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Archive for June, 2010

As it should, The Star is pushing hard to keep the Karen Pletz story alive and moving forward. 

In its zeal to stay ahead of the game, however, I think The Star made a big mistake in its latest story, published Sunday, by granting anonymity to three sources who didn’t deserve it.

The story essentially reported the contents of four letters, written three to five years ago, and sent to Kansas City University of Medicine and Biosciences board members about Pletz’ $1.2 million salary and her questionable expenditure of university funds.

Only one of the letter writers, physician Maureen Dudgeon, who led the university’s bioethics program, was willing to go on the record. She wrote an anonymous letter to several board members in April 2007 and resigned after the board took no action on her complaints.

Reporter Alan Bavley, The Star’s medical writer, built his story around Dudgeon precisely because she was willing to go on the record. From there, however, the story loses momentum because it devolves into anonymous sources.

The first letter to board members, for example, was written by a university employee in 2005.  Bavley does not say whether the employee signed his name to the letter, although I think we can assume that he did. The letter was sent to two board members, the IRS and the Missouri attorney general’s office.

Bavley wrote: “The writer asked to remain anonymous because of continuing ties to the medical community.”

To that, I say balderdash. If you think about it, it means that the writer of the letter would rather have the medical community regard him as discreet about outrageous conduct rather than someone courageous enough to expose reprehensible conduct. Furthermore, I’m sure that just about everyone who is intimately familiar with the Pletz situation is well aware of the letter writer’s identity. So what’s to hide?

To me, Bavley and his editors should have pushed the letter writer hard to go on the record…or the story should have run without the information.

Same for the third and fourth letters, one of which was sent by a student to board members and the other by a whistle-blower to the university’s auditing firm.

Now, the whistle blower has got to be widely known, otherwise she wouldn’t be a whistle blower. And yet, Bavley granted her anonymity “because of continuing relationships in the Kansas City health care community.”

Cop-out, that’s all you can say — by the whistle blower, Bavley and the editors. Everybody washes their hands and walks away.

As for the student — now a medical resident — she asked that her name not be used “because she feared reprisals.” That’s the oldest, tiredest excuse in the book.

Feared reprisals? From whom? People who would make life difficult for her because she had stood up for what was right? Because she saw obvious problems at her school and wanted to see them corrected? 

Ridiculous.  

Yet, I’ve been in Bavley’s shoes, and I know how difficult it is for a reporter to withhold anonymity. When you’ve got a source talking and the information is flowing — and you’ve already granted anonymity — the last thing you want to do is shut off the spigot.

Nevertheless, Bavley and his editors should have pulled in the reins on their eagerness to get the big, six-column story that they wanted. From the outset, they should have talked about the conditions under which they would grant anonymity, and that issue should have been re-evaluated every step of the way, depending on what the sources were saying and why they wanted to be off the record. Anonymity is not carte blanche; you can seek to change the terms along the way.  

If Bavley could have gotten just one of the three anonymous sources to agree to be on the record, along with Dudgeon, the story would have been much stronger and less gossipy.

Often, a reporter has to become a salesperson — first selling a story idea to an editor, then selling the idea to sources so they will want to participate and, finally, selling sources on the importance of putting their names behind what they believe in. 

In my book, Bavley gets a B-minus for the story and an “F” for salesmanship. Likewise, his editors get an “F” for failing to shepherd the story responsibly.

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The latest edition of Morningstar StockInvestor, a monthly publication of the renowned independent investment and research firm, contains a very grim forecast for the McClatchy Co., owner of The Star and several other newspapers.

McClatchy stock , which traded at about $50 a share when the company bought out Knight Ridder in 2006, closed Friday at $4.28 a share.

Morningstar StockInvestor, which is available by subscription only, opened its review of McClatchy this way:

“Since its poorly timed acquisition of Knight Ridder in 2006, McClatchy has struggled under the multiple weights of declining revenues, high debt, large exposure to troubled housing markets, and the continuing shift of readers and advertisers from print to online. Given the persistence and severity of these conditions, we think equity shareholders are at risk of losing the entire value of their investment.”

Gulp. Those two sentences should make everyone working at The Star and other McClatchy papers, like the Sacramento Bee and the Miami Herald, not only cringe but start looking for new jobs.

While McClatchy and other newspaper chains have tried to paint a rosier-than-real picture of the industry by saying, essentially, “the losses are lessening,” Morningstar throws the tinted glasses aside.

