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Archive for July, 2010

Maybe you saw a comment on the home page yesterday from my friend Gus Buttice, a St. Louis resident, about an Associated Press story he read in the St. Louis-Post Dispatch.

The story, Gus said, essentially was about how the Kansas City suburbs were growing and how Kansas City seemed to be turning into a giant suburb.

I was able to track down that story, and while it’s interesting, it’s a bit misleading. It’s true that Kansas City, like many metropolitan areas, is becoming more and more suburban, but, fortunately, the city itself continues to grow.

Last week, Yael Abouhalkah of The Star’s editorial board wrote a column in which he laid out the population trends for our area. While some suburban cities, such as Shawnee, enjoyed the sharpest growth rates between July 1, 2000, and July 1, 2009, Kansas City’s numbers were impressive. According to the Census bureau, the city’s population went from 441,612 residents in 2000 to 482,299 last year — a 9.2 percent increase.

I would love to see us hit 500,000 in the 2010 Census, but that’s probably not realistic. However, I think the recession and its aftermath are prompting some people considering a move to think twice about moving farther out. If Kansas City can figure out a way to reduce its expenses — such as bloated pensions to retirees — and put more money toward improved city services, our future would be quite promising.

Oh, and by the way, a key element of the AP story was that some Johnson County folks are planning — well, maybe talking about — a “National Museum of Suburban History.” They contend that with more than 50 percent of the country living in places like Shawnee, “it’s past time to take the suburbs seriously.”

Perfect. The National Museum of Suburban History right here in suburban Kansas City. I wonder how big of a convention and visitors draw that would be. Do you think it a couple of caravans from Liberty and Lone Jack would hazard the westward journey?

*****

Like most journalists, current and former, I love a good quote. Here’s one I think you’ll enjoy.

In Sunday’s New York Times, reporter Jeff Sommer wrote about a stock market forecaster named Robert Prechter, who said he is convinced that “we have entered a market decline of staggering proportions — perhaps the biggest of the last 300 years.”

His advice to individual investors is move completely out of the market and hold cash and cash equivalents, like Treasury bills, for years to come.

To balance out the story, Sommer interviewed another market analyst, a man named Ralph Acampora, who has more than 40 years experience in the market. When Sommer asked Acampora if he agreed with Prechter’s long-term theory, Acampora said he did not and added: 

“I don’t want to agree with him, because if he’s right, we’ve basically got to go to the mountains with a gun and some soup cans, because it’s all over.”

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I know I don’t have a corner on the market of fascinating stories about newspaper experiences. But I was surprised to hear recently from My Ol’ Army Buddy – Corporal Rikard L. Arthur (retd.) — whom I’ve known for 40 years but never realized had the printer’s ink seeped in his hands.

Before we begin his story, let me put Cpl. Arthur in context for you. He grew up in Midtown – lived with his family off Knickerbocker Place — and attended Westport High. He later graduated from Friends University. He has sold cars and motorcycles, run a baseball card/comic book shop and now works for the state of Missouri, helping military veterans. He lives in Lee’s Summit.

Cpl. Arthur and I met in the Army Reserve, in about 1970. We were “Weekend Warriors” in a petroleum supply unit in Kansas City, Kan., and our mandatory two-week “summer camps” took us to such exotic places as Fort Lee, Virginia, and Camp McCoy, Wisconsin.
  
But, like I say, Cpl. Arthur has deep Midtown roots, which led to his entry into the newspaper business. And with that, Cpl. Arthur’s story begins…

“My one and only foray into the newspaper biz was with a publication called the Westport Reporter. It was the only job a sub-16-year-old kid could get back in the day. The paper, which had its offices at 39th and Walnut, was basically an advertising rag for local merchants and apartment-rental postings, but did carry a bit of news and a photo or two in every issue.

“We threw the paper on Thursday, after school. When Westport High dismissed, the first 20 guys who ran the two blocks to the Reporter office were “hired” to throw the paper that day. I always made that group. During the summer vacations, we just showed up about a half hour early to ensure employment, normally travelling to the paper office by Schwinn.

“We carried those big shoulder bags and walked every step of the route with a giant wad of red rubber bands in our cheeks like Nellie Fox with his chaw. At each residence, you rolled the paper, banded it and tossed it within a few feet of the front door.  For lengthy shots in big yards, we cheated by rolling two papers together for the weight needed to make the long throw. Throwing two papers to a single residence was a serious violation of policy and cause for instant dismissal, but we were rule breakers, of course.

“The routes were covered by teams of two paper boys, and to get the due respect of your fellow route man, you needed the occasional “direct hit” sound of a double-rolled paper hitting squarely – and loudly — on the shiny aluminum panel at the base of somebody’s front storm door, which usually carried the family’s last name initial. I’m sure you remember those doors. Everybody had ’em.

“It was a very rewarding sound, and I’m sure it irritated anyone who happened to be home. The noise was about twice as loud if the door behind the storm door was open, so we looked for that situation at all times, keeping a nice double roller right in the front of the bag for immediate use. The double roller was also there for any dog who might challenge, and I smacked more than one right on the nose with a Westport Reporter, which changes their mind in a big hurry. This was in the days long before anyone knew about Mace or protective chemical sprays.

“It took us about three hours to deliver the paper, which was 12-to-20 pages, depending on advertising. We covered the area from 31st Street down to the Plaza, from Troost on the east to a couple blocks past State Line (Adams, Eaton, and I forget the rest). After finishing, we got as little as $2.50 or as much as $4, depending on the length of the route we had thrown.

