Veteran Reporter Makes Journalism Bloom in ‘News Desert’ of Luther, Okla.
When longtime journalist and communications specialist Dawn Shelton and her family moved from Oklahoma City to the nearby rural town of Luther (pop. 1,237), It was their dream come true.
“My husband, Stan, and I loved urban life in Oklahoma City, but we felt a strong pull to move ‘back to the land,’” Shelton told me. “Our teenage boys liked to hunt, and we wanted to grow our own food and had a yearning for other homestead-like activities. So, we sold our historic home and for the same amount of money bought 40 acres and a small house on a dirt road that becomes a boggy trail when it rains.”
“We have raised pigs, a cow, and chickens. We also have a llama who makes me happy.”
But while Shelton found all that she wanted in Luther, she very quickly made a jolting discovery: She now lived in a “news desert.”
“There was a contentious school board election, the town government was in a mess, and everybody was on Facebook railing about this and that because there wasn’t a reliable source of information about what was happening,” she said.
“I said to myself, ‘I know how to write news. I can help people know what the truth is in their community.’ I asked my journalism friends, house church, and others and decided to go for it.”
She became the founding publisher and editor and do-most-everything-person of what she decided to call the Luther Register News, in a homage to the town’s first and long-extinct newspaper. In addition to running the paper, she works part time at a local eatery, the downtown 116 Farmstead Market & Table. (Before her and her family’s move to a new farm life in Luther, Shelton was public relations director-communication specialist at Oklahoma Christian University in Oklahoma City for 18 years, and earlier was a PR director at Richard Hess & Associates and. prior to that, reporter-producer at the news-talk radio station KTOK, both in Oklahoma City.)
Within months of the launch of her paper in Luther, Shelton was not only reporting news, but also making it in a community where Town Hall, the school district, and other public bodies charged with spending sometimes considerable sums of tax dollars had not had a journalistic searchlight shined on them for more than 50 years.
Shelton’s early reportage included this attention-getting look at the Luther Economic Development Authority, which said on its website that it is “designed to provide assistance to those looking to establish business,” but, as her article reported, “does nothing of the sort currently” and [does not] respond to requests for minutes, financial reports, or to any other questions.”
Shelton’s most auspicious success in her three years of publishing has been creating and managing the Luther Pecan Festival, which may be the biggest event in Luther’s 120-year history. The second annual festival, held last Saturday, drew 10,000 people, including Oklahoma Lt. Gov.-elect Matt Pinnell, and raised just under $10,000 in revenue, a little less than last year’s event, which drew more than 5,000.
Shelton said of her Register’s new revenue source: “We are going to be able to pay our bills,” but the festival “hasn’t exactly provided a salary for me for all of the time I’ve put into it. Still, it’s given me some ability to pay some of our family’s bills and to confirm that this is a growth area for the Luther Register as we get more experience. Now comes the decision-making that will involve raising prices, hiring help, and expanding.”
In the following Q&A, Shelton talks about how she started the Register, what she has in mind for news deserts in nearby towns, and how the Pecan Festival may represent an important part of the financial future of her new independent journalistic publishing enterprise.
When you decided to launch what would be the only source of news in Luther, did you finance it out of your back pocket or get outside help?
Both. I had an angel donor in town who believed in what we were doing and gave me a big check—a big check for me, which was $5,000. The money allowed me to get a new iPhone—the 6S Plus, which I’m still using—and a new laptop. I paid the business filing fees, bought the domain name and hosting, and created the website with a WordPress template. I was able to pay myself for a little while as I started stepping into Town Board and School Board meetings, where no one knew me, and cover breaking news like fires and crime.
What does the Register do for Luther?
I bring journalism to the community that it didn’t have and which will be financed with events like the Luther Pecan Festival as well as other revenue. We have an advertising opportunity for local businesses to run ads that are targeted to our community, and supporting the effort that hopefully makes our community stronger. And we ask for support. I have a few who give monthly as little as $5 or as much as $100, just because they believe in local journalism and value the effort. We now cover local sports, so we would like parents and sports fans to help support us with one-time or monthly donations.
We are forging a new way of doing hyperlocal community journalism that builds on the skill sets that we journalists have to tell stories that connect more deeply with the community, but we must also have a business sense, which I didn’t have, but must develop if I’m going to make it.
I’m going to figure out how to make money to pay for journalism in this tiny town, and we’re going to duplicate that in the next town. I have a “sass” mouth, but I want to be the media mogul of eastern Oklahoma County.
What are your priorities?
It’s to figure out how to financially survive doing news in a small community and share the model with others or take it to the next town under our growing media company.
