Oh, how hard it is for the average Kansas City area newspaper reader to stay fully informed! The respective front pages of The Star and The New York Times brought that fact home very hard on Tuesday.
I suppose that if you have all day to sit around and watch CNN, MSNBC and Fox News Channel — and have the patience to wait out the advertisements for the stories that always seem to be coming “right after the break” — then you can stay fairly well-informed by watching the tube. And, of course, you can follow national and international developments on any number of Web sites….But if you rely on The Star (and, by extension, kansascity.com) for your news, you have a problem.
The problem is that The Star does a good job covering local stories — both breaking and enterprise (non-breaking) — but it no longer has a big enough “news hole” to provide adequate national and international coverage, and it places too high a premium on local news. Consider The Star’s Tuesday cover, which contained four stories, all written by Star staff members. The centerpiece was an interesting story about some towns in central Kansas that have had trouble giving away land for housing development. Another — a heartbreaker — followed up on Saturday’s U.S. 71 and Gregory crash that killed a 12-year-old boy. A third story, an expose of sorts, told how consumers are getting the shaft when buying underweight packages of frozen fish. The fourth story, the only one with a national perspective, previewed Friday’s national employment report.
Each of those stories was well done and merited front-page placement. But not all of them needed to run Tuesday. Only one, the follow-up on the crash, absolutely had to run Tuesday. It was timely and keenly important to local readers. Any of the other three could have held a day or two.
As a result of running all four, however, some very important national and international stories got downgraded and relegated to the inside pages. The biggest international story was the one out of Moscow, where female suicide bombers targeted two subway stations, killing at least 38 people. That story led The Times’ front page, highlighted by a four-column photo of a battered, soot-covered commuter. In The Star, an extremely truncated version of The Times’ subway bombings story was buried on A-9 under the curious and uninformative headline “Crackdown could be upshot.”
Another Times’ cover story was an excellent, in-depth follow-up on the Michigan militia screwballs, who, fortunately, were caught before they could wreak any havoc. Another story, reflecting The Times’ unparalleled skill at enterprise stories, chronicled the growing chasm between Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai and the Obama administration.
Rounding out The Times’ front page were less timely stories about states overloaded on debt; friction between scientists and weathercasters over the extent of global warming; and a feature on a man who is believed to be the last remaining homeless person who regularly sleeps in Times Square. So, only one story on The Times’ front was truly local.
I suggest The Star could and should have run on its front page either The Times’ full-length versions of the subway bombings or the Michigan militia story. Maybe both. Doing so would have given readers of The Star a less provincial, less insular perspective. The Star’s readers do not wear blinders; many are interested in — and want and deserve to know more about — national and international events and evolving situations.
For the last few years, The Times has been casting itself more and more as a national paper, and when you look at Tuesday’s fronts side by side — The Star and The Times — they reflected almost totally different universes. With one paper, you got primarily the Missouri-Kansas perspective; with the other, you got the national and world pictures.
That situation reflects today’s newspaper journalism: Most major American dailies focus on the local news and give relatively short shrift to national and international news, theorizing that, in the instant-information age, most readers will have been exposed to that upper-tier news by the time the paper hits the sidewalk. In my view, however, the paucity of national and international news in most major American dailies is one reason that you hear so many people say about their local paper, including The Star: “There’s nothing in it.”
In my opinion, The Star and other papers in that second tier — below The Times, the Wall Street Journal and, to a lesser extent, USA Today — would do better, both financially and for their stature in the public eye, to move to a better balance of local, national and international news. Most major metropolitan dailies have been pushing the “local, local, local” button for several years now, and I don’t think it has helped stanch the downward flow of circulation and ad sales.
If I were in charge at The Star, I would change the mix. And, after a year, if the new formula didn’t work — if circulation and ad revenue continued to drop — I’d resign. Of course, I don’t have time to run The Star; I’ve got a blog to write.