At 130 years old, The Kansas City Star is a “mature” company. In recent weeks, however, it is showing signs that it is developing a broader, more mature view of its journalistic mission than it exhibited in the immediate wake of the newspaper implosion a few years ago.
It has been encouraging to me — and I trust to other serious readers — that The Star has been giving readers a broader array of front-page stories, aimed at informing readers not only about developments in the Kansas City area but also the nation and the world.
Several years ago, top managers at The Star, following the lead of many other metropolitan dailies, got it into their heads that revitalization hinged on local coverage and appealing to younger readers. Before I retired in 2006, the newsroom rule was that there had to be at least three locally written stories on A-1 every day. That artificial quota only served to push a lot stories out front that were not worthy of Page 1.
In addition, it didn’t stem the downward spiral of circulation and advertising. Now, I think, Star editors have come to the realization that they can’t lure the younger set with puff pieces that don’t appeal to core readers, those 50 and over. For now, at least, the vast majority of young people have given up newspapers in favor of the Internet and social media.
As the paper lost money, laid off employees and literally shrank in size, circulation continued to drop. The most frequent complaint I have heard about the paper is, “There’s nothing in it.” I believe, however, that people can and will adjust to the lower page count and smaller news “hole,” provided that The Star will give the readers substantive and interesting content from front to back.
Lately, it seems to me, the paper is returning to its roots and emphasizing solid content. It may still go down in flames, but if it does, it won’t be because of gimmicky, goofy front-page stories.
Here are just three recent examples of prominent front-page stories that served Star readers well:
Wednesday, April 7 — At the top left part of the page was a large, riveting photograph of police officers in Kyrgyzstan trying to ward off an attack from people protesting the country’s repressive rule. Even if you have trouble pronouncing the name of the former Communist bloc country, the story is important to Americans because the upheaval could pose a threat to the American military supply line into nearby Afghanistan.
Thursday, April 15 — The “lead” story (upper-right part of the page) was about the drug-related murder spree in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, across from El Paso. While the problems there don’t pose a direct threat to us in Kansas City, the specter of uncontrolled violence in a border city of 1.3 million people is cause for great alarm anywhere in North America. Moreover, if the bad guys win in Ciudad Juarez, more drugs will be coming into the U.S.
Friday, April 16 — The lead story, under an eery, horizontal photo, was the ash cloud that grounded thousands of flights in northern Europe and left tens of thousands stranded in airports. Why is that important here? Try these: The volcanic eruption in Iceland was unique and visually captivating; thousands of Americans are in northern Europe every day; and at any particular time lots of Kansas Citians are likely to have relatives or acquaintances traveling in Europe. Again, it’s not just the situation itself but the linkage that contributes to the story’s appeal throughout the U.S.
I have always believed that the mission of a major metropolitan daily is to give readers cogent, interesting reports of the most important news — and news analysis — at the local, state, national and world levels. You shouldn’t have to take The New York Times to get a solid picture of what’s going on at the upper tiers.
I started taking The Times more than a year ago because I wasn’t getting all the news that I needed and wanted from The Star. And even with what I see as The Star’s broadening scope, I won’t stop taking The Times. I have the time to read it, and now, having become accustomed to getting a truckload of information and analysis about national and international events, I’m not about to retrench.
But I think it’s fair to say that The Star has been shedding its hyper-local blinders and is making a bigger effort to give its readers, if not All the News That’s Fit to Print, at least A Better Front Page.
Etc. — One piece of news, two different interpretations
On Friday, Gannett Co., the nation’s largest newspaper publishing company as measured by total daily circulation, reported its first-quarter earnings. A story on the website of Editor & Publisher, the newspaper industry’s leading trade publication, bore this headline: “More evidence of newspaper turnaround: Gannett doubles Q1 profit as revenue decline moderates.”
The E&P story began by saying that Gannett reported a first-quarter profit that was double its first-quarter earnings in 2009. More than halfway into the story, the readers got this piece of information: “Overall operating revenue was off 4.1 percent.”
Morningstar, an investment-research company that analyzes stocks and mutual funds, put a different spin on the same set of numbers. Its one-paragraph summary to subscribers began with this: “Gannett’s first-quarter sales fell 4 percent from the prior-year period, supporting our thesis that the newspaper industry is in perpetual decline.”
Would the following be a fair interpretation of the difference in the reports? Where E&P was looking at the trees, Morningstar was looking at the forest.