Archive for May, 2010

Plums & Prunes (9)

Happy Memorial Day, everyone! I hope you’re enjoying yourselves, whatever you’re doing.

Today, I’m going to take a different approach to Plums & Prunes. In the interests of saving myself — and you — some time, I’m going to consider just a handful of stories. Let me know what you think. The blog, of course, is a work in progress, and will be as long as it’s around.


~ “Ticket skimming scandal tops $1 million at Kansas” (A-1 and B-1, Thursday, May 27) — This is the story that rocked the region, and only The Star, with its resources and experience in big stories, was capable of doing it justice. And what a job it did.

There was the front page story, written by KU sports reporter J. Brady McCollough and criminal justice reporter Tony Rizzo under a five-column photo of a downcast Lew Perkins sitting beside his glacier-faced chancellor. There were thumbnail bios of the six principals in the ticket scam. There was Judy Thomas’ inside story about an outraged local businesswoman (how about that — a big-time female donor!) demanding answers. There was Sam Mellinger’s Sports Daily column, which said Perkins’ image had been forever damaged. And there was Jason Whitlock’s big-picture column, blaming the whole mess on the culture of greed and money that permeates college athletics.

It was a bravura performance that left talk radio and TV sports coverage barely visible in the rearview mirror. And look for more to come. The Star’s best bloodhounds, Mike McGraw and Mark Morris — both from the news side — were already out front on this story, and it wouldn’t surprise me to see them drop another scoop at any time.  

(For more on the fallout for Perkins, see my post from Friday, May 28.) 

~ “High river, but low traffic” (D-1, Tuesday, may 25) — The front of Star Business Weekly, the weekly tabloid, offers a beautiful springboard for business reporters who want to cut loose with big “takeouts.” This story about much-diminished barge traffic on the Missouri River, started out with a soft step but ended up mashing down any hopes of a barge revival on the river. Writer Scott Canon, who several months ago moved from the National Desk to the Business Desk, has written about the Missouri river for years. His experience, along with his reportorial and writing agility, made this a seminal story on what has been an important dimension of Life on the Missouri.

~ “Why did the mayor punish Jan Marcason?” (B-2, Sunday, May 30) — This timely and gratifying column by Steve Kraske followed an earlier story reporting that Mayor Mark Funkhouser had stripped 4th District Councilwoman Jan Marcason’s of all her committee assignments — a move that could be unprecedented.

Kraske reported that Funkhouser’s lovely wife, Gloria Squitiro, once wrote a diary entry (made public as part of a lawsuit) that said: “I despise Jan Marcason with a vigor and energy that knows no bounds.” Whoa! That kid of hatred can — and probably will — cost a guy a chance at being re-elected. 

#% “Bowe goes quiet route” (C-1, Tuesday, May 25) — The Star got started down the wrong path on the Curious Tale of Dwayne Bowe, a Chiefs receiver, when it rushed into print an earlier story about Bowe’s revelation to ESPN the Magazine that some Chiefs players had arranged for women to meet them at the team hotel in San Diego in 2007. The first story, on May 20, led to a second story, in which a former teammate of Bowe denied the assertion.
Then came this May 25 story, which essentially said Bowe ducked reporters. Well, sports editors, thanks for that important news! The whole, stupid thing culminated with a Q-and-A with Bowe, published Friday. In the interview, Bowe, as you would expect, made no sense whatsoever. For example: “My words was misunderstood and baseless and were said without malice.”

The hyperventilating story was a testament to how quickly an authoritative publication like The Star can get pulled into the deep water when it swims after everything that goes out on the Internet. The Star could have kept the snakes in the jar on this one by downplaying the first report and then following up appropriately.

#% “Boxer’s death was blow to KC” (A-1, Sunday, May 30) — This story was really a stretch. I barely remember Randie Carver, a local boxer who died two days after a match in 1999. And yet sports writer Kent Babb has people saying things like, “It broke the spirit of boxing” and “When that happened to him it was like boxing died.”

Let me be clear: I’m not diminishing the tragedy of Randie Carver’s death. It was a tremendous loss to his family and friends, of  course, and to the “boxing community,” however large that is. But to say that the tragedy left a gaping hole in the city’s fabric, as the headline suggests, is hyperbole. And why would Carver’s death be the demise of boxing in Kansas City? Isn’t it possible that a future champion is skipping rope at a KC area gym right now?

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So long, Lew

In the fourth entry of my career — way back in March — I called for Pope Benedict XVI to resign. I guess the pope didn’t get the message or he just ignored my call, as he ignored similar calls from Maureen Dowd of The New York Times, other columnists and commentators and a Massachusetts priest.

Today, I’m calling on KU athletic director Lew Perkins to resign, and I have to tell you I think the odds of Perkins resigning are a lot lower than the odds of the pope resigning. Back in the thick of the new priest sex-abuse revelations, an Irish bookmaker dropped the odds of the pope resigning from 12-1 to 3-1. Anybody who would make such a bet with the odds that low would be crazy.

With Perkins, though, I think the odds of him resigning are even money. (Personal disclosure here: I’m from Kentucky and did not attend KU, MU, K-State or any other Big 12 school.) If you can get odds of 2-1 or 3-1, jump on it. This might even be an “odds-on” situation. (Quick gambling primer here: Odds on means that if you bet a dollar, you get your dollar back but less than another dollar in actual winnings.)

