Newspapers on quest to level search playing field

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A couple weeks ago, as I flipped through my edition of The Oklahoman newspaper I was confronted by end-of-the-world sized type in a full-page advertisement.

“DON’T LET BIG TECH CANCEL LOCAL NEWS,” the headline screamed.

Beneath it were a couple of paragraphs of text, one of which read:

“Local news strengthens our community, but local newspapers across the country are under threat. Big Tech takes advantage of the news and information created by local publishers, but they won’t pay for it.”

The ad was placed by a newspaper industry group and targeted “Big Tech” giants Google and Facebook, although neither were named in the copy.

In the ad, the newspaper group urged Congress to adopt an antitrust “safe harbor” law — the Journalism Competition and Preservation Act (JCPA). That legislation would allow newspapers to negotiate collectively for payments from Google and Facebook for using headlines and snippets of their work in search results.

We all use these sites. When users click on the headlines surfaced on a Google search, they are linked back to the full stories on the original newspaper websites. 

I was intrigued.

I thought newspapers welcomed traffic driven from Google or Facebook to their websites, because they are in a desperate battle for readers and for survival as an industry.

Online readership has become a critical element to sustaining newspapers into the future. I thought readers following a headline back to the original newspaper website would be like a gift from God.

I’ll give you an example:

Let’s say there’s been an oil well explosion near Cordell in Southwest Oklahoma. I hear a rumor of the explosion at the grocery store, so I do a Google search for oil well, explosion and Cordell.

Google returns a headline from the Cordell Beacon, which I click on to read the Beacon’s story in its website. Google drove that traffic to the Cordell paper. 

Brett Wesner
Brett Wesner

That’s not the complete story, says Brett Wesner, president of Wesner Publications, which publishes the Cordell Beacon. Wesner also is chair of the National Newspaper Association, an industry group that represents thousands of smaller community newspapers nationwide.

While newspapers need the traffic driven from aggregators like Google, the tech giants sell billions of dollars in advertising to their own websites based on the content they present and the eyeballs it attracts.

“Google and Facebook generated $4 million in U.S. advertising revenue every 15 minutes during the first quarter of 2022,” Wesner wrote in an editorial that has been widely distributed. “That amount could fund hundreds of local journalists in every state in the country.”

Wesner is a Cordell native and San Francisco resident, from where he oversees his Wesner Publications group, which includes 10 community newpapers across the state. A Brown University graduate, he was David Boren’s press secretary in the late 1980s.

newsad1Traffic generated from Google and Facebook is critical to newspapers, Wesner said. Yet, the news those publications generate is just as important to the tech giants, he insisted.

If Google or Facebook lost access to Cordell news because the Beacon refused to allow it to post anything, it wouldn’t cause much of a ripple.

“But what if everybody started doing that?” Wesner asked in reply to my question about the JCPA “safe harbor” legislation. “Then when you Googled the Uvalde shooting, for instance, the only listings you get are your crazy uncle Bill’s rantings on a Facebook post. You don’t have access to any real media takes. If you Googled them, if those were the only listings you got, how credible would that make them on news issues. Not very.

“So, we need them. They need us.”

And that brings us to the proposed bipartisan legislation that seems to have a lot of Congressional support. But it’s slow moving.

“I think we will get to the negotiating table,” Wesner said. “I think they JCPA will be the path for that. We have had a lot of support from both sides of the aisle.”

The U.S. industry has a template for Google and Facebook payments for content. Both the European Union and Australia have recently passed legislation that requires the tech giants to compensate local news outlets for using their content. 

How much money would newspapers expect to gain from collective negotiations with Google and Facebook?

“We don’t know the answer to that until we begin negotiating,” Wesner said. “The problem is we can’t even begin negotiating without this antitrust legislation.”

The search for a solution continues.

The ‘first’ video game, Pong turns 50 this summer

Atari logo screenSomewhere in the early 1970s, I stumbled upon a video game called “Pong,” and was immediately infatuated. I couldn’t get enough, playing the game against my cousin on an old black and white television.

If you remember Pong, you know it was a simple game that featured two paddles and a sort of ball-like squarish blip that made a cool sound when it connected with the paddle. You connected Pong to your television and used simple controls to move the paddles to return the “ball” to your competitor in a crude table tennis simulation.

