When Your Paper Dies
By Mary Hargrove
Mary Hargrove is associate editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.
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
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sources well, killed our notes for unpublished stories out of the computer.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
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 deadpanned.
"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
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? In the end, a simple "Goodbye, Tulsa"
Much of the paper consisted of historical pieces written days in advance.
By 10 a.m., the last front page story was set. Former staff members and
sympathetic sources began to trickle in, moving from desk to desk, offering
condolences and exchanging addresses.
We asked other media to stay out of the newsroom until 11 a.m. At 10:30,
with television camera crews pacing impatiently outside the doors, as if
by unspoken agreement, the room erupted into hugs and tears.
For 83-year-old transportation and political writer Joe Howell, the
death of the Tribune meant the end of a 58-year career at the paper.
"I just never thought I would outlive the Tribune," he said.
Unheeded Warning Signs
Joe Howell's shock mirrored the stunned reactions July 31 when the
staff was told the Tribune had been sold to its competitor, the Tulsa World,
as part of the dissolution of a joint operating agreement.
There had been warning signals, but we chose to believe that closing
a paper was something that happened to to other people, even though the
deaths of second papers in Little Rock, Shreveport and Dallas had been
An extensively redesigned Tribune, introduced in October 1991, added
color, graphics, and specialty sections such as a kids page, consumer page
and food section. The community reacted enthusiastically. The success of
the project bolstered our feelings of security.
Our circulation figures were holding steady and the paper was making
money despite the recession. We knew there were JOA negotiations, but the
staff believed the paper would not close after such an expensive effort.
Twenty-three-year-old education reporter Kelly Kurt had interned at
the paper and was hired in May 1991 after graduating from Oklahoma State
University. As she listened to company officials describe the impending
closing, she felt betrayed. But like others, Kurt found it difficult to
focus her fury.
"I was angry at company officials who told us not to blame ourselves.
I didn't. I blamed them for selling out," she said. "I blamed television
for taking our readers over the years and I blamed the people who no longer
cared about having a two-newspaper town."
Kurt joined the staff at the Tulsa Press Club for several hours of
story swapping and drinks after the announcement. Then she headed home.
"I spent that afternoon on my couch eating cookies and watching Oprah
Winfrey," she said. "I usually spent my afternoon working. That evening,
I bought a new interview suit."
The fears of anguished staffers were magnified as they shared the news
that weekend with distraught family members. Feature writer and fine
arts critic James D. Watts Jr. drew on his ever-present sense of humor
as he reassured his wife they would not have to live under a shelter made
out of paperback books.
Political Editor Marjorie Morgan had been with the paper for 21 years.
For that weekend, she found the future without the Tribune impossible to
comprehend. "I didn't want my daughter to see her mother was so scared,"
she said. So she arranged for her 16-year-old to stay overnight with a
I understood her protective feelings. My son was leaving the next day
for a vacation with his grandmother in Hawaii. I thought I could brave
it out for his one night home, but I began to sob as I told him of the
real possibility that I would have to sell the house and move from Tulsa
without him because of the terms of my divorce agreement.
We watched the television accounts of the Tribune closing and then
it was time for him to go. I smiled and told him I would be fine. I even
managed a few jokes. When he had gone, I unplugged the phone and retreated
to the couch for 48 hours, my last deep sleep for the next two months.
The Countdown Begins
Insomnia plagued the staff. Editors and reporters began to wander into
the newsroom at 3 a.m., unable to block out the what-ifs or fill in the
spaces that had opened in their lives.
Severance packages minimized the initial pain. Employees would receive
two weeks' pay for every year of service plus $1,000 if they stayed until
the last day. Only one reporter rejected the golden handcuffs and quit
The grace period before closing was both a blessing and a curse. Staff
members frantically copied clips of their best stories and attended résumé
and interviewing sessions organized by the paper. They scoured a list of
job openings set up at a special computer desk and solicited references
from editors. The newsroom became a gigantic support system.
But the tension of job hunting and putting out the paper took its toll.
Entertainment Editor Ellis Widner thought he was prepared to deal with
the uncertainty. "I had seen my roommate go through a couple of layoffs,"
he said. "I did my best to be supportive. I hated seeing what it did — shake
self-esteem, the emotional roller coaster ride, the dwindling bank account.
I thought I understood. I didn't have a clue."
Feature writer Cece Todd watched as tempers flared.
"People started getting into spitting matches [saying], 'I'm worse
off than you because I've got a family to support' or 'I'm worse off because
I'm alone with no one to share my worries and financial troubles.' "
But the hallmark spunky spirit of the Tribune, described by Executive
Editor Ridenour to the Associated Press as "a kick-ass little afternoon
newspaper," remained to the end. During the last two weeks, for example,
Oklahoma City correspondent Donnelle Eller produced an investigative piece
on the state's health commissioner. Assistant City Editor Ziva Branstetter
said she was "proud of the fact that with the newspaper's end on the horizon,
editors here thought it was important to hire an attorney in Indiana to
get a court document unsealed."