At the track, I usually avoid making odds-on bets. (There’s on old track-side saying about  favorites that go off at 3 to 5, “If you’ve got the five, you don’t need the three.”) But in this case, I think I’d wager some money, even with “odds on.” Why? Well, look at the situation. Perkins either is a crook himself or he got taken by a bunch of crooked Okies, all but one of whom he either hired or promoted to jobs where they could slather themselves in illicit gains from the misappropriation of thousands of tickets to big-time athletic events.

It’s very clear that the ticket operation was run like a “candy store,” as the university’s internal report said, and it defies logic that six people, at least, who were involved in the high jinks would be able to give the impression that they were running a tight ship. So even if Lew wasn’t benefitting monetarily from the sale of tickets to brokers (also Okies), and even if he didn’t know exactly what was going on with the ticket operation, he had to know something was fishy. After all, one of the main duties of the guy (or gal) at the top of an organization is simply to watch your employees and to know what they are doing.

Did you notice, though, how Perkins tried to distance himself from the situation, even while accepting responsibility? He said, “I accept responsibility, not for any criminal activity, but because I am the athletic director and it happened during my watch.” Take a a closer look at that sentence. What key word is missing in the first phrase? “Full,” as in “I accept full responsibility.” Because if he had accepted full responsibility, as he should have, he would have to resign.

Look at the second part of the sentence…”it happened during my watch.” It’s a common, catch-all phrase that he would like to have people interpret this way: “It happened over there, while I was over here.” Again, if he had said, “The wrongdoing was perpetrated by people whom I hired and whom I oversee and whose job performance I evaluate,” well…..he’d have to resign, wouldn’t he?

Then, he went on to say something truly incredible: “I thought we had just about every safeguard in place, but nobody picked up on it. I certainly didn’t.”

It’s a good thing I didn’t have a mouthful of cookies when I read that, or the dogs would have been scampering all around the room. Safeguards? The Okies are probably the only people who had the combination to the ticket vault.

At this point, we just have to trust that the Chancellor Bernadette Gray-Little and members of the university’s board of trustees and major donors to the athletic program see through the smoke that Perkins blew far and wide on Wednesday and that they will come to the conclusion — if they haven’t already – that it’s time for Perkins to depart. Once that happens, they won’t have to fire him. He’ll leave.

And I believe they will come to that decision fairly quickly — at least by the time criminal charges are filed — and that will be the end of what is turning out to be a most disappointing and dishonorable era in KU athletics.

So, readers, get your bets down now. Don’t get shut out, as the railbirds say. With every day that passes, the odds are dropping.

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Of drilling and doughnuts

The New York Times hit a home run on Monday with a story that exposed as a sham a supposed moratorium on new offshore drilling permits that President Obama announced after the April 20 explosion of the Deepwater Horizon drill rig in the Gulf of Mexico.

One of the most satisfying aspects of the story was that reporter Ian Urbina pulled no punches in going after the Obama administration. The Times is very left-leaning in its editorial positions and a strong supporter of Obama overall. This story, however, is a credit to The Times’ willingness to aggressively seek out the truth and let the bricks fall on those standing under the window. It’s the kind of story that does a lot for a newspaper’s credibility with readers, who want their news presented “without fear or favor.”

I happened to read The Times’ story before I had thoroughly read Monday’s Kansas City Star. So, after finishing the story, I picked up The Star again to see how the local paper, which subscribes to The New York Times News Service, played the story.

To my delight, it was the lead story in the paper. Unfortunately, The Star’s headline — “Drilling permits continue” — wasn’t as telling as The Times’ — “Despite Obama’s Moratorium, Drilling Projects Move Ahead.” Also, The Star cut the last 11 inches of The Times’ story, depriving readers of more detailed information about inconsistencies between statements and actions by Interior Department in the granting of new drilling permits.

Nevertheless, Star editors gave the story the play (presentation and placement), that it merited, and Star readers got an authoritative story that showed it, too, wasn’t hesitant to fire a volley at Obama.

The article said that despite the supposed moratorium, at least seven new drilling permits and several environmental waivers had been granted. The rationale of officials at the Interior Department and the Minerals Management Service, which regulates drilling, was that the moratorium was meant only to halt permits for the drilling of new wells; that it was not meant to stop permits for new work on already existing drilling projects like Deepwater Horizon.

One person who wasn’t buying that story was Daniel J. Rohlf, a law professor at Lewis and Clark Law School, who was paraphrased as saying he was “not certain that the Interior Department is capable of carrying out the needed reforms.”

This is the type of story that could — perhaps in conjunction with other missteps — cost Interior Secretary Ken Salazar his job somewhere down the line.

It is my belief that The Star and other major metropolitan dailies should make liberal use of The New York Times News Service — and other news services as well — to lend heft to their product. As it is, I think The Star and many other metropolitan dailies are too caught up in the “local, local, local” mindset. To me, it is insulting to the intelligence and interests of readers to deprive them of significant amounts of national and international news and, instead, hand out a steady diet of lightweight, local features.

With the defection of millions of casual readers — those who “don’t have time” to read a paper — newspapers are now down to the serious readers. And those readers, I believe, want the meat and potatoes, not the doughnuts.

So, congratulations, KC Star editors, on giving readers a hearty meal on Monday. And, if you want to keep circulation from falling even farther, I suggest that you cut back even more on the glaze.

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Plums & Prunes (8)

In this new, lean era, editors at The Kansas City Star have not just stood by and wrung their hands, bemoaning the fragile state of print journalism.

The evidence — one day’s paper to the next — clearly shows that the editors have formulated a sound plan for coping with the situation. The plan hinges on developing a lineup of reporters who can consistently deliver front-page, “enterprise” stories — articles that spring primarily from recent news developments. Where breaking news is the engine of a paper, enterprise stories — in combination with graphics, photos and packaging — flesh out the machine and make it whole. With a much-reduced staff, it is more important than ever that enterprise stories be well planned and executed, partly because there’s less other material to fall back on.

