Kansas City Star Editor Mike Fannin was on KCUR’s “Central Standard” show yesterday, and the uncomfortable subject was The Star’s future.
Fannin did a reasonably good job of spotlighting the paper’s bright spots — that it remains the strongest news-gathering organization in the region and its much-diminished staff is very talented and working hard — but he shied away from specifics about the changing newspaper landscape.
At one point, for example, he referred to the newspaper industry’s decade-long, downward spiral as a “disruption.”
It is not a disruption when the industry’s advertising revenue goes from $49.4 billion in 2005 to less than half that in 2011. (And it’s still falling several percentage points a year, by the way.)
And it isn’t a disruption when your local reporting staff goes from more than 50 to less than 20. Or when the company goes from more than 2,000 employees to about 500 or 600.
No, that is called the new normal.
It was obvious from Fannin’s tentative tone and overall lack of energy in his responses to host Gina Kaufmann’s questions that he understands the new normal. (Here’s the link to that interview.) It’s just that he doesn’t particularly want to talk about it. (Reminds me of Warren Beatty’s great line in “McCabe and Mrs. Miller,” when drunk and talking about the difficulty of dealing with women, he mutters, ” “Money and pain. Pain and money…money…pain.”)
I can’t blame Fannin for not wanting to address it head on, but since it’s not a blip and not a temporary annoyance, he should.
And, in my opinion, the way he and publisher Mi-Ai Parrish should attack the situation is with energy and enthusiasm…even if they have to fake it.
You’ve heard the saying, of course, that the best defense is a good offense. Coming from a sports-reporting background, Fannin should have picked up on that by now. But he hasn’t.
At one point in yesterday’s interview, Kauffman asked him point blank, “Do you think that The Star has credibility?”
Fannin’s initial response was a meek, “Really?”
He warmed up to that absurd challenge and ended up giving a decent answer, citing the “instant credibility” that The Star got from its scoop about former Missouri House Speaker John Diehl’s “sexting” with a college intern. But Fannin should have gone ballistic and said something like: “What are you talking about? The Star has been the most powerful and influential news and editorial force in this city for the last 135 years, and I expect it to stay that way for the next 135 years.”
Hell, it might be gone in 25 years, but he should have kicked back hard, anyway; he’s got history on his side.
Alongside Fannin in his bunker mentality is Parrish, the publisher. I’ve said this before: She should be out there in the community, pushing and shoving for the paper and calling it to people’s attention every day. Past publishers, including Jim Hale and Art Brisbane, made their voices heard in civic circles, and the newspaper benefitted from their relatively high public profiles.
Under them, the paper was a sponsor, along with other big local companies, of some of the city’s major arts organizations. No longer. The Star’s name is conspicuously absent from sponsorship lists. To me, that’s frustrating and disappointing. Even though McClatchy, The Star’s owner is $1 billion in debt, I think it should encourage its papers to shell out money to attach their names to arts organizations, which are sources of community pride and beacons of optimism.
I’m told Parrish is the sort who shuns the limelight and keeps her nose to the grindstone, looking high and low for ways to generate more revenue for The Star. That’s fine, but I don’t think either she or Fannin understands that sometimes you have to invest money to make money.
Another investment The Star should make is in a marketing campaign. They haven’t had one in decades, and the newspaper’s profile has ebbed significantly. It isn’t enough to have your product out there in the market; you’ve got to promote it constantly, keep reminding people you’re still there and still relevant.
An advertising campaign might not draw tons of new digital subscriptions from the 20-to-35 set, but I bet it would get the attention of a lot of people in the 40-to-60 range…And that’s where the money is.
This whole damn thing…this standing back and watching while this great company and this once-great newspaper dwindle and shrivel is just maddening to me.
Come on, Fannin! Come on, Parrish! Come on, McClatchy! Let’s see you fight. Let’s hear you fight. Stop the damn whimpering and wound licking. Come out from your caves and make some noise!
Like the great Frank Sinatra said in his fabulous song from the movie of the same name, “Come Blow Your Horn”…
Make like a Mister Milquetoast and you’ll get shut out,
Make like a Mister Meek and you’ll get cut out,
Make like a little lamb, and wham, you’re shorn,
I tell ya, chum, it’s time to come blow your horn.