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Archive for January, 2011

I hate to say this, but I am losing confidence in Mark Zieman as publisher — and ultimate leader — at The Kansas City Star. 

My colleague John Landsberg of Bottom Line Communications reported yesterday that there will be another round of layoffs at The Star. I can’t keep track of how many rounds there have been in the last few years, but I think this will be at least the fifth.

This latest news is particularly maddening and frustrating not because The Star’s staff apparently will get even thinner, but because of Zieman’s optimistic tone when he announced the previous round of layoffs last September.

Back then he said The Star was approaching the end of the year “financially strong” and that the industry was at a “turning point.”

To me, that not only was irresponsible, it was misleading and showed Zieman was indulging in wishful thinking. While such words might buoy employee morale temporarily, the words make it all that much harder for employees to swallow another round of layoffs. The real danger of statements like that is that they spread a sense of false hope and paint the publisher as someone trying to buy time before something even worse happens.

Employees of every organization like to hear words of encouragement and hope from their leaders, but, more important, they want a candid assessment of where things stand. Zieman has failed miserably on that front, not just in September but with unrealistically optimistic words with each round of layoffs.

So, now, unfortunately, it’s like the boy yelling fire in the theater. Except it’s the reverse because there is a fire and Zieman keeps trying to convince his troops it’s just about extinguished, when it’s obviously out of control. 

I mentioned that something big could happen. Like what? Well, how about a decision to drop the print edition several days a week. That seems like the next likely step to me.

Zieman probably won’t admit it until it happens, because he’s obviously reluctant to take off the rose-colored glasses. But it could easily happen, and it wouldn’t surprise me to see one or two weekday papers — maybe Monday and Tuesday — dropped within a year or two.

Several papers around the country have already dropped some or all print editions, and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch took a step in that direction last year, when it dropped single-copy sales — in boxes and convenience stores — of the Saturday paper. It still puts out a Saturday paper, but it goes only to subscribers.

In reporting the story last October, the Riverfront Times, the St. Louis alternative paper, asked Editor Arnie Robbins how long it would be before the Post-Dispatch would cease putting out a print publication altogether.

“I’m not feeling particularly clairvoyant this morning,” Robbins replied. “But I think in the next 10 years you could see the elimination of the weekday paper, with the Sunday still coming out in print. The rest of the week would be online or delivered through niche products and phone and e-reader apps. We’re working on a few of those projects right now that we’re excited about.'”

Well, let’s credit Robbins with some degree of candor. Ten years very likely is an overestimation of how much longer the daily P-D will survive, but at least he doesn’t have blinders on.

Now, compare that statement with what Zieman told employees in the September memo announcing that round of layoffs:

 “I know that weathering this recession has been exceptionally hard for each of you. But we will begin next year with a steadily improving revenue trend. We are posting record online traffic and revenue, we remain the dominant media company in our region, our presses and readership metrics are among the best in the country and our news products are recognized nationally for their journalistic excellence. The Star won’t die, but this recession will.”

Metrics. Journalistic excellence. The Star won’t die. Uh huh.

This is really a desperate situation in my view. I think The Star’s owner, McClatchy Co., is headed for bankruptcy.

As I reported in June, Morningstar, the independent investment and stock research company, had a grim outlook for the company. An article in Morningstar StockInvestor, a periodical available to Morningstar members by subscription, said this:

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

Are you listening, Mark? That’s zero. Nothing. Worthless shares for the stockholders.

At the time, McClatchy’s stock was selling at $4.28 a share. The stock closed Friday at $4.89 a share, but that’s no indication of a significant upswing. Sprint, as difficult as its situation is, has a much better chance of surviving than McClatchy does.

The company paid too much for KnightRidder in 2006 and bought the KR papers at precisely the wrong time.

Do you remember when Payless Cashways senior managers, led by then-chief executive officer David Stanley (fondly known to some as Minnesota Dave because he flew back to his home in Minneapolis every weekend) took the company private in 1988? They paid too much ($900 million); the company muddled along for about 10 years and then rolled over and died.  

McClatchy, too, is going to roll over and die, I believe…or get bought out for a song. I can hear the late “Dandy” Don Meredith singing from heaven, “Turn out the lights; the party’s over.”   

