Archive for November, 2010

At The Star, the Thanksgiving Day paper is the biggest and one of the most important of the year. 

It’s big because it waves the green flag on Christmas ads, and it’s important because it’s so big it had better be good.

This year, the Thanksgiving Day paper had two stories that particularly caught my attention. One was national editor Darryl Levings’ “Ode to Thanksgiving” on the front page. The other was Randy Covitz’ sports-front update on former Chiefs’ General Manager Carl Peterson.

Levings’ story, a beauty, made me laugh, smile and reflect. 

Covitz’ story, on the other hand, was so poorly constructed and edited that it made me clench my teeth.

Join me in taking a closer look.

First, Levings, who sticks to editing the majority of the time, is one of the most talented and experienced editorial employees at The Star. The paper is lucky to still have him after more than 35 years of duty. And the top editors were smart enough to turn his creative juices loose for the paper’s Thanksgiving retrospective. 

Levings came up with a spoof on the well-known carol “The Twelve Days of Christmas,” converting it to “The Twelve Hours of Thanksgiving,” with his true love giving him something every hour. 

On the fifth hour of Thanksgiving, for example, his true love gave him her iPhone.

“More family checking in,” wrote Levings. “Americans are so far-flung by opportunity, not everyone can make it home this time. Perhaps, God willing and if the creeks — or, these days, airfares — don’t rise, we’ll see them next month. Sadly some places at the table cannot be filled. Many of the old ones — and some too young, as well — have passed on. They were the ones that got you here, who believed in you despite all the indicators, and who won’t be here to hug the grandkids and laugh at your stories. Ah, we do miss them so.”

On the sixth hour of Thanksgiving, his true love gave him the remote, and, it’s off to the couch to watch some football.

“This is the time to rejoice,” Levings said, “that the Chinese, though they may have taken a bunch of our jobs, have not mastered the building of the 260-pound, quicker-than-a-cheetah linebacker. Nor do they have the gating of the tail.”

(I laughed out loud at that.) 

And what did he get on twelfth hour of Thanksgiving? Levings concluded with a crisp and quick kicker: 

“Pie. Any way you slice it…is this a great country or what?”

Now on to Covitz’ story. Covitz is another 30-year-plus Star employee, but he wrote the Peterson story like he was a greenhorn. And his editors didn’t have the good sense to flag him down.

The story opens with Peterson in the press box at the Edwards (yes, that’s the way it appeared in print) Jones Dome in St. Louis “with one eye on the field below and another focused on the FanVision mobile device in his right hand.”

He goes on to talk about how Peterson clicks buttons on the device that give him a flood of information, replays, etc., on several games at a time.

OK, so I guess this device is somehow important to the story. Care to share that information now, Randy?

Nope. Instead, he veers off into the highlights of Peterson’s many years in Kansas City. After 12 column inches of historical rehash, Covitz returns to the subject of FanVision and notes, still without explanation, that Peterson’s “clients” include “three BCS games, the universities of Michigan and Miami and the PGA Tour.”

OK. It appears that Peterson has some significant connection with this FanVision operation, but we’re 16 inches into the story, and that connection is still not clear. Not clear at all.

The next paragraph nudges closer to an explanation, informing the readers that Peterson is a partner in FanVision with the owner of the Miami Dolphins.

All right. Now, after this long slog through weighted verbiage, I’d like to know such things as how long FanVision has been in business, where it’s based, how many employees it has, how Peterson got involved and what the firm’s goals are.   

But wait! Covitz has other things in mind. Then and there, he jerks the reader in yet another direction — how much Peterson misses game days as g.m. “Every time I go to a game,” Covitz quotes Peterson as saying, “it’s like old home week.”

Excuse me; I have to puke.

…I’m back to the story now, and Covitz shares a nugget: FanVision is based in New York! 

