So Mason secured a $5,000 contribution from a local businessman and set about producing the kind of paper he felt Tulsa should have. He foreshadowed the inaugural issue by writing a manifesto for This Land’s still-idle website. The piece called for local writers across the country to rise up against inept local newspapers and reclaim the stories of their communities. Of the Tulsa World in particular, Mason wrote:
At several points the in the last decade, you could see the World completely losing its grip on the story of our community. Most of the so-called stories that appear in the “Most Popular” section of its website are thin, encyclopedia-like recountings of the most banal sort: “School Board Proposal May Pass, “ “Crowd’s Behavior Denounced,” and “35 Officers Back on the Job.” Few articles breach the thousand-word mark, and rare among those are the ones that extend over various issues. Other than a standard design, nothing connects the content from last month’s stories to this month’s. Continuity—a fundamental element of narrative—no longer exists. Under the stewardship of the World, the story of Tulsa’s community reads like a book in which one chapter has virtually no relation to the next.
In other words, Mason didn’t so much have a vision for a newspaper as he had a sense of what was missing from newspapers: long-form, contextual writing; a highly refined product designed to provide insight into a community rather than merely deliver a daily supply of information—a job the Internet was already ably doing, anyway.
The first issue arrived in May 2010, followed five months later by a second issue, which included the Bradley Manning piece that This Land’s website would send around the globe. By October, Mason had built up enough momentum to publish on a monthly basis. He tried some smart business maneuvers as well, including auctioning off online advertising slots, but nothing that could create the kind of revenue that would allow a married father of three to devote himself to the experiment full-time. It might have ended there—a fondly regarded anomaly destined to collapse once Mason’s friends grew tired of being asked for contributions—were it not for a Tulsa venture capitalist named Vincent LoVoi.
I first interviewed Mason in March 2011, and at the time I thought of him as an intriguing media theorist and proven editor who was certainly worthy of financial backing, but I had no idea how he might turn what he called “Oklahoma’s first new-media company” into a profitable enterprise. I assumed his plan was to produce great content across multiple platforms and then try like hell to convince local businesses to advertise. On the surface, I wasn’t that far off. It’s just that, like the rest of the industry, I failed to understand the extent to which that decaying old model could be reimagined.
Mason, a genial Midwesterner who has the air of someone constantly mediating between a deep inner monologue and the demands of the outside world, likes to joke that This Land was “born of frustration.” A more accurate description of its genesis involves a meeting of two minds—one editorial, one financial, and both afflicted with a complicated love for their hometown.
LoVoi, who is 55, with a close-cropped gray beard and a politician’s gift for conveying profound interest in anyone he meets, grew up in Tulsa but left at the beginning of his professional life to become a congressional staffer and later managing partner for the Brussels practice of the law firm Akin Gump. While still in Brussels, he partnered with a childhood friend and Tulsa investment adviser named Joel Kantor to buy two failing aerospace companies. They bundled them together, turned them around, and eventually sold them. In 2004, while still working on the aerospace project, LoVoi moved back to Tulsa to raise his four kids and continue his venture-capital efforts in the US and Europe.
In 2007, LoVoi was diagnosed with an aggressive prostate cancer, for which he would undergo surgery at New York’s Memorial Sloan Kettering in 2008. While balancing his recovery with parenting duties, he and his business partner decided to focus their venture-capital business on the Tulsa community. Instead of investing in biomedical firms and aerospace companies, they began putting their money and expertise into Tulsa-based tech companies, restaurant groups, and other projects that had received little attention in a local economy built on oil and natural gas. Their company, Mimosa Tree Capital Partners, mentions “social good” in its mission statement, but LoVoi very much counts himself a capitalist. “We’re not donors,” he told me. “We’re investors.”