Mark Thomas

Mark Thomas, the Executive Director of Oklahoma Press Association.

According to the Columbia Journalism Review and the Poynter Institute, news deserts in the United States continue to grow as newspapers close, especially in rural areas. While Oklahoma is not immune, there are champions who are fighting to provide journalism in smaller communities across the state.

Three of those supporters will be honored by the Department of Communication at Oklahoma Christian University Dec. 4. Dawn Shelton, Mark Thomas and a surprise honoree will receive an Oasis in the Desert Award for their support of the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment right to the freedom of the press. Shelton and Thomas are both journalism graduates from OC. The third honoree, who has positively contributed to journalism in Oklahoma for more than 30 years, will be revealed the day of the event, which is free to the public.

Shelton is the owner the Luther Register, an online newspaper in Luther, Oklahoma, which she started as a labor of love just a few years ago. Shelton’s reporting, often in her spare time around other jobs, has resulted in more transparency and citizen involvement in local government. In addition, Shelton’s reporting contributed to the creation of the Luther Pecan Festival, which has built community pride and resulted in more than 10,000 visitors coming to the now annual festival in November.

Dawn Shelton

Dawn Shelton, the owner of the Luther Register.

Thomas is the longtime executive director of the Oklahoma Press Association, a trade organization that serves daily and weekly newspapers across the state, with many of those existing as the only source of local news in those communities. The OPA also oversees the Oklahoma Newspaper Foundation and the Oklahoma Press Services; the ONF offers educational and charitable programs to students and communities across the state, while the OPS provides information to newspapers about advertising planning and placement. Thomas’ work as executive director also involves helping journalists with lobbying and Freedom of Information Requests from state and federal government officials. In 2013, Thomas received the Carter Bradley First Amendment Award from the Oklahoma Society of Professional Journalists.

OC’s awards ceremony is funded in part by a grant from the 1 For All program at the Middle Tennessee State University Free Speech Center. In November and December, OC communication students have promoted awareness of the First Amendment by emphasizing the acronym A-GRASP, adapted from OC’s Distinguished Professor of Communication Philip Patterson. The acronym represents the five freedoms of the First Amendment: the freedom to Ask Government to respond to complaints, the freedom of Religion, the freedom to peaceably Assemble, the freedom of Speech and the freedom of the Press. More information on the students’ campaign is available at

According to OC Department of Communication Chair Brian Simmons, the event is a small way that the next generation of communication students can honor those fighting for the freedom of the press today.

“These impressive and faith-led journalism professionals and OC alumni shine a light on the important work we hope current students will continue to do,” Simmons said. “We want to honor Dawn and Mark, but their examples bring honor to us, and we are know that students will be inspired to keep up this worthy work.”

The 1 For All grant that has made the event and campaign possible came about through the work of Associate Professor of Communication Josh Watson.

“This grant and campaign opportunity was a perfect fit for the varied majors in the Department of Communication,” he said. “We want more Christian students to work in journalism, and we also want those who are not journalists to be supporters of the freedom of the press.”

The Oasis in the Desert Awards ceremony will be from 1-1:30 p.m. in the Conservatory on the OC campus. Parking is available adjacent to the Garvey Center. For more information, contact Watson at 405-219-1225.