“Don’t forget, by today’s standards that pay scale equated to roughly 10 to 16 gallons of gas, or about $25 to $40 dollars! In the early 60s, a young man could do a lot of things with that kind of money. A hamburger, fries and thick malt at Joe’s at 39th & Wyandotte (right on my way home) didn’t total a buck and would provide a welcome treat and recovery from the labor just performed. Next stop would usually be Crown Drug or Parkview Drug for a couple comic books (Army at War or Fighting Forces) and perhaps the current issue of MAD, and then back home with my reading materials.

“While I have you reading this ramble, I’ll tell you about the big deal that happened with the Westport Reporter at the end of the school year in 1962, I think. Some of the “chosen” paper throwers (I guess I was one) were secretly told by the staff that “something big” was going to happen right after the last week of school, and to be available if the call came. Well, that’s the summer that the Landing Shopping Center opened at 63rd and Troost, and the paper produced a 15-page special edition, full of coupons and merchant news to promote the grand opening of this major shopping venue.

“The Reporter was contracted to deliver the special paper all over KC. This involved a full week of work for us the first week of summer vacation. We threw the special landing edition more than eight hours a day Monday through Wednesday, the Westport Reporter and the Landing special together on Thursday, and finished up delivering the Landing special on Friday.

“I got sixty-five bucks on Friday and thought I should have a police escort home with that kind of money!  Most of that loot lasted all the way through the summer as my “stash money” for fireworks (which were outlawed in KC, and we rode 10 miles each way to Merriam, Kan., on bicycles to smuggle them back) and other things of great importance, like 45 rpm records and swimming at Fairyland.

“It was truly a dream come true, financially. I don’t think I even told my Mom and Dad how much they had paid me because it was so much, and I didn’t want word to get out. By my standard of $2.50 per gallon gas, that was equal in today’s money to about 260 gallons of gas, or $650 dollars!!!!

“How about those apples, buddy?”

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For me, the most uncomfortable part of The Star’s afternoon news meetings — held every day at 4 p.m. to assess how the next day’s paper was coming together — occurred at the end of the meeting.

It was part of the wind-down, after the various editors had spoken on behalf of their stories and after everyone had weighed in with their opinions regarding which stories should go on the front page.

That’s when the managing editor, or whoever was presiding at the meeting, would say these words: “Any corrections?”

Whenever I  had to acknowledge that I, or someone on the desk I was representing, had a correction for the next day’s paper, I always wanted to curl up in a ball and not be seen. That being impossible, however, I would try to keep my voice steady and state quickly and concisely what the error was and how it occurred. Then I’d try to beat the crowd out of the room. 

In the newspaper business, the journalist who errs — and, by extension, his or her editors — bathes in the waters of ignominy. It is the grade-school equivalent (although no longer imposed on children) of sitting at the front of the room wearing the dunce cap.

With long schooling in the matter of errors, then, I read with great interest readers’ representative Derek Donovan’s column on the editorial page on Sunday, June 27.

It was a very informative column, for readers and reporters alike, because it summed up The Star’s approach to corrections at this point in its history. Donovan made at least two basic points:

1) Readers who are paying attention to such things want to see the corrections run in the same spot every day;

2) When it comes to corrections caused by bad information from a source, the paper should consider changing its style and say that the problem was source related. 

I don’t have a strong opinion about his second point — telling the readers when misinformation from sources was the root of a problem — but I do think that if The Star decided to do that, reporters would be working very hard to convince editors that “sources” were the cause of many problems.

Reporters will do just about anything to stay out of the corrections column. I know because more than once I didn’t self-report errors that no one but me knew about in my stories. 

On the other major issue that Donovan addressed — the placement of corrections — I have very strong opinions.

Donovan was careful — I don’t know why — not to say whether he thought the corrections should always be in the same place. As I see it, when the corrections do not run on the same page every day, when the editors make the readers go looking for them, it tends to devalue the corrections. 

The Star used to run the corrections on A-2 every day. Some time ago — months or maybe a year or more — the corrections began moving around. Donovan explained the variance by saying that the Page 2 design “doesn’t always allow room for the complete list.”

Well, let me tell you, if The Star really wanted to run the corrections on A-2, the page designers could make it happen. They don’t need rulers anymore; the computer does all the math, so don’t give me any page-design excuses.

Taking my basic point a step further, when the paper devalues the corrections, I believe it sends a subtle signal to the journalists that acknowledging errors isn’t as important as it was when they were in the same conspicuous place every day. It reduces the pressure on the journalists to police themselves. 

On Tuesday, I sent an e-mail to Donovan, laying out my theory and asking him if he had any comment. He wrote back: “Nope, I don’t have any comment. I learned the hard way that interacting with anti-Star bloggers is a losing game for me.”

Hmmm. Anti-Star? Me? I don’t think so. Do you sense some defensiveness there? If that’s the prevailing view at The Star — the enemy is right outside the door! — it could go hand in hand with devaluing the corrections. The line of thought (unspoken, of course) could be: “Well, circulation is down, and we’re not getting read by as many people as we used to, so why should we do all these mea culpas on Page 2 every day?”

If that’s the thinking, it’s misguided. I believe it’s important for a paper to own up to its mistakes and to do so very publicly and conspicuously. Put them on the same small platform (Page 2) every day. That’s responsible journalism.

That’s what The New York Times does — puts them on Page 2. Sometimes The Times’ list of corrections takes up 15 or more column inches. But taking responsibility is good for the soul of a paper. Its’ humbling but, at the same time, ennobling.

The Star could stand to follow suit.

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