My 30th anniversary at The Oklahoman hit on March 20 and nobody was in the newsroom to celebrate. For the first time in my career, likely in the history of the paper, the crazy ebb and flow of misfit journalists was dark and silent.
The pandemic is destroying businesses. It is upending business models.People are quick to remind me the news business was already hurting. They say we are doomed.
Why do I continue? How do I survive?
The newspaper still lives, battered from years of brutal changes and cuts but absolutely not defeated. We’re scattered like so many, doing our jobs from home, not even bothering to clean up and look good for the occasional Zoom gathering.
We’re news people and most of us cared little about appearances before. It always has been, and will until the very end, be about getting out the news.
Of course it’s not that simple. The job in 2020 is very different than it was in 1990.
I was the kid who dreamed of this job. Along with a friend down the street, we set up a stand to sell Weekly Readers, not lemonade. I was thrilled to get a toy printing press for Christmas. I repeatedly watched “All the President’s Men.” And I also started a student newspaper in high school that consisted of a double-sided legal-size sheet that made creative use of glue sticks, stencils, the school’s Selectric typewriter and copy machine.
When it came time for college, I started out majoring in … accounting.
It was a bad life choice. Two years later I switched to journalism and followed my heart.
Just the prospect of working at a newspaper was thrilling for someone who grew up watching movies that cast reporters as searchers of the truth armed to expose corruption and share the stories of those too often ignored.
I learned early on a newspaper career guaranteed a lifetime of “long hours, low pay.” But I never dreamed the newspaper itself would ever disappear.
And yet here we are, furloughs and layoffs hitting hard and smaller community newspapers shutting down at an alarming rate.
This all began when I tricked my way into getting hired at The Oklahoman.
While learning the craft at Oklahoma Christian University, I was lucky enough to learn from not just a talented professor, Philip Patterson, but also from some great future journalists including Bobby Ross Jr., now editor-in-chief at the Oklahoma City-based Christian Chronicle, a national Church of Christ newspaper.
Spring 1990 was not the greatest time to graduate with a journalism degree. Oklahoma was struggling to recover from the oil bust and the news industry was going through one of its cyclical slumps.
Bobby and I started our senior year working part time at the Edmond Sun. With graduation looming, I had a tentative arrangement to work at the Enid News & Eagle. Bobby believed he had a sure thing awaiting him at the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.
Bobby, however, was about to marry an Oklahoma girl so he came up with the idea to apply for an internship at The Oklahoman. The paper wasn’t hiring reporters at the time, but Bobby figured he might get lucky.
Knowing it was a long shot, Bobby invited me to apply.
The police reporter at the time, Ben Fenwick, had just quit and my clips and interests apparently made an impression on the editors. The trick worked. I was immediately hired as a full-time police reporter with a few hours reserved each week for typing up obituaries.
I spent much of my first few years traveling the beat in the company cop-reporter car, equipped with a two-way radio and the paper’s only car phone. It was a great way to get to know Oklahoma City’s 621 square miles.
Then came April 19, 1995. The bombing that shook the city, claiming 168 lives and injuring hundreds more also changed the news industry, though we didn’t know it at the time. As the newspaper’s police reporter, I was one of the lead writers scrambling to cover it.
I woke at 9:02 a.m. as a rental truck filled with explosives gutted the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building downtown. Having worked the previous evening, I didn’t wait to find out what happened. I threw on the previous night’s clothing I had at the end of the bed, grabbed the scanner and the brick phone and jumped in my car.
Carrie Hulsey, a rock star of a reporter at KTOK, was already on the scene trying to describe the carnage. Seeing smoke billowing from the downtown skyline, I revved my Honda hatchback to over 80 mph, figuring speed enforcement was no longer a priority for law enforcement.
The police scanner gave a hint of what awaited. People hurt. Firefighters and police scrambled to rescue people still trapped in the building while struggling to cordon off the area and create command posts.
I arrived about 9:20 a.m., weaving through neighborhoods to avoid any possible blockades. I parked on Robinson Avenue, just a block away from the blast. Victims covered with blood, cuts and bruises inflicted by flying glass and debris, stood shaken and shocked while others simply rested on street curbs trying to grasp what had happened.
The two-way radio system had pretty much fallen into disuse. By mid-morning the battery on the brick phone was dying and the network was crashing as news organizations from across the region flooded the scene.
Looking back on April 19, that was a day we saw the beginning of the end for the old school newspaper model that was glorified by movies like “The Front Page,” where the scoop meant everything and reporters were fearless rogues untouched by the tragedies they cover.