On the final Sunday, photographers Mary Barton, 26, and Gary Lawson,
33, were married in the newsroom. The bride wore a mid-length white dress
and veil as she was escorted down a makeshift aisle formed by the staff
in front of the photo chief's desk. Some wore coats and ties while others,
who had just returned from a golf tournament, wore shorts, tennis shoes
and baseball caps.
"We've been nothing but happy here and we wanted to share this with
you," Barton told the gathering.
By mid-morning, the "Tribune family" — which ranged from four-month-old
Jake Morgan whose daddy, sportswriter Rhett, was watching him, to octogenarian
Howell — trooped downstairs to the press room for a final photo. The mood
lightened as administrative assistant Kathy Cooper dragged in unofficial
mascot, Ben Dover, a full-sized dummy who mysteriously changed clothes
every few weeks and was blamed for anonymous pranks in the newsroom.
When photo editor Don Hayden's camera misfired several times, he drew
a hearty round of applause. "We've only got two days left. Hurry up," the
As the first edition arrived, the mood swung markedly downward. This
issue kicked off the nostalgia stories bearing the logo, "Two More Days."
Tribune staffers debated slogans for the back of the final edition
T-shirt, playing off the name of the surviving Tulsa World. "Good-bye Cruel
World" and "The World Is Not A Perfect Place. The Tribune Just Made It
Seem That Way." The suggestions were posted on the wall along with a few
harsher sentiments including, "Roses are red/Violets are blue/The World
got it all/And we got screwed."
The slogans ignited the lingering animosity between the two papers
as an angry World publisher had one of his photographers shoot pictures
of the T-shirt doggerel. (The Tribune rented space in a building owned
by the World.) World Publishing Co. President Robert Lorton called Tribune
Chairman G. Douglas Fox the night before the closing and demanded the slogans
be taken down. The signs were removed.
On the last day, Tribune staffers were warned they could not re-enter
the building after 3 p.m. Maintenance workers began changing the locks
at 11 a.m. as staffers watched in disbelief — one more humiliation.
By noon, most of the staff and their families retreated to the Tulsa
Press Club a few blocks away for a catered wake and final sendoff.
Down the street, the presses printed a record 99,320 Tribunes. They
sold as fast as they were placed in the racks. There were reports that
some copies were sold at stores for as much as $25.
The next morning, former Kids Page Editor Ron Wolfe sat up in bed panicked.
"I forgot to write my column for Friday," he told his wife, Jan, who gently
reminded him there were no more columns to worry about. He spent most of
the day teaching himself to perform a yo-yo trick.
Wolfe, who now works as a feature writer for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette,
is among the approximately 50 staffers hired by out-of-state newspapers.
The World has hired about 10 others. Another 10 are retiring, and about
as many have left the news business for other careers. Many of the rest
are looking for jobs.
Former Tribune Managing Editor/News Pearl Wittkopp rushed around town,
preparing to enter a new career. She and Ridenour have formed a real estate
partnership and are leaving journalism. They have purchased several dilapidated
houses and plan to renovate and sell them.
Wittkopp's choice reflects the bitterness felt by many over the death
of the Tribune. "I worked hard for 22 years for a company that took my
life's passion from me. I cannot now work for another company and give
it the loyalty and hard work it deserves."
Keeping Your Anger
The day after the closing, I was determined to sleep in but, unfortunately,
didn't explain the situation to my two dogs, who pushed cold, wet noses
in my face at 5 a.m. — their waking time all of their lives and more than
half of mine.
I turned on the television but the local news depressed me, replaying
video from the newsroom shot in what already seemed part of a distant past.
I had vowed never to buy another Tulsa World, so, donning sweatpants
and a jacket, I sneaked over to my neighbor's driveway and confiscated
her paper, anxious to see how the only paper in town had handled our story.
The headline read "Goodbye, Trib; Great Job."
When I was hired at the Tribune in 1974, I told then-City Editor Ridenour
that I wanted to be an investigative reporter. He leaned forward in his
chair and told me, "You can do anything you're big enough to do, as long
as you do it well." The paper never let me down on that promise.
In his farewell to the town, Jenkin Lloyd Jones Sr., publisher emeritus,
captured the spirit of the Tribune which had kept so many of us loyal to
the end. He wrote of the long history of the paper's community involvement,
including investigations written decades before I had entered my first
"We nailed a lot of hides and like to think that boodlers and those
with a penchant for pushing people around walked more softly because of
"We were happy to blow the horns for those who tried to improve Tulsa
and Oklahoma... We were unasham-edly scornful of those who peddled what
we deemed were rotten values leading to social decay and unhappiness."
During the last week, Ridenour asked feature writer Todd how she was
coping. "I can't get past the anger," she said. "We were the best and it
wasn't good enough."
Ridenour stared silently for a moment, then gave the answer to all
journalists from Anchorage to Miami who have lost their papers.
"Don't give up your anger," he said. "It's what keeps you fighting.
You still have a lot of fights left, and you will win them."