For the sake of the loyal, hard-working journalists remaining at The Kansas City Star, I really dislike flogging the paper and its owner, the McClatchy Company, for their shortcomings.
Fact is, though, the problems are increasing, and subscribers, readers, employees and former employees are entitled to know about them.
Here’s the latest:
:: The Star is now running some editorials that are not being written by the four members of the editorial page staff.
The Star and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, among others, are “outsourcing” some editorials to a service called “Opinion in a Pinch,” run by an Oregon man named Chris Trejbal, a former editorial writer for the Roanoke Times in Virginia.
The Columbia Journalism Review had an interesting story on Trejbal, who has shrewdly capitalized on reduced editorial-page staffs at newspapers across the country. The journalism review story says of Trejbal:
“One of his first clients was The Kansas City Star, whose editorial page was then run by Miriam Pepper—who, after retiring from the paper in 2014, would go on to join Opinion in a Pinch as a freelance editorialist.”
…This is all news to me — The Star running some outsourced editorials and Pepper apparently writing some of the “commissioned” editorials in The Star.
The problem for me — and I trust for many of you — is that The Star isn’t identifying outsourced editorials. They are simply dropped in along with editorial researched and written by the four remaining editorial board members — Steve Paul (editorial page editor), Yael Abouhalkah, Barb Shelly and Lewis Diuguid.
The Post-Dispatch, on the other hand, has chosen to identify editorials not produced by its editorial page staff, which is now down to two members.
The Post-Dispatch uses this disclaimer in parentheses: “This editorial was commissioned from freelance editorialists and edited by the Post-Dispatch editorial board.”
…Now, that’s at least being straightforward. But listen to how Steve Paul rationalized The Star’s lack of transparency to the Columbia Journalism Review:
“When we’re ‘in a pinch’—vacation mode, etc.—we call on him (Trejbal) occasionally to help back us up. I discuss topics with him, we discuss ed (editorial) board positions, he reports and writes, we edit. I don’t see the need to disclose that; in a sense, he’s an adjunct member of the editorial board, a leg man who reports for us, or a ghost writer of pieces that never have been signed anyway.”
I think the non-disclosure is reprehensible, and I totally agree with the assessment of the former KC Star reporter who alerted me to the journalism review story.
The former reporter — who declined to be quoted by name because he respects Steve Paul — wrote in an email: “I regard editorials as one of a newspaper’s sacred duties — they should be thoughtful, local and well-researched. It’s hard for me to imagine that they accomplish any of those goals this way.”
…For the sake of its remaining credibility, The Star should immediately begin identifying outsourced editorials. To Steve Paul and KC Star editor Mike Fannin, I say, “Stop misleading the readers!”
:: Another example of The Star misleading, or at least confusing, readers appeared on the back page of Saturday’s paper.
In a legally required “Statement of Ownership, Management and Circulation,” The Star listed Fannin as editor and Greg Farmer as managing editor.
But the part about Farmer is incorrect. After Steve Shirk retired as managing editor a few months ago, The Star didn’t name a successor. Instead, it divided his duties among a few people, including Farmer.
I left a voice message for Farmer this morning and he sent me an email addressing the published statement.
“That was a mistake,” he said. “I’m leading the investigative/enterprise team as Senior AME (assistant managing editor).”
…My guess is that whoever prepared the statement simply plugged in Farmer’s name for the sake of convenience. But to be totally honest and accurate, the statement should have said the post of managing editor was “currently not filled.”
It would have been that easy to be transparent.
:: Major problems persist with distribution of the print edition.
A longtime carrier told me today that changes over the last few months have prompted some carriers to quit and that many inexperienced and incompetent carriers have been hired as replacements.
The changes include:
— The Star distancing itself from direct responsibility for delivery of the paper by hiring distributors who have formed LLCs and assumed full responsibility for delivery operations. Carriers’ checks no longer come from McClatchy but from the distributors. In addition, when carriers don’t show up for one reason or another, the distributors — not The Star — are responsible for getting the papers delivered.
— Reductions in the pay carriers receive for delivery of each paper. (Loss of circulation has also hit carriers hard in the pocketbooks, since their pay is on a per-paper basis.) The carrier I spoke with said his income from delivering the paper was about half what it was several years ago.
— Installation of a new computer system, which has resulted in paycheck delays, among other things. “The new system has not worked from Day One,” the carrier told me.
Along the same lines, it continues to be very difficult to get through to a live person in the circulation department. A friend who was having delivery problems was put on hold for more than 30 minutes yesterday, and today, as a test, I held on the line for at least 10 minutes before giving up.
:: Finally, McClatchy announced today it is closing its foreign bureaus and bringing those staff members back to the Washington bureau.
The bureaus to be closed are in Beijing, Mexico City, Istanbul, Berlin and Iraq.
A Poynter Institute story about the restructuring said:
“In discontinuing its foreign bureaus, McClatchy is scaling back its international coverage in favor of an editorial strategy that emphasizes regional stories and political coverage.”
Poynter said McClatchy’s international reporting will be “project based and less frequent.”
Jonathan Landay, a high-profile reporter in McClatchy’s Washington bureau, was quoted as saying:
“At a time when the world is careening into greater chaos and mayhem, Americans want to know what’s happening and how this is going to affect them. By closing the foreign bureaus, we’re shutting off an important source of news and analysis at a time when we need to be paying more attention because our mission is to inform and educate.”
Perhaps not coincidentally, Landay recently announced he was leaving McClatchy for a job with Reuters. When Knight Ridder still owned the papers that McClatchy later bought, Landay produced some of the most skeptical coverage of U.S. intelligence claims that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction.
Although McClatchy said there would be no layoffs, you can be assured that this is a money-saving move. Maintaining a foreign bureau is an expensive and time-consuming proposition.
In the same money-saving vein, many major metropolitan dailies, including The Star, have shrunk their national and international coverage in recent years. The emphasis on “local, local, local” is simply a cover story for reducing page count.
With all this going on, it is no mystery why publisher Mi-Ai Parrish departed for The Arizona Republic in Phoenix, where she will be working for a new company, Gannett, that was recently spun off from its parent company (renamed TEGNA) and is starting afresh with no debt.
With McClatchy, every publisher who gets up in the morning and goes to work carries with them the burden of the parent company’s $100 million debt — a debt incurred when McClatchy unwisely bought the Knight Ridder chain just when things were starting to go south for the newspaper industry.
Now, at the local level, every McClatchy paper is crying out to be set free.