That’s all Pong could do, but the world had really never seen a game like this that could be played on your TV. Pong even kept score for you at the top of the screen.

Pong screenTurns out, Pong is hailed as the world’s first video game and it was released 50 years ago this summer. It was created by a young inventor and entrepreneur named Nolan Bushnell, who founded Atari to market Pong and other games.

I recently saw a Q&A published with Bushnell on the Daring Fireball website. The Q&A caught my eye because I had the opportunity to interview Bushnell during an appearance at the Oklahoma History Center in 2006.

Click here to read the story I wrote for The Oklahoman from that event. 

Anyway, Atari became a huge hit after it licensed Pong to Sears and the national retailer sold 150,000 units of the game. That led to other popular Atari games.

Bushnell eventually sold Atari in 1976 to Warner Communications for a reported $28 million.

Pong was such a ground-breaking innovation that today Bushnell is known as the “Father of the Video Game” and was named to Newsweek magazine’s list of “50 Men Who Changed America.”

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Nolan Bushnell in 2006 (Oklahoman photo)

In his Oklahoma City appearance back in 2006, Bushnell talked about how Pong was created and designed on the circuit board to do only one thing.

“What I did was create the video game out of digital building blocks,” Bushnell said. “But it was architected in such a way that this board was designed to play Pong and that was all that it would ever do.”

Atari released many other game titles, including Breakout and Combat, after its success with Pong and eventually produced a popular personal computer. The Atari 2600 game console is considered one of the most successful game platforms in history.

An aside: I’m also a Steve Jobs fan, and discovered a connection between Jobs and Bushnell from reading the Walter Isaacson biography of Jobs published in 2011. Bushnell hired a 19-year-old Steve Jobs to work at Atari to develop another game known as “Breakout.” Read more on the Bushnell-Jobs relationship here. 

So, Nolan Bushnell created Pong, founded Atari and single-handedly launched a multi-billion dollar industry. But I can’t forgive him for one thing.

He also founded the Chuck E. Cheese restaurant chain.

BONUS:  Read this fascinating Wired magazine story about the creation of Pong and how Bushnell scammed a young software engineer to come to work for him to make the game a reality. https://www.wired.com/story/inside-story-of-pong-excerpt/

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A proposal: let’s destroy ‘The Process’ in the NBA

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Plenty of good seats available shortly before tipoff at a Thunder game in February this season.

Editor’s note: Although I attribute the concept described in this post to radio talk show host Dan Patrick, my friend Don alerted me to the fact that it was originally floated by sports guru Bill Simmons.  So, I want to give credit where it’s due, and a salute to Simmons for a worthy idea.

On the list of things in this world that make me crazy, you can put the concept of “tanking” by professional sports teams close to the top.

If you’re not a sports fan, you should know that tanking means a team is trying to maneuver for the best possible draft position. It does that by having as bad a record as possible at the end of the season.

Sometimes it’s called ‘The Process’ (wink, wink).

Teams tank not by asking their players to not play hard, but by manipulating the roster so their least experienced get most of the playing time. I offer the Oklahoma City Thunder’s mostly G-League lineup down the stretch this season as Exhibit A.

Oklahoman columnist Berry Tramel put it best last fall when he wrote “losing is the path to winning.” The idea is that if a team is horrible for two, three, four seasons it will eventually be able to draft the next ‘unicorn’ that will turn it all around.

Meanwhile, local fans lose incentive to follow their team and actually show up at games. The thousands of unused seats on a nightly basis at Paycom Center this season is a prime example.

I wrote about my opposition to tanking and the need to take a “win now” philosophy before the season began. You can read it here.

But today, I’m here to offer an alternative to the tanking strategy that will keep fans more engaged as the season concludes. I credit this idea to radio talk show host Dan Patrick,  who proposed something similar on his show earlier in the season.

Here’s how it would work as I envision it:

The NBA would create an in-season, six-week tournament for the bottom teams in the standings. The league would set an in-season cutoff date of February 28 with the six teams with the league’s worst records qualifying for the tournament.

Then for the remaining six weeks of the season, qualifying teams would play to win as many games as possible before the season ends. The team that has the best record in the season-closing “tournament” would be awarded the No. 1 pick in the draft.