Now we’re getting somewhere…BUT we’re three paragraphs from the end, and, all of a sudden, Covitz has to hurry. So, he starts tossing out important information, the stuff we’ve been waiting for, like a football-throwing robot. Peterson lives in New York…but he maintains a home in Kansas City…where his wife, Lori, works  for the sports architectural firm Populous…the firm that designed the Arrowhead improvements.

With that, it’s almost time to say goodbye, but not without one more 45-degree turn: Peterson is considering attending the MU-KU game at Arrowhead on Thanksgiving weekend. “That was something we really worked hard to make happen, because Lamar (Hunt) wanted it,” Peterson is quoted as saying.

Maybe so. Maybe so. But Lamar, Carl and the gang couldn’t have worked any harder than the readers who stuck with Covitz and tried to make sense out of this story.

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Taken together, a series of stories in The Star and a Sunday take-out in The New York Times offer up a volatile cocktail that makes the future of our country look loopy. 

The Star’s three-part series, “A Generation in Free Fall,” began Sunday and concluded today. It explores, in troubling detail, the diminished career opportunities that people in their early 20s are facing.

As writers Scott Canon and Diane Stafford put it, “It’s a generation stalled, exiled from an economy hung over from a crash set off by house-flippers, mortgage scammers and Wall Street shell games.”

The unemployment rate for Americans 20 to 24, Canon and Stafford report, is 15 percent — twice as high as 10 years ago.

The counterpoint to Canon’s and Stafford’s fine stories is Matt Richtel’s front-page centerpiece, in Sunday’s Times, headlined “Growing Up Digital, Wired for Distraction.”

The photo above the headline tells the story: Three California school girls are sitting shoulder to shoulder at an outdoor table during lunch, but they are not eating and they are not talking. Each is texting. 

Richtel gets to the guts of the matter in the fifth and sixth paragraphs:

“Students have always faced distractions and time-wasters. But computers and cellphones, and the constant stream of stimuli they offer, pose a profound new challenge to focusing and learning.

“Researchers say the lure of these technologies, while it affects adults too, is particularly powerful for young people. The risk, they say, is that developing brains can become more easily habituated than adult brains to constantly switching tasks — and less able to sustain attention.”

Richtel knows this subject well. Earlier this year, he won a Pulitzer Prize for National Reporting for a 2009 series called “Driven to Distraction,” which is about the problems inherent in driving and multitasking, including texting.

For his latest piece, Richtel interviewed a 14-year-old girl who sends and receives 27,000 texts in a month and can carry on as many as seven text conversations at a time.

Another student, a boy, said  the lure of the Internet kept him from finishing either of his two summer reading books. “My attention span is getting worse,” he admitted.

So, look at the deadly dilemma here: Fewer jobs available for the foreseeable future and millions of kids who can’t, or choose not to, focus on their school work.

Now, I realize that the distraction of the Internet, video games and cellphone usage is not causing the job shortage. But it seems to me that distracted youths are at a distinct disadvantage when they have the chance to interview for the jobs that are open. And when the job tourniquet eases, many youths might find themselves complaining not that jobs aren’t available, but that they just can’t land them. Or, if they’re able to land them, they can’t hold onto them. 

Anyone who has a college degree can testify that higher education requires great focus. And everyone who has ever had a good job knows how important focus and attention to detail are to success in the workplace.

So, what’s going to happen with this generation of young people with their 15-second attention spans? It’s not promising, is it?

It is a part of the decline, in my view, of the American culture. Other evidence of that decline is the ebbing of manners and the rise of road rage and boorish behavior.

I’m a substitute teacher in the Shawnee Mission School District. I frequently catch students texting in class — a prohibited activity, of course. I tell violators to put the phone away. The second time I catch someone, I usually send him or her to the office with a referral slip.

Is that going to change their behavior? Probably not. I understand that. But teachers and other responsible adults have a responsibility, in my opinion, to try to get students to practice self-control and to tune out the distractions. 