It was on that day we began to realize reporters were also susceptible to post traumatic stress disorder and other fall-outs that were typically associated soldiers returning from war. Indeed, we were in the middle of a war, one waged by right-wing terrorists Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols. Buildings were shattered, innocents – even infants – murdered, lives were ruined and every good soul was aghast that something like this could happen on American soil.
The Oklahoman newsroom, led at the time by Ed Kelley, now dean of the Gaylord College of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Oklahoma, brought in Charlotte Lankard to provide counseling.
Editor Joe Hight embraced the challenge arising from the potential trauma posed upon victims by reporters and helped establish the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma.
Reporters could no longer pretend they weren’t a part of the tragedy being covered. Just by asking questions and telling victims’ stories, they were a part of the event. The press card did not come with immunity to the violence, death and destruction being witnessed.
I was not immune.
It wasn’t that difficult for me to embrace the idea of being more compassionate in my approach to victims of violence. I didn’t need much convincing. I was already covering a group of people whose loved ones were murdered and who were working with police to expand victims’ services.
These were people, not stories, not scoops.
I skipped getting help for my own suffering resulting from the bombing. I didn’t talk to my family or friends or coworkers about having seen Rebecca Anderson, a nurse rushing to help the injured that day, collapse in front of me, even though that moment was forever captured by photographer Steve Sisney who was at my side.
When the editors asked me to write the cutline that night, I carelessly wrote that Anderson had fainted. Only later did I learn she was hit by debris and that was her last conscious moment before dying soon after.
Two weeks into the coverage I slipped into the roped-off “crime scene” with help from a friend on the force and pulled off a late-night escape with my car. I called my editor, explained I needed to escape and joined an old college friend on a road trip to Branson, a favorite childhood destination and one I thought might be free of the dark cloud of the bombing.
I was wrong and I cut off the trip early, just wanting to hide in my apartment for the rest of my long weekend.
I returned to the job. The damage to my psyche first fully appeared on the two-year anniversary when I was assigned to cover a downtown procession of victims and loved ones. It didn’t take long for me to break down in tears. Hysterical tears. Shaking and unable to get myself calm.
I called my editor and begged off the coverage. I realized I was no longer able to cover violence and destruction. And that was just fine as I had transitioned to covering City Hall and the city’s Metropolitan Area Projects.
For several years I was able to ignore what would soon be obvious: I had post traumatic stress disorder. And the longer I kept a cap on it, the worst it would be when that cap broke.
The cap didn’t just break. It exploded in 2013 with the culmination of unhappy newsroom politics, my father’s death, the murder of a new friend and the sudden death of an old friend.
Writing slowed to a crawl. I rarely left the house. A decade earlier, that might have been the end of my career. Clytie Bunyan and later Don Mecoy, both still with The Oklahoman, saw a talented writer and reporter who needed help.
Fellow reporter Brianna Bailey, meanwhile, recruited me to work on an in-depth look at the emerging collapse of the Chesapeake Energy real estate empire following the departure of the company’s founder, Aubrey McClendon.
I finally sought out counseling. The first counselor helped a bit, the second one helped a lot to help me realize why co-workers easily startled me whenever they approached me by surprise. The stuttering and twitches I started experiencing while stressed – all of which started in 2013 – were all issues I learned to manage with mental time-outs and visualization exercises (my favorite is traveling back to a long-ago trip my wife and I took to Hawaii).
I worked hard to improve my health, losing 150 pounds (120 were still gone as of a month ago).
I returned to the newsroom. I got back out on the beat.
I miss the days of consistency, of not worrying about what I can’t see coming around the corner. The Oklahoman, for decades a family-owned newspaper, has been in tailspin like the rest of the industry for the past dozen years in response to drops in advertising and subscriptions. Friends and mentors are gone. Even a legend like Gene Triplett, the editor who hired me, was one of 18 let go in a 2015 round.
I’ve lost count of how many layoff rounds I’ve survived but it wouldn’t surprise me if we’re nearing 20 or more.
Not all of the change has been bad. The Oklahoman returned to the heart of downtown, an essential step toward strengthening ties with our community.
Often I found myself in the heart of the digital transformation as I grew an audience not just a business writer but also a columnist. I was forced – seriously, forced – into owning a Twitter account that the creator threatened would be used against me if I chose to continue to resist social media.
I resigned myself to owning the account and posted how much I didn’t want to make this move. I pledged to only follow “Darth Vader.” Readers who had grown fond of my OKC Central blog I started previously loved this bit of misery and by the end of my first day on Twitter I had a couple hundred followers.
More than a decade later my Twitter “follower” count is approaching 20,000. Ha, ha, ha. I adapted.
I was more open to another opportunity presented to me where I could engage in a live online chat with readers.