Thunder actionTeams would have every incentive to put their best roster on the court. Fans would have a reason to show up and cheer their local team down the stretch.

The league could make a big deal out of the tournament, with separate nightly standings, maybe even a trophy for the winning team. The rest of the draft order for the bottom six would follow according to their finish in the tournament.

However, it needs a name. The Race to Save Face? Bottoms Up? Sprint to the Finish? I’ll let the marketers handle that.

My friend Steve poo-poos this concept because the league’s conferences are not balanced talent-wise. But he’s a tanking enthusiast and wears unicorn-colored glasses.

So, what does happen if the team with the seventh worst record on Feb. 28 loses so many games that it has the league’s worst record by season’s end?

That team is shut out of the tournament, so it only gets the seventh pick in the draft order. But it has no incentive keep losing, and that’s the point.

Thank you, DP, for sharing this idea.

So, what’s keeping the league from adopting The Race to Save Face and creating some excitement for bottom-feeding teams?

Nothing that I can see. Let’s destroy “The Process.”

The newspaper visionary and the skeptical student

Selectric
The 1970s vintage IBM Selectric typewriter

I was sitting in a news writing class at Abilene Christian University in 1977 when I heard something so preposterous that it has stuck with me for more than 40 years.

Our professor, Dr. Charlie Marler, speculated about the future of the newspaper industry. He said that some day we could get our news on a TV -like screen and have the choice to print out the stories that we wanted to read.

No one laughed out loud, but I had a good laugh to myself. Yeah, right, I thought. Not sure where Dr. Marler came up with this kooky idea.

At the time, the IBM Selectric typewriter was cutting edge technology for journalists. We were privileged to be able to type our stories on one in the late 1970s for The Optimist, ACU’s student newspaper.

Fast forward four decades.  We can now see how dead-on Dr. Marler’s prediction was in the 1970s.

The fact that most of the world now gets its news instantaneously via a screen attached to a computer, tablet or phone made my old college professor appear to be a modern-day Nostradamus.

The rapid decline of the newspaper industry has been well documented. From my perspective, it began in the late 1990s as the public began finding news sources online and accelerated in the 2000s when WiFi became ubiquitous and smart phone use proliferated.

In fact, I accepted an early retirement offer in 2008 because my employer, The Oklahoman, reduced its workforce that year by 150 people or so. That ended a 30-year newspaper career that I launched upon graduation from ACU in 1978.

The Oklahoman was (and I think remains) the largest newspaper in the state. It has undergone multiple rounds of reductions in the years since I left.

All of which led to this week’s announcement by The Oklahoman. Beginning on March 26, it would no longer print Saturday editions.

The paper will be “digital only” on Saturdays, meaning it will be found only on your screen. A host of other daily newspapers owned by the Gannett corporation have announced the end of print Saturday editions on the same date.

You called it 40-plus years ago, Dr. Marler. I’m pretty sure that the “digital only” newspaper model eventually will eliminate print publication on most other days of the week.

Maybe the Sunday edition will be the only day we can actually get our hands on a printed newspaper. If we’re lucky.

Perhaps I shouldn’t have been so skeptical of Dr. Marler’s prediction at the time I heard it. Because cartoonist Chester Gould, an Oklahoma native, had introduced an even bigger fantasy for his Dick Tracy comic strip back in the 1940s.

It was a two-way communications device worn on the wrist.

Dick Tracy
Dick Tracy using his two-way wrist communicator.

I was a huge fan of the Dick Tracy comic strip as a kid and infatuated by the device that Tracy wore on his wrist through which he had instantaneous communications.

The future was right there on the funny pages for decades and we didn’t recognize it.

Gould’s fantasy device became reality when the Apple Watch debuted in 2015. Today, millions of people wear Apple’s incredible two-way communication device on their wrists.

Not sure who laughed at Chester Gould’s vision when it appeared in the Dick Tracy comic in the 1940s.

Or who was laughing aside from me at the outrageous prediction of Dr. Charlie Marler in a 1970s ACU classroom.

But no one’s laughing now.

Oklahoma, we have all been here before

Jenni

It seems like deja vu all over again for Oklahoma.

I’m talking about the similarities between Lincoln Riley’s unexpected departure from OU this week and that of Kevin Durant from the OKC Thunder in 2016. The feeling of being blindsided. The widespread anger.  The loyal hero who steps up.