Frequently, I ask students how they like whatever book they’re reading in their English classes. (That’s the subject I usually teach.)

“Boring!” is often the refrain that comes back at me.

I’ve heard students say that about Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein,” Mark Twain’s “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” Truman Capote’s “In Cold Blood” and other great works. Why do they say such books are boring? It has nothing to do with the stories, of course; it has to do with many students’ inability or unwillingness to sit still for 10 minutes and give themselves a chance to get into the stories.

It’s easier and more tempting to fire off another text, or turn to a video game, or search for something light and breezy on YouTube. 

I hate to overstate this, and I sure hope I’m wrong, but when I look down the road — at the future of our country and the prospective caliber of our citizens – I don’t like the view.

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In the last few days, I’ve read two online stories about what newspapers might do — either online or in print — to make themselves more relevant to  many people.

One of the pieces was written by Robert Niles of OJR: The Online Journalism Review. Niles is a web site creator and a former newspaper web editor. He suggests that papers focus on five “beats”: food, education, the workplace, business and faith. 

Those are the beats, he says, that “best reflect the activities of readers’ daily lives – the ones most likely to elicit a connection between reader and publisher.”

In his revolutionary approach, Niles’ would have newspapers jettison their sports sections, which he says are not moneymakers, and “leave the pro and major college teams to ESPN.com and the many team bloggers now covering them.”

As for government coverage — long a hallmark for newspapers — Niles says: “Yes, we need journalists to cover government, but assigning government (or politics) as a distinct beat segregates government from the communities it serves. A local news publication needs to cover government by having each of its reporters cover government within the context of his or her beat, and not by leaving that task to an individual reporter or team.”

Niles’ ideas are interesting, but I don’t think I’d run to the yard every morning to get a paper that had food and faith as two of its main coverage areas. I’ve got to hand it to Niles, though, he’s steering sharply away from the old Gutenberg.

The other writer, Alan D. Mutter,  is a former newspaper man who now specializes in corporate initiatives and new-media ventures. He writes a consistently interesting and informative blog called Reflections of a Newsosaur. 

In his most recent blog entry, which first appeared in the October issue of Editor & Publisher Magazine, Mutter says that newspapers should stop chasing the national, international, entertainment and sports stories “that ricochet around TV, radio and the Internet” and focus on “unique, local stories that distinguish their products from all other competitors.”

Here’s the formula that he urges publishers to adopt: “Pick stories of sweeping significance to your community, report them completely, tell them compellingly, pursue them relentlessly and play them effectively. Repeat as necessary.”

I can relate more easily to Mutter’s theory than I can to that of Niles. And it seems to me that our daily paper, The Kansas City Star, is moving in the direction that Mutter suggests.

Consider three recent stories that The Star has featured on its front pages.

:: Mike McGraw’s and Glenn E. Rice’s sensational piece on Sunday, Oct. 31, laying out their theory on the 1970 murder of civil rights and political leader Leon M. Jordan. As I said in a Nov. 1 blog entry, I think that piece — and a follow-up on the man the reporters believe engineered the killing — will get consideration for a Pulitzer in investigative reporting. However, I think the odds-on favorite for the investigative Pulitzer will be the Memphis Commercial Appeal’s Marc Perrusquia, who was able to establish that a friend and close associate of Martin Luther King Jr. was also an FBI informant.

:: Joe Lambe’s and Don Bradley’s Nov. 13 story about the goofy scheme that four young men concocted to steal more than $62,000 from a U.S. Bank branch in Overland Park. One of the participants was a 20-year-old teller who agreed to be “kidnapped” and punched in the nose to make the job look authentic. This is not the kind of story you get very often out of Johnson County, and The Star didn’t let the opportunity slip away.

:: Laura Bauer’s reflective and uplifting weekend stories on what it’s like to be a teenager these days. This is the most creative and insightful look I have seen about this generation of youngsters. The first of what will be three installments over the next several months kicked off Sunday, straddling the front page and Star Magazine.

