On Monday, I met Mi-Ai Parrish and heard her speak for the first time since she arrived in Kansas City last August to succeed Mark Zieman as Kansas City Star publisher.
Parrish spoke to the 40 Years Ago Column Club at the Plaza III restaurant. A crowd of about 35 was on hand, including longtime society writer Laura Rollins Hockaday and Guy Townsend, president and publisher of Townsend Communications. (Townsend will be the featured speaker at the club’s February meeting.)
It was an interesting and informative session, and Parrish demonstrated that her leadership style is much different than Zieman’s.
The last Star publisher, in my experience, who had a strong personal appeal was the late James H. Hale, who brought a Texas-sized personality from the Lone Star State after Capital Cities Inc. bought the employee-owned paper in 1977. (That was the first in a series of transactions that ended up six years ago with The Star in the hands of The McClatchy Company.)
It appears to me that with some aggressive profile building, the 40- or 41-year-old Parrish also has a chance to establish a strong personal appeal and, in so doing, push the paper toward renewed stability and greater profitability…Just because the newspaper industry is in the tank doesn’t mean that every paper has to fare poorly.
Financially, The Star reached its apex under Hale; for years, it was a virtual money-disgorging machine. Of course, the environment for newspapers was much, much stronger back then, but I think it was not just favorable economic conditions that enabled The Star to flourish under Hale. He was a reporters’ and editors’ publisher — a colorful guy who was accessible, funny and didn’t hesitate to take on the established powers, even though he drank and ate barbecue with them.
Hale was succeeded by a series of arched-back publishers, including Robert Woodworth, Mac Tully and Zieman, all of whom thought The Star was a cut above the other major businesses in town and that they, personally, didn’t need to sell the community on the value of the paper.
They knew they needed to sell papers; they just didn’t understand that, like selling cars, a key ingredient is a good salesman or saleswoman.
They ran it like it was on autopilot, and then, almost overnight, the motor stopped, thanks to the rise of the Internet and the Great Recession.
So, against the backdrop of an insipid entity (The Kansas City Star Co.) and in the worst newspaper environment we have ever seen, along comes Parrish.
She can do one of two things:
Present the same cool, presumptive demeanor that her immediate predecessors did and watch the paper’s fortunes continue to decline, or…
Let down her beautiful hair (figuratively, because it’s already down literally) and push “my Star,” as she calls it, with demonic persistence throughout the community.
After lunch yesterday, when Parrish stood up and began to speak, I was worried.
She proceeded to read a prepared speech, in which she traced the tired history of The Star. (Sorry, that doesn’t even excite many members of the 40 Years Ago Club.) She also talked about how, in the future, we’d be reading the paper on all sorts of electronic gadgets. We’re already doing that, of course, but I guess she meant there’d be even more, fancier gadgets down the road.
Not only did she read the speech, she read it fast, like she wanted to get through it as quickly as possible. In the process, she made no connection whatsoever with the audience.
The only line that really caught my ear was this:
“When people ask me, ‘Why should I care about the newspaper?’ I say, ‘If you value democracy, you damn well better.’ “
After the prepared speech, however — when she began taking questions — she showed another, more open side of herself.
Among other things, she said that:
:: The Star remains profitable. (Reassuring, for sure.)
:: We were seeing the “infancy” of the new Star model develop before our eyes. (Put that way, it sounded a lot more interesting than what gadgets we might be using to access the paper.)
:: Printed newspapers would be around “for many, many, many, many years.” (Encouraging to me and, I’m sure, many other dead-tree devotees.)
:: The Star generates about 85 percent of its revenue from advertising and 15 percent from circulation. Before the precipitous decline of the newspaper industry, starting in 2005, ad revenue accounted for about 90 percent of revenue, she said. (As surely as Obama is going to kick Romney to the curb, the percentage of revenue from circulation must continue to rise.)
:: Even at $1 a copy on newsstands, the daily Star remains a bargain. (Probably true.)
:: The Star is among the top three properties in the McClatchy chain. “We’re a big dog,” she said. (See next graph.)
Like the prepared speech, the “big dog” comment bothered me because that dog, while it’s still pretty big, doesn’t have nearly the bite that it used to. And it’s by no means safe to assume that most or all of its teeth will stay around “many, many, many, many years.”
All in all, I saw more positives than negatives in Parrish. For one thing, she talked about a specific story and mentioned a specific reporter, demonstrating that she’s closely in tune with the product and that, like Hale, she might be a reporters’ and editors’ publisher. (Which, in my opinion, translates into a readers’ publisher.)
The reporter she mentioned was Steve Kraske: “Steve Kraske?, she said, illustrating her assertion that the paper was still a bargain. “He’s totally worth a dollar a day.”
The story she mentioned was Kent Babb’s fabulous but disturbing Sunday take-out on the brainwashing and intimidation that Kansas City Chiefs’ employees are being subjected to under Chiefs’ owner Clark Hunt, president Mark Donovan and general manager Scott Pioli.
Other general, positive indications were that Parrish answered questions directly, for the most part, and made it clear that she is taking personal responsibility for The Star’s future.
In addition to referring to it as “my Star,” she said, in explaining why the paper remained a good deal for customers: “I put the whole darn thing together for you, and I deliver it to you.”
She wasn’t looking for a pat on the back there; it seemed to me that she was simply accepting responsibility for keeping the presses running and making sure the paper got to people’s front yards.
And since she is willing to put that responsibility squarely on her shoulders, I say this:
Mi-Ai — Get out there every chance you get; attend every luncheon you possibly can; do every TV and radio interview you’re asked to do; attend every major civic function you can weasel your way into; don’t miss an opportunity to mingle with members of the public and tell them who you are and what your vision is for the hometown paper.
In short, make your presence felt; let the Kansas City area know who you are and why “your Star” is important to us…True, The Star isn’t what it used to be, but you’re right about it still being important and a good deal.
Sell it, lady!