As I read Jenni Carlson’s column in The Oklahoman this morning on how Bob Stoops has further endeared himself to OU fans by stepping up in the wake of Lincoln Riley’s departure, another name instantly came to mind. 

Russell Westbrook.

Russ pageRuss stepped up big time in 2016 after Kevin Durant unexpectedly abandoned the OKC Thunder ship. He said “why not” and signed a 3-year contract extension before the season even began.

Here’s how he was quoted by espn.com:

“There’s nowhere else I would rather be than Oklahoma City,” Westbrook said at a news conference to announce the deal. “You guys have basically raised me. I’ve been here since I was 18, 19 years old. You guys did nothing but great things for me. Through the good and the bad, you guys supported me through it all, and I appreciate it. Definitely when I had the opportunity to be able to be loyal to you guys, that’s the No. 1 option. Loyalty is something that I stand by.” 

It was an incredibly feel good moment after the anger generated across the state when KD announced on the Players Tribune on July 4 that he was taking his talents to the Left Coast. His announcement prompted me to write a blog post with some lyrics from The Beatles that were appropriate for the occasion.

Now we have Coach Stoops stepping up as interim coach at a critical time for Sooners. On Twitter, fans heaped praise on Stoops not only for stepping in but for the calming comments he made at the news conference announcing his temporary return.

And why not, to borrow Russ’s famous phrase.

Don’t let your facts get in the way of my beliefs

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A set of Encyclopedia Americana from the 1960s.

When I was a kid, we had a big set of Encyclopedia Americana in our house that was my go-to Google-of-the-day for every bit of fact finding and trivia that drew my interest.

Once, when I was a teenager, my dad and I had a disagreement over some fact about a foreign country or its people, I can’t remember which.

However, my dad was spouting an opinion as fact that I was certain was wrong. So, I grabbed an encyclopedia, looked it up and read the part to him that proved that he was wrong.

“Now you’re taking it too far,” he said, clearly irritated.

Translation: don’t let your facts get in the way of my entrenched beliefs.

Anyway, I’m writing this because we’re seeing people in our society make up their minds and cling to ‘alternative facts’ when clearly there is no evidence to back them up. Or there’s evidence that shows that it is wrong and they still cling to their beliefs.

The dispute over vaccines, for instance. People would rather take their Uncle Jimmy Joe’s word that the COIVID-19 vaccines are making thousands of people sick or, worse yet, killing them, than accept statistics kept by health care professionals and scientists that show vaccines are incredibly safe and effective.

I’m pretty sure it’s really an issue motivated first and foremost by political beliefs. Red state. Blue state.

But we all stake out our territory on different issues and refuse to budge even when we’re smacked in the face by reality. I’m sure I’m guilty, as well.

And that leads me to an issue that really disturbed me this week. One of my neighbors whom I like and enjoy hanging out with in his driveway, stated as fact that a high-ranking OKC city official gets a cut from every concession sold at Scissortail Park because he made a donation to its construction.

I ask him to offer some proof. “They reported it on Channel 9,” he said.

If it had been reported on TV or in the newspaper, and there was evidence to support the allegation, the story would be huge and talked about by everyone in the city. The official would likely lose his job.

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Scissortail Park in early November

Instead, it’s told as fact by a retired OKC resident who is skeptical about the whole MAPS program and Scissortail Park, as well. He doesn’t need actual proof, because he heard the story told as fact from others who share his point of view.

I even ran the allegation past a respected reporter for The Oklahoman that I trust and who told me that “none of it is true.” I’m taking his word for it, because, if true, it would have been a giant Page 1 headline.

The disturbing aspect is that my neighbor repeats the story to anyone who will listen, and in my far north OKC neighborhood there are a lot of takers.

I think some of it has to do with the fact that our neighborhood is so far out of the city’s core that people like my neighbor don’t see the benefit that MAPS and Scissortail Park have brought to our city.

As I walked back home after the encounter the other day, I couldn’t help but think of my dad and his long ago wrongly held opinion-as-fact. Even the Encyclopedia Americana couldn’t budge him off his belief.

Sad to say, that’s how it is with a lot of American society today.

