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Archive for May, 2011

I was very saddened to read in Sunday’s paper about the death of former Kansas City Councilman Bob Lewellen.

I’m proud to say he was a friend to me personally, and, from a professional standpoint, he was a reporter’s delight. He was always thinking, figuring out how to advance the causes that were important to him, and he was a font of information and shared it liberally.

Between Lewellen and former Councilman Frank Palermo, who served contemporaneously with Lewellen, the information spilled out like the swollen Mississippi River.

I used to call Lewellen “an equal opportunity tipster” because, when he wanted to get a story out about one thing or another, he might first pitch it to a favored reporter, but if that reporter didn’t run with it, he’d tip off the next reporter on his list.

I covered City Hall for The Kansas City Times and, later, The Star, from 1985 to 1995 and had a lot of opportunities to write about Lewellen, who was on the council from 1983 to 1991.

The most memorable story I have about Lewellen came about as a result of a brouhaha over a secret, illegal meeting that took place in the late 1980s, I believe, while Lewellen was chairman of the Finance Committee.

Here’s what happened:

One of the main jobs of the Finance Committee was to recommend a proposed city budget, which the full council took up in late April every year. At about $750 million dollars (more than $1 billion now), the budget was almost always delicate and controversial. Every council member fought for a piece of the pie for his or her district, and reaching a consensus required a fine balancing act.

That particular year, the budget process was particularly fractious and difficult. Unbeknownst to the council at large, one Finance Committee member, Mary Bryant, asked Lewellen and the two other committee members — Joanne Collins and Katheryn Shields — if the committee could meet in secret at Fedora’s, an upscale Plaza restaurant.

The idea was to hash out their differences and cut up the pie outside the public eye so the committee members could wheel and deal freely.

Now, anytime that a quorum of an elected public body, or a committee of an elected body, gets together in public, it’s considered an open meeting under the Missouri Sunshine Law, requiring at least 24 hours public notice. So, this gathering was clearly illegal, and the committee members knew it.

The meeting went off as planned, with one exception: Bryant, who initiated the meeting, didn’t attend. I never found out why; he just didn’t go.

At the next regular meeting of the council, Councilman Dan Cofran, who had learned about the meeting, stood up and, in front of everyone, exposed the dastardly deed. As I recall, one of the committee members either confirmed the meeting, or none of them denied it.

I was furious. When the meeting ended, I corralled Cofran and got as much information from him as I could. I don’t remember if I was able to talk to any of the Finance Committee members, who scrambled out of the chamber as fast as they could, but I got enough to know that Cofran was on the money.

As I left my parking lot on the north side of City Hall and proceeded south on Oak, toward The Star building, Lewellen happened to be pulling out of the City Hall garage. We looked at each other. He grinned. I gave him the finger.

I wrote a story for the next day’s paper, exposing the chicanery, but that didn’t satisfy me…not at all.

I tossed and turned that night, and the next morning, still fuming, I went straight to the third-floor office of then-publisher Jim Hale. “Jim,” I said, “as you probably know by now, the City Council Finance Committee held a secret meeting at Fedora’s last week, and I think we should sue them.”

These were the days when The Star was a cash cow, and we didn’t hesitate to sue someone over a violation of the Sunshine Law.

“I think you’re right!” Hale said, without hesitating. And with that he summoned Scott Whiteside, our in-house lawyer, had me brief him on the situation and gave him the green light to set in motion a civil complaint.

Then, Whiteside and I traipsed down to the second-floor newsroom for a meeting with managing editor Monroe Dodd and other top editors. That’s when I started feeling a little awkward. After all, in going straight to Hale, I had completely jumped the chain of command, bypassing my assignment editor, the managing editor and the editor.

But I had set the wave in motion, and nothing was going to stop it. I remember that Dodd glanced at me curiously a couple of times during the meeting. Afterward, he took me aside and said, “Fitz, I wish you’d let me in on the fun sometimes!”

That reaction greatly relieved me because I could see that while he was a little miffed at being circumvented, he recognized that I had acted strictly in the interest of the newspaper and the public.

The case went to trial in Jackson County Circuit, with Lewellen, Shields and Collins as the defendants. Bryant, because he had been a no-show, slipped the noose.

I remember Lewellen’s attorney cross-examining me at length on a variety of issues that didn’t relate to the issue of the Sunshine Law having been broken.

When Lewellen was asked how the meeting came about, he said, succinctly,“The girls (Shields and Collins) wanted to get together and talk things over, and I agreed.”

The judge — whose name I can’t recall — found all three guilty. He fined Shields and Collins $100 each, and he fined Lewellen $300, hitting him harder than the others because of his leadership post. Although the fine was small, it was a clearcut win for the paper and the public and, naturally, we reported the result.

Collins and Lewellen accepted the ruling and paid their fines. Shields, with her husband, Phil Cardarella, serving as her attorney, appealed to the Missouri Court of Appeals-Kansas City District but lost.

Within days, I was back in Lewellen’s office, and we laughed and joked about the case, particularly about Bryant getting a pass. I asked Lewellen if he remembered me giving him the finger, and he said it had slipped his mind.

