Celebrated heartland news outlet drops magazine, keeps T-shirts and soaps

This Land Press, the Tulsa-based startup founded in 2010 to bring literary journalism to Middle America, will suspend publication of its celebrated magazine this spring. The small editorial staff disbanded in January; founder and editor Michael Mason has returned to the healthcare industry, where he worked previously, and plans to complete a book. A letter to readers ends on a note of optimism about This Land’s future, but there are no immediate plans for ongoing publication.

Publisher Vincent LoVoi, the lawyer-turned-venture capitalist whose seven-figure investment turned This Land into one of the most audacious local news experiments of the past decade, says that finding and telling stories from the heartland remains his goal. The break, he says, will give him an opportunity to explore how best to financially sustain that mission. This Land’s retail operation, which brings the magazine’s design aesthetic to everything from T-shirts to “narrative olfactory” soaps with scents based on the publication’s articles, will remain open. Two forthcoming anthology issues, the Race Reader and the Religion Reader, will close out the magazine’s seven-year run.

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This Land received praise from journalistic kingmakers like David Carr, who wore a This Land T-shirt at speaking engagements, and A.O. Scott, who called it “the future of local media,” though there’s an irony in relying on such names to argue the magazine’s importance. The publication’s print run might be best appreciated as an experiment in giving homegrown stories from flyover country the same depth, scope, and rigor as those produced by national magazines—an effort as radical in its own right (and as easily mischaracterized as elitism) as the fight for locally grown food.

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When I first interviewed Mason for CJR in 2011, he said his mission was to uncover a “decade’s worth of surplus stories” in Oklahoma and Middle America—stories that traditional media had overlooked in their rush to keep pace with the news cycle. That “decade” quickly became a century. This Land’s most important story revealed that Tate Brady, a founding father of Tulsa who remained the namesake of several neighborhoods and buildings, had helped to engineer the city’s notorious race riot in 1921. Another highlighted a recent history of sexual abuse at a school run by a local megachurch. This Land stories commonly applied an in-depth narrative treatment to an Oklahoma landmark, subculture, or personality with which readers might have previously only had passing familiarity. One of my favorite recent examples told the story of young homeless Oklahomans who bonded over their shared devotion to the rap group Insane Clown Posse.

The publication included many contributions from novice writers, and sometimes this showed in the prose or the reporting. But as a regular reader I learned that This Land was engaged in a deeper project than could be contained in any one issue: It was restoring the narrative topsoil that had eroded from a part of the country unused to hearing its own stories told.

 

This Land attempted to bring for-profit literary journalism to a state that’s poor and sparsely populated. I wrote an in-depth profile for CJR in 2012 that detailed the publication’s unorthodox business model, which rested on the idea that stories contained a lasting value that an ephemeral stream of news updates couldn’t achieve. Billing itself as “Oklahoma’s first new media company,” This Land used an initial $1.3 million of investment capital to produce stories for print and digital platforms as well as for video, radio, and television, with the hope that each medium might accrue enough long-term revenue to sustain the enterprise.

At the peak of its operations, This Land produced content for a website, a biweekly broadsheet, an iPad edition, an hour-long weekly radio show, a half-hour weekly television show, and a wide array of products for its retail store. But the television and radio operations proved difficult to monetize, and both were shuttered by 2015.

Members of the video team went on to produce two feature documentaries under the This Land umbrella. The first premiered at Sundance and the second, Far Western, will premier in the US later this year. The films were among the most ambitious examples of This Land’s sensibility, but they were discrete documentary efforts rather than multi-platform genre innovations, and not sufficient to fuel the growth of a new media company.

The textual side of This Land reverted in 2015 from a biweekly broadsheet to the perfect-bound quarterly more typical of literary magazines. A broadsheet might not sound particularly innovative, but seeing the beautiful front-page illustrations and provocative headlines proudly displayed on the counters of barbeque joints and greasy spoons throughout Tulsa is one of my favorite memories from visiting This Land on its home turf. The ability to buy brisket burnt ends and photo essays from the same cashier stirred something in my working class journalist’s soul. This Land’s recurring presence in these places was illustrative of its ambition to tap Tulsans on the shoulder and say, “Hey, look around at this place we all live in.”

 

It wasn’t until I encountered This Land that I realized the possibility that homegrown media might play a role in giving people a deeper sense of the place they inhabit.

 

The quarterly was beautifully designed, and packed with even more of the voices and stories that distinguished This Land. Still, the format felt a bit more daunting than the biweekly, losing something of the conversational quality that had defined the publication’s approach.

And while This Land is hardly unique in extracting more attention than dollars from its community, the matter is further complicated by This Land’s identity as a community and regional voice that did not always line up with the geographic constraints of its business model.

According to numbers provided to me by LoVoi, web traffic averaged a steady 100,000 sessions per month during This Land’s most popular years, while print subscriptions peaked at 1,800. Many among that audience came from places outside of Oklahoma, while revenue streams like advertising and events depended on readers being close to home. A large portion of This Land’s Web traffic came from the Dallas-Fort Worth area, where many Oklahomans move for work. Other readers came from farther afield—from New York and Chicago and San Francisco, heartland expats or people who just liked good writing. Finding a way to capture and monetize an audience rooted in Middle America is a primary concern for LoVoi as he contemplates the publication’s future.

 

This Land laid bare the emotional content of what it’s like to live in a place. This is why it resonated with me, despite my lack of an Oklahoma connection.

I grew up in an oil town bordering the Navajo Reservation in northwest New Mexico—a place that had its own version of Tulsa’s complicated relationship to race, class, religion, and environment. Like the vast majority of the country, my community had no way of telling its own story with any depth. It wasn’t until I encountered This Land that I realized the possibility that homegrown media might play a role in giving people a deeper sense of the place they inhabit. We had a newspaper, but we didn’t have stories. Most culture of value was shipped to us from the coasts, so that’s where I shipped myself when I decided to become a journalist. A critical piece of This Land’s legacy so far is its effort to convince a generation of young writers and artists that they are needed on the home front. (Last July, I attempted to follow This Land’s example and partnered with them for a longform story set in my home state.)

When I visited This Land’s offices last fall, I spoke with interns who had a refreshing lack of interest in my coastal bona fides. That attitude stems from This Land founder Michael Mason, who managed to write for national magazines and publish a book with Farrar, Straus and Giroux without leaving his home state. Mason was known to go through as many as 30 drafts with a writer for a This Land story, but he combined this level of care with a laid-back management style that attracted the offbeat talent that gave the publication its voice. This Land’s first radio producer offered to live in a tent and work for free, and was offered a job instead. Most prominent among This Land’s contributors was Lee Roy Chapman, a self-taught Tulsa historian and investigative journalist who died in 2015. A collection of Chapman’s work can be purchased from This Land’s website, with the proceeds benefiting his young son.

Along with these contributors, Mason managed to assemble, in just seven years’ time, the largest single body of art and literature about the Middle of America that the region might ever see.

“For me, the unique beauty of This Land was the ethos that was created by the work and effort of all the people involved,” Mason told me when we spoke a few days ago. “There will be this legacy of beauty and wonder that was curiously assembled in the middle of the country. There’s no reason why it can’t happen again.”

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Michael Canyon Meyer is a freelance journalist and former CJR staff writer. Follow him on Twitter at @mcm_nm.