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Archive for December, 2011

I think the editors down at 18th and Grand are starting to wise up.

I’m seeing increasing signs of The Star serving up a broader menu of stories — primarily more national stories — than the steady diet of local stories, which reflected the off-kilter philosophy that has drained many major metropolitan dailies of their breadth during the past five to 10 years.

When I was an assistant metro editor at The Star, I constantly lobbied at news meetings for big, national stories to run on the front page. Sometimes it happened, but often it didn’t. The editors were convinced that to stop the downward spiral of circulation, they needed a hyper-local product.

With that mind-set, they were simply following the lead of other major metropolitan dailies…and they all went over the cliff together. (Not to say that was the only reason that newspapers have lost their impact with many people.)

That’s the way it was in the newspaper business way too long: When a few papers decided it was time for a “state-or-the-art redesign” or more feature stories on the front page — or whatever — everybody jumped in for fear of missing the boat.

I always thought we needed to give the readers a good balance of stories on the front page and, especially, to give serious consideration to whatever stories The New York Times planned to run on its front page the next day. Late every afternoon, after its own news meeting, The Times sends to papers that subscribe to its news service a list of the stories it intends to run “out front,” as we say.

In my opinion, if a news editor follows the Times’ lead, it’s hard to go too far off course. The Times has the best reporters, the best editors, the best photographers, the best columnists in the country, so why wouldn’t you want to take its recommendations.

While The Star continues to beat the local drum on the front page, it is watching The Times more closely, and, in so doing, giving the readers more of what they need (like far-reaching stories with significant implications) instead of what they say they want (like entertainment news and stories about animals).

For years, while the bottom lines of major dailies have plummeted, newspapers have been chasing the holy grail of “what the readers want.” Hasn’t worked, and the pursuit should have been given up long ago.

In each of the last three days, The Star has run on its front page a major story that The Times ran on its front page, too. (The Times also generated each story.)

On Tuesday, it was a story about the growing wealth gap between members of Congress and their constituents. (It ran at the bottom of The Star’s front page and at the top of The Times’ front page).

On Wednesday, it was the widespread failure of all-metal, artificial hips. (Again, it ran at the bottom of page in The Star and at the top of the page in The Times.)

Today, it was the increasing number of women leaving the workplace and continuing their educations. (The story ran at the top of the page in both The Star and The Times. Hooray!)

Now, you might be asking yourself, “What’s so magical about The New York Times’ front-page story selection?”

Well, in this day of an endless and continuous avalanche of news and information coming at us electronically, all of us can use a compass that helps point us toward what is really important.

Carr

In an interview yesterday with Terry Gross on NPR’s “Fresh Air,” David Carr, media writer for The Times (and a budding celebrity because he has risen to great heights after beating back the twin demons of alcohol and drugs), explained the importance of perspective.

Trying to assess each day’s torrent of information “whizzing past me,” he said, it’s difficult for him to determine what is important and what isn’t.

He used to think it was “silly,” he said, that editors at The Times spent so much time “organizing the hierarchy of the six or seven most important stories in Western civilization.”

“Meanwhile,” Carr said, “the Web is above them, pivoting and alighting, and all these stories are morphing and changing. And I thought: Well, how silly is this?

“But you know what? I came to want that resting place, where someone yelled stop and decided, look, this is stuff you need to know about going forward.”

Like Carr, I find great satisfaction in that resting place, where experts — having sifted through the day’s news — have done their best to let the rest of us know what we “need to know” in this increasingly complex and maddening world.

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Last month, I posted my shortest blog ever. Above a photo of a Parkinson’s-ravaged Muhammad Ali arriving for Joe Frazier’s funeral in Philadelphia, I wrote this line: Is it a good thing to have been “The Greatest of All Time?”

Three people commented and of those, two concluded unequivocally that, yes, it was worth it for Ali to have sacrificed the quality of his later life for the opportunity to be “The Greatest of All Time.”

I respectfully disagreed, saying that I had inherited from my parents, particularly my father, a more cautious approach to life. When my father would say things like, “Don’t throw rocks, it can put your eye out,” it stuck with me. Of course, I went on to do a lot of stupid things, but I still carried a healthy fear of what could happen when I did those stupid things.

