As we celebrate Oklahoma Gazette’s 40th anniversary, another milestone has recently passed that is of a more private nature.
It has been just over one year since I purchased Tierra Media Group, the parent company of Oklahoma Gazette, from founder Bill Bleakley. And in many ways the journey to this place was personal and a parallel to larger forces at work in Oklahoma City.
I never thought I’d leave Oklahoma, but I did just that in 1989.
My parents had moved here from Milwaukee, Wisconsin, when I was very young, and I grew up listening to my dad trying to recruit friends and family to a place where he had been able to forge a great life for himself. Oklahoma was the Land of Opportunity, and I grew up close to my family and very proud of being from the Sooner State, so I never had the wanderlust so common among ambitious young people.
However, unless you lived here in the late ’80s and ’90s, it’s hard to describe the state of the economy and the overwhelming malaise of the entire community. The only momentum was downward. I’ll never forget a cartoon that appeared in this very publication: “What do you say about a town where the only downtown construction is for a jail?”
I was seven years out of college, I lost both my parents in quick succession and I needed a fresh start. I applied to graduate schools in California before deciding on Pepperdine University and packing up everything I owned and heading west; The Grapes of Wrath in a U-Haul truck.
But, to paraphrase an old song, I left my heart in Oklahoma.
All told, I lived in Southern California for over 25 years.
At the same time, I always believed I would someday move back to Oklahoma City, so much so that many of my West Coast friends would tease, “If you love it so much, why don’t you move back!”
I was very busy with my career but purchased OKCTalk.com when it wasn’t much of anything, mainly to stay involved here and keep up with what was going on. And surprisingly, activity really started to pick up and I began to see a real business opportunity.
For some time, I felt that I could do more to help Oklahoma City by not being directly part of it. I wrote about the craziness at Chesapeake Energy Corporation long before anyone else and was ultimately drafted first by Reuters and then Bloomberg to assist with stories when it became obvious that company was spinning out of control. All the while, I never had to worry about business relationships in what was and still is a very close-knit community. It’s easy to become ostracized here, and baby, it’s cold on the outside.
I also came to understand the value of an outside perspective. It’s a far different thing to live somewhere versus only visiting, and I soaked up everything I could. I gained valuable professional experience I could have never known in Oklahoma, performing management consulting jobs at many interesting companies such as Paramount Pictures, Disney and Capitol Records.
In addition to my MBA at Pepperdine, I took numerous night classes at UCLA. The teaching and learning experiences were completely different from my undergraduate time at University of Oklahoma, to say the least.
Having moved on to a senior-level management position at U.S. Trust in downtown Los Angeles, I ran OKCTalk as a passion project while working long hours at my day job.
At least once a year, I would return for a visit with a list of new things I wanted to see and do. With each passing year, that list became longer and longer, to the point that I couldn’t do it all in a week. The prospect of moving back started to transition from a vague concept to serious consideration.
On one of those fateful trips, I finally decided it was time. There was so much going on and so much positive momentum, I knew I needed to be here and be a part of where the city was headed. I drew up a plan, and over the course of a year, I set about unwinding myself from 25 years of work, volunteerism, my social circle and my home.
Upon landing back in Oklahoma, I rented a new apartment downtown with a killer view of the skyline and did my best to readjust. Again, it’s far different to live somewhere than to visit, and with each passing year I had been away, my “home” had grown more foreign to me; the move back was jarring in many ways.
The most important motivation in my return was the desire to make a difference in Oklahoma City, and I spent more and more time on OKCTalk while I contemplated my next steps.
As a 20-something in 1980s Oklahoma City, Oklahoma Gazette was in its heyday — a beacon of art and entertainment and food and drink. Like many others, I religiously picked up each issue, consumed the entire thing and learned all that I could about what was happening in my city.
And make no mistake; Oklahoma City was a profoundly different place at that point in time. Rare was the time that events and concerts conflicted with each other. If there was something worth doing, you went or risked not having another good option for quite some time.
Gazette was on top of it all, and if there was a band at the Samurai, a new art exhibit or a restaurant opening, you read about it here.
I was thrilled to be back in town and able to pick up that paper, and as it once again became part of my life, a lightbulb went off — maybe I could buy it.
To his immense credit, Bill Bleakley had kept Gazette going even as print advertising took a strong downward turn. Newspapers were folding all over the country, and those that remained were struggling to remain relevant in a new, increasingly digital world. Yet the fine staff at NW 36th Street and Shartel Avenue were still putting out great, feature-length journalism, and I set about seeing if Mr. Bleakley might be open to passing the baton.
There is no faking passion. You either have it and it’s obvious to all or you do not, and there is no confusing the two.
Anyone who knows me also knows the incredible passion I have for Oklahoma, and through this writing and my actions, that should be apparent to even a more casual observer.
From the first time I met with Gazette staff last summer, I felt the same sort of passion and commitment, and I knew I wanted to own this publication.
Over the course of several months, I met with Bill and his wife Linda Meoli. Both had retired from legal practice and had built a beautiful modern home just outside downtown, and I could sense that they were ready to start traveling and reaping the fruits of decades of hard work.
I also knew that Oklahoma City needed a strong, progressive voice, and for all the changes in this town, there was no formal institution to lead that charge.
Bill and Linda grew increasingly comfortable with me as a steward of their fine publication, and in August of 2018, with the aid of my business partner Josh Thomas, we sealed the deal.
Print is far more complicated than most people, including me until recently, understand. Print is forever; once the press runs, what is on the hard-copy page is pretty darn permanent, especially when contrasted against digital, where you can quickly make an edit or change or addition.
But print is also powerful. Almost anyone can put up a blog or a website or post opinions on social media, but precisely because print is difficult and expensive and increasingly rare does it have added authority and impact.
I speak for the 20 employees of Oklahoma Gazette when I say we feel a great responsibility to this community that goes well beyond a paycheck or profit. Everyone here could find a good job elsewhere, and many have been loyal for many years, even decades. We all have a deep affection for this publication — what it has meant to Oklahoma and what it can mean in the future.
Bill Bleakley is owed a great debt of gratitude not only by yours truly, but all of Oklahoma. He conceived, developed and maintained Gazette through four decades of monumental changes to the newspaper industry and only let go when he felt assured the future was bright.
We are committed to keeping our work free of charge and have developed a sustainable business model to ensure that will continue to be the case well into the future.
Anniversaries are one of those markers of time where you stop to reflect on the past and dream of future possibilities. I am incredibly proud to have my name atop the masthead of this amazing publication, and as we celebrate 40 years, I assure you the best is yet to come.