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Archive for August, 2010

Well, Jason Whitlock needed a vacation, and now it’s my turn.

Unlike Jason, however, I will return. As The Happenings put it so achingly hopefully in 1966…”See You in September.”

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A new hero in town?

From the avalanche of criticism that greeted last week’s announcement about Polsinelli Shughart’s plan to build a high-rise on the Plaza, one published comment struck a chord with a lot of people. 

A woman said the law firm’s leaders would have been “heroes” if they had committed the firm to resurrecting the West Edge project on the southwest part of the Plaza.  

Well, Polsinelli Shughart bypassed its chance to be the hero, and in the process it may have tarnished its reputation forever. 

On Thursday, however, a new prospective hero stepped forward. And it’s none other than AMC Entertainment, one of the nation’s largest movie theater companies. 

Kansas City-based AMC emerged as the primary tenant after a group associated with RED Development submitted the apparent high bid of $10 million for the long-stalled office and hotel project, according to The Kansas City Star. 

To me, it is fitting that AMC become the hero because the man who took AMC big-time, the late Stan Durwood, probably would have wanted to help clean up the West Edge mess that advertising mogul Bob Bernstein and snake-oil salesman Ray Braswell left us. 

In a way, Durwood, who died at age 78 in 1999, saved downtown, where AMC company currently has its offices. It was Durwood who conceived of, pushed for, and named the Power & Light District. It took his former girlfriend — a woman by the name of Kay Barnes — and a Baltimore outfit — Cordish Companies — to make it happen. But it’s still very much a part of Durwood’s legacy. 

Durwood

His main legacy, in case you didn’t know it, is the multiplex theater. He opened the first one, side-by-side theaters at the Ward Parkway Shopping Center, on July 12, 1963. 

In a 1999 article about Durwood’s death, the Associated Press wrote: “It was clear he didn’t have the multiplex figured out yet: Both screens played the same movie — “The Great Escape,” starring Steve McQueen and James Garner. But the idea was born, and according to AMC, Durwood coined the multiplex name at that time, too.” 

Durwood never sought the limelight and didn’t promote himself; he just stuck to business and pushed the ideas he thought would work. It was in the same low-key vein that AMC spokesman Justin Scott commented in The Star on AMC’s possible interest in the West Edge: 

“Currently, we are making some preliminary inquiries into some locations in Kansas City, yet no decisions are being made at this time.” 

To me, it’s playing out as a picture of two companies. The picture I have of one — Polsinelli, Shughart — is of a brash, boastful and back-slapping group congratulating each other on their initial Plaza plan, which they thought was a done deal…before the public weighed in. 

The picture I have of the other is of a group of no-nonsense folks who keep their heads down and try to figure out what is best for their company and the city in which they operate. 

And when those folks get together in the boardroom, I have no doubt that they talk business below a portrait of Stanley H. Durwood.

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I’ve been whacking away at the KC Star the last several days for various journalistic offenses, including running an untimely letters to the editor page and failing to include in a front-page story the governmental-approval process needed for construction of a controversial office tower on the Plaza.

But today I’m taking off my straw hat (see “About Me” page) to you, KC Star.

A group of editors, reporters, photographers and graphic artists has put together what — halfway into it, at least — is an amazing series on the Kansas City School District.

The six-part series, which began Sunday, is beautifully written, carefully and thoroughly reported, and strikingly presented, with great photos, graphics and sidebars. Each of the three parts that appeared Sunday, Monday and Tuesday started out front and then “jumped” inside to take up two full inside, facing pages. 

For any reporter, getting a story that starts on the front and covers two full inside pages is a rarity and a thrill. I was involved in two or three such stories during my 25-plus years as a reporter at The Star.   

Paralleling “Special Report — Saving 17,000 kids” is a six-part series about the end of the line for Pinkerton Elementary School, one of 24 district schools that closed for good last May. That series was written by Eric Adler of the features desk.

To tell you the truth, I haven’t yet made the time to read Adler’s stories carefully, but from a quick scan, they look equally impressive. Tuesday’s installment, for example, profiled the school’s dynamic principal, Derald Davis. (My only beef is that Adler didn’t tell the readers whether Davis has a job in the district this year. Maybe Adler is holding that bit of information until later in the series, however.)  

Day 1 of  “Saving 17,000 kids” was largely about the failures of the past, but it pointed toward the future. “…Granted, in this pivotal year to come, success for the children could be as elusive as ever…” reporter Rick Montgomery wrote. “But at least now everyone seems to be on the same page: It is about the children.”

Day 2 featured a searing profile of Superintendent John Covington, who came to Kansas City from Pueblo, Colo., a year ago. Covington granted long-time school district reporter Joe Robertson full access to his comings and goings, his thoughts and philosophy, and it paid off for them and the readers. 