For both of us, the secret meeting was water under the bridge. City Hall was brimming with stories, and we needed each other too much to let a little thing like an open-meetings lawsuit lead to relation-changing resentment.

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Kentucky-born humorist Irvin S. Cobb said this about the Kentucky Derby: “Until you go to Kentucky and with your own eyes behold a Derby, you ain’t been nowhere and you ain’t seen nothing.”

All I can say, after attending about 25 derbies in the last 30 years, is — he’s right.

We just got back Monday night from “My Old Kentucky Home,” where we had a great time enjoying the sights and sounds of Derby Weekend and Derby Day at historic Churchill Downs.

On Derby morning, I managed to cobble together five first-floor clubhouse tickets by positioning myself outside a major track entrance and holding up a sign that said: “Need one or two…For me (Jim) and my wife (Patty).”

Usually I do need only one or two, but this year our 23-year-old daughter Brooks and 21-year-old son Charlie went with us, as did a buddy of Charlie’s from Tulsa University. So, naturally, I kept my sign aloft and continued buying after I got the first two. With a record-setting crowd of 165,000 people descending on the track, extra tickets were relatively scarce, and the prices were unusually high. To give you an idea, I paid $1,370 for the five tickets — about $400 over total face value.

It was a memorable day — as Derby Day always is — made more special because Brooks and Patty bet on the winner, Animal Kingdom, who went off at 20-1. Patty netted about $40 on the race, while Brooks made about $60. Both were thrilled, as they were entitled to be: Picking the winner out of 20 horses (19 this year because of a scratch) is a daunting challenge.

Here, then, are some of the images from Derby 137.

For this guy, Derby Day got off to a lousy start.

Outside the track, where I was stationed to buy tickets, I ran into my cousin, Colleen Salazar (right), her husband John and a couple they were with.

On Derby Day, people even look good in purple.

Melissa, of Seattle, made her hat. (She was sitting a couple of boxes from us.)

Should a gentleman offer a tiparillo to a lady? Absolutely!

Shrewd bettors, Brooks and Patty

Gay blades

Fearless blogger

The lady who took my picture in the concession line -- Carolyn, I believe

Jeff and his wife Terri, of Fort Myers, Fla. He sold me the only two tickets I was able to get that were together. They graciously hosted us in their box.

My Derby horse, Archarcharch, during the "walkover" from the barn area. "Arch" came in 15th.

The third-floor clubhouse (lower balcony) and the fourth, fifth and sixth floors -- "millionaires' row." At far right, you can see one of the famous Twin Spires.

First-floor clubhouse (to the left and right of the walkway), where we sat

My son Charlie (center), flanked by his friend Patrick Schell (left) and Ascot Man. (I have no idea who he was, but he definitely belongs in the picture.)

At the end of the day, our group was still smiling. Back row, from left: Judy of Fort Myers, me, Charlie, Patrick, Patty and Jeff. Front row: Terri and Brooks.

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Aided by a change in the way circulation statistics are calculated, The Kansas City Star was able to get its Sunday circulation figure back up over the 300,000 benchmark for the six-month period ending March 31.

Overall, however, considering the direction of newspaper advertising, the picture for the newspaper industry remains grim.

Figures released earlier this week by the Audit Bureau of Circulations (ABC) show that The Star’s Sunday circulation was 305,113 for the period ending March 31, compared to 290,302 for the period that ended last Sept. 30. (The figures for both periods include digital subscriptions, which make up more than 10 percent of circulation.)

When the 290,000 figure came out last fall, it shocked many Star watchers because it was the first time in the modern newspaper era that circulation had fallen below 300,000.

At least partly to mitigate the ongoing circulation declines around the nation, ABC, which is run by publishers, changed the rules to include distribution categories that, until now, have not been included in the “top line” circulation figure. Among those categories are newspapers distributed through newspapers in education (NIE) programs and copies sold in bulk to places like hotels and restaurants.

Where ABC’s top line formerly was “total average paid circulation,” it is now “total average circulation.”

Because of the changes, ABC cautioned against making direct comparisons of the March data with data from earlier reporting periods.

The Star’s two other circulation categories — daily (Monday through Friday) and Saturday — also benefited from the change. For the most recent period, daily circulation stood at 209,258, compared with 206,441 for September, and Saturday circulation was 215,961, compared with 211,966 for September.

Unfortunately for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, the rules changes weren’t sufficient to give that paper a bump over last September’s Sunday figures.

Like The Star, the Post-Dispatch fell below a key benchmark — 400,000 Sunday sales — last year, when circulation dipped to 365,589. The comparable ABC figure for March 31 was 360,450.

However you look at it, it’s fair to say that circulation revenue at The Star, the Post-Dispatch and the vast majority of daily newspapers in the U.S. is continuing to fall. And when that fact is combined with the unrelenting decrease in newspaper advertising, it should make the most ardent of believers in newspapers avert their gaze.

Alan D. Mutter, who writes the Reflections of a Newsosaur blog out of San Francisco, reported recently that “although television, online, radio and even magazine ad revenues all moved into positive territory by the end of 2010, newspaper (ad) sales dropped 6.3 percent.”