Bauer’s front-page story examined the various pressures that young people are under to be constantly connected with and fully accepted by their peers. It opened with the courageous account of a 13-year-old Independence girl who recently got a text message that said: “You don’t belong at this school. You need to go back…Get your own life and stop trying to be one of us.”

Among other things, the story cited a recent study that said nearly half of high school students reported having been bullied in the past year. Another study said that one in four teens reported having a mood, behavior or anxiety disorder.

Even though I am a substitute teacher and see a lot of young people, the story was eye-opening to me. I had no idea that so many students are being bullied and struggling desperately for acceptance. 

But then, in the Star Magazine component, Bauer gave us the flip side — the joy of being a teenager. Bauer homed in on nine students. She asked them, among other things, what a passerby might say about them — what the stranger’s assessment of them might be. One girl said she thought the stranger would see her as “vulnerable.” A boy said he thought he would be seen as “very confident.” A Muslim girl said the stranger might wonder if she was a terrorist.

In keeping with the freewheeling feel of the story, photographer Jill Toyoshiba let the students recommend where and how they wanted to be photographed. One girl, the one who said she would be seen as “vulnerable,” was photographed in a tree. Another boy, a 14-year-old Rockhurst student who designs dresses, was holding a woman’s pink, high-heeled shoe in his right hand.

(Unfortunately, I couldn’t locate the individual photos and profiles in The Star’s electronic library and was not able to link to them here.)

In my opinion, this story was wildly unconventional and wildly successful. It could have been goofy, but it wasn’t. Bauer and Toyoshiba allowed the students to reveal themselves, but they created parameters within which the students could frame themselves. 

All three of those stories — the Jordan killing, the US Bank heist and the teen profiles — hit Mutter’s benchmark of a story of “sweeping significance” to our community, in my opinion. 

The first gave us the answer to a 40-year-old mystery that has haunted many Kansas Citians. The second made us worry about what’s going on in the heads of some of our younger people. And the third gave us hope that a majority of our teenagers will grow up to reshape our community in dynamic and unpredictable ways.

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A magical day on Mount Oread

For years to come, maybe decades, KU fans will tell each other where they were the day of the Mount Oread Miracle, as The Kansas City Star aptly called it.

It will go down as the day the lowly Jayhawks scored five touchdowns — five touchdowns — in the fourth quarter and came from out of nowhere to beat the Colorado Buffaloes 52-45.

Well, I want to be one of the first to tell you where I was and how I spent my day, because I was there. I was there until the very end of that incredible event. 

First, the context.

I have no strong ties to any of the three regional Big 12 schools, other than the fact that my wife Patty is a 1978 graduate of MU. I follow all three schools in football and men’s and women’s basketball, and I root for all three. When they play each other, I vacillate.

Over the years, as you might imagine, I’ve had to mute and moderate my cheering for KU because of my wife’s affiliation with MU. This weekend, though, I had a pass: My wife was out of town on business. Shortly after waking up Saturday morning, following a choppy night of sleep battling a cough and sinus drainage, I began entertaining the idea of driving over to Lawrence for the game.

The idea grew on me, no impediments arose, and about 11:30 I headed west on I-70. Still congested, I felt woozy on the drive and wondered if I had made a mistake in committing myself to an entire afternoon in Lawrence. I pushed on, however, and when I got to Iowa Street, I stopped at The Community Mercantile, known as The Merc, for lunch. Cauliflower and red pepper soup, along with a wheat roll and a big oatmeal raisin cookie, helped lift me out of my fog; things were looking up.

I had to park several blocks west of the stadium, at Harvard and Sunset, and it struck me that there must be a pretty good crowd, despite the fact that both teams were winless in Big 12 play. (The announced crowd was 40,851.)