One of the highlights of the piece is Robertson’s recounting of a day that Covington went home from work exhausted, went straight to bed and woke up at 7:30, worried about being late to work. After taking a shower, he found out it was 7:30 p.m. He’d had a nap, not a full night’s sleep.

Day 3 of the series (Tuesday), featured business writer Mark Davis’ microscopic examination of the district’s financial problems, abuses and, now, vigorous attempts to set things straight. (For example, the district has pared its vendor list from 6,200 to 985.)

Davis quoted Covington, who seemingly is on a crusade to root out insider deals and employment, as saying: “We are going to make sure, under my watch, that the days for making decisions based on the best interest of adults, and this patronage and cronyism that has been so long known to have had a negative effect on how we operate public schools in Kansas City — please know that while I sit in this chair, those days are gone.”

And do you know why I believe him? Why, in one respect, I think he’s got this district moving in the right direction? 

There has not been a single mention of perennial school district sycophant Clinton Adams Jr. If Clinton has left the scene, or has been removed from it, the outlook is much more promising.

Congratulations, then, to John Covington for starting the turn-around of the Kansas City School District and to The Kansas City Star for devoting the time, space and, yes, money to tell this very important story.

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Electronic subscriptions now make up more than 10 percent of the total number of paid subscriptions to The Kansas City Star.

A “consolidated media report” (CMR) generated by the Audit Bureau of Circulations shows that slightly more than 10 percent of Sunday subscriptions are of the electronic variety.

The proportion is higher during Monday-Friday, when about 13 percent of subscribers take the electronic rather than the printed edition.

The advertised price of an electronic subscription is $4.95 a month, which is about one-third the cost of the print-subscription rate.

As of March 31, the total number of Sunday subscribers was 314,449, with 31,755 of those being electronic. The number of print-edition subscriptions was 282,694.

Print-edition subscriptions to the Sunday Star have fallen by more than 100,000 since 2004, when Sunday circulation was 388,425. 

During Monday-Friday, print-edition subscriptions are below 200,000 every day except Friday. 

In the late 1990s, weekday subscriptions to the printed edition stood at about 250,000, and The Star waged a marketing campaign aimed at getting to “300,000 by 2000.” The goal (again, referring to weekday circulation) was never reached. 

On its Web site, kansascity.com, The Star advertises “E-Star” as “a clickable replica of our newspaper.” 

“The electronic edition contains all the news, photos, ads, box scores, and special sections in the printed The Kansas City Star,” the company says.

In 2008, the Audit Bureau of Circulations, an industry-funded group that is paid by publishers to audit their circulation, approved the testing and creation of a consolidated media report for member newspapers. The Star has participated in the consolidated reports from early on.

ABC says: “The report allows newspapers to provide advertisers with a comprehensive view of the newspapers ‘total media footprint’ across multiple products and channels by reporting total gross distribution data.”

While helping newspaper companies market themselves to advertisers, consolidated reports also serve another purpose: They make print-circulation losses less conspicuous than they were before the days of the “CMR.”

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I love to see Kansas City area residents rise up en masse against flim-flammy plans to encroach on cornerstones of Kansas City history.

And so it was with great satisfaction that I watched the tidal wave of opposition swell all day Friday against the Highwoods Properties-Polsinelli Shughart office tower-and-money grab that would destroy the integrity of perhaps the Plaza’s most important intersection, 47th and Broadway.

The proposal to build an eight-story, $57 million office building for the Polsinelli Shughart law firm has unleashed such a fusillade that the plan probably is D.O.A. However, where the power of money is involved, you never know, so it’s probably going to take a Phil Spector-like “wall of sound” to keep this plan from going forward.  

Having covered City Hall between 1985 and 1995, I can tell you that the one sure thing that councils respond to is a roomful of people. If big crowds  show up in opposition to the proposal, the council almost certainly will kill the plan, if it gets that far.  

Here’s another thing I know about this mushroom cloud: The hysteria would not have reached such proportions (hundreds of calls, e-mails and Web comments to The Kansas City Star) and the outrage would have been more clearly focused if The Star, in its Friday morning report, had laid out the government and regulatory approvals that are needed to proceed with the project.

The project will be reviewed first, on Oct. 5, by the City Plan Commission, an appointed group, which makes recommendations to the City Council. The City Council would have the final say, regardless of what the Plan Commission did. 

Unbelievably, Collison’s story didn’t have one mention of the regulatory process or the approvals that the project requires to move ahead. Collison has been with The Star for at least a decade and is an excellent development reporter. I don’t know what happened in this case; it was just a terrible omission. When I wrote to Collison on Friday, asking about the regulatory process, he wrote back, saying, “I’ve been up to my eyeballs with the outrage over this today.”