One of the worst first-quarter showings was turned in by The Star’s owner, McClatchy Co., where ad revenue fell 11 percent from the first quarter of 2010.

For the industry as a whole, Mutter said that annual print and digital newspaper ad sales have now dropped nearly 50 percent from the all-time high of $49.4 billion in 2005.

As an example of the dreadful collapse, Mutter pointed to automotive advertising. “Publishers, who collectively sold more than $5 billion in automotive classifieds as recently as 2004, booked a mere $1.1 billion in the category in 2010,” Mutter said.

During the same period, auto advertising on local TV stations jumped nearly 54 percent, to $2.6 billion, and online auto advertising rose nearly 14 percent to $2.8 billion.

“Because a growing number of well-informed consumers make their decisions before contacting dealers,” Mutter said, “the point of sale has moved to the web, not the showroom. Dealers don’t need newspapers to remind consumers they are there, because empowered consumers know who the dealers are, know what models are in stock and know how much they should be paying for a car.”

So, in many case, the information “vehicle” — the newspaper — is cut out.

For consumers, the change has been fantastic. For newspapers, it’s been very tough, and the road ahead doesn’t look any better.

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The New York Times op-ed page Saturday was a thing of beauty and wonderment.

Beauty because in separate pieces, columnists examined three of the biggest problems America faces: Lack of integrity on Wall Street; the political right’s fixation with Barack Obama’s place of birth and religious affiliation; and many states’ hell-bent determination to bar the doors against reasonable handgun controls.

Wonderment because some of the facts and information contained in the articles were absolutely jaw dropping.

Consider:

1) Op-ed columnist Gail Collins, who has one of the wickedest wits in the writing business, sarcastically lit into two states — Utah and Arizona — whose legislatures recently spent valuable time naming “official” state weapons. For its part, Utah went with the Browning pistol as its official state firearm. Arizona, meanwhile, bestowed the same honor on the Colt Single-Action Army pistol.

Collins

Fighting an uphill battle, on the other hand, was U.S. Sen. Frank Lautenberg’s push for a bill that would make it more difficult to sell guns to people on the terror watch. Lautenberg’s bill has gone nowhere, Collins reported, stating: “Opponents point out that the terror watch list is not always reliable, and the bill might therefore force innocent Americans to go through an entire additional step while purchasing armaments and explosives.”

Collins went on to note that so far this year no state has passed a law prohibiting colleges from banning guns on campus.

“This is pretty notable,” Collins wrote, bitingly, “since failure to require that institutions of higher learning be gun-friendly is the only thing that stands between some states and a perfect 100 percent rating from the National Rifle Association.”

2) Charles M. Blow compiled key statistics from four recent surveys about Obama’s birthplace and religion. At least 900 people responded to each survey. Blow focused on the answers that people who identified themselves as Republicans provided.

Blow

— A New York Times/CBS poll asked respondents if they thought Obama was born in the U.S. or another country. The result: 45 percent of Republican respondents said they believed he was born in another country; 22 percent said they were unsure.

— A Fox News poll asked respondents if they thought Obama was born in the U.S. or not. The result: 37 percent of Republicans said they did not think he was; 16 percent were unsure.

— The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life asked respondents if they thought Obama was Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, atheist, agnostic or something else. The result: 31 percent of Republicans said they thought he was Muslim; 39 percent said they didn’t know.

— A Time magazine poll asked respondents if they believed that Obama was a Muslim or a Christian. The result: 46 percent of Republican respondents said they thought he was Muslim; 24 percent didn’t answer or said they didn’t know.

Blow concluded that the effort by some Republicans, such as Donald Trump, to mine the birthplace and religious affiliation issues is intended to “distract and deceive” voters. Why?

“Because the right’s flimsy fiscal argument — that if we allow fat cats to gorge, crumbs will surely fall — is losing traction” among almost all groups, Blow said, including families strapped by $4-a-gallon gas.

3) In a column titled “The Party’s Over For Buffett,” Joe Nocera derided Warren Buffett’s self-proclaimed commitment to ethical dealings by saying: “For someone who has said repeatedly that he would rather lose money than even a shred of reputation, his actions have been inexplicable.”

Nocera

He was referring, of course, to the case of Buffett’s trusted aide, David Sokol, who bought $10 million worth of stock in a company (Lubrizol) days before convincing Buffett to buy the company. Buffett disclosed the impropriety but he allowed Sokol to resign — and praised his overall record at Buffett’s firm, Berkshire Hathaway — rather than fire him.

Nocera wrote that what Sokol deserved was “a kick in the rear” instead of “a pat on the back.”

“What moved him,” Nocera wrote of Buffett, “to pre-emptively clear Sokol, who had so clearly violated Berkshire’s code of conduct, of wrongdoing? What does that tell us of possible flaws in Buffett’s character?

Nocera closed by saying that if they’re smart, “Buffett and his shareholders will view this fiasco as a wake-up call.”

Thank you, Gail, Charles and Joe for putting a penetrating spotlight on some facets of contemporary American life that should concern most of us.

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