In two meetings  day — morning and afternoon — the editors assess the stories that are in the works for the next day, and a few times a week they evaluate the status of stories that are pointed for the days and weeks ahead. It’s a fine juggling act, and the quality of the juggling determines, in large measure, the quality of each day’s paper.

Most of the stories that I comment on in Plums & Prunes fall into the category of “enterprise.” They are the special stories, the ones that go above and beyond incremental developments. So, if you want to be a more discerning reader, try to differentiate, as you go through the buffet of stories in a given day’s paper, between the breaking stories and the enterprise. It can add to your appreciation of the paper.

Now, onto this week’s edition.


~ “Answers surface in Jackson’s backstory” (A-1, Friday, May 14) — The story of the Waldo rapist is the biggest local of the year, by far, and The Star continues to flesh it out, primarily by putting the microscope on prime suspect Bernard Jackson. In this story, Tony Rizzo and Christine Vendel dissected the breakdown of a California case that could have kept Jackson behind bars after his 2008 parole in Missouri.

~ “He’s history” (B-1, Friday, May 14) — The entire front page, and more, of Sports Daily was devoted to the Royals’ firing of manager Trey Hillman. Great photo by John Sleezer of a grim-faced Hillman walking from the clubhouse to the interview room for the last time.

~ “Professionals abroad, they’re laborers here” (A-1, Saturday, May 15) — We’ve all heard the stories about immigrants who were engineers, or whatever, in their home countries, and are now working as certified nursing aides or at similar low-paying jobs. This piece of enterprise by Bill Reiter takes a closer look.

~ “Curfew broken on night of rape” and “Woman who dated Jackson asks, ‘Was it just a con?’ ” (A-1, Sunday, May 16) — Whatever The Star writes about Bernard Jackson will be widely read, and this was a strong 1-2, Sunday punch. Excellent enterprise. I must say, though, that after reading Vendel’s story about Jackson’s “girlfriend,” I was asking myself if she had conned Vendel. I can see why The Star wanted to get this into print as soon as possible, but the red flags are flying on this one. For example, the girlfriend contended that the police sketch of the Waldo rapist did not resemble Jackson, when, in fact, the similarities are obvious.

~ “Bullet-making shoots up” (A-1, Monday, May 17) — More than any other day of the week, the Monday paper relies on enterprise to fill the weekend news vacuum. Development reporter Kevin Collison came through with a dandy on the surging production at the Lake City Army Ammunition Plant near Independence. Good photo by Jill Toyoshiba of a bin full of long, copper shells.

~ “Socking it to ’em” (C-1, Monday, May 17) — Riveting photo of Royals hitter Jose Guillen connecting with a pitched ball as the White Sox catcher waited with outstretched arm for the ball that never arrived. Credit John Sleezer.

~ “Ex-KU official solicited a favor” (A-1 Tuesday, May 18) — The Star’s best investigative bloodhounds, Mike McGraw and Mark Morris, pulled back another layer of the K.U. ticket scandal. It all makes one wonder what athletic director Lew Perkins was doing — and what he knew — while one of his key employees, Rodney Jones, apparently ran amok as director of the athletic department’s fundraising arm.

~ “19 years later, mother’s miracle baby graduates” (A-1, Wednesday, May 19) — Heart-warming and beautifully written story by Lee Hill Kavanaugh about a young man who started life as a 1 pound, 3 ounce preemie and defied the odds against survival to arrive at a big milestone — his graduation from North Kansas City High School. Photo, by Allison Long, of Elizabeth Kuba looking lovingly and admiringly at her smiling son Matthew.

~ “KC branches struggle with security issues” (A-1, Wednesday, May 19) — Positioned next to the Kuba story was another excellent piece of enterprise, this one by Sara Shepherd, on the surge of inappropriate behavior by patrons at the Kansas City Public Library. Among other things, sexual misconduct and computerized viewing of child pornography are way up….There’s one lapse in this story: It should have stated the relationship between library board president Jonathan Kemper and library CEO Crosby Kemper III. I believe they’re cousins.

~ “Missouri’s missing the moral” (A-4, Wednesday, May 19) — Libertarian columnist Mike Hendricks makes a strong case for letting Missouri’s sex clubs operate without tighter government strictures.

~ “New direction in Big Ten talk” (B-1, Wednesday, May 19) — Extremely well-reported and researched story by Blair Kerkhoff on the ever-widening drama of Who Will Go to the Big 10. Now, it seems, even some schools from Dixie — far, far from traditional Big 10 turf — are under consideration. Kerkhoff talked to, among others, Big 10 Commissioner Jim Delany, Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith and Michigan athletic director David Brandon. That Kerkhoff can get through to those guys is indicative of his stature in sports journalism.

~ ” ‘Natural’ death goes back onto homicide list” (A-1, Thursday, May 20) — Interesting piece by Christine Vendel on a family that successfully prodded the Jackson County medical examiner’s office to reverse its decision on the manner of death for 36-year-old Eric L. Davis.

~ “Mayor faces ‘line’ in re-election bid” (A-1, Friday, May 21) — The headline doesn’t compute until after the story “jumps” to an inside page, but reporter Dave Helling shows how Mark Funkhouser is using his incumbency to generate publicity for his expected re-election bid.


