In the months leading up to LoVoi’s decision to invest in This Land and become its publisher, he and Mason held a series of meetings during which they would eat pork belly at a local Japanese restaurant and talk about media. LoVoi encouraged Mason to draw up three different plans to develop This Land into a profitable business, one small, one medium, and one large. They ultimately decided to go large, which meant simultaneously launching and staffing a biweekly broadsheet, hiring a videography crew, redesigning and staffing a website, hiring a sales and support staff, hiring an audio producer, and, in three years’ time, distributing in the Oklahoma City market. “We made the judgment that Michael’s vision had the greatest potential when you had the greatest number of synergies,” LoVoi told me. “It just made sense to do it all at once. You could not do it incrementally. It didn’t work.”
They estimated that it might take up to $2 million to launch This Land and give it enough of a runway to build revenue streams. As of July, the investment was $1.3 million, a number that does not include a pending purchase of real estate. LoVoi says that there is room for further investment if necessary. The original plan, which This Land is currently on pace to fulfill, allowed for two years to attain a positive cash flow, and a full return on the initial investment within four years.
In order to achieve this growth, they developed a highly fluid business model, with varying goals and timelines for monetizing content based on the relative maturity of the market for each platform. They assumed the majority of their revenue would come from print advertising, a market that was still relatively stable in Tulsa. Their revenue estimates for other mediums—Web, video, and audio—were far more conservative. A key part of the large plan, however, was to fully commit to each medium even without a clear vision for exactly how it would eventually contribute to the bottom line. Making each platform profitable was the goal, but in the short term they were comfortable with the idea of simply gaining an audience and other, more intangible, benefits.
Coupled with this multiplatform approach was a more philosophical idea that traced its roots back to Mason’s rant against the Tulsa World in 2010. This Land would focus on narrative and context rather than information, and by doing so would change news from a disposable commodity into something of enduring interest to its audience. Put another way, the value of most traditional news expires quickly, and the window during which an organization can get people to pay for that content is incredibly narrow. By breaking free of the news cycle and focusing on a more timeless, apropos-of-nothing-but-the fact-that-it-happened-in-Oklahoma brand of reportage, This Land could sell a story once—in the broadsheet, say—and then find a way to sell it a second time, with a delayed migration to the website, or an anthology. Or, more important for the mediums that had a less-clear path to profitability—such as video—they could fail to sell a story once but still have other chances to sell it. Well-crafted stories that speak to a community’s sense of identity have a long shelf-life; This Land saw that it could have a virtual monopoly on this type of work in a part of the country Mason and his contributors felt was desperate to rediscover its own voice.
Tulsa, and Oklahoma generally, once occupied a prominent place in the American imagination—even if, as evoked by Steinbeck in the early chapters of The Grapes of Wrath, it wasn’t always a positive one. Leon Russell and others pioneered “the Tulsa Sound” in the ’50s and ’60s, a style that mixed country, rockabilly, rock & roll, and blues, and heavily influenced musicians including Eric Clapton and Mark Knopfler. S. E. Hinton published her groundbreaking young-adult novel The Outsiders not long thereafter, while she was a freshman at The University of Tulsa; Larry Clark followed close behind with Tulsa, a book of disturbing photographs that chronicled teen drug use, sex, and violence in his hometown. But during the 1980s, if you believe This Land managing editor Mark Brown’s theory, everyone locked themselves indoors to watch cable TV, and middle America outsourced its cultural needs to the coasts. The 30-year lag that ensued, during which Tulsa’s downtown withered and its creative community dispersed, left This Land with a wide-open field. “There’s an unknown quantity to this place that has a marketing aspect about it,” Brown says. “In America, what else is there to discover?”