To an outsider, Tulsa’s media market does not seem in desperate need of renewal. In terms of maintaining their numbers, at least, the city’s journalists have fared better than many of their counterparts in other cities. The afternoon Tulsa Tribune went out of business right on schedule in 1992, but the morning paper, the Tulsa World, remains relatively stable and family-owned. There’s an alt-weekly, Urban Tulsa, also independently owned, that may be unique among alt-weeklies as a conservative counterpoint to a conservative daily. Tulsa can also claim TV stations, radio news, a business journal, a glossy lifestyle magazine, and all the rest. In other words, the media scene is exactly what any reader who finds himself in a red state oil town of one million people might expect: It’s perfectly adequate. It just wasn’t good enough for Michael Mason.
In spring 2010, Mason was 38 and working as a brain-injury case manager at Tulsa’s Brookhaven Hospital. An odd mix of media insider and outsider, he had spent decades agonizing over the lack of opportunities for writers in his hometown, even as he slowly managed to work his way into some of the most elite corners of the profession—without ever leaving Tulsa. After spending his twenties as an advertising copywriter and aspiring novelist, he decided that a writer needed a career worth writing about, took the case-manager job, and eventually published a well-reviewed nonfiction book about traumatic brain injury called Head Cases (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2008). This launched his career as a science writer and earned him another book deal, but while the prospects for his own writing had brightened, the local media that so frustrated him hadn’t changed at all.