Now, we’re in the era of “concussion awareness,” if you will, where a lot of journalists, particularly at The New York Times, are exploring the risks of long-term brain injury from participating in football and other violent sports, like ice hockey and boxing.

Yesterday, The Star ran in its sports section an Associated Press story about NFL players who said they either had hidden concussions or would do so, if they were able to avoid detection.

The story said: “In a series of interviews about head injuries with The Associated Press over the last two weeks, 23 of 44 NFL players…said they would try to conceal a possible concussion rather than pull themselves out of a game.”

Frankly, that astounded me. What it reaffirmed for me is that a lot of these players simply aren’t very smart.

Jones-Drew

Take, for example, Maurice Jones-Drew, a running back with the Jacksonville Jaguars. Listen to what he had to say on the subject:

“The bottom line is: You have to be able to put food on the table. No one’s going to sign or want a guy who can’t stay healthy. I know there will be a day when I’m going to have trouble walking. I realize that. But this is what I signed up for. Injuries are part of the game. If you don’t want to get hit, then you shouldn’t be playing.”

Consider a couple of things there.

A: You have to be able to put food on the table.

Here’s a 26-year-old guy who is about half way through a five-year, $31 million contract that carried a guaranteed signing bonus of $17.5 million. So, he has collected well over $20 million on that contract. Just how in the world, then, would he have trouble putting food on the table?

B: I know there will be a day when I’m going to have trouble walking. I realize that.

Do you think he really believes that? Hell, no. He probably thinks he’s going to be one of the lucky ones. I bet he envisions himself walking away unscathed and then going on to work as a coach or TV commentator.

Then there’s Peyton Manning, 35-year-old quarterback for the Indianapolis Colts.

He has had three neck operations in less than two years and has been out the entire 2011 season. Manning does not state unequivocally that he plans to come back next year, but he has made statements that indicate he will try to do so if doctors give him the OK.

At the same time, unlike Jones-Drew, Manning is giving plenty of thought to the risks of continuing to play.

“Ashley (his wife) and I have new twins…and it’s important for me to be in good health to play with them, to roll around on the floor and have some fun,” he was quoted as saying in an Associated Press story. “The football thing will answer itself in the next few months.”

I certainly hope he makes the right decision…which is clear, right? Hang up the cleats, the jock strap, the shoulder pads and walk out and don’t come back.

Manning, according to the Association Press story “has signed three contracts with the Colts worth a total of $236 million and earned millions more in endorsements.”

He has a Super Bowl victory (2007) under his belt and ranks third in career touchdown passes and passing yards.

I can understand how it might be difficult for top athletes in violent sports to walk away when they’re healthy, leaving others to bask under the arc lights, when they’re young and think their bodies can hold up to about anything.

But here’s the thing: Many people, as they get older and wiser, start thinking more about longevity and quality of life than leaving an indelible mark and making gobs of money.

Many years ago, not long after I had arrived in Kansas City, I heard a priest give a sermon in which he talked about a boy, 15 or 16, who was shot to death in a robbery while working at a veterinary office. The priest cited the case as an example of how we never know what the next day will bring, what might happen to us.

I’ll never forget the priest’s seminal words that day: “All we can do is live as well as we can for as long as it lasts.”

The older I get (if I make it to March 4, I’ll be 66), the more I understand the importance of making choices that yield the best chance of doing just that.

I think that wise priest’s words should be posted on the walls of every NFL and NHL locker room, in every boxing gymnasium and along pit road at every stock car and Indy car track. Maybe those words would penetrate some of the mostly thick skulls of those competitors and get them thinking farther out than the next game, the next match, the next race.

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It’s on days like this that only The Kansas City Star can put everything in context.

I’m talking, of course, about the Chiefs incredible win over the Packers yesterday in Romeo Crennel’s debut as head coach of the Chiefs.

I was yelling and screaming at the TV like I haven’t done in a long time. Like everyone else in town, I really wanted the Chiefs to win that game and for Crennel to have a great start after three years of suffering through that screwball Todd Haley, who most of the time looks like he stepped out from under a bridge with a cardboard sign.

But once the victory was in hand, there was nowhere to turn, immediately, for the reinforcement and analysis that would make the win complete.