A night to remember with Howard Schnellenberger

Howard Schnellenberger on the OU sidelines in 1995. (Oklahoman photo)

I’m sure by now you’ve seen the news that former University of Oklahoma football coach Howard Schnellenberger passed away this morning.

Schnellenberger coached OU for one unspectacular season in 1995, and was fired right after the 5-5-1 season ended.

By OU standards, it was a disaster.

Schnellenberger came to OU with decades of football success on his resume and the confidence of a Gen. Douglas MacArthur. It just didn’t translate to success with the Sooners.

Although I was just an outsider looking in that year, all I could see was a pompous old man who thought his mere presence would inspire success.

Then fate brought me together with Howard for one night in 1995.

I was working as a Business News reporter at the time for the Daily Oklahoman. One of my beats was writing about Oklahoma agriculture.

You might remember that the Oklahoma Farm Bureau made Schnellenberger their spokesman in an ad campaign in 1995.  The ads appeared on Oklahoma TV stations and mainly featured Howard squinting into the distance as words described the value that the Farm Bureau brings its members.

Many folks thought Howard was an odd choice for the Farm Bureau. In fact, here’s something that Oklahoman columnist Berry Tramel wrote back in ’95:

“Sudden thought: Why did the Oklahoma Farm Bureau select Howard Schnellenberger as its marketing spokesman? Aren’t most of those folks OSU graduates?”

But Schnellenberger’s most recent job before OU was that of football coach at the University of Louisville, and the executive director of the Oklahoma Farm Bureau at the time was a Kentucky native. So, there was a thin connection. 

Howard Schnellenberger (Oklahoman photo)

Then one day, out of the blue, my wife and I received an invitation from the Farm Bureau to attend a “media night” at Applewoods Restaurant. OU coach Howard Schnellenberger was the special guest speaker.

Paula and I loved Applewoods and its famous apple fritters, so of course we agreed to go.

Turns out, a local television reporter and I were the only “media” members at the dinner. And only about a dozen people total were at the Farm Bureau event.

Here’s all I remember about that night. Howard stood over our tables and droned on in a low monotone for about 30 minutes. I remember nothing about what he said.

My wife had an interesting experience, too. Howard’s wife, Beverlee, was with him and sort of latched on to Paula as her new best friend for the night. She never stopped talking.

I couldn’t wait for that painful evening now 26 years distant to be over.

And it wasn’t long before Schnellenberger’s tenure as OU coach was over, as well.

Rest in peace, Howard.

Bonus: Watch and read an oral history of Howard Schnellenberger at OU published by The Oklahoman in 2011.

Grateful for the impact of Jerry McConnell

In 1983, I was a very raw young sports reporter at the Southwest Times Record (SWTR) in Fort Smith, Ark., with dreams of some day working at the Dallas Morning news.

Fort Smith was my first stop out of college, and I worked on the sports desk, then the news desk for a couple years, then back to sports as the Sports Editor.

But I dreamed of Dallas and working with the likes of Blackie Sherrod and Randy Galloway. I even wrangled an interview there but came up with no job and the advice to gain more experience.

Then one day a friend with whom I worked on the SWTR news desk — I’ll call her “Patti” — suggested that I send a resume to the Sports Editor of The Daily Oklahoman in Oklahoma City. His name was Jerry McConnell, and Patti had worked for him when he was the managing editor the Arkansas Democrat in Little Rock.

So, I fired off a resume to Jerry with absolutely no expectations.

By coincidence, my timing turned out to be perfect.

One of the Sports copy editors at The Oklahoman had just quit, and football season was starting.

Jerry gave me a call and asked me to come interview. I drove over to OKC and met with Jerry and his Assistant Sports Editor, Bob Colon.

Jerry hired me, and I relocated to OKC in early September 1983.

Turned out that I was not well prepared for the daily pressure and grind of The Oklahoman Sports Desk. We put out three editions each night, sometimes fully remaking almost the entire section between editions.

I was mistake-prone and unlikely to make an edition’s deadline on any given night. I had no design skills.

But Jerry was a patient editor and boss. Rather than scream at me, or worse, fire me, he allowed me to make my mistakes, and gently helped me grow as a professional. He also was in the office every night until at least the first edition was finished, so he was accessible.

Jerry also shared many fascinating stories from across his long career. I loved to sit and listen to him spin a yarn in his gravely baritone voice.

