Every facet of the This Land organization comes back to a bet that quality content can succeed in this market—or in any market. “A lot of businesses do a market analysis of what sells and then they create a product to fit that analysis,” LoVoi says. “Here, that’s reversed. Let’s create a quality product. It will work in some way. We’re creating something that we know in and of itself is good. The market follows the quality as opposed to the quality following the market.”
It’s been only 18 months since LoVoi’s investment, but many of the ideas it set in motion are already starting to pan out. Shortly after LoVoi got involved, local filmmakers Matt Leach and Sterlin Harjo hired on full-time to produce short documentaries for This Land (Harjo has had two feature films premiere at Sundance). They spent a year creating powerful video portraits of Tulsans, as well as quirkier fare, such as a restaurant segment called “What the Fork.” The work is beautifully shot and edited, with a tightly controlled aesthetic that blows away the video offerings of most national magazines—let alone local newspapers.
This Land initially struggled to monetize Leach and Harjo’s videos, despite their high quality. Platforms like YouTube and Vimeo greatly increase a video’s potential traffic, but don’t allow third parties to post their own advertisements. Streaming the videos on This Land’s website allowed it to sell ads but decreased traffic. Eighty videos later, Mason and company hit upon the idea of weaving this backlog of great content together, interspersing it with new content, and creating a weekly half-hour cable TV show that now draws 80,000 viewers a month across the state—a number that doesn’t include the viewers who watch the episode the following week when it appears on This Land’s website, or when the videos are cut back into individual shorts and sprinkled throughout This Land’s iPad edition.
Now, according to Mason, This Land is on the brink of securing video sponsors, similar to the blanket sponsorships that nonprofits pursue. “We’re not constrained by one ad model or the other,” Mason explained. “So we can sort of morph to the demands of the market.”
This fluidity, a principle that animates the entire operation, is key to This Land’s advertising model across every platform. By functioning as a for-profit but producing nothing but the kind of inefficient literary and investigative work more associated with nonprofits, This Land has created a niche that could allow local news organizations to create a sustainable base of local advertisers—and offer a possible solution to a key problem facing journalism.
It’s hard to imagine a business ever advertising in its local newspaper for the benefit of being associated with the newspaper; the ad model is based on market share—number of potential customers reached—not brand and exclusivity. With This Land’s model, businesses pay to be affiliated with a high-quality product that exists, in large part, for the good of Oklahoma—and in the case of a limited commodity, like a video sponsorship, compete with one another to do so. At a time when local businesses are increasingly empowered by digital platforms to reach customers on their own, publications with a stellar brand have a huge advantage in the local ad market.
This Land is building a multimedia brand that is at once unified and multichannel. Mason and LoVoi are comfortable with the fact that a portion of their audience experiences This Land only as a TV program, while others know it as part of a Friday-morning program on Oklahoma public radio station KOSU—a weekly hourlong This Land radio show will launch on the same station later this fall. Fifty-five thousand unique viewers each month know This Land as a website; 34,000 know it as a Facebook community. (There’s surely overlap among these audience numbers, though it’s not measured.) Only a fraction of the total audience (16,000 per month) subscribes to the premium print product, or buys it for $2 a copy at local retailers. The broadsheet, which will continue to provide the bulk of This Land’s revenues, is full of large-format photography, and the ads for local bars and bike shops are so polished that they become a part of the overall aesthetic; the bulk are designed in-house for a flat $75-per-piece fee by the same design team that handles the print layout, the website, four forthcoming This Land book projects, and the iPad app. The focus is less on total audience and more on building a brand and a lasting institution that both advertisers and the rest of the community can get behind.