There are about half a dozen nearby communities that are news deserts and I’m anxious to get my finger into their town governments and start going to public meetings and report to residents, “This is why your sewer bill is going up. Or this is how much your property taxes will go up if this bond passes. Or the Police Department wrote 80 tickets last month, and responded to a few burglary calls and also broke up a neighbor argument about a fence.
So much of what we do in community journalism is education, education, education. If the town is crumbling around you and you don’t know where tax dollars are going, it’s important to understand where the money comes from and how it is spent. It’s not sexy news, but it promotes civic engagement and understanding.
Can other journalists who want to become community-based publishers figure out how to do this?
If I can do it, any journalist can.
We are story tellers, and we also can learn to be decent photographers, keep up with technology and social media, and most importantly, learn to be good business people. We are expert at looking at a public entity’s books or an audit report and breaking it down for a story. Now, it’s our turn to make our own budgets, and create our revenue since none of us likely have a sales department and upper management like when we worked for traditional media.
But if everybody can do it, why do we have a thousand news deserts in the 50 states?
Because we haven’t yet figured out how to make money from it. So, there’s no incentive to do it. It’s hard work—reporting the news AND making a business out of it. But we must try because the cause is great.
Besides yourself as editor and publisher, you have one, paid intern, Jacob Factor, a student at Oklahoma State U. who covers Luther High School varsity sports. Who are your other eyes and ears to help you find out what’s newsworthy in Luther?
I guess I’m naturally nosy. I meet people at the 116 Farmstead Market & Table, where I am a server and hear things – story ideas, or even gossip that might lead to a story or not. I do a lot of listening and asking questions.
The Internet helps me keep track of court dates, posted agendas and other records. It’s taken three years, but I’ve culled a great list of phone numbers of officials and sources. And I love it when someone calls me when they’ve seen the cops speeding through town, or smoke in the distance, or give me a tip.
As a member of the Local Independent Online News (LION) publishers, you’re getting help on raising revenue through the group’s RAMP (Revenue From Advertising Membership Program) initiative financed by the Democracy Fund. How is that working out?
RAMP means so much to me. Kelly Gilfillan, who just sold her Home Page Media Group in Nashville and is the new chair of LION, is my mentor. She has coached me to think more like a business person. [Gilfillan appraises Shelton’s progress in Luther.]
When a new business comes to town, the “old” me would have said, “Oh, I’m going to write a feature on it.” But the “new” me—after RAMP and Kelly – says, “Oh, they need to advertise.” Kelly has helped me to think wider about getting advertisers.
Because of her advice, I went to the next town over to ask a car dealer to sponsor the Pecan Festival. We don’t have any car dealers in Luther. I made that ask back in the summer, and about two weeks ago, the dealer committed. We had a shiny F-250 Dually at the festival from Hudiburg Ford in Chandler, and I’ll get a sponsorship check and a new advertiser connection.
Also, RAMP funding allowed me to do a redesign on our website and I used a local company, which was great. I also have been able to add some other tech tools and an ad server that will help us have more beautiful ads and drive traffic.
How did you and your community support team attract 10,000 people to the Pecan Festival last Saturday?
We’re close enough for city folks [25 miles away] to drive here. Then we have the beautiful Couch Pecan Orchard, which draws customers from around the state. It opens every year on Nov. 15, so we decided to have the festival the first Saturday after that.
I guess you could say I was relentless in promoting on social media and at lutherregister.news. We also did flyers and posters, a podcast, and talked about it a lot. This last week we had some traditional media—I went on a local TV station, and got some other mentions in the legacy newspapers and radio stations.
How big are pecans in Luther?
We built this festival from one small grower in our town. The orchard is beautiful and they’ve built a reputation on word of mouth. They don’t even have a website. We overwhelmed them last year and the owner sold out before December, a month early.
We were slayed on social media, even mocked, because we didn’t have pecans. Someone said we should call it the “non-pecan festival.” We got the message and asked four Oklahoma pecans growers to come to the festival, and they did. One of them brought 2,000 pounds and nearly sold out.
With the second Luther Pecan Festival now behind you, what are your thoughts about the future – for you and the Register and the community of Luther?
I’m energized. I have a vision to balance this unconventional business model of bringing local news to a news desert community while being open to explore other revenue streams like events. In low moments, I think about quitting it all and getting a “real” job. Not today. The Pecan Festival was so much fun—fun like a festival!
The best moments came toward the end of the day, when I would do “thumbs up” checks with an artist, or food truck or musician. And they would give me a thumbs up back with a smile and promise they would come back for the next Luther event.
I think we can do this, and with #lutherpecanfestival over, I’m getting back to the news. We have another school bond election coming up and we need to report on why the town is getting more sales tax revenue. Is it temporary due to construction of a turnpike and a bank, and what is the Town going to do with the influx. There’s always news.