The weekly OKC Central Live Chat was an immediate success and always draws dozens of great questions and comments that I answer, sometimes with a guest at my side. I never fail to draw enough reader participation to carry the chat for an hour. It often goes two hours and sometimes three.
During my first pandemic furlough week, Mayor David Holt guest-hosted the chat, joking “I have finally realized my dream. I have taken over Steve Lackmeyer’s job. For one hour.”
This is definitely not the job I envisioned 30 years ago.
I am blessed to have an audience of readers ranging young to old, liberal to conservative, crazily optimistic to horribly cynical. My readers aren’t just readers. They each come with a rich story just waiting to be told.
I get teased by bosses because so much of my time has been spent writing in coffee shops and not the newsroom. And I’ve come to realize being around the creative forces of the newsroom is just as important as learning from fellow students back in college.
But I’m addicted to talking to readers, to hearing their stories.
The community has been the cure for my PTSD and depression. I love meeting new people and hearing their stories. Healing comes from a cup of coffee at shops like Clarity Coffee and Elemental. Meeting readers and hearing their stories keeps me focused on the good in our world.
A couple of years ago journalists across the country were shocked by the murder of a television reporter and camerman during a live broadcast. I could feel the PTSD and depression coming on strong. I countered it by being honest on social media about my vulnerability at that moment.
I asked readers to give me an opportunity to do live video visits with people around the city doing good for others. By the end of the day I had at least a half dozen such visits on Periscope. Editors grabbed up my work and posted it online.
Readers have been a part of my survival, both professionally and emotionally. Now we’re cut off from each other, for how long I don’t know. The pandemic and the necessity of staying secluded as much as possible is brutal.
But the connection is still intact, maintained through calls, emails and social media.
When the strain of the pandemic started to hit the trucking community, a truck driver and longtime reader contacted me on Twitter. I reported on the situation a few days later. Many of the stories I’ve written over the past month originated from online conversations with readers.
If the pandemic had hit even just a decade ago, it would have paralyzed newspapers across the country. We are in a position where, armed with laptops and smartphones, we are once again a critical source of news for our community.
We fortunately ended the commitment to giving away our news after a collapse in advertising led to the realization that subscriptions, not advertising, were going to be the main source of our revenue until a new business model could be invented.
And yet newspapers are not immune to the economic chaos wrought by the pandemic. The local weekly, the Oklahoma Gazette, laid off its staff and quit publishing a month ago. Smaller newspapers across the country, including the well-respected Norman Transcript, have quit daily publishing.
Some, like the Edmond Sun where I got my start, have closed all together.
Yet we continue. Over the past few weeks, under great strain and uncertainty, I’ve produced what I believe are some of my best, most meaningful stories in a long time.
After being owned by the same family, the Gaylords, for more than a century, The Oklahoman has been sold twice and is now being led by Gannett. Kelly Fry is executive editor of the paper and regional editor for Gannett.
From every triumph, every disappointment, every tragedy, newsroom veterans like myself have created a new model for a 21st-century journalist. We still celebrate the scoops. We’re still a generally jaded bunch of misfits who might still occasionally yell across the smokeless newsroom.
We have the best tools ever employed in our profession. We can tell our stories via video, podcasts, reader engagements, social media, the written word online and in print, and yes, live chats.
But we no longer see those we cover as stories. We no longer see readers as just readers. They are, like us, just people trying to survive the turbulence of the modern era. The same is true for our newsroom, reporters and editors working at home surrounded by loved ones and chaos. During our Zoom chats we’re just as disheveled as everyone else.
The changes continue. They are painful and scary.
We’re working with 25 percent of our newsroom on rotating furloughs through June, which also translates into a 25 percent pay cut. More treasured coworkers were let go just as my first furlough started.
Why do I continue? I love my job. I love my community. And the opportunity to share stories, to maybe even provide some encouragement when times appear bleak, keep me moving forward. The lessons learned over the three decades help me do just that – even when the newsroom is dark.
Steve Lackmeyer is a reporter, columnist and author who started his career at The Oklahoman in 1990. Since then, he has won numerous awards for his coverage, which included the 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building, the city’s Metropolitan Area Projects, the rebuilding of north downtown, the rebirth of the Skirvin Hotel, the rise of Bricktown, Midtown and Automobile Alley, and the city’s courting of the NBA. Read his work for The Oklahoman here. Find his books here. Follow him on Twitter at @stevelackmeyer
The Coronavirus Storytelling Project is a collaboration between the Oklahoma-based Inasmuch Foundation, the Oklahoma Journalism Hall of Fame and Oklahoma Watch to help state journalists who have been furloughed or displaced as well as those in struggling community news organizations. The Inasmuch Foundation has pledged $50,000 to launch the project and provide five $500 grants to those accepted into the project each week for the next four months. Apply here.