At least two editors — probably three or four, including a managing editor — read the story, and someone should have said, “Hey, this story doesn’t say if City Council approval is needed.” That’s all it would have taken to put the situation in proper perspective and help readers channel their anger. 

As it was, the story made it look like the building was a done deal. The story had Highwoods’ and the law firm’s  chief executives exchanging oratorical high fives. I could almost smell the smoke from the victory cigar in the statement of W. Russell Welsh, Polsinelli’s chief executive, who said, “We could not be more pleased to have our own building in the center of the Plaza, where our firm began nearly 40 years ago.”  

On Saturday, Collison and The Star moved to undo the damage from Friday’s confusing story. The first paragraph of today’s story, the lead story in the paper, said: “Plans for an office development in the Country Club Plaza that includes demolishing a vintage building have ignited outrage among Plaza devotees — and they will have their day at City Hall.”

Appropriately, the story was as much a correction as it was a report of the outrage.

To me, this episode reflects a couple of things: First, we love our Plaza, with its graceful, Spanish architecture and distinctive feel, and, second, The Star has to be very, very careful — and thorough — in reporting about proposed changes to venerable Kansas City institutions like the Plaza.

The reporting and editing lapse that occurred in Collison’s Friday story is, unfortunately, happening more and more. That is almost inevitable with a diminished staff, and it demonstrates once again how The Star’s status as the area’s most powerful and authoritative news-gathering operation has slipped.

It’s still the biggest and the best, but not as big or good as it used to be.

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I don’t know if you share my opinion about this — of if you’ve even noticed — but it seems to me that the letters to the editor page of The Kansas City Star has gotten kind of moldy.

There’s too much lag time between the articles that triggered the letters and publication of the letters. As a result, the letters page has become increasingly dull over the last several months. 

I’ve been thinking about this lately, and on Thursday I decided to run a little test on the timeliness of letters that ran Wednesday and Thursday.

Here’s what I found: On those two days, a total of seven letters included parenthetical references to articles that generated the letters. (Some letters are about ongoing stories or situations and not pegged to specific stories.)

Of the seven, five referred to articles that had been published at least two weeks ago.  

To me, that’s pretty bad. 

I decided to compare that with the letters that appeared Wednesday and Thursday in The New York Times. On those two days, The Times published a total of 10 letters containing parenthetical references to articles that prompted the letters.

Of the 10, nine were published within eight days of the published articles.

To me, that’s pretty good.  

What is the upshot for readers? In my opinion, The Star’s letters page has a dated, heavy feel to it, where The Times’ page is lively and topical. 

Hate to say it, but that applies to the two papers in their entirety, too. Of course, The Star, like almost all second-tier dailies, has suffered terribly from contraction and readership loss, while the top-tier, national publications — The Times, the Wall Street Journal and USA Today — have held up somewhat better.

I must confess that one of the reasons I decided to run the test is that I submitted a letter to the editor on Sunday (Aug. 15) about a column that day by E. Thomas McClanahan of the editorial staff. McClanahan wrote eloquently and insightfully, in my opinion, about his opposition to the proposed mosque to be built two blocks from Ground Zero. (For the record, I’m against it, too.)

Lewis Diuguid, an editorial writer who calls letter writers to verify that they, indeed, penned the letters, called me on Monday and said he’d try to get the letter in.

Now, really, it makes no difference to me if the letter gets in. But I really would like to know what the public feedback is on McClanahan’s piece, and I don’t want to have to wait two weeks to get that feedback.

What really galled me was that yesterday a letter ran under the headline “Mosque at ground zero.” I eagerly went to the text, thinking it would be about McClanahan’s column. But, no, it was a letter from Chris Anderson of Basehor, who was writing about an Aug. 4 article titled “Mosque plans advance.” Anderson’s first line was “Where is the outrage over the project mosque by the World Trade Center?”

Well, the outrage certainly escalated between Aug. 4 and Aug. 18, didn’t it?  

I guess the letters pertaining to McClanahan’s column are waiting in a queue…waiting like tax returns stacked up for processing by the IRS.

Yesterday, I e-mailed Miriam Pepper, vice president and editorial page editor of  The Star, and told her about the results of my test and that I intended to write a blog entry on the subject. 

Miriam, one of the most solid and respected editors at The Star, declined to comment, and I can appreciate that. She has nothing to gain by defending the status quo, and feelings could get ruffled in house if she said the page needs improvement. 