#% “Waddell’s drop-off linked to reports” (A-14, Saturday, May 15) — The Star completely blew this story about the role that the Overland Park mutual fund company Waddell & Reed played in the Dow Jones Industrial Average’s 998-point plunge on May 6. (For more on this misstep, see blog entry of Sunday, May 16.) Maybe the editors were too busy with weekend enterprise stories to do justice to this breaking story, which The New York Times placed at the top of its business section.

#% “Mai Hutson Gray, 88, dies” (B-1, Sunday, May 16) — I’ve followed local news for decades, and I had never heard of Ms. Gray, described as “a longtime church leader,” before reading this news obit. Thinking perhaps she had somehow slipped past my eagle eye over the years, I checked The Star’s online archives, which date to 1991. I found just one entry: She was quoted in a 1994 article on the religion page. I’m sure Ms. Gray was a fine woman, but this story did not merit section-front coverage. Promoting even more head scratching, she died 10 days before this story was published.

#%”Bowe-wildering” (B-1, Thursday, May 20) — Chiefs reporter Adam Teicher tried unsuccessfully to intermingle what should have been separate stories on separate days. One thread was the progress, or lack thereof, by Chiefs receiver Dwayne Bowe on the playing field. The other was Bowe’s revelation to ESPN the Magazine that some Chiefs players had arranged for women to meet them at the team hotel in San Diego in 2007. The result was a weird, diluted piece. In Friday’s paper, Teicher did a follow-up, reporting that a former teammate of Bowe denied the assertion. It’s hard to resist running with a spicy story like the one Bowe was telling ESPN, but I think The Star would have been better off holding the initial story until it could check it out more carefully.

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There’s a story behind Sunday’s blog entry — the one about The Star’s blown coverage of Waddell & Reed’s role in the Dow Jones Industrial Average’s 998-point plunge on May 6.

I mentioned in that entry that Waddell & Reed, an Overland Park-based mutual fund company, had weathered its share of negative publicity. As I wrote, I was thinking about former chief executive officer Keith Tucker and his income-tax shenanigans. 

But, for me, Tucker fits into a bigger, wider context. In a nutshell, Tucker is right near the top of my “Prunes for the Ages” list because while living in what I consider the most beautiful house in Kansas City — the Corrigan House, on the northwest corner of 55th and Ward Parkway — Tucker and his wife Laura shrouded the house with talls shrubs, denying passers-by of a view of one of the best examples of Prairie Style architecture in the Midwest. The house was designed by Kansas City’s most famous architect, Louis Curtiss, whose work also includes the Boley Building at 12th and Walnut and the Folly Theatre, which he designed along with Frederick Gunn. 

Before the Tuckers bought the house in 1998, Jackson County Circuit Court Judge H. Michael Coburn and his wife Linda lived there. Unlike the Tuckers, the Coburns let the public see the house, with its beautiful leaded glass windows, antique exterior light fixtures and unusual, L-shaped footprint. 

So, this is a story about a rat (Tucker), a judge (Coburn) and a house (the Corrigan House).

Let’s take it from the top.

The rat

Tucker took the reins at Waddell & Reed in 1992. Under his watch, the company was often entangled in litigation. He resigned as chairman and c.e.o. in May 2005. A month earlier, the firm agreed to pay $7 million in fines and up to $11 million in restitution to settle charges that it aggressively pressured customers into buying unnecessary annuity products.

Tucker was so deeply embedded in the company, however, that it kept him on as a consultant and non-voting board member for eight years, which, presumably, keeps him on the payroll until 2013. 

The rat

The year before he resigned, the IRS came knocking — figuratively, I presume — at Tucker’s door. The agency contends that the Tuckers claimed $39.2 million in sham tax-shelter deductions and that they owe more than $22 million in income taxes and penalties. The Tuckers say that the tax shelters were legitimate.  The case has not been resolved primarily because the U.S. Tax Court is awaiting the outcome of a criminal case involving KPMG executives who put the Tuckers’ tax shelter together. Interestingly, Tucker was a partner with KPMG earlier in his career.

Tucker was also involved in another tax case. In that one, he attempted to recoup $1.2 million in Kansas City earnings taxes he paid under protest from 1999 to 2003. It seems that Tucker, while running Waddell & Reed, contended that he was a Texas resident. Odd, seeing as how he and his wife were living in the Corrigan House on Ward Parkway and he was commuting between there and Waddell & Reed offices in Overland Park…not between Texas and Overland Park.

Tucker based his Texas residency claim partly on the fact that in February 2000, less than two years after he and his wife bought the Corrigan House, he conveyed the property to his wife. The case went to court, and Jackson County Circuit Judge John M. Torrance ruled in favor of the city. In 2008, the Missouri Court of Appeals in Kansas City upheld Torrance’s ruling, and the case ended. So, the rat lost that round.

The judge

Coburn was one of the most admired and best-liked judges on the Jackson County bench in the 1980s and 1990s. He was decisive, smart and funny. He once told a reporter about the time that he and his wife were sleeping in their home — the Corrigan House — and he awakened to noises and found a burglar in the house. The judge said he wrestled with the burglar and, after quite a tussle, managed to get the guy out of the house.

Tragically, Coburn died in December 1994 after falling into unsecured elevator shaft of an abandoned building that he was inspecting as part of a court case. 

Coburn’s widow, Linda, continued living in the house until July 1998, when she sold it to the Tuckers.

The house

Bernard Corrigan was born in Quebec in 1847 and moved to Kansas City in 1858. He built his fortune partly as a streetcar developer. Work on the home at 55th and Ward Parkway began in 1912. Two of the home’s outstanding features are the reinforced-concrete foundation and the gray limestone exterior walls, with a medium-rough, or “shot-sawed” finish.   

