This Land launched its Oklahoma City print edition in June. Despite a low-level rivalry between Tulsa and the larger market 88 miles southwest, it was an obvious move. A separate print run accommodates advertisers who only want to appear in one city, but the content remains the same across both editions. This Land had always thought of itself as telling the story of the entire state—not just the story of Tulsa—and its TV show, website, and radio program have given the print edition a running start at the statewide market.
In the coming years, as This Land grows and newspapers across the country continue to shrink, the Oklahoma startup will help to answer a crucial question facing journalism: Just how big a market is necessary to sustain a for-profit operation delivering this level of quality? Can This Land continue to expand its reporting capabilities as just the voice of Oklahoma? Or will it need to reach beyond the state borders, and become a regional publication for the Great Plains?
Mason and LoVoi are open to the idea of a more regional presence, but they also are confident that other cities and states can cultivate their own operations to do what This Land does in Oklahoma. They made the rather counterintuitive bet that a place like Oklahoma, largely ignored or otherwise covered as if it’s a foreign land by the national media, was the ideal place to plant an operation whose work most resembles that of a national magazine. A list of cities and regions that are similarly marginalized would consume huge swaths of the country.
It’s important to note that This Land hasn’t solved the problem of how to sustain daily journalism. In fact, its work can be read as a bet against daily journalism. Perhaps people will never again pay for up-to-the-minute coverage of city council meetings and crime reports, the kind of stuff that is the bread-and-butter of most local TV news operations and daily newspapers. This Land does its share of civic watchdogging, but this work is ancillary to the true heart of its mission. “What we tend to think of as journalism is more this kind of civic custodian who is helping to rectify neglect and enhance the community through responsible reporting,” Mason told me. “That’s all well and good, but more ancient, more profound than that is the ability to tell stories. And that is something that I think is far broader than just a journalistic mindset.”
In other words, This Land is betting that the key to sustaining local journalism is not to give readers more information more quickly and efficiently, but instead to slow down. Rather than try to beat the Internet at its own game, the idea is to take the tools that technology provides and use them in the service of something more substantial—and hopefully more lasting—than the pursuit of click-throughs and pageviews.
“All indications right now are that we are figuring it out,” Mason said when I asked him about This Land’s future. “But it’s the community that will make it succeed. It has to step forward and support it. It has to embrace it and say, ‘This is what we want for our city and our people.’ That’s the real dilemma of the future of journalism: Will cities and communities take up the responsibility of cultivating similar operations? Do people believe in the story of their community deeply enough to support it? Frankly, I think it depends on the community. Some communities will support it, and some won’t.”
More in Cover StoryRead More »