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.