The house was completed in 1913, but Corrigan died suddenly in January of that year, two months before he was supposed to move in. One of the early residents of the house was Joseph J. Heim, who owned and operated Heim Brewery in the East Bottoms. 

Robert Sutherland, founder of what is now Sutherlands, acquired the home from Heim in 1923 for $90,000.    

When the Tuckers bought the house and surrounding 2.4 acres in 1998, the price was $1.65 million. By the time Laura Tucker sold the home 4 ½ years ago — at the top of the real estate market — the price tag had risen to $6 million. So the rat won that round.  

Fast forward

As for Tucker, he’s now apparently a legal resident of Texas, working as chairman — along with some of his old KPMG buddies — at a company called Century Bridge Capital. Century Bridge has offices in Dallas and Beijing. Century’s focus, according to its website is “to invest in the growing Chinese real estate sector by forming joint ventures with Chinese real estate development companies to develop properties.”

I feel sorry for Century’s clients, whoever they are. I also feel bad — and will as long as those shrubs rise high against the wrought-iron fence — about the view that he denied area residents of the Corrigan House.

So, why did Tucker put up the shrubs? I think it’s obvious: He had something to hide.

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I love The Star and admire the quality of most of the work, but sometimes it falls face down in the mud. 

Such was the case Saturday with paper’s treatment of the pivotal role that Waddell & Reed might have played in the recent 998-point plunge in the Dow Jones Industrial Average. 

The story was buried on A-14 under a two-column headline titled “Waddell’s drop-off linked to reports” — a headline that, in itself, makes little sense. Compare that to The New York Times’ handling of the same story.

In The Times, the story led the business section, under a strong and unequivocal headline that read, “Kansas Mutual Fund Identified as Trader in Market Plunge.”

That headline tells the reader, in no uncertain terms, “This is a big deal.” The Times’ story fingered Waddell & Reed, a 70-year-old mutual fund company based in Overland Park, as the main culprit in the Dow Jones plunge on May 6.

In the space of 19 minutes that day,  Waddell & Reed sold 75,000 “e-mini futures contracts” — contracts that are tied to the value of the S&P 500 index. Those sales triggered many additional sales, clogging trading channels “like water draining into a narrower and narrower funnel,” as The Times’ story aptly put it.

The Star’s story, by contrast, lacked detail and sharp focus. 

Both stories quoted or paraphrased Waddell & Reed’s attempt to dismiss the significance of the 75,000 contract sales by saying it was all “part of the normal operation of our flexible portfolio funds.” Unlike The Times, however, The Star did not offer important contextual information: Earlier in the week, the chairman of the commodity Futures Trading Commission had said at a Congressional hearing that during the crucial time period on May 6, a single futures trader accounted for about nine percent of trading volume in the e-mini futures market.

On Friday, that trader was identified, and it was Waddell & Reed. That prompted alerts to sound at The Times’ offices in New York City. At 18th and Grand, however, the disclosure apparently generated little more than a yawn, judging by the ensuing story.  

By any measure, the news should have resulted in a front-page story in Saturday’s Star. But nope, it was watered down and buried, and The Star’s Business Desk didn’t muster enough initiative for the story to warrant a local by-line. The story was credited, instead, to “staff and wire reports.”

I’ve written before how The Star has some “sacred cows,” such as The Plaza and the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, which the editors are reluctant to cast in a negative light. From the looks of the story at hand, one might think that Waddell & Reed is in the same category. But that’s not the case. Waddell & Reed gets no passes; it is fair game and has taken its share of pummeling in the newspaper.

No, this looks like a case of simple editorial laziness. Who’s to blame? Well, you can start with Business Editor Keith Chrostowski (unless he was out of the office on Friday), and then you go up the line to Managing Editor Steve Shirk and Editor Mike Fannin, assuming they were working Friday. The way the newsroom handled the story, it might not have been called to the attention of Publisher Mark Zieman, but he looks bad, too — whether or not he was on duty — because, well, he’s the ultimate authority.

All in all, it was a lame, embarrassing effort.

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Plums & Prunes (7)

Much has been written the last week or so about the possibility of a realignment of the Big 10 and Big 12 athletic conferences. On Wednesday alone, The Star carried three stories related to a possible reshuffling. 

The A-1 centerpiece addressed the possible ramifications for Kansas City if Missouri moved to the Big 10. In that event, a huge question would loom: Would the reconstituted Big 12 Conference continue to hold championship events in a state (Missouri) that didn’t have a team in the conference? 

John Currie

In Sports Daily, two more stories — one each about K.U. athletic director Lew Perkins’ and K-State athletic director John Currie’s perspectives on a possible Big 12 shake-up. The story about Currie paraphrased him as saying, “I know me and Lew Perkins have spent a lot of time talking together about things we can do to strengthen both of our institutions.” 

Which leads me to this: What is the difference between a Big 10 and a Big 12 athletic director? 

Give up? A Big 10 athletic director would say, “I know Lew Perkins and I have been spent a lot of time talking about….” 

So, John Currie gets the first prune this week. And the first plum goes to sportswriter Kellis Robinett for not cleaning up the A.D.’s grammar. 

 And on with the show… 


~ “Texas free fall” (B-1, Saturday, May 8) — How-not-to photo (Associated Press) of the inept Kansas City Royals. The photo caught Royals shortstop Yuniesky Betancourt dropping an easy pop fly. As he looked skyward, the ball trickled out of his glove at shoulder level.  

