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?”
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.