Two years ago this month, the Oklahoman and Tulsa World announced a content-sharing agreement in which each paper would carry some stories created by the other. The papers also said they would “focus on reducing some areas of duplication, such as sending reporters from both The Oklahoman and the Tulsa World to cover routine news events.” With the agreement, the Capitol Bureau staffs of the two papers, which had consisted of six reporters a short time earlier, was pared down to three.
For many observers, this shrinking press pool of the state’s two major dailies marked another key moment in the erosion, and potential disappearance, of state political news coverage. According to a 2009 article in the Oklahoma Gazette (unavailable online), the Capitol press corps, which at its peak in 1977 counted 39 reporters, now numbers in the teens. Smaller papers have eliminated their Capitol reporter positions, TV news stations (other than OETA) cover the Legislature only intermittently, if at all, and even the Associated Press has cut back its staff. While a small nucleus of experienced, committed Capitol reporters remain, the ongoing capacity of the media to go beyond rewriting press releases and provide Oklahoma with in-depth, informed reporting on public affairs seemed very much in doubt.
Yet two years later, it appears that the obituaries for state political news coverage may have been premature. Various signs of new journalistic life now seem to be proliferating. CapitolBeatOK, a year-old online news service run by Patrick McGuigan, frequently runs longer, more detailed coverage of events at the Capitol than traditional print outlets, along with regular one-on-one interviews with policymakers that run as separate articles. The state’s NPR stations are beefing up their state and local news capacities, with KGOU being in the running for an Impact of Government grant, which is intended to fund stations to add “reporters, editors and analysts to take a deeper and more comprehensive look at the role of state government…” Voices of Oklahoma, a full-power community radio station, has been granted a new FCC license and is gearing up to go on air by 2013. Various new media outlets and portals, such as the Xenia Institute, This Land Press, Oklahoma Watchdog, and Oklahoma Citizen, as well as a growing number of policy-oriented blogs (ours included) and Twitter feeds, are offering news and commentary on state issues, while stretching the traditional definition of ‘journalist’. Even local TV news has gotten into the act, with the Newson6/News 9 Oklahoma Impact Team undertaking regular investigative reporting of alleged corruption and mismanagement in state government.
An especially pivotal moment in the transformation of the state media landscape may occur January 30th with the official launch of Oklahoma Watch, a new collaborative investigative reporting project headed up by a team of experienced reporters and contributors, some of whom were let go by the major dailies in their recent downsizing. Funded by grants from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and several Oklahoma foundations, the project looks to provide extensive reporting on important policy issues facing Oklahoma, beginning with the issue of female incarceration. The Oklahoman and Tulsa World, which are among several commercial and non-profit media outlets on the project’s Board, have run initial Oklahoma Watch stories (see here and here); eventually, the team will produce programs for public radio and television as well, along with maintaining its own website.
Meanwhile, another veteran Oklahoma journalist, Scott Cooper, most recently of the Oklahoma Gazette, is in the process of rolling out his own independent online news site, The Land Run, as a venue to run pursue more in-depth independent journalism addressing Oklahoma politics, government, legal affairs and state history. The site does not formally launch until February but Cooper posted an initial article this month on Mary Fallin overseeing her first execution as Governor.
To be sure, this new media landscape looks quite different than the old. Among other changes, most of the new media sources seem less tied to traditional notions of “journalistic objectivity” and tend to approach the news from a more pronounced ideological bent or with an explicit policy agenda. This is most clearly the case with many blogs and activist-driven news aggregating sites, such as Oklahoma Citizen, but may also be true of news operations that are funded by foundations, in the case of Oklahoma Watch or NPR, or funded by think-tanks, such as CapitolBeatOk, which operates under contract with the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs.
It’s still far too early to know which, if any, of these new entities and platforms will take root and establish themselves as a lasting presence. But for those who share a belief in the vital importance of journalists for providing government oversight and helping to keep the citizenry informed and engaged, the current landscape at least offers grounds for hope.