~ “A case of system failure?” (A-1, Sunday, May 9) — Provocative story by courts reporter Tony Rizzo about the criminal record of Bernard Jackson, suspected in a series of Waldo rapes. He built the story around two strong and stirring questions: “Could anything have been done in the past to keep him behind bars longer? Should he have been released at all?”  

~ “KC schools will attempt a new way of learning” (A-1, Sunday, May 9) — If John Covington succeeds as Kansas City School District superintendent, it will not be because he was able to convince a school board majority to close 25 schools, despite that being an admirable feat in itself. His success or failure, Joe Robertson explains, probably will turn on the outcome of his “standards-based education” initiative. The initiative would end “social promotion” of students from grade to grade, instead allowing them to advance only after they have shown that they have mastered the material required at each step.  

~ “State ax strikes mentor program” (A-1, Monday, May 10) — Another strong entry in The Star’s occasional series examining budget cuts in Missouri and Kansas. In this story, Jefferson City correspondent Jason Noble wrote about the possible ramifications of a $100,000 cut in the Big Brothers Big Sisters of Greater Kansas City program. Chris Oberholtz’ photo of a “big brother” and a “little brother” at a bowling alley captured the essence of the mentoring program. 

~ “Electric vehicles could get a jolt”  (A-1, Monday, May 10) — Transportation reporter Brad Cooper craftily drew readers into his story about the emergence of charging stations for electric cars. Introducing the idea of such stations being located at fast-food restaurants, Cooper wrote: “Hamburger. Fries. Milk shake. Want to throw in an electrical charge with that?” 

~ “KC’s four-gone conclusion” — Winning headline in Sports Daily about the Royals losing a four-game series to the Texas Rangers.  

~ “Woman’s place at home (plate)” (B-1, Monday, may 10) — Nicely fashioned story about lady umpire Kate Walden, who has worked a Big 12 baseball game and wants to see how far she can go in her chosen field. K.U. athletics reporter J. Brady McCollough ventured away from the “game” stories to give readers something special.  

~ “Everyday items tell of war’s effect” (A-1, Tuesday, May 11) — National Desk reporter Rick Montgomery conducted a deft marriage of past and present in this story about an archaeology student’s dedication to finding remnants of the Kansas-Missouri Border War — the real one. 

~ “Hillman failing to improve situation” (C-1, Tuesday, May 11) — In retrospect, after Royals’ manager Trey Hillman was fired yesterday, this column made Sam Mellinger look like a genius.  (On a side note, how about general manager Dayton Moore’s statement on Tuesday — reported in Wednesday’s paper — that Hillman is “exactly what our organization needs at this point in time”?  That point in time didn’t last very long, did it?) 

~ “Star 50” (D-1, Tuesday, May 11) — The Star’s Business Desk exerted its customary prodigious effort in rating and analyzing the region’s top publicly owned companies.  One caveat: The package struck me as a bit scattershot. It would have benefitted from a box that summarized and highlighted the various elements of the 11-page package. 

~ “Pump prices heading for $3” (A-1, Wednesday, May 12) — A periodic review of gas prices — here and around the country — is always a good reader service. Energy writer Steve Everly came through nicely as we round the bend toward the summer travel season. 

~ The entire front page from Thursday, May 13. Three locally produced stories — one about insecticide being used on an impromptu play area, one on the Missouri Senate race between Robin Carnahan and Roy Blunt, and one on a bill requiring Missouri health insurers to cover autism treatments — shared the page with a quirky wire-service story about a 22-year-old con man who passed himself off as a 16-year-old high school athlete in Texas. 

Shirley Helzberg

~ “Making history for KC again” (A-10, Thursday, May 13) — Kevin Collison did a masterful job on this story about philanthropist Shirley Helzberg and her revival of the Vitagraph Film Exchange Building at 17th and Wyandotte — the third building she has revived. The Vitagraph now houses the Kansas City Symphony. The best part is Helzberg’s selflessness. “I believe in Kansas City, Missouri,” Collison quoted Helzberg as saying. “It’s been very good to Helzberg Diamonds and I wanted to give back.”          

Thank you, Shirley. 


#% “Big trees falling before arrival of destructive bug” (A-1, Saturday, May 8) — As much as the tree hugger in me likes a good environmental story, this piece about “the dreaded scourge: the emerald ash borer” (a little beetle-looking thingy) was a bit much for Page 1. I really tried, but I just muster a cataclysmic frame of mind. Better alternatives for Page 1 would have been either of two New York Times offers — one recounting the experiences of workers who survived the Gulf of Mexico explosion and the other an analysis of the 998-point drop in the Down Jones Industrial Average on May 6. 

#% “Golfing’s a breeze after the big Break” (B-1, thursday, May 13) — One of the most insipid sports stories I’ve seen in a long time. The actual situation is this: A Ladies Professional Golf Association “Futures Tour” event (a rung below the LPGA tour itself) is being played at Leawood South Country Club this weekend. This is the first time this event will have been played in our area, and a lot of really good women golfers will be in town. How many, and what is at stake? I have no idea because sportswriter Randy Covitz devoted 26 column inches — the entire length of his story — to the experience of several tournament participants in a 10-episode reality series on The Golf Channel. Hey, Randy, the real tournament is here; it’s now; this is no time to tell us about “Big Break,” a trumped-up, made-for-TV series that is virtually unwatchable because it is so clogged with commercials.

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It warms my heart when newspaper publishers communicate directly with their readers.  

And so, when I was in Louisville for Derby Week, I eagerly read a long piece that Arnold Garson, publisher of The Courier-Journal, wrote about the state of daily newspapers. The sub-head of the article, which appeared on the front of the May 2 Forum (opinion) section, was “Newspapers are better off than you may think.”