When I got to the stadium, with the game already underway, I began soliciting other late arrivals, asking if anyone had an extra ticket. After a few minutes, I bought a ticket ($80 face value) for $15  from a Lee’s Summit man named “Don,” whose friend had canceled at the last minute. When we got to Don’s seats, on about the 10 yard line on the west side of the stadium, the score was 7-3 Colorado.

Colorado quickly ran the score to 28-3, however, and Don turned to me and said, “Are you sorry you bought the ticket?”

“No,” I replied, “I made a good deal.” Besides, it felt good, sitting in the sun, enjoying the beautiful afternoon.

By halftime, the score was 35-10, and everybody around me was fairly disgusted with KU’s performance. To his credit, though, Don, a 1971 KU grad, was holding out hope. “It’s still early,” he said.

About the time the half ended, the sun dipped behind the west-side press box and suites, and a chill set in as the shadows began falling over the west-side seats.

One of the things I love about KU football games is watching and listening to the KU band, which is consistently great. The band put on an excellent halftime show, which included a rousing version of Aerosmith’s “Walk This Way,” and then headed back to its east-side seating section, which was bathed in sun.

I took the break as an opportunity to bid so long to Don and headed over to a lower-level section adjoining the band. With the game seemingly out of reach, I decided I’d just sit in the sun and watch the band up close.

When I got to the other side, the stands had thinned out considerably; thousands of people had departed. No one was around me on the aluminum benches, and I focused not on the game but on the band, as it punctuated the atmosphere and rallied what was left of the crowd with horn-blaring, drum-snapping, musical bursts.

As the score reached 45-17, however, my attention began to flag, and the warm sun made me drowsy. I leaned back, rested my shoulders on the bench behind me and soon was almost asleep, chin on chest.

But then I heard a commotion. KU had scored a touchdown with a little more than 11 minutes left in the game. That made it 45-24. I thought, “Well, three touchdowns, with extra points, would tie it, but…nah, isn’t going to happen.”

A minute and a half later, they scored again, cutting the margin to 45-31, and I raised my back off the bench behind me. Two and a half minutes after that, a KU player recovered a Colorado fumble and ran the ball in for another touchdown. 45-38.

By then, some of those who had hung around had joined me down in the lower rows, and we stood cheering and talking excitedly, thinking and hoping we just might be part of something very special.

When KU tied the game at the 4:30 mark, everyone around me was jumping up and down, “waving the wheat” and exchanging double high-hand slaps. KU scored the go-ahead touchdown with 52 seconds left in the game, and, looking across the field into the lowering sun, I took in the beautiful bedlam taking place on the KU sideline and in the chilly-looking, west-side stands.

After a last-ditch Colorado scoring threat, it was over. A delirious, almost incomprehensible victory was in hand.  

I turned my attention back to the band, which played a couple of high-energy songs as the fans headed for the exits. With the stadium emptying, the band took a short break. The student director stepped down from the ladder and turned the elevated spot over to a faculty member, immaculately dressed in white shirt and tie, dark slacks and, of course, crimson sport coat.

As the director raised his arms and held them aloft for several seconds, the band members collected themselves and positioned their instruments. As his arms fell, the band struck the first notes of its traditional finishing song, “Home on the Range.” The arrangement was distinctive and featured a high, extended trumpet note that stood in captivating counterpoint to the recognizable refrain.

When the song ended, the director, using a portable microphone, congratulated the band on an outstanding performance. He reminded them that a rehearsal was scheduled for 10 a.m. Sunday but also reminded them that they would get an extra hour sleep because Saturday was the night to turn back the clocks. The weary band members cheered.

Then, in what must be a ritual, the director turned off the microphone and yelled, “What kind of day is it today?”

In unison, the band members — leaning forward, faces flushed — shouted back, “IT’S A GREAT DAY TO BE A JAYHAWK.”

And, oh, at that moment, how I longed to be a Jayhawk, too!

