Luther, OK – A national effort is underway to support local journalism, even in Luther, OK. On World Press Freedom Day — Sunday, May 3 — the publisher of the New York Times urged people to donate and subscribe to local news organizations in their communities — including lutherregister.news. No matter how you feel about NYT, it was an honor to be included in a plea to remember the folks providing news for their communities.
There’s another campaign circulating called “giving newsday” to support local news. If you follow news on your social media or through your email, no doubt you’ve already been hit up for money. I know I have; personally I support a variety of news sources – like NonDoc and OKC Fress Press and The Oklahoman. Some national, like NYT. And like you, I have a tendency to get irritated when I click on a headline and hit a roadblock with a Paywall, to fork over my credit card number, email and subscription commitment to read the story. Sometimes I skip it; sometimes I pay if I really want to read the story. Of all people, that should not irritate me, but I get it. I also get news isn’t free.
This might be a good spot to remind you how the Luther Register is funded. By you primarily! If you read, we ask you to support it. I’m grateful to many who send monthly gifts of $5, $30 and more. Some give one-time gifts of $100. It warms my heart. Every time. It also fortifies me to keep going.
Some of those gifts come from my friends, some come from those I’ve never met in person, yet we are connected. It is humbling and exciting. While most recurring contributions are at Luther Register’s PayPal, we recently were selected by Press Patron to collect funds securely. Of course, both of those entities take a small cut – but that covers their ability to handle the security aspect and other administrative efforts. There’s also the snail mail that comes to our PO Box 311 in Luther. It’s also humbling and exciting when there’s an envelope in the mailbox that contains a check and a hand-written note. It’s enough to make me shed a tear. It keeps me going.
“Local journalism is in crisis and at risk of disappearing,” the Times said. “These vital resources are critical to the safety, security and knowledge of our communities, never more so than in these difficult times. On World Press Freedom Day and every day, we encourage you to find a local news organization you trust and support it.”
The Times created a database of trusted local news outlets, vetted by organizations like Local Independent Online News Publishers (LION) to which the Luther Register belongs. That resource was published Friday, with the announcement that “News organizations near you are at risk. Support them today.“
No kidding they are at risk. Can you believe The Edmond Sun is the latest casualty? They published for 130 years and just announced what sounds like an untenable scheme to partner with the Norman newspaper. You’ve been hearing it, the news industry cuts, layoffs and shutdowns are being blamed on the coronavirus and the ensuing financial crunch. It caused advertising revenue to vanish. But honestly the pandemic likely just sped up the inevitable for many.
Let’s pause here to acknowledge that the news industry is not the only one hurting right now. You might be a small business owner that was forced to close while we were “safer-at-home,” maybe you got laid off from your job. Times are tough. And the worst could be yet to come.
I have a wild statement to make: advertising is dead. Or dying. And more and more I question it’s premise. Don’t get me wrong, I have whined plenty about how Google and FB undercut us on price and can out reach any of us. I finally quit whining when I realized it’s just the way it is. Who wouldn’t fork over $50 to FB to reach 100 times more eyes than the Luther Register ever could for the same $50? This is despite that fact that $50 does a lot to operate the Luther Register, and amounts to spare change to Google and FB.
I love to have advertising – and love having local businesses ask to have a presence on The Luther Register’s pages. I even love designing ads and graphics. I know those advertisers want to reach our loyal (and best) audience, and I also believe part of their support is altruistic, believing in the cause. But more and more I have come to realize (I think about this a lot), that funding news with third party advertisers was the wrong way to go in the first place. News is a service, but it’s also a product that we consume. We don’t ask an advertiser to pay for our coffee. And we don’t think twice about adding a tip to the transaction before we sip our latte, and enjoy a scone if we’re feeling it. How many streaming services do we pay for? Our subscription fees, not commercials, pay for the original programming – from costumes, scripts, acting, directing and producing. We have definitely gotten our money’s worth if we’ve been binge-watching during our “safe-at-home” time.