In an unfortunate and ironic turn of events, the piece was published the day that the Courier was able to print just 40,000 of its “live-run” copies, instead of the scheduled 270,000. All of the pre-printed sections, including the Forum, were published, but the news and sports sections were not delivered until the following day. The disruption made the headline about newspapers being “better off” ring a bit hollow. The afternoon of the debacle, Garson found himself in front of cameras and reporters explaining what had gone wrong, not what was going right.


But that is behind him and The Courier now, and it certainly didn’t puncture the bigger picture that he painted in his article. His points, while specific in many instances to The Courier-Journal, apply to almost all major metropolitan dailies, including The Kansas City Star. 

Here are some highlights from the article.

On his paper’s circulation decline:

“The Courier-Journal’s paid circulation decline last year was 8.4 percent daily and 3.8 percent Sunday….We are focusing hard this year on turning the paid-circulation trend line, and we are seeing some progress.” 

On the newspaper industry as a whole:

“The newspaper industry is alive and well. Yes, we are changing, and the economic pressures are greater than they used to be. But The Courier-Journal has remained a profitable business throughout this recession. It is a fully viable business now and for the future. In fact, we are much stronger economically today than we were a year ago. Ditto for our parent company, Gannett.”

On some of the business-oriented changes the paper has made:

“It no longer makes sense to deliver newspapers to outlying areas, hundreds of miles from home base, where they are of little value to our advertisers and expensive to distribute. It no longer makes good business sense to use heavily discounted home delivery subscription prices as a tool to drive paid circulation volume. It no longer is realistic to avoid implementing regular price increases for home delivery to partly offset increasing costs.”

On the decline of TV evening news broadcasts:

“Television evening news, long the cash cow of that industry, has experienced a decline in viewers that is deeper and longer-term than the newspaper circulation decline. Of course, the major networks have more news competition than they ever have had. And they, like newspapers, face competition from the Internet. But the public discussion seems all about the future of newspapers, not television.”

On the type of readers that newspapers attract (according to research studies): 

“79 percent of adults employed in white-collar jobs read a newspaper.
“82 percent of adults with household incomes of $100,000 a year or more read a newspaper.
“84 percent of college graduates read a newspaper.”

On his paper’s web site:

“Courier-Journal.com is a hugely successful local website with more than 16 million page views and 1.3 million unique users monthly. It is growing, and it is profitable.”

On the likelihood of start-up local websites and blogs replacing newspapers:

“Who would perform the expensive oversight function that guards our democracy against tyranny without newspapers to fill that role? Footnote: The Courier-Journal employs 160 professional journalists, more than all the local TV stations combined.

“Who would challenge the many public officials whose lives generally are more comfortable if they can keep the activities of government secret? Footnote: The Courier-Journal spends $150,000 to $200,000 a year in legal fees to keep this community’s information pipelines open.”

On how the paper has approached financial cutbacks:

“We have been through two rounds of layoffs over the past year and a half. I don’t like that, but most businesses locally and beyond have had to reduce employment during this recession. I do want to point out that we have tried to navigate both of these reductions in ways that minimize the impact on local, hard-news content. We have, for example, spent much more time trying to find ways to reduce staffing in support areas than in core areas, such as news gathering. We have focused our content cutbacks more in features sections as opposed to hard-news sections.”

On the newspapers that have run aground:

“The few newspapers that have failed during this recession have been mostly those that were artificially propped up by joint operating agreements (with competing newspapers), an arrangement devised by the federal government to sustain failing newspapers. The handful of newspaper companies that have gone to bankruptcy reorganization have been those that were heavily burdened with debt. Both of these things were predictable.”

On the future of his paper:

“As I have said before, The Courier-Journal will be here for a long time. It will publish my obituary and yours — but definitely not its own.”

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Plums & Prunes (6)

First, I extend best wishes to reporter and columnist Debra Skodack, assistant business editor Donna Vestal and librarian Janelle Hopkins, who reportedly got laid off in the latest round of cuts at The Star. (A few other editorial staff members whom I do not know also got the ax.) Skodack, Vestal and Hopkins have contributed significantly to The Star’s editorial success over many years. 

It’s too bad, and it shows again, in hindsight, what an unwise move the McClatchy Co. made four years ago when it purchased The Star and several other papers owned by Knight Ridder. The weakness of the McClatchy chain is dragging down The Star, which has always been profitable, primarily because it has been able to charge very high advertising rates.

Star officials had hoped that with the round of layoffs earlier this year, the bleeding had stopped. Turns out the tourniquet came loose again.

Meanwhile, the editorial staff members push ahead, putting out a lot of good work and a little shaky work.   


~ “Saving young lives one law at a time” (A-1, Sunday, May 2) — Interesting story about Janette Fennell of Leawood, whose experience at the hands of a robber and subsequent perseverance in helping others has led to the development of many vehicle-safety improvements, including glow-in-the-dark trunk releases. Story by Grace Hobson.

~ ” ‘Russian roulette’ after data breaches” (A-1, Sunday, May 2) — Reporter Scott Canon continued his seemless transition from the National Desk to the Business Desk with a public-service piece about people’s exposure to computer credit-card theft. Canon’s move is paying dividends for the readers, as well as the beaten-down business desk.

~ “Renewal hasn’t come easy” (A-1, Monday, May 3) — Managing Editor Steve Shirk once told me he didn’t like anniversary stories, but it looks like Star readers are going to get one every year around this time about Greensburg, Kan., and its battle back from destruction by a tornado in 2007. Aaron Barnhart elevated this story by focusing on the friction that has come with rebuilding. Outstanding photos by Jill Toyoshiba.