“Our fair value estimate on McClatchy’s shares is $0.”

That’s right, Morningstar analyst John Ayling, who wrote the piece, thinks that the balance eventually will tip from stockholders’  interests to creditors’ interests and that stockholders will be left empty handed.

“McClatchy’s $4.6 billion purchase of Knight Ridder was a bold bet on the future of print journalism,” Ayling wrote. “The acquisition added more than $2.5 billion in debt to McClatchy’s balance sheet. It more than doubled both the company’s portfolio of daily mastheads and its annual revenues. However, in 2007, it took a noncash impairment charge of $3 billion — evidence that McClatchy overpaid for the Knight Ridder acquisition.”

Ayling sees newspaper industry weakness continuing. “During the next five years, we think that advertisers and readers will continue to gravitate away from newspapers and toward the ease and flexibility of the Internet. Internet-based classified ad sites allow advertisers to target readers with specific interests at lower cost than print classifieds.”

I want you to know that as I sit here and write this, I don’t feel good about it at all. One reason is that I bought a significant chunk of McClatchy stock (at about $50 a share) just before I retired in June 2006. Like McClatchy, I wanted to make my own bet on the future of print journalism. I also wanted to demonstrate my confidence in the new owners of The Star.

I remember clearly when McClatchy CEO Gary Pruitt came into the newsroom shortly before the deal closed and talked about how he believed things would go well for McClatchy and us, the employees. When I asked him, in front of the newsroom audience, if he was planning any employee buyouts, he said, no, that McClatchy believed in adding people, not subtracting.

At that point, having been thinking about retiring after nearly 37 years with the paper, I knew that I had to make my own arrangements; there wasn’t going to be any golden parachute. A couple of months later, I retired, and the paper paid for a send-off pizza party in the Independence bureau, where I was an assistant metro editor.

I might have been the last person to get a company-paid going-away party.

The memories of that party, which marked a happy culmination of my career, help ease the pain of the subsequent stock-market loss I endured. For McClatchy stock, along with that of other newspaper companies, soon began a steep, steady decline.

In 2008, I sold out at $8 a share.

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With one incredible story, Michael Hastings has etched a place in the annals of journalism. 

Hastings, of course, is the reporter who wrote the Rolling Stone magazine story — not even on the newsstands yet — that brought down Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the Afghanistan war commander whom President Obama fired Wednesday. 

Michael Hastings in Afghanistan -- Rolling Stone photo

What Hastings managed to pull off is an amazing journalistic feat. He gained ready access to McChrystal and his team of advisers for a month, after intending to spend just two days with him. During that time, Hastings played the wallflower, like any smart reporter would, while the general and his aides blazed away verbally at Obama, Vice President Joe Biden, national security adviser James Jones and other civilian leaders. 

I had never heard of Michael Hastings before this week. Turns out he is a former Baghdad correspondent for Newsweek and a blogger for True/Slant on Iraq and Afghanistan. 

In 2008, he had a book published — “I Lost My Love in Baghdad” — about the death of his girlfriend, who had joined him in Iraq and was killed in a 2007 ambush.     

If Hastings, who is about 30, wasn’t widely know before, he has certainly catapulted himself into the public eye now.  

When I read this article, I had two primary thoughts: First, I would loved to have been in Hastings’ shoes. And second, how in the world could McChrystal have been so stupid? 

But Hastings’ answers that big question in his story, which will be on the newsstands Friday. Hastings stood by with an open notebook and running voice recorder as McChrystal painted himself as an outsized egoist who had little or no respect for his civilian bosses. (Writer Jack Shafer of Slate has some interesting comments about giving reporters access for full-blown feature stories.)

Interestingly, the damage was done early in the story. A New York Times story says in effect that Obama had seen enough after reading the first few paragraphs.   

The article is appropriately titled “The Runaway General.” More damaging to McChrystal and his team is the subtitle, which reads: “Stanley McChrystal, Obama’s top commander in Afghanistan, has seized control of the war by never taking his eye off the real enemy: The wimps in the White House.” 

Here are some key excerpts from the article… 

:: “The general prides himself on being sharper and ballsier than anyone else, but his brashness comes with a price: Although McChrystal has been in charge of the war for only a year, in that short time he has managed to piss off almost everyone with a stake in the conflict.” 

