When Your Paper Dies
Hargrove, Mary, Washington Journalism Review
For the aggressive Tulsa Tribune, a sad end to an exhilarating run.
On July 31, the World Publishing Co., owner of the morning Tulsa World (circulation 131,000), announced it would not renew its 51-year-old joint operating agreement with the Tulsa Tribune. The Tribune closed two months later.
The Tribune (circulation 67,000), the World's smaller afternoon rival, had a distinguished history of investigative reporting. In the 1950s, it crusaded against crime figures; two decades later it revealed the need for major prison reform. More recently, the Tribune achieved a national reputation as it detailed abuses of the mentally ill, exposed shenanigans that led to the collapse of Penn Square Bank of Oklahoma City and sifted through the financial failure of the Oral Roberts empire. Mary Hargrove, who wrote or directed many of the Tribune's investigative projects, describes the proud newspaper's final days.
September 30 officially began as wire editor Michael Lester entered the darkened seventh-floor newsroom of the Tulsa Tribune. He was 20 minutes earlier than usual, but then, nothing was going to be usual this day.
Within the hour, the tempo picked up as grim-faced staff members drifted in, filling stained coffee mugs, scanning the morning papers and exchanging stories of sleepless nights. As they talked, friends invariably reached over and patted each other on the arm or the back, their hands lingering for a long moment, eyes blinking back tears.
Nearly all of the staffers wore T-shirts bearing the legend, "The Tulsa Tribune: The Final Edition."
For two months, the last day had been looming before the 104 employees, who clearly were relieved that the final hours had arrived. Since learning that the newspaper would be closed, we had suffered death by small degrees, an inch-by-inch heartbreak as we wrote our last stories, wished our favorite sources well, killed our notes for unpublished stories out of the computer.
An air of nervous tension pervaded the newsroom. What could we say to our good friends and coworkers who had held our hands through deadlines, divorces, deaths? Could we get through the day without breaking apart? There weren't any scripts for walking away from a job that had been all too consuming, all too personal.
My son, Scott, and I had spent several nights cramming research books, lamps, pictures and file folders into every cranny of my car. As we carted our last load, I realized how fast the past 18 years had flown by.
It seemed like yesterday that I used to lift the tow-headed child to push the elevator buttons when he visited me at work. "That box looks too heavy, mom," the 16-year-old boy-man now cautioned. "Let me take it for you."
When I unlocked my office for the last time, greeted by bare shelves and a lone notebook on top of my desk, I felt I was attending my own funeral.
The somber mood was broken when night police reporter and photographer Gary Kruse sauntered into Executive Editor Windsor Ridenour's corner office, the shell of a blue, three-foot U.S. Navy practice bomb tucked under his arm. "I always said anyone could get a bomb past our security," he dead-panned. "This was my last chance to prove it."
A few minutes later, the staff burst into applause with the arrival of copy editor Jerry Pogue, 52. He was wearing white Bermuda shorts, a formal white jacket with tails and a green tie long enough to reach knobby knees.
Other distractions helped us mark time. From the editorial conference room, a local radio talk show reporter was interviewing staff members and soliciting anecdotes and comments from listeners.
At the 7:15 a.m. budget meeting, Editor and Publisher Jenk Jones Jr., infamous for his bad puns, suggested "30-Something" for the final headline, kicking off a discussion we had sidestepped for three days.
How do you bow out after 73 years? …