So, I’ve always been grateful to Jerry for his kind and steady hand as a boss and a friend. He eventually retired from The Oklahoman and moved back to his hometown of Greenwood, Ark.

In retirement, he wrote a book, an oral history of the Arkansas Democrat.

Jerry passed away last June at the age of 92.

To my regret, I only recently learned of his death. You can read his obituary to see what impact he had on his profession and the community, both in Arkansas and Oklahoma.

Jerry touched the lives of many, many people in the newspaper industry and beyond. I’ll always be grateful for what he did for me.

My friend Patti was one of those for whom Jerry made a difference. Here’s what she had to say about him:

“He was a super friend to me and taught me a lot in Democrat days… He passed peacefully at home just after we last saw him. His last words to me were, “Love you too babe”… He liked you a lot. I will miss him ever!”

Thank you, Jerry McConnell, for bringing me to Oklahoma City and making a difference in my life.

Why I read the obituaries

Obituary page from March 3 edition of The Oklahoman

I have an admission to make. I take a lot of pleasure each morning in reading the daily obituaries in the newspaper.

Don’t get me wrong; I’m not taking pleasure in someone else’s death.

But obituaries routinely tell the most interesting life stories of the recently departed. You learn about where they grew up and were educated, their life’s work and their achievements along the way. Sometimes you learn about the places they traveled, their hobbies or even their favorite foods.

Of course, the obituaries list all of their survivors and close family members who preceded them in death.

I ran across an article in the Independent Herald in Huntsville, Tenn., that emphasizes the importance of obituaries to readers and the community:

“Aside from the front page, the single most-read page of the newspaper is the obituaries page. Readers care about obituaries because the people featured on the page were their friends and neighbors, former classmates, fellow church members, or people who played integral roles in the community.

Obituaries are vitally important because, quite simply, every obituary tells the story of someone’s life — who their parents were, who their children are . . . but, just as importantly, where they’ve been and what they’ve done. An obituary may be the only time that person’s name ever appears in the paper, and it is through that obituary that a lasting record of a person’s life is written.”

The downside to reading daily obituaries is discovering the obituary of a friend or past coworker who died unexpectedly. That’s happened to me several times in the past few years, but I’m grateful I had the obituaries to alert me.

Maybe it’s my (advanced) age that draws me to the obituaries, but I appreciate the stories of the lives of those about whom I am reading more now than in past years.

Lately, with the pandemic swirling around us, the number of obituaries published each day seems to be growing. But daily reading of all those obituaries is far from a morbid curiosity.

It’s a celebration of lives well lived.

Tracking the growth of Oklahoma’s leading public companies

I was recently asked to contribute a couple of stories to the special Oklahoma Inc. section published by The Oklahoman. It was an opportunity to write short profiles on a couple of the state’s leading public companies.

So I signed on.

If you’re not familiar with it, Oklahoma Inc. ranks all 28 public companies in our state based on three key categories: one-year return to shareholders, revenue growth and earnings per share growth.

I was fortunate to be able to select the companies I wanted to profile, so I chose Paycom and AAON, ranked Nos. 1 and 2 in the 2020 Oklahoma Inc. standings. Paycom’s stock is traded on the New York Stock Exchange, while AAON is traded on the NASDAQ market.

You can read the stories here (subscription required). Paycom 
AAON

Paycom is the shining star among Oklahoma public companies.

I first interviewed Paycom founder Chad Richison for The Oklahoman shortly after Paycom was founded in 1998, with no clue that it would some day employ more than 3,000 Oklahomans and build an awesome campus in far Northwest OKC.

Paycom moves fast, both with the innovative HR software it offers clients and in its philanthropic efforts across Oklahoma and in the cities in which it operates. I cited an example of Paycom’s philanthropy in my story, but have since been made aware of something even more recent.

The company most recently announced a donation of $30,000 to Folds of Honor to help provide scholarships to military families. That contribution closely follows the $10,000 it gave to Central Oklahoma Habitat for Humanity to support its Critical Home Repair program.

AAON, meanwhile, has a great story about how the pandemic is driving demand for its heating, air conditioning and ventilation technologies.  

Congratulations to Paycom, AAON and all the companies that made the top 10 of this year’s Oklahoma Inc.