:: “Even though he had voted for Obama, McChrystal and his new commander in chief failed from the outset to connect. The general first encountered Obama a week after he took office, when the president met with a dozen senior military officials in a room at the Pentagon known as the Tank. According to sources familiar with the meeting, McChrystal thought Obama looked ‘uncomfortable and intimidated’ by the roomful of military brass.” 

:: “He (McChrystal) also set a manic pace for his staff, becoming legendary for sleeping four hours a night, running seven miles each morning, and eating one meal a day…It’s a kind of superhuman narrative that has built up around him, a staple in almost every media profile, as if the ability to go without sleep and food translates into the possibility of a man single-handedly winning the war.” 

:: “Growing up as a military brat, McChrystal exhibited the mixture of brilliance and cockiness that would follow him throughout his career. His father fought in Korea and Vietnam, retiring as a two-star general, and his four brothers all joined the armed services. Moving around to different bases, McChrystal took solace in baseball, a sport in which he made no pretense of hiding his superiority: In Little League, he would call out strikes to the crowd before whipping a fastball down the middle.” 

On Wednesday, Hastings was interviewed by Tom Ashbrook of radio station WBUR in Boston. Here are two excerpts from that interview…   

Q: What was General McChrystal’s response when his top aides were more or less trash-talking the administration?  For example, when an aide called Vice President Biden, “Bite Me” right next to McChrystal, did the general laugh? Was he in on the game? 

A: Oh yeah, no, he laughed, certainly. You know, this is their humor and I think the humor reflects something more. I think reflects a disdain for the civilian leadership in a way.  

Q: Did they know that you were there?  Did they notice you scribbling notes, Michael?  

A: Oh, yeah. I had my tape recorder and notepad out most of the time.  So it was always sort of unclear to me, you know, what was their motivation of allowing me in and all of this access. I think there’s a number of factors that were involved, but I think an important one is that they had had a number of very flattering profiles done on them over the past year, and so they were accustomed to sort of allowing access and having reporters play ball so they could give them more access later.  Well, that’s not really a game I’m interested in playing. 

McChrystal is the last of many big shots to succumb to hubris, and, thank God, reporters have been there many times to take the snapshot while those big shots have exposed themselves. 

Bravo, Michael Hastings!

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Congratulations are in order for Art Brisbane, former Kansas City Star editor and publisher, who on Monday was named the fourth public editor — or ombudsman — at The New York Times.

This is one of the best and most powerful jobs in journalism. The Times has about 1,000 reporters, editors, copy editors, photographers, graphic artists and other news personnel, and Brisbane will have free rein to comment on whatever they do — or fail to do.

Here is how Brisbane’s predecessor, Clark Hoyt, described the job in his last column, published June 11: 

“I was handed the equivalent of a loaded gun — space in the newspaper and on its web site to write whatever I chose about its journalistic performance. My contract stipulated that I reported to no one and could be fired for only two reasons: failing to do any work or violating the company’s written ethics guidelines. I tried hard to be responsible with the power. The contract, designed to guarantee independence, came with term limits.”

Like Hoyt’s, Brisbane’s term is for three years. 

Brisbane, who is the grandson of legendary Hearst editor Arthur Brisbane, said in a Times article published today that one of the subjects he expected to address was the nettlesome issue of whether the same journalistic standards that The Times applies to its printed edition should be applied to its web content.

“I think that journalists and editors are struggling with establishing standards for digital news,” he said. “Are those standards different from content in print? And if they’re different, how do we justify that they’re different? I expect that is a problem that will be with us for a while.”

That is a problem many papers have struggled with. I don’t know how it has gone with The Times, but I know from my many years at The Kansas City Star that The Star did not handle the balancing act well. It was Star credo that we applied great care and caution to what we put in the printed edition, but when the digital era came along, we often slapped material together haphazardly for the web site. 

It was a dichotomy that made many Star reporters and editors very uncomfortable, and it was a factor, I am sure, in why many papers were slow to embrace the web and, as a result, got left behind as the new journalistic model coalesced.

In his new job, Brisbane will be in a position to influence not only web standards, but also other key journalistic issues, including the use of anonymous sources and keeping news reports free of “opinion creep.”

Brisbane, a 59-year-old Harvard graduate, had two stints at The Star. A Long Island native, he started his newspaper career in 1976 at the Glen Cove (New York) Guardian. He began working for The Kansas City Times (the morning paper before The Star went to a single daily edition) in 1977.

