Earlier this month, This Land Press published the latest installment in its ongoing coverage of Bradley Manning, the army private accused of providing thousands of pages of classified documents to WikiLeaks. The story, by newly minted This Land staff reporter Denver Nicks, looks at a formative period of Manning’s life through the eyes of Jordan Davis, Manning’s best friend from elementary school. At that time, Manning had been kicked out of his father’s home and drifted on to live with Davis and his parents. The two young men worked at a restaurant/arcade in Tulsa, Oklahoma called Incredible Pizza, and among Manning’s few possessions was a copy of Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason.
There’s a sad irony to the fact that most media coverage treats Manning as both the epicenter of and a footnote in the ongoing WikiLeaks saga. This Land, a not quite year-old print/web hybrid based in Tulsa, has produced some of the only exceptions to this rule worth noting. Founded in the spring of 2010 by journalist and native Oklahoman Michael Mason, the paper has quickly established itself as a rare example of literary journalism on the community level. A soon to be announced investment deal with Tulsa venture capitalist Vincent LaVoi will allow Mason to expand his publication significantly, making what has already proved to be a worthy experiment into an established Oklahoma media brand.
The significance of This Land’s expansion—and the fact that it’s being facilitated by a venture capitalist rather than the National Endowment for the Arts—can be best understood as a bet against some of the more demoralizing trends in recent media history. In an era when so much of journalistic ambition is dismissed as effete, indulgent, or just plain unrealistic, Mason speaks of long-form journalism from the perspective of an entrepreneur. To him, good narrative is at the heart of the human experience and all that, but it’s also a commodity that’s been absent from local markets for far too long. The Manning coverage is just one illustration of Mason’s larger mission to uncover what he sees as “a decade’s worth of surplus stories” about Tulsa and the rest of the state—stories that traditional media outlets, cramped for space or pressed for time, never got around to telling.
“There’s a lot of schadenfreude among the writers here in Oklahoma,” he says. “We feel like we’re sitting on top of a gold mine of incredible stories, and that newspapers are totally incapable of telling them because they’re married to the old media way of doing things.”
In many ways, This Land is reminiscent of fellow place-based publication the Oxford American, and Mason shares a number of traits with that publication’s fantastic editor, Marc Smirnoff. Both men manage to bundle risky editorial decisions into a highly refined finished product (call it the New Yorker with balls), and both have a talent for mixing anachronistically beautiful print content with web features that are equal to (rather than derivative of) their print counterparts. But while the OA is a literary journal that takes the entire American South as its purview, This Land’s narrower scope and more journalistic bent allow it to provide a unique blend of civic boosterism and edgy social commentary. (Take, for example, This Land’s feature Together in Tulsa, which juxtaposes a wholesome photograph of a married couple in the city with an often off-color narrative of their relationship.)
Despite its strong web presence, This Land has operated largely as a print-centric publication. The print version is mailed out to subscribers monthly, and content isn’t migrated onto the web until after the print subscribers have had a first look. Even then, not all of the content makes it online. Rather than have a paywall on the website, certain This Land content either exists in print form or not at all. Acknowledging the inevitable distinctions between print and web allows him to give each medium its due.
The print product (which costs subscribers $40 a year) gets to keep certain features, particularly poetry and fiction, as its exclusive domain. Heavy-stock paper and large-format photographs also enforce the product’s worth, and one could argue that Mason has figured out a way to skip ahead of the degradation of print and settled in at a point in the future where print products are valued for their exclusivity. That said, This Land’s web product is equally satisfying. Thie multimedia elements are more than just thin, high-tech sketches of something that appeared in print. They’re well-produced, stand alone features, imbued with all the style and personality of the print product.
The investment from LaVoi will increase This Land’s web presence, and new hires include a three person videography team and a full-time web developer. The expansion will also include a new managing editor, the publication’s first full-time reporter (Nicks), and three business staffers. (LaVoi will take over as This Land’s publisher while retaining his duties at Mimosa Tree, his venture capital firm.)
This Land has been consistently willing to experiment in its business dealings, and it will be interesting to see if that trend continues now that Mason is handing the publisher’s reins over to LaVoi. One example of these innovations, which Mason attributes to Wired editor Chris Anderson and his ideas about free pricing, is that copies of This Land are distributed free to local coffee shops on the condition that the proprietors sell rather than give away any copies. The coffee shop owners get to keep 100% of the revenue from any copies sold. Mason sees this as a way to instill value in his product while simultaneously creating a motivated sales force—the only cost to him is a few hundred copies of his paper. This Land has also experimented with auctioning online ad space to local businesses. Businesses go online to bid, and get to see what other business are bidding. “We actually get thirty or forty businesses a month bidding for five advertisements,” Mason says. “Interestingly enough, the prices that the ads sell at get close to what the actual retail rate is.”
There are plenty of questions that remain to be answered for This Land. Like the rest of the industry, it’s future growth is largely dependent on whether it can get a decent return on local web advertising. But a huge portion of the media industry is working under the assumption that a relevant publication is the foundation of a viable business model. On this front, This Land has nothing to worry about.