By: Ellen Sterling
It is clear that Elk City, Okla., is different from the overwhelming majority of small cities in the United States today.
With a population of just under 12,000, this western Oklahoma city is booming because of its oil riches. It has a thriving downtown filled with small businesses and, in July, with the national rate at 8.3 percent, Elk City’s unemployment rate was only 2.6 percent. Elk City also has two daily newspapers and, now, it has a newspaper war.
The first shot was fired July 25, when the following appeared on journalismjobs.com:
“Ready to lead a newspaper war?
“The Elk City (OK) Daily News is seeking an aggressive managing editor to lead our fight against a competing daily newspaper. With cities as large as New Orleans unable to support even one daily paper, our oil-and-gas boomtown in the South-Southwest is thriving with two. But we want to be the only paper in town, so we need an experienced editor with a fire in his or her belly to take the reins.
“Unlike most newspapers, there’s no cloud of gloom-and-doom hanging over us. We’re taking on the competition to better serve our readers with relevant and compelling journalism.
“The Elk City Daily News has been family-owned for three generations and traces its roots back to 1901. We will soon launch a redesign that reflects our passion for the hard news and community service that we provide every day.
“Requirements: J-school diploma and/or 5 years newspaper experience, familiarity with Adobe InDesign
“Preferences: Management experience
“Submit resume, references, five published writing samples, and salary requirements…”
The Elk City Daily News was launched in 1901 by the grandfather of former Vice President Dan Quayle. It was bought by the grandfather of current publisher Elizabeth Perkinson in 1937, and was then published by her father, Larry R. Wade, starting in 1972. When Wade died in March 2011, his daughter came into the family business. According to Perkinson, the Daily News has the larger circulation of the two newspapers in Elk City.
“I had no journalism experience,” Perkinson said. “It was always in my family, but I’d not worked in the field. I enjoy the challenge and I’ve had a lot of ‘attaboys,’ so people think I’m doing well.”
Though it began as a weekly, today the paper is published Tuesday through Saturday. It was the only newspaper in Elk City until 2003, when The Daily Elk Citian was started by Derek Manning, a retired Oklahoma state trooper, and his wife, Holli, a former junior high English teacher. That paper published weekly until August 2011 when it also began a Tuesday through Saturday publishing schedule.
When she became publisher of the Daily News, Perkinson enlisted the help of Alan Jacobson, president and chief executive officer of Brass Tacks Design, a leading newspaper design and content consulting firm.
“I was called in to redesign the paper. But, once I realized there were two papers in town, redesigning the look alone wouldn’t solve the problem,” Jacobson said. “I knew the answer was to change the look and improve the editorial content.”
As a consultant, Jacobson immersed himself in the task of building up the Daily News. “I spent two weeks in Elk City and learned a lot about it,” he said. “This really is one of those situations where everybody knows everybody. I was amazed at the number of multigenerational businesses still open when there’s a WalMart down the street.”
Sandy Werner, chief executive officer of Elk City’s First National Bank and Trust, elaborated on the vibrancy of the small town. “I love my city. I tell people I’m living the Norman Rockwell dream here,” Werner said. “It’s a small city with friendly people, but we have a large retail area. There’s very little between us and Amarillo, Texas. Though we only have 12,000 people, we’re a hub for an extended area.”
In looking at the city, Jacobson said, “Although it’s a small town, there is still a need, for example, of crime coverage. I tried to tap into that and the small-town sense.”
Toward that end, Jacobson suggested a daily police blotter and, to improve the publisher’s bottom line, suggested using the press for jobs other than to print the paper. Jacobson also led the paper away from hand paste-up and worked with ad sales to boost the bottom line. The new design was released July 31.
Of Perkinson, Jacobson said, “I’m so impressed with what she did. She came into the paper with no journalism experience at all and led the change to electronic publishing, as well as into strong editorial decision-making.”
Then came that ad, published only on journalismjobs.com.
“I wanted to bring in someone with some energy,” Perkinson said. “I was expecting some negative feedback, but that didn’t happen. The ad brought more than 15 highly qualified people and, probably, another 15 who weren’t qualified enough. I wanted someone who is aggressive but not so aggressive they’re going to offend anyone. Some people who replied were so aggressive they were scary. Others just submitted their resumes and nothing else.
“The person I chose wrote a very long letter that contained her whole history. It was very clear that she loves journalism and wanted to help us, not do harm to someone else.”
That person, the new managing editor who started early in September, is JB Blosser Bittner. She said the tone of Perkinson’s ad caught her eye while she was employed at another newspaper.
“I was in Stillwater, Okla., not feeling fulfilled the way journalism was going in the chain. We used journalismjobs to post ads, and I saw Liz’s ad because part of my job was to monitor the ads because we use the service,” Blosser Bittner said. “I thought it was intriguing. I knew when I read her ad what she was looking for. I thought, ‘That’s a noble calling, to go to a community newspaper that had been in her family for three generations.’” Blosser Bittner said she was especially drawn to the family owned business and the notion that journalism is still a noble endeavor.
“What especially drew me to her ad was the family newspaper aspect. I worked for UPI and, when I did, they were UPI clients, so I knew the paper. I believe that, if we make this the best paper we can, we don’t have to worry about the other newspaper in town. It doesn’t hurt to know that somebody else is looking,” she said. “I didn’t contact her for the job. It was more a journalism fraternity type of thing — a ‘what can I do to help?’ I came to Elk City, and we had some iced tea and talked.”
The other guys
After a few days on the job, Blosser Bittner said, “I know nothing about the other paper. That’s not even on my radar. My focus is on the Elk City Daily News. It’s been here since 1901. A hometown newspaper is the source for news. Its job is to be fair, be objective, be accurate. Readers should be able to pick up the newspaper and see their community reflected in their hometown newspaper.”
Reflecting on Perkinson’s ad, Daily Elk Citian publisher Derek Manning said, “I guess about the only comment I could make is that we look at this as a healthy business competition and really nothing more. We believe Elk City and all the surrounding communities we serve actually benefit from such a competition. People like having choices.”
Manning echoed Blosser Bittner’s sentiment, saying he doesn’t spend too much energy worrying about the competition.
“Our focus, and the focus of our staff, is to provide the best product possible and the best customer service possible. If we do those two things consistently, the market question tends to take care of itself,” he said.
Hearsts and Pulitzers? Maybe not.
Looking at Elk City from the perspective of historic newspaper wars — especially the Hearst-Pulitzer competition in New York City in the late 19th and early 20th century — W. Joseph Campbell, Ph.D., professor of journalism history at American University in Washington, D.C., and author of “Yellow Journalism: Puncturing the Myths, Defining the Legacies,” said he expects that readers will be the real winners of this war.
“The ad for a managing editor is intriguing. It is an attention-grabber and is a bit of a throwback,” Campbell said. “It’s hardly like what was going on in New York City 110 or 115 years ago. The ad quite clearly is a declaration of war, isn’t it? Readers can be expected to take certain benefits away from a newspaper war — more coverage, more sports, people getting more for their money as editorial content is ramped up. So, it’s not all bad.”
As for Perkinson, with her new editor in place, her new design, and revamped editorial content now permanently in her paper, she said, “I’m enjoying it here. I like challenges. It’s like a chess game.”
Ellen Sterling is an award-winning journalist. A New Yorker, she’s now living in Las Vegas, where she blogs on the Huffington Post, reviews shows and movies, and freelances. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.