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After four decades, we have the probable answer as to why black political leader Leon M. Jordan was killed outside his Green Duck  tavern early on July 15, 1970.

We also know now, in all likelihood, who arranged the killing.

Did the answer come from police? No.

The FBI? No.

It came Sunday from Kansas City Star reporters Mike McGraw and Glenn E. Rice, who have spent months, if not years, examining the case and clawing for answers.

Their riveting, almost breathtaking story (breathtaking if you love a murder mystery entwined with great journalism) appeared on Sunday’s front page. Today (Monday) the Star will have a follow-up story.

The Jordan case has long frustrated and intrigued politicians, law enforcement officials and devotees of Jackson County politics. Part of the frustration ended Sunday with McGraw’s and Rice’s conclusion that Jordan’s murder was the product of a “freelance” hit job by a lower- to mid-level mobster who may have been seeking “to curry favor with the leaders of organized crime.”

The reporters’ theory is that the person who commissioned the crime — an inner-city liquor store owner named Joe “Shotgun Joe” Centimano — hired black men for the job to make the killing look like something other than a mob killing. Traditionally, of course, the mob doesn’t entrust such work to outsiders because 1) they usually get caught, and 2) they usually talk.

The local Mafia kingpin was Nick Civella, who ended up in prison and died in 1983. He is not believed to have ordered the hit but might have taken satisfaction in Jordan being killed. Civella’s political arm in Kansas City’s North End was the late Alex Presta, who would not have been in a position to order a killing.

It is likely that Presta — and Civella by extension — would have viewed Jordan as an irritant, at the very least, as he organized black voters under the umbrella of the Freedom Inc. political club. Jordan and the late Bruce R. Watkins founded Freedom Inc., which remains a political force, in the mid-1960s.

In a September story, McGraw and Rice reported that a month after the murder, Orchid Jordan, Jordan’s widow (now deceased), told FBI agents that she thought her husband was killed because Freedom Inc. could deliver 12,000 votes and threatened the power of some potentially violent members of white political groups. She told police that whoever arranged the killing could easily have hired blacks as the triggermen.

We still don’t know who fired the fatal shotgun blasts that morning: Witnesses said three lack men in a late-1960s-model Pontiac comprised the killing corps. But McGraw and Rice might yet put the entire puzzle together.

Their September story prompted police to reopen the investigation.  

McGraw, a career investigative reporter, already has one Pulitzer Prize under his belt for an early 1990s examination of shoddy practices at the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Rice, who has been a reporter at The Star at least 25 years, covers the Northland primarily, but he also has spent a lot of time working in the inner city.

This story should put McGraw in the hunt for a second Pulitzer and Rice in the running for his first.

What is so wonderful and exciting about this, to me, is that it’s rare these days to see journalists putting forth theories on unsolved murders.

It wasn’t so unusual in the 30s, 40s and 50s, when journalism was played more dangerously and, yes, recklessly. Over the years, newspapers pulled back on their risk-taking, largely because of  fear of libel cases, and started to defer to officialdom — police and prosecutors, mainly.

To its credit, The Star has really gone out on a limb with this story. But McGraw and Rice put the paper on sound footing. A major reporting breakthrough occurred recently when The Star asked the Independence Police Department for a 1965 report on the theft, in a burglary, of the shotgun that later was used to kill Jordan.

The report, The Star said Sunday, “came with an unexpected bonus. Attached was a supplemental report filed a few months after the burglary.”

The report said that a confidential informant told police the shotgun was sold through a “North End Italian fence.” The story goes on to quote two named persons who had given statements previously and one new, anonymous source as saying that Centimano later obtained the shotgun and gave it to the men he hired to carry out the killing.

McGraw and Rice cited a report in the original investigation that characterized Centimano as “a small time hoodlum who associated with both the North End and criminal elements in the black community.”

Today’s story will shine a spotlight on Centimano, the man who, at last, can be considered the main culprit in the murder of Leon M. Jordan.

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