A few days ago, after seeing a two-page Kansas City Star ”house ad,” which contained the photos of 164 Star staff members, I produced a post urging The Star to initiate a major promotional and advertising campaign to try to resuscitate circulation and revive its “brand name.”
In that post, I referred to a friend and former KC Star colleague, Steve Nicely, who had called my attention to the “double-truck” house ad. The post prompted Steve, who has been retired more than 10 years, to write about a 1970s KC Star marketing campaign in which he was intimately involved. He kept thorough records from that campaign and this week dug them out of his basement.
Today, in a guest post, Steve looks at The Star retrospectively but with an eye on the present and future. The entire staff at JimmyCSays (yes, the whole dang staff!) is deeply appreciative for this insightful piece. Now, here’s Steve…
(I would have included a photo of Steve, but I’m out of town and don’t have download capacity on this Webster Groves, MO, library computer.)
I can’t tell you how happy I was to see the double-truck house ad in Sunday’s paper featuring the photos of 164 KC Star staff members, surrounding the central message, “Kansas City’s Largest news force.” It has been such a long time since we’ve seen anything like that. Dang, 164 people look like a huge staff, and it is. Never mind that back in the day we were blessed with twice that number.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard, “We no longer take The Star. There’s nothing in it.” Sure, it’s smaller than it was, maybe half the size. Pick it up on Monday and it’s pretty light. But open it up and there’s news to read and quite a bit of it. Definitely worth the price. I beg to differ with the vacuous, prejudicial statement that nothing is in it. I also marvel at the amazing production that the reduced staff is turning out. The survivors are performing two or three jobs by former standards.
The newspaper has functioned in its hunkered-down posture far too long. Kansas City needs to be reminded of the value of the communications asset it has and what it would be like without it. The newspaper itself — all its employees — also should be reminded. The same goes for advertisers. Maybe the print version of the newspaper is destined for extinction, especially in terms of home delivery. I thought it would have happened a long time before this. I formed that opinion around 1978 when I witnessed something called teletext — the scrolling printed news across a television screen in a retail store window. My God, I thought, we’re doomed. They’re delivering the news electronically at the speed of light. We’re still doing it with paper and ink, printing presses and vehicles driving every street in the city twice a day.
Well, 36 years later, the newspaper is still going. And my day would still be incomplete without the newspaper. I know the newspaper must find a way to successfully transition to the new media forms. I also know it could do so much more to promote itself to its various target audiences. With the proper promotions, it can extend its life and profitability until it finds a solid footing in the murky future.
I know these things because I was involved in a multi-media advertising and promotions campaign The Star conducted from 1974 to 1977. It involved radio, TV, billboards and house ads, like last Sunday’s double truck. The cost during its most intensive year was some $250,000, as I recall. Do the math on that. How much is it in today’s dollars?
We had three target audiences: The public (both subscribers and non-subscribers), the advertisers and our own people. It was triggered by the afternoon paper’s circulation dipping below 300,000. What’s the circulation now? Well below 200,000.
The ad agency, Travis, Walz, Lane, pitched it to the board and sold them. I saw it as an opportunity to escape my assistant city editor’s job because I had become painfully aware that I wasn’t cut out for management. They named me the Editorial Promotions Director, representing the newsroom on a committee of managers who worked with the ad agency.
The theme was, Sharing The World with You Twice a Day, Mornings in The Kansas City Times, Evenings and Sundays in The Kansas City Star.
You can imagine how that went over in the newsroom. Journalists don’t consider themselves sharing the world with anybody. They are focused on gathering and reporting the news, which often involves matters of life and death. But the staff had no choice. I think most came to accept it once the campaign got rolling. It ended with The Star back over 300,000, with increased ad revenue and with the sale of our employee-owned company to Capital Cities Communications Inc. in 1977. No doubt, the campaign was an excellent investment for the stockholders.
The TV commercials featured key staffers on camera explaining what they do. I recall that society editor Laura Hockaday (a regular reader of this blog) delivered one of the best performances. The radio spots were more generic at first, then acquired tag lines promoting news stories in the next day’s newspaper. The house ads were less structured, more varied. One full-page, color ad compared the news content of a typical 30-minute TV newscast with the amount of news in the newspaper. Translated into inches, the newscast occupied about half a page. How many people do you suppose were aware of that?
Another featured the extensive assignment sheet for coverage of the 1976 Republican National Convention in Kansas City. The convention was not only a coup for Kansas City but an opportunity for The Star to shine in front of an extra-large audience.
Another full pager was a letter from ad director Wally Meyer sharing “such good news for our advertisers” and “with everyone.” Circulation figures for August (1976) set all-time highs for The Times and Sunday Star. The gains in the metro area:
The Times (the morning paper), up 9,675; The Star, up 7,598; Sunday, up 11,453. (I don’t know why Wally didn’t report circulation totals, as well as the gains.)
The campaign included profiles of employees in all department of the paper. Producing those profiles was my responsibility. We had some interesting staff members, as I was reminded recently when I dug out a box of the profiles. Each one began with the words, “Share a Moment with…” Then, for example, “J. J. Maloney,” then his picture as an inmate in the Missouri State Penitentiary. The headline was, “An uncommon criminal.” Joe had murdered a man in an attempted robbery in St. Louis at age 19. He spent the next 17 years in prison, where he changed his life, became a book reviewer, writer, poet and painter. He joined The Star’s staff in 1972. Two years later, Joe and Harry Jones Jr. won the American Bar Association Gavel Award for the newspaper with a series on prisons. (Joe also was the best mob reporter the newspaper ever had.)
The profile continued: “His co-workers in the newsroom today do not think of him as a former convict. They think of him as Joe, one of the hardest-working and most gifted reporters on the staff.”
Joe is now deceased.
Another profile featured a man named Paul J. Haskins under the headline, “Dropout digs in.” The copy began like this:
“Some of the best human interest stories year after year are about kids who drop out of school, bum around pool halls and seem to have everything going against them, yet somehow manage to beat the system. They end up as millionaires or power brokers or both. To the best of our knowledge, Paul J. Haskins is no millionaire, but at age 35 it is too soon to count him out… Whether he is a power broker today is a relative question. Haskins is city editor of The Kansas City Times.”
Haskins, a high school dropout, is also deceased.
Another featured my mug above the headline, Pro File, written by Darryl Durham of the newspaper’s promotions department. It quoted me as saying:
“Think of my job in terms of ‘coming attractions’…It means promoting news and features in advance, giving readers something to look forward to. It also means introducing readers to news department staff members in profiles such as this one… In the past, people tended to think of The Star and Times primarily in terms of the papers they found on their lawns. There was little thought of the human element involved in turning them out. We’re not trying to glorify our staff members or make them public figures. We merely want to establish their membership in the human race.”
And that’s what the double-truck in Sunday’s newspaper sought to do — once again. It’s probably unrealistic to expect the newspaper to launch a multi-media ad campaign in today’s circumstances, but it certainly could do a lot more in terms of self-promotion. When there are holes to fill, it doesn’t always have to be with a wire story of little local significance or interest. Plug them with house ads and boost reader confidence and attitudes and help them appreciate the impressive work still being done. Boost circulation and advertising. Maybe even rehire some terminated staff members. The cost for that type of promotion is practically zip.
I’ve still got those 35-year-old, yellowing house ads — fresh out of my basement. If anybody at the newspaper wants to see them – perhaps to get some ideas about how they might continue the renewed in-house promotion of the newspaper – just call me. I’m still here and still a cheerleader for my beloved Kansas City Star.