Len Dawson and Mitch Holthus, as good as they are on the game broadcasts, can’t deliver the type of overview and analysis that a game like yesterday’s calls for. When Mitch asked Len for his reaction to the game, Len said, “I’m surprised; I really am.”

Uh, that’s not quite what we were looking for, Len…

The 101 The Fox post game show absolutely sucks. For one thing, you have to sit in torment through about 20 minutes of post-game advertisements just to get to “The Turning Point Play of the Game,” which, of course, was Jackie Battle’s fourth-quarter touchdown.

Then there’s another 10 to 15 minutes of ads, and along comes the inimitable Art Hains — he of the sonorous voice but vacant mind.

If you tuned in to Metro Sports, Channel 30 on Time Warner Cable, you got some fairly decent commentary from former Chiefs players Danan Hughes and Rich Baldinger. While it beats the heck out of 101 The Fox, Metro Sports still doesn’t give you any truly satisfying insight into the big questions, like, “Does this seal the deal for Crennel?” and “Is Orton now the long-term quarterback?

So, what to do? If you’re like me, you turn off the radio, turn off the TV, enjoy the glow of victory and wait for Monday’s Star.

And when the paper hits the pavement, there it is, just what you’ve been waiting for — Sam Mellinger’s column, down the left side of the paper, above the fold, under a headline that reads, “In Big Win, KC Finds a Leader.”

He recounts the Gatorade bath, which prompted the first smile from the serious-minded Crennel, and then he tells me something I didn’t know — that Crennel wiped tears from his eyes as he walked off the field. (With that fatherly and comforting countenance, Crennel is already irresistible, but to know that he shed a tear or two makes you want to call Scott Pioli and demand that he immediately name Crennel as permanent head coach.)

Then, in his “nut graph,” Mellinger sums up what yesterday’s win meant to the organization.

“Three critical developments, in ascending order of importance, emerged from Sunday’s improbable upset: The Chiefs maintained a sliver of playoff hope, reminded a city that football can be fun and almost certainly found their new head coach.”

From Mellinger’s column, you go to the Sports Daily, where you find five full-length stories about the game and dozens of sidelights, including the “Do Tell the Truth” feature, which says of Crennel: “He is experienced, calm and popular. More than that, he showed Sunday that he’s an outstanding football coach.”

The “report card,” a popular fixture in reports of Missouri, Kansas, Kansas State and Chiefs games, gives the Chiefs an “A” in the coaching category.

“Romeo Crennel may have shown more true leadership in six days than Todd Haley did in three years,”  the report says.

The two stories on the section front go right to the heart of the two big questions posed above. The headline on the top story is “Romeo wins players’ hearts,” and the second story, about Orton, carries this sub-head: “Who will be quarterback next year? Picture just got more complicated.”

In the story about Crennel, The Star wisely picked up the coach’s opening line from the post-game news conference:

“The Chiefs played a very good game today. They played the way I would like to see the Chiefs play all the time. They followed the game plan, they had energy, they had effort, and they played their hearts out.”

It struck me immediately, when I first heard him say it, that he didn’t say “we.” It was “they,” giving full credit to the players.

Sunday was a great day for the Chiefs, for Romeo Crennel and for Kyle Orton…And Monday was a great day for The Kansas City Star.

Congratulations, hometown paper! You made this former employee proud.

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Being a news-business junkie, I was very surprised at a business-front story in today’s New York Times announcing that Janet L. Robinson, chief executive of The Times the last seven years, was “retiring.”

Robinson, who will long be remembered as the person who oversaw The Times’ conversion from a regional to national newspaper in the 1990s, didn’t seem like a candidate for retirement.

She is only 61, and there had never been any talk of a succession plan, as far as I know. Also, her “retirement” and its imminence — effective in two weeks — caught nearly everyone, even Times employees, by surprise.

It wasn’t until the ninth and tenth paragraphs that the veil of puzzlement was lifted.

“Last Friday, Mr. Sulzberger called a meeting with Ms. Robinson on the 15th floor of the company’s Manhattan headquarters. He raised the issue of installing a different type of leadership at the company, according to people familiar with the meeting who declined to be identified discussing confidential company business.

“Both Ms. Robinson and Mr. Sulzberger declined to comment.”

Mr. Sulzberger is Arthur Sulzberger Jr., chairman of The New York Times Co. and Times’ publisher.