I didn’t start The Luther Register to get rich, but when I developed my business plan in late 2015, I thought I could create a healthy little business out of it. I remain hopeful. As I networked with other independent digital news colleagues around the country through my membership with LION (Local Independent Online News), I learned that events was a decent revenue stream for local news. That appealed to me and would utilize my experience in event planning and hospitality – thus The Luther Pecan Festival began in 2017. I even ended up speaking about our successful festival at our LION convention in Chicago in 2018. The irony that I could make more money on a one-day festival than I could writing a year’s worth of stories about our town and our neighbors is not lost on me. But I’ll take it. Honestly I am passionate about both things. It’s also why I can’t talk about whether we will be able to have a 2020 Luther Pecan Festival in November, yet. We’ll think about that later, especially if a little more time will give us more of an idea of how to ride out this pandemic safely.
Back to funding news, when media types like me ask for money we use words like give, donate or support, like we are a charity. Why don’t we say we want you to BUY our news? I’m overthinking it, but it seems a little funny that we want advertisers to pay for reporters to go out there and get the story so we can be informed; and that big furniture empires, air conditioning chains or auto dealers fund the TV news operations and helicopters. Do you ever think about how many recliners need to be sold to justify that TV time? Or how much those ex-athletes are getting paid to pitch air conditioners? By the way, there are plenty of heat and air guys right here in Luther, they can’t afford to advertise on TV but they are professional and honest.
The Luther Register is scrappy and my overhead is low. My IPhone 6S Plus and MacBook seemed an extravagance when an angel donor gave me funds to start this journey of online news for our town almost five years ago. Both tools are still working (knock on wood) – through more than 1,200 stories, tens of thousands of pictures and videos, hundreds of meetings and hours of interviews. Most of our other expenses are related to keeping the website up and running – fees for the domain, web servers, plug-ins; and things like gas to get me to the scene of a crime or a meeting. That sort of thing. The dream is to give myself a salary, and to hire help – pay a local photographer for pictures, train some citizen journalists to cover meetings and report on them, build a team (creating jobs!). There’s a lot of news to cover, even in little Luther.
Most of our recent coverage has been related to the coronavirus crisis, because who is thinking about anything else? But a couple of big stories have gotten pushed to the back burner. One of those stories involves biosludge. The Town of Luther was considering banning it in town limits. It’s a complicated and emotional issue (not unlike a pandemic). On one hand, the one who wants it banned makes a case from her research that the “humanure” shipped out here from Oklahoma City is full of poison that is making us sick and ruining our ground water. And the other hand, the Department of Environmental Quality says it’s legal. The waste is tested. The land is tested. And the human poop and other industrial waste, treated, has to go somewhere. The farmers get it for free, saving them lots of money on fertilizer for their hay fields. Don’t forget the hot button topic of property rights. My friend who works in local government told me the other day that he hates this issue. I agree. It stinks! But I’m working on it. Look for the issue to possibly be on May’s Town of Luther agenda.
The other story is the failure of the Eastern Oklahoma County Partnership, EOCP. Luther is one of the towns, along with Jones, Nicoma Park, Choctaw and Harrah that has paid into a fund every month for ten years to fund economic development out here … you know attract big jobs, develop planned communities with amenities the young families like, build walking/biking trails along the new turnpike. The group is dissolving come July – without any successes of big high-paying tech or manufacturing jobs, fancy neighborhoods, not even a water study that was step one in being able to attract such growth. By the way, that water study, begun but not completed, isn’t paid for. The outstanding bill on that is more than six-figures to a Ft. Worth company. EOCP’s new board was working through it, had a plan. Then abruptly the City of Harrah voted to pull out of EOCP. Without Harrah paying into the pot, there wouldn’t be enough money to continue so the EOCP board decided to cut its losses, get an auditor involved and figure out how to pay for that water study. It’s a story that needs to be told, isn’t it? But wait. It gets even juicier. Why did Harrah leave? The mayor hasn’t returned a couple of my emails, but the current chairman of EOCP likened the dispute to rivalry, and he compared it to a Friday Night Lights scenario. A million dollars or more of taxpayer and private money was thrown at this effort in an unprecedented partnership among towns where the kids compete on the field and on the court. It failed, in part, because adults couldn’t get along?
Do you want to read those stories? I want to write them, even if they stink, because you need to know. But it takes time, and my working time is divided between Luther Register and other gig work. Readers can buy that time, especially for news that comes from our own communities where it most impacts our lives.
And if you are still reading, thank you. This was a lot and I feel better now! I’ve been needing to share all of this for a while. But with so many businesses in trouble, and families doing without income during this pandemic, it is a bold thing to ask for money. But it’s GivingNewsDay, and the product of community news is worth buying.