And what will happen with the papers McClatchy owns? I don’t know. But it isn’t a bright picture, and I hope Zieman doesn’t weigh in with more irrationally optimistic statements when he officially announces the newest round of layoffs.

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My New Year’s resolution (actually, it just occurred to me) was to be calm and composed in 2012, but I guess that’s not going to happen. Maybe next year.

I apologize to you non-sports fans, but I’ve got to get these outrages out of my system. Then, no more sports for a while…unless The Star does a 180 and hires Jason Whitlock back.    

So, here goes:

:: What is with these bowl games? Will they ever end?

Used to be, all the attention was focused on four big New Year’s Day games — Cotton, Sugar, Rose and Orange bowls and you could sit around and eat your Hoppin’ John, enjoy a nice beverage and then the football season was over.

But not anymore. Oh, no! Now, there are 35 bowl games, which start a week before Christmas and go until it’s time for that clarion call, “Pitchers and catchers report.” Well, that’s a bit of an exaggeration, but the national championship game, Auburn vs. Oregon, doesn’t take place until next week.

The bowl season has become so diluted and strung out that the games have become about as riveting as a flatlined electrocardiogram. I watched a total of about 10 minutes of football on New Year’s Day. Just couldn’t get excited about any of the games. 

And you know what? I’m not even sure that a playoff system, which many people advocate, would be an improvement. It might end up as a big, long slog extending into the pro football playoffs.   

On top of the bowl bog, the Rose Bowl Stadium is going to be renovated. And suites –what else? — will be added. Now that’s a double outrage!

:: On Tuesday, I was reading Sam Mellinger’s KC Star story on new KU athletic director Sheahon Zenger when I came across a passage that had me spluttering over my oatmeal.

Mellinger’s story revolved around the true face of KU athletics, basketball coach Bill Self. It seems that Mellinger had been able to get some up-close and personal  time with Self, so Mellinger found himself driving around campus with Self. He wrote: “His Lincoln Navigator cuts through campus one night, and even in the twilight, at least a few students point and smile.”

What??!! Bill Self driving a Navigator — one of the biggest road and gas hogs of all — in Lawrence, Kansas, one of the greenest cities in America?

Un-believable. The Navigator is a vehicle I would expect to see Lew Perkins driving, or Mark Mangino. And we all know where they ended up driving.

But Self? He seems like a perfect fit for humble, laid-back, non-ostentatious Lawrence.

He’d be much better off driving a hybrid. In fact, he should have the first Volt in Lawrence.

:: Tom Cable is out as head coach of the Oakland Raiders.

Raiders’ owner Al Davis has lost his mind…Well, he lost it a long time ago, he’s just showing it more these days.

Cable

I certainly haven’t been a big fan of Cable, especially when allegations surfaced in 2009, a year after Cable was named head coach, that he had broken an assistant coach’s jaw in an altercation and that he had physically abused a former girlfriend and at least one former wife.

I thought he should have been fired then. But I guess those allegations didn’t bother Boss Davis; he probably thought he’d hired a really tough guy. 

So, Cable managed to weather that storm, and the Raiders have been on the upswing the last two years. This year, they went 8-8, which isn’t great, but a big improvement over last year’s 5-11 record. The main thing, though, is that this year the Raiders won every AFC West Conference game that they played. They beat the Chargers twice, the Broncos twice and the Chiefs twice, including Sunday’s 31-10 demolition of the Chiefs. (I was there, and the Raiders had the distinct look of a team on the rise.)

His firing would be the equivalent, in my eyes, of Turner Gill’s Kansas Jayhawks beating both Missouri and K-State in back-to-back years and Gill getting handed the pink slip.

It’s an outrage, that’s all you can say.

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Yo Yo-ing through the years

My old Army buddy, former Cpl. Richard Arthur, has come up with a fine piece about his long-time affinity for the yo yo, one of the most enduring toys (?) ever invented. 

Here’s Richard’s story: 

While Christmas shopping a few weeks ago, and looking for grandkid-type toys, I happened upon a yo yo display at Walmart.

I have a history with the yo yo and selected a semi-translucent, green Duncan Imperial model after perusing the entire selection. Didn’t I owe myself a little Christmas present, after all?