Here’s the gist, though. The letters to the editor page is one of the most important parts of the paper. It’s where members of the public get to weigh in, in black and white, on issues that are of importance to them. It’s a garden of ideas, and it’s fun and informative to see what seeds are being planted and to try to figure out which might take root.

It’s important, then, that the letters be timely. In the computer era, people can get plenty of feedback on just about any issue, but millions of people still look to the letters page of their daily papers every day to gauge the ebb and flow of public opinion on current issues.

For the vast majority of serious current-events followers, I dare say, a letter published on the letters page of a daily paper, signed with a person’s real name and disclosing their city of residence, carries far more weight in the court of public opinion than an anonymous comment (or, for that matter, a signed comment) on any blog or Web site.

So, let’s get cracking down there, KC Star!

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It was a moment of inspiration from my colleague Hearne Christopher over at KCConfidential.com.

He came up with the idea — I’m getting to it — after reading KC Star reporter Matt Campbell’s story on Sunday about the “eternal flame” atop the World War I Liberty Memorial costing taxpayers $100,000 a year. 

Hearne’s idea, which he proffered in response to a person who commented on his blog entry about the story, was to supplant the costly steam-production system to a very economical model.

He wrote:  “How about they buy one of those big fans at Wal-Mart, tie some orange, yellow and red streamers to it and let it rip! Who said you have to have smoke with your fire?”

At first blush, I loved it. I e-mailed Hearne and told him it could be “a uniquely Kansas City solution” to a big dilemma and suggested that he start promoting the idea.

But then I started thinking about what the flame represents — the gravity of it — and qualms set in. I certainly don’t want a more economical model to cheapen the tribute to the Allied troops who died in World War I.

Then, I ran it by me wife Patty — my sounding board — and she immediately turned thumbs down. She gave me hope, though…Maybe the fan and streamers could be used as a humorous tribute to something less serious but still “uniquely Kansas City,” she said. Then she floated a totally ridiculous idea — hooking up the streamers and fan to the rear of a cow sculpture.

“What are you talking about?” I said. “Methane? I don’t get it. What’s the connection?”

“Well, you know,” she said, as she cleaned up around the stove, “the cowtown thing.”  

She acknowledged that her idea really wouldn’t have anything to do with fire, and she quickly changed the subject on me. The whole thing got me thinking, though, about a couple of other symbolic ideas that caught my fancy in years past.

One of them was floated here but never got off the ground. The other was in my hometown of Louisville, Ky., and it did fly…for a while.

The one here was put forward, as I recall, by U.S. Rep. Emanuel Cleaver during the time he was mayor — 1991-1999.  Seeking a permanent and dramatic tribute to Kansas City’s jazz heritage, he proposed  that a replica of a huge saxophone be built and then installed on the Missouri River so as to jut out of the water.

I don’t think I’ve ever heard a better idea before or since. For some reason, though, it didn’t take off. Just died. If Charlie Wheeler had come up with it when he was mayor (1971 to 1979), maybe it would have come to pass. Wheeler, in case you’re not old enough to remember him, was known for his bold ideas and crazy antics, such as wrestling a bear in the mayor’s office, on the 29th floor of City Hall. (“The bear sat right there on that couch and drank a Pepsi,” Wheeler said later, in his inimitable nasally whine.)

Another unconventional idea that I really liked — the one out of Louisville — was to build a moveable fountain in the Ohio River, along the city’s breathtaking riverfront development. 

Called the Louisville Falls Fountain, it was dedicated Aug. 19, 1988, five days after the death of its benefactor, Barry Bingham Sr., former owner of The Courier-Journal and Louisville Times newspapers. 

Louisville Falls Fountain...in its heyday

The fountain emitted about 16,000 gallons of water per minute in the shape of a fleur-de-lis (the symbol of Louisville), and it initially shot water to a height of 420 feet. According to Wikipedia, it was to be in use from Memorial Day through Thanksgiving from morning until midnight. But…there were problems. It listed to one side and always looked to me like it was in danger of toppling. Also, costs were higher than expected, and chronic malfunctions depleted the fountain’s maintenance fund.

If that wasn’t enough, the poor fountain came under ridicule, too: A radio talk-show host, Terry Meiners (who’s still on WHAS-AM radio, 840 on the dial), dubbed it “The Belching Barge.” That was the coup de grace. Eventually, the fountain was sold for scrap and, again, according to Wikipedia, “sits in the Ohio River in New Albany, Ind., waiting to be taken apart.”

And so, the moral of this story — coming back full circle — is that when fielding unconventional ideas, maybe modest is best….like Hearne’s idea about the fan and streamers.

Surely, that concept can be put to good use somewhere on something in Kansas City…just not on the rear of a cow sculpture.

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