Nearly 40 years ago, The Oklahoman wrangled a roving state correspondent with a penchant for whiskey into a desk job as the first Norman bureau chief for the statewide newspaper.
He held sway over three OU journalism students tasked to riffle through the police blotter or suffer through city council meetings while he drank and dispensed wisdom.
Since then, The Oklahoman has had an on-again, off-again relationship with the city to the south. When management opted to shutter the Norman office at the end of May, that relationship became long-distance.
The headquarters was home to 10 staff, five of them reporters who fed content to the MyNorman community section of the paper, said Oklahoman Publisher and OPUBCO Communications Group President David Thompson. The section will continue with reporters telecommuting from home or working out of the newspaper’s headquarters in north Oklahoma City.
“We are trying to be good stewards of the company’s money,” he said.
The bureau was located in Redbud Plaza, an upscale strip mall sandwiched between Sooner Mall and Sam’s Club on Norman’s west side. Thompson said the amount of traffic and visitors to the bureau didn’t warrant a physical location.
The Oklahoman faces the same dire financial climate as all American daily newspapers, with shrinking news holes and dwindling staffs. In the fall of 2008, the daily slashed 150 jobs through early retirement and layoffs.
“We made the decision, because of technology that we’ve loaded (reporters) up with, that we could probably do everything that we’re doing right now and do maybe even a better job,” Thompson said.
In 1998, as hyper-localism gained cachet as a media buzzword, Oklahoma Publishing Co. opened the bureau and launched a stand-alone paper with an apropos title, The Norman Oklahoman.
The paper was essentially picking a fight with The Norman Transcript, going head-to-head with its own advertising and marketing staff against the local staple.
They also raided The Transcript’s staff and brought on a stable of experienced Norman reporters to beef up the product, said Transcript Managing Editor Andy Rieger.
“From a news perspective, they did everything they needed to do,” he said. “I’m not sure about the ad side, but they’ve lost a key person or two there recently, and that might have hurt them. And that’s a nice space, expensive I’m sure.”
Staff members from the now-defunct Norman office declined to comment on the closure. But alumni of the bureau described a decades-long, shoe-leather reporting operation often geared toward scooping The Transcript and others on OU football player arrests or university news.
James Dolan, one of those first three student reporters in 1970, said the bureau acted like a farm team where reporters could be called up to the big leagues in The Oklahoman’s downtown offices.
Oklahoman reporters didn’t have much traction on the well-worn paths trodden by The Transcript. The first bureau operated from the second floor of the OU journalism school on campus.
“I was not taken seriously at City Hall at first. They just saw me as a new face,” said Dolan, who later founded the Minneapolis-based media company that owns The Journal Record.
The Oklahoman’s Norman office floated from one dusty, cramped hovel to the next for 30 years. In the mid-’80s, their phonebook listing led to the home phone of another OU student who had the Norman beat, according to one former Oklahoman reporter.
So a bureau scattered across reporters’ homes is nothing new, but the question remains whether bureaus like Norman’s could come back in better times or whether those times will ever come.
“If you look at the news business model, it’s just broken,” Dolan said. “I know that half my money is wasted, just not which half. I don’t know if you can fix that.” “Grant Slater