It was like a magic time capsule, taking me back to the early 60s and vivid memories of endless fun, transistor radios and virtually no responsibilities, other than keeping the grass mowed at our home and maintaining proper tire pressure in my old Schwinn.

Here’s the backdrop to Yo Yo Redux:

In the summer of 1960 or 1961, our next-door neighbor, Anita, who attended college out of town during the school year, was managing a Kansas City Parks and Recreation site in Hyde Park. My brother and I often accompanied her on the ride to work in her aunt’s ’56 Chevrolet, and we would spend the day playing with all the sports stuff the city furnished to keep kids occupied. (It was strictly daytime activity; no midnight basketball in those days!) I was either 11 or 12 at the time.

One day, a big, green, city truck arrived with a large box of Duncan yo yo’s, and Anita passed them out to everyone there. I was thrilled to be given a toy that cost nearly a dollar at that time. I took a special liking to the one I got, which I believe was ivory, with an airbrushed, lemon-yellow stripe. It was made of wood and fit my hand perfectly.

Later, park officials announced there would be a yo yo contest, and they distributed a one-page sheet bearing the rules of the contest and showing what tricks would be included. I learned as many of the tricks as I could and took special note of the fact that any ties would be decided by who could do the most loop-the-loops and still recover the yo yo into their hand.

The contest day arrived, and I didn’t see anyone at the park who could do the basic tricks other than me. Those basic tricks were the spinner (freewheeling the yo yo at the end of the string), walk the dog, around the world, loop the loop, the trapeze, and the universally dreaded rock the cradle.

At the last possible minute, like a scene from a movie, an unknown kid rode up on a bike and entered the contest. I had never seen him at the park and suspected he was going all over town getting into the different contests. He was a sinister-looking character dressed in black.

It was like the Grim Reaper had arrived to dash my hopes of being a yo yo champion!

In very short order, it was plain to see that he and I were at the same level of yo yo skill. The contest proceeded, run by a Parks and Rec employee. At the end, the Grim Reaper and I were tied. I tightened my string to lessen the freewheel effect, and somehow fooled around until they had him do his loops first to break the tie. He did about five, and I did at least a dozen (it’s all about string tension and wrist control), winning first place in the Hyde Park division.

I received a trophy and a first-place patch, shaped like a Route 66 sign, and was told I was eligible to advance to the citywide contest the next week.

Many more guys showed up for that contest, but, again, most entrants couldn’t do all of the basic, required tricks, much less original tricks.

One of the prerequisites of this contest was that the contestants had to have an original trick to advance to the final stage. I named mine “The Scissors.” The Grim Reaper wasn’t there, which was a big relief. Again, loop-the-loops decided the winners. I did well and got third place.

A trophy and prizes to cherish

I seem to remember the winner being a little older than me, but I’m pretty sure there were age groups, so he probably wasn’t very much older. I think he got a larger trophy than the ones we got, but I got a big, red, oversized Duncan yo yo and another patch that said Third Place. I kind of remember getting a T-shirt, too, but I’m not certain about that.

Later, back at Hyde Park, Anita wanted all the yo yo’s out of her way and gave me the whole box of tangled, and sometimes-stringless, used yo yo’s. I don’t know what ever happened to them, but at the time, it seemed like a priceless treasure. I sewed the badge-shaped patches on a lightweight jacket, which has long since disappeared.

Over the years, I’ve managed to keep the trophy but have misplaced the little plastic insert that dropped into the grooves on the front of the trophy. As I recall, the insert had the name of the contest and the placings. I also still have the red yo yo, but I never really used it much because it doesn’t free wheel and weighs a ton.

Now, fast forward to the new yo yo that I got a Walmart…When I got it home, I was surprised to find that I could still perform the basic tricks, plus my special “Scissors” trick. So, now I’m looking for an old-timers contest and hoping the Grim Reaper isn’t lurking in the shadows.

At this stage, I’m only good for about six loop-the-loops.

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We started early and went late, and just about blew the damn doors off the house.

Check it out.

Josie, poised for action

The hostess, calm and prepared

All we need is animation

A wanted man arrives for dinner

Actual, invited guests

The crowd mushrooms

The last supper, 2010

Thinking about raising hell

Waiting for Dick Clark

Turn out the lights; the party's over

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