He became a columnist and authored a book of columns, Arthur Brisbane’s Kansas City. In 1984, he became a reporter for the Washington Post and later assistant city editor. 

Brisbane returned to The Star in 1990 and two years later was named editor. (Reporters and editors later speculated that when he returned to The Star, he could have had a tacit understanding that he would be named editor after Joe McGuff retired.) He became publisher in 1997 and served in that role until 2005, when Knight Ridder –which owned The Star and 31 other newspapers — named him senior vice president.

In 2006, Knight Ridder sold out to Sacramento-based McClatchy Co. Brisbane was one of several top executives to get lucrative severance packages as part of the sale. Brisbane’s share was $4.5 million.

The Times did not say how much Brisbane will be paid as public editor.

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As you probably know, I’m a devoted reader of The New York Times. It’s the best news-gathering operation in the world, and it has the best writers of any newspaper.

In keeping with its lofty status (critics might say preening), its editors are determined to take the high road in tone and taste. That’s why it is one of the few papers to use courtesy titles — Mr., Ms., Dr., etc. , not just on first reference but every time.  

Sometimes, however, in its effort to avoid banality, The Times stumbles into very awkward situations — situations that most other papers manage to navigate relatively easily and logically. 

A prime example was in a June 19 story about e-mails that Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan had sent during her years in the Clinton administration. Times’ reporters sifted through thousands of Kagan e-mail messages  in an effort to shed more light on her political and personal views, as well as on her personality.

At the end of the story, reporters Adam Liptak and Sheryl Gay Stolberg wrote this:

“Her writing could be earthy, with at least three messages using variations on the two most common swear words.”

Of course, The Times — being The Times — wasn’t going to print those words, so the reader was left to figure them out. My first guess was “hell” and “damn,” but I guess the reporters meant the two most common other swear words.

The report continued:

“In one (e-mail message), she responded to a message with a single word, weaving one of them into ‘unbelievable.’ ”

In case you’re puzzled, let me translate: un-fucking-believable. It just rolls off the tongue, doesn’t it? But, oh, how difficult it is for The Times to point the way between the lines. 

Some papers would have used ellipses to get the idea across. Others would have handled the word like this: “un——believable,” or “un*******believable,” being sure that the number of dashes or asterisks equaled the number of missing letters. 

The story concluded with an even more tortured manifestation of the other most common swear word:

“In another (e-mail), she said her staff should not take on empty tasks. ‘You should go,’ she said, ‘but don’t volunteer us for the’ scutwork  — though she substituted an epithet for the first part of that last word.”

Did you notice how the reporters awkwardly truncated the quote just before using “scutwork” for the word they were trying to convey? I felt like I was trying to solve a word jumble.   

Scut work? Well, it is in the dictionary — two words, really not one — but I’d never heard of the term. In an event, if you see “scut” in The New York Times, chances are the reporter is telling you it’s a bunch of shit.

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An amazing comment has arrived at the mailbox of JimmyCsays, having worked its way from the land of the Rockies. 

The comment is of such a nature, as you will soon gather, that it cries out for “guest blog” status. 

My longtime friend Hubartos vanDrehl, the Prince of Paonia (that would be Paonia, Colorado) has weighed in with golden nuggets of reflection on my latest blog entry….and also on the state of the cosmos. 

Because when vanDrehl (pronounced van-dreal) writes, it is never — never — about just the subject at hand. Maybe it’s the elevation. Maybe it’s the mesas and the mountains. Maybe it’s what he’s smoking in his art studio. Whatever the inspiration, vanDrehl’s prose often ascends to dizzying heights.  

So, savor this, faithful readers, and let me know what you think.    

My Dear JimmyC,
    Give a man a web site and watch his ego inflate to the size of the national debt. Why in God’s Holy Name, in Buttcrack Nation, now filled with oily slicks of greed, corruption and self-destructive behavior heralding the twilight of The Empire, should anyone hang on every bit of news as to the status of your wood floors or access to computer plug-in sites?
(See blog entry from Wednesday, June 16.) And furthermore, what’s wrong with squatting at coffee shops? As annoying as designer coffee snobs can be, their literacy level is well above that of the average city editor at the latest newspaper on the edge of the abyss. Starbucks has hot chocolate, if you don’t drink coffee, you big weenie!
    Please enlighten me as to the benefit(s) of caring about organized sports and hanging on every development in a field rampant with ego-engorged mouth breathers, jock rot and paychecks allowing Neanderthals to show us on TV their tacky “cribs” bought with the hard-earned dollars of fans who ought to know better and desperately need lives of their own.
    Having visited Kansas City many times over the years and knowing it to be a large metropolis possessing potential for possibilities, the law of averages says that there must be something going on worth reading about that has something more germane to world than this latest piece of drivel to ooze from your keyboard.
    Our Great Nation stands on the brink of The Shitter. We await your solutions with bated breath and clutched genitalia.
 

