I have long been a critic of The Oklahoman in this space and elsewhere primarily for the extreme right-wing views on its editorial page.
I have also consistently pointed out right-wing biases in its news coverage, from the GOP, public-relations style of reporting that emanates from the newspaper’s Washington bureau to the way it frames the local news to what it even determines is news.
My posts and articles about the newspaper over the last ten years or so could easily fill a book.
Along the way, I have been critical of the newspaper’s principal ownership, the Gaylord family, for being a major player in a corporate power structure here in the Oklahoma City area that seems more interested in reaping its own financial rewards than working for a common good.
So I was somewhat surprised that when I learned that the Oklahoma Publishing Company (OPUBCO), which includes The Oklahoman, was being sold to Denver billionaire and right-winger Phil Anschutz I was filled with a moment of sadness. The Gaylords have been a bedrock of the culture here, its very own, right-wingers for the left to traditionally criticize and rail against and major members of the eclectic and weird, dysfunctional family called Oklahoma.
Whatever sadness I felt was soon replaced by what the newspaper’s editorial writers would call “class envy” when I realized that the selling price-though not announced-absolutely had to be astronomical and that some of that money will eventually support the right-wing dictatorship we have going on in Oklahoma right now. In announcing the sale, OPUBCO head Christy Gaylord Everest, said she plans to stay here. (She has also been asked to remain on the newspaper’s editorial board.) Now she and others in her family are going to have even more money to influence the political landscape here.
I reserve the right to revise, but here’s my first take on the newspaper’s sale:
- The 71-year-old Anschutz probably bought the newspaper at least partially to advance the right-wing political cause, though most people would consider that fait accompli here in Oklahoma. Newspapers, including The Oklahoman, have been in financial decline for a long time now. There has to be more going on here than a businessperson purchasing a new company and making it even more profitable. What’s his motive? True, there are other businesses within OPUBCO that are probably flourishing financially and expect growth in revenues, but newspapers everywhere are adjusting to a new business model given the internet, and that model includes, simply put, less money and lower profits. The newspaper industry is in a major transition. No one can say what’s going to happen. I believe this makes Anschutz’s Oklahoma newspaper investment a somewhat risky business move and indicates it might be about something more than money.
- The most definitive article I have found on Anschutz and his motives in buying publications can be found in this Politico post, titled “Phil Anschutz’s conservative agenda”. Anyone interested in the local media here should read the article, which discusses why Anschutz owns “two money-losing publications,” The Weekly Standard, a conservative journal, and The Washington Examiner, which also espouses conservative views. One media analyst quoted in the article said, “You have to look at what he’s doing as partly a reflection of some of his political convictions.” Those convictions, according to the article, include donating money in the 1990s to the anti-gay rights organization Colorado For Family Values. Can we expect anti-gay vitriol now on The Oklahoman editorial page, along the lines of State Rep. Sally Kern, who once said homosexuality was a greater threat to the nation than terrorism? In recent years, the newspaper had softened its views of conservative social issues. Is it possible the newspaper’s editorial page will become even more strident?
- The sale price was not announced, but it’s difficult not to believe the newspaper will be heavily leveraged by its purchase price. Will Anschutz operate The Oklahoman as a “money-losing” publication given the initial investment? The possible silver lining here is that without a birthright attachment to the newspaper or Oklahoma, Anschutz might have no problem unloading it quickly to someone else down the road. Maybe the next owner will have less of a political agenda and more centrist or even liberal views.
- I do think Anschutz can bring more sophistication to the editorial page and news columns through connections to other publications in his business empire. Is it possible he will allow consistent liberal commentary? Anything is possible, but it’s more likely he will embrace the current business model at The Oklahoman, which is to cater exclusively to conservative subscribers and readers and try to make liberal readers dependent on its sheer density of information and sports coverage. I have argued this business model is not sustainable given the newspaper industry’s problems, but Anschutz might not be thinking long term or even money when it comes to The Oklahoman.
- The Politico post notes Anschutz has a “diverse empire that includes sports franchises he owns completely (the Los Angeles Kings and Galaxy) or holds a stake in (the Los Angeles Lakers), as well as arenas like the Staples Center and Kodak Theatre.” Anschutz also has oil and gas interests and owns Qwest Communications. Forbes has listed him as the 37th richest person (or 33rd or 34th given, I guess, the particular year or the source material) in America. What might be important to note here is his interest in sports franchises. Local businessperson Clay Bennett, who is an owner of the state’s most prominent sports franchise, the Oklahoma City Thunder, is married to Louise Gaylord Bennett, a member of the Gaylord family. Could the Thunder, like The Oklahoman, one day in the near future shed its local ownership? Is Bennett also in a selling mood? Has the Thunder reached its highest revenue potential and now is the time to sell?
- It will be interesting to see how the newspaper’s sale will resonate among the corporate power structure, the chamber-of-commerce lobby in the state and loyal readers. The Politico post notes that Anschutz is “famously reclusive.” How much time will he spend here? Will he buy living space here? Will he become part of the community in any fashion? Will The Oklahoman essentially become faceless? As a long-time Oklahoma resident, I know people here think community ties are important. It can be tough living in Oklahoma, with its turbulent weather, poverty and deteriorating infrastructure, and a shared sense of basic survival in adversity unites us across political spectrums. Anschutz will obviously be viewed as an outsider at first, and if he doesn’t overcome this image, it could hurt the newspaper’s financial prospects.
- Here’s some speculation: Perhaps the third generation of Gaylords didn’t have the same attachment to the newspaper business as did the late Edward L. Gaylord or the late Edward K. Gaylord. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this, and, to her credit on the personal family level, Everest fulfilled her father’s obvious wish that the newspaper remain conservative after his death. Under Everest’s leadership, the newspaper also made marked improvements. But maybe Everest and others in the Gaylord family crave to have identities outside The Oklahoman and OPUBCO. Whatever the case, a new era is about to begin in Oklahoma journalism.