~ “Fed up, and fighting for disabilities help” (A-1, Monday, May 3) — Kansas City, Mo., City Hall reporter Lynn Horsley took the time to delve deeply into a story that sometimes gets overlooked — governmental compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act. In this case, the city clearly is dropping the ball, and that’s not going to help Mayor Mark Funkhouser’s  dim re-election prospects. 

~ “Life changes for Gordon & Aviles” (C-1, tuesday, May 4) — Sam Mellinger continued to make strides as the successor to the inimitable Joe Posnanski with a trenchant column about the changing identity of the Royals, now that one-time hotshot prospect Alex Gordon has been shipped to the minors.

~ “Suspect captured in 53-hour drama” (A-1, Wednesday, May 5) — The Star got it right by making the arrest of terrorist Faisal Shahzad the centerpiece.

~ “KC police make arrest in Waldo rape inquiry” (A-1, Thursday, May 6) — Relative to the extensive coverage of the uproar over the rapes in Waldo, this four-column-wide spread by reporter Christine Vendel and photographers Keith Myers and Jill Toyoshiba was proportionate.

~ “Rape suspect charged” and “A past defined by rape, prison” (A-1, Friday, May 7) — Tandem stories about suspected Waldo rapist Bernard Jackson. One of the many things I liked about this package was that his mug shot and the sketch that police put together weeks ago were both on the front page, and the similarity between the sketch and the photo was unmistakable….Side note: Did it strike anyone else as odd that the first series of Waldo rapes, in 1983 and 1984, apparently did not generate an uproar like the most recent series? 

~ “Bizarre day stuns Wall Street” (A-1, Friday, May 7) — This story undoubtedly would have been higher on the page were it not for Bernard Jackson. For Kansas City readers, his story was rightly bigger than a 998-point, intra-day drop in the Dow.

~ “Putting the brush to Bartle” (A-11, Friday, May 7) — This is one of those stories that made me want to thank the reporter — in this case Kevin Collison — personally. Like many other area residents, I’m sure, I have driven by Bartle Hall in recent months and wondered what the heck was happening to the exterior of the older section of the convention center. It looked like the paint was peeling and disintegrating, but how could I be sure? Collison confirmed and explained the situation in his story about the center getting a $152,000 paint job. Among the interesting details that Collison included: It takes about four days to paint each triangle. 


#% Kentucky Derby coverage (Sunday, May 2) — A full story about the Kentucky Derby (136 years and counting) should run on the sports front of every major U.S. paper. Without fail, no excuses. The Star gave it a small photo at the top of the sports front and referred readers to story on Page 6.

#% “A load of economic optimism” (D-1, Tuesday, May 4) — Randolph Heaster’s schizophrenic Star Business Weekly centerpiece threw readers for a loop. It started out like it a story about housing starts but segued into a story about the rising sale of pickup trucks. In fairness, the overline — the words above the headline — cued readers with the words “pickup sales,” but it was still weird.

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The next installment of Plums & Prunes will be coming at you soon, but today I’m establishing a new category in the fruit family. The pumpkin. And not just any pumpkin — a shriveled pumpkin that got left on the porch after Halloween and was still decaying at Thanksgiving. (In case you’re wondering, the pumpkin is, technically, a fruit.)

And the pumpkin goes to…..Jason Whitlock! Come on down, Jason, and collect your fruit! Actually, he must share it with K.C. Star publisher Mark Zieman and editor Mike Fannin who were crazy enough to give Whitlock, a sports columnist, a weekly op-ed column titled “Independent Thoughts.” It probably was presented to editorial page editor Miriam Pepper as a done deal.

The column began last week, while I was out of town, and I just learned about it this week. The most disappointing part of this is that it occurs at a time when top Star editors seemed to be exhibiting good judgment on news placement by giving prominent play to a wider variety of stories at the local, national and international levels.

Fortunately, Whitlock’s column (see this week’s right here) won’t affect that facet of the news operation. Nevertheless, it shows very poor judgment by top Star officials, in my opinion. It’s a bad call for at least two reasons: Whitlock is out of his element, and he doesn’t have the tact and tone that it takes to be successful as an op-ed columnist.

Whitlock has no qualifications whatsoever to be anything besides a sports writer or sports columnist. That’s his whole background; it’s what he knows. Oh, and did you catch his admission in his first “Thoughts” column — an admission he has made before — that, “I avoid our political system. I’ve never voted. I don’t have a political affiliation or ideology.”

To me, that disqualifies him. You’re outta here! Hit the showers. How can your views carry any weight when you shun the democratic process? How do you avoid politics, not vote and yet get to express your opinions in a major metropolitan daily about current events and political controversies, such as the new Arizona immigration law? Makes no sense at all. I guess he still could find religion and start voting, but I doubt that will happen because he takes such pride in being a contrarian. 

Regarding tact and tone, Whitlock always has the sledgehammer out; that’s all he knows. It works fine for the Chiefs, who need to be hammered regularly, but I don’t see how he will be able to wear well as an op-ed columnist. The best, most enduring op-ed columnists are those who, generally, are measured, reflective, insightful and often witty. I’m talking about people like David Brooks, Gail Collins and Paul Krugman of The New York Times, Eugene Robinson of The Washington Post and Leonard Pitts of the Miami Herald.

I give this experiment a year, tops. And it just might be the beginning of the end for Whitlock at The Star. To me, it has all the earmarks of a “Hail Mary” pass.

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