Era Ends: Buffett Buys World

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The state’s two largest newspapers will no longer be locally owned by families with strong roots in Oklahoma, but it’s unclear what that might portend for their readers or for Oklahoma’s media landscape.

Philip Anschutz, an ultra-conservative Colorado billionaire in the oil and gas industry, added to his media holdings when he purchased The Oklahoman, the state’s largest newspaper, in 2011. On Tuesday, the Tulsa World announced its sale to Warren Buffet’s BH Media Group, which also owns the Omaha World-Herald. Buffett is chairman and chief executive officer of Berkshire Hathaway, a highly successful investment group based in Omaha.

An era in the state has definitely come to an end. The Oklahoman was owned since 1903 by the Gaylord family, a family highly active in the local Oklahoma City community. The World has been owned by the Lorton family since 1913. The Lortons have also been a major part of Tulsa’s history.

The family-owned newspaper in large markets has become a relic in a time of massive media consolidation, changing reading habits and declining circulation. Readers increasingly are turning to digital formats to stay informed, and the hard-copy newspaper is considered by some cultural critics to be an endangered species. These are volatile and changing times for the media, especially for large metropolitan newspapers. Media consolidation allows for shared costs and shared platforms.

Perhaps, it was simply inevitable the state’s two largest news organizations would end up with out-of-state ownership, but here’s why it’s important: Most people don’t realize the large newspapers dictate what news gets covered and how it gets covered in their local markets. Local television news has become crime-obsessed, and, at least in Oklahoma, rarely engages in enterprise journalism or thorough political coverage, but if The World or The Oklahoman newspaper covers a particular, non-sensationalized story, the local television stations with their reductionist herd mentality will sometimes follow it, just as long as they don’t have to do the initial journalistic legwork. Radio remains a vast wasteland of extremist right-wingers here, with the exception of the state’s National Public Radio (NPR) stations. The point is that The World and The Oklahoman, for better or worse, help to create the state’s public reality and public discourse.

On the down side, without local ownership, the depiction of that “public reality” by the two newspapers could become dull and robotic. Why would their out-of-state corporate handlers even care what’s going on in Oklahoma City and Tulsa? What’s the bottom line, right? Will both newspapers become generic, one-size-fits-all web sites with reduced reporting staffs? It increasingly appears so, and that’s not a good thing.

The one major distinction between the two sales is that Anschutz appears to have an ultra-conservative political agenda when it comes to his media holdings, which also includes The Washington Examiner. Indeed, The Oklahoman has remained relentlessly conservative under Anschutz’s ownership. BH Media Group has claimed The World will remain autonomous, but that remains to be seen. The World, a historically Republican newspaper, has become decidedly less conservative than The Oklahoman in recent years, but it still supported U.S. Sen. Jim Inhofe, a conservative extremist, in his last reelection bid.

The billionaire Buffet, of course, has supported President Barack Obama’s efforts to raise taxes on the country’s wealthiest citizens to narrow income inequality. This political view—an anathema on the right—might signal to the editorial leadership of The World that it’s okay to broaden the spectrum of voices it allows on its opinion page and in online formats. This would be a healthy development in a state completely dominated by Republicans.

It’s difficult to predict where all this leads because of rapid change caused by digital media and the fragmentation of advertising dollars among different platforms. It would not surprise me if both The World and The Oklahoman are sold again within a few years.

I should note that both the sales announcements of The Oklahoman and The World lacked specific financial information. How can reporters at these news organizations demand openness in government when their own corporations gloss over what people really want to know, such as the sales amount, current profit or loss margins and historical circulation comparisons?

This lack of information does not bode well for people who want to stay informed in this state, but that’s the reality we face.