I Remain. 

Ever The Catholic Boy,
Hubartos vanDrehl
 

vanDrehl....at rest

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A letter and a quote

I feel like a displaced person. For the last several days, we’ve been having the hardwood floors refinished in our Brookside home, and I’ve been checking e-mail and writing blog entries at the library. (I have no intention of hanging out at the coffee shop or Panera like some sort of squatter.)

So, in keeping with my living-out-of-grocery-sacks lifestyle during this period (which ends tomorrow), here are a couple of random items.

:: My jaw dropped when I read the lead letter to the editor in Tuesday’s Kansas City Star. The letter, from DeWayne Steele of Kansas City, began like this: “Before serious consideration is given to building a new terminal at Kansas City International Airport, some questions must be answered. Who currently owns the land where the new terminal will be built, and who will profit the most from a new terminal’s location?”

He goes on to explain his cynicism by saying that in the 1960s “some individuals made a financial killing on buying up farm land and then reselling it to the city to construct KCI’s terminals.”

Why The Star would run a letter like this is beyond me. It’s completely baffling. No disrespect to Mr. Steele, but KCI is built on 10,000 acres. Ten thousand acres. The city would not buy any more land to build a new terminal; it would consolidate on the land it already owns.

One of the jobs of an editor is to keep embarrassing things out of the paper, and I’m afraid that this is an example of how the paper has become diminished through layoffs. One of those laid off several months ago was Julie Rehm, who edited the letters to the editor. She was very good at dealing with the public and keeping the letters page vibrant and interesting. It doesn’t just happen; it takes thought and work.

Her successor is Lewis Diuguid, an op-ed columnist who is a member of The Star’s editorial board. Under Lewis, it seems to me, the letters page has drifted and lost its edge. When you see a letter like Mr. Steele’s, it’s a clear sign that shoddy editing is at play. To save money, The Star simply dumped responsibility for the letters on Diuguid, and it probably isn’t a high priority for him.

(Since retiring in 2006, I’ve had several letters to the editor published. With this blog entry, there may be no more.) 

:: The most provocative quote I’ve seen in the paper in a long time appeared Sunday in Scott Canon’s excellent take-out on the impending implosion (which didn’t happen, fortunately) of the Big 12 conference.

Canon touched on the “smarminess of college sports, its never-ending scandals and the manner in which money shoves aside concerns about academics and loyalty.” That set up this comment from Crosby “Chris” Kemper III, director of the Kansas City Public Library and a member of the city’s prominent banking family.

“What’s lost has already been corrupted,” Kemper said, referring to the expected break-up of the Big 12. “We need to stop looking at the Big Eight, the Big Ten, the Big 12 and the NCAA as things that bring prestige and make us a better community. They don’t.”

That brought my reading to a temporary, screeching halt. I was tempted, of course, to let out a knee-jerk, “Yes, that’s so right!” Certainly, if the Big 12 had broken up and Kansas City had been left in the lurch, from the college sports standpoint,  I might well have fully embraced Kemper’s attitude. 

But I think that would have been sour grapes…not to mention a bit elitist. Sure, big money drives college sports. But it also drives business decisions, such as where companies choose to locate and whether funds are sufficient to renovate a downtown bank building into a grand central library facility. (Fortunately for Kansas City, that money was available.) 

In other words, if you want to attract companies, if you want a fine downtown library building, and if you want access to big-time college athletics, it takes money. And, luckily for Kansas City, the money (i.e., TV contracts) is falling in such a way that it became clear to the Big 12 schools — minus Nebraska and Colorado — that staying together made the most sense.

I’m not buying Kemper’s viewpoint, then. I think the Big 12 does make Kansas City a better community…even if greed is ultimately responsible. As a sports fan, I’m simply enjoying the fruits of the 10 universities’ association. I’m not stealing anything. No need for me — or you — to go to confession, is there?

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