So, Sulzberger fired Robinson; it’s that simple.

Today, the Internet is full of speculation about why she was let go.

The Wall Street Journal, a competitor of The Times, said:

“The company’s struggles during the worst of the (newspaper industry) downturn had prompted some members of the Sulzberger family to question whether Ms. Robinson was the right person to guide the company in a digital world, according to people briefed on the family’s thinking.”

Adam Clark Estes of The Atlantic Wire (part of The Atlantic magazine) said The Times “needs a technologist” instead of a chief executive steeped in print journalism.

“You’d be hard pressed to find a media pundit who wouldn’t agree that the Grey Lady needs a kick in the pants from someone who understands technology,” Estes wrote.

Still, as The Washington Post (with Bloomberg) reported on its website, The Times, under Robinson, has had an excellent roll-out of its online pay wall.

The Post said: “In March, the company began charging users for full online access to the paper’s content. By the end of September, it had 324,000 paying digital subscribers, bringing Times’ combined paper and online subscribers to 1.2 million. Digital advertising now makes up 14 percent of total revenue, up from 8 percent in 2006.”

Those are impressive numbers, and many media analysts think The Times set up a very smart pay-wall system: People who go to the site (NYT.com) can read 20 articles a month without paying. After that, they have the option of buying one of three digital news packages.

The “first-20-free” system is intended, The Times has said, “to draw in subscription revenue from the most loyal readers while not driving away the casual visitors who make up the vast majority of the site’s traffic.”

Despite the many achievements in Robinson’s portfolio, the main negative factors — the ones that probably most affected “the family’s thinking” — were significant drop-offs in advertising and circulation in recent years.

As a Women’s Wear Daily web story said, “For the first time in its history, the Times had to cut from its newsroom, which resulted in more than 200 job losses in the last three years. Additionally, the Times had to eliminate sections in the paper…close a printing press, take out a mortgage on its new skyscraper and take an onerous loan from Mexican billionaire Carlos Slim.”

The fortunes of virtually every major U.S. daily also fell off a ledge, however, so it’s hard to see how Robinson could have been held responsible.

Who knows? Whatever the case, she had a great run at The Times; hers was an exceptional career. She started at The Times in 1983 and worked her way up the business and advertising side until reaching the top, or at least very near the top.

And here are a couple of things about her that warm my liberal-arts heart: Before joining The Times, she was a public school teacher in Newport, Rhode Island, and Somerset, Massachusetts.

Furthermore, she received a B.A. degree in English from Salve Regina College, Newport, RI, where she graduated cum laude in 1972.

I tell you, it’s hard to top those English majors.

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I don’t know if it strikes you this way, but it seems to me there’s an awful lot of high-level lyin’ going on these days.

Some of the stuff I’ve been reading in the papers and online seems blatantly false.

Consider these examples:

Jon S. Corzine, former MF Global chief executive, on whether he authorized the use of customer funds to beef up finances in another division of the company, a major global financial derivatives broker before going bankrupt.

“I never gave any instructions to misuse customer money, never intended to give any instructions or authority to misuse customer funds, and I find it very hard to understand how anyone could misconstrue what I’ve said as a way to misuse customer money.”

***

Joseph Amendola, former assistant Penn State football coach Jerry Sandusky’s attorney, describing his client’s waiver of a preliminary hearing as a tactical measure, not an indicator that his client might enter into a plea agreement.

“We’re ready to defend, we’ve always been ready to defend…Today’s waiver has nothing to do with conceding anything. There have been no plea negotiations. There will be no plea negotiations. This is a fight to the death.”

***

James Murdoch, News Corp. executive, on whether he knew about widespread cell-phone hacking at his company’s former News of the World newspaper.

“Any suspicion of wider spread wrongdoing, none of that was mentioned to me.”

…And after being asked about an e-mail, which he responded to, that referenced widespread phone hacking at the paper.

“I did not read the full e-mail chain.”

***

Attorney General Eric Holder on whether he or other higher-ups at the Justice Department knew about the government’s “Fast and Furious” investigation into an Arizona-based gun-trafficking network. (Investigators ended up losing track of hundreds of weapons. Many probably reached Mexico, and two were found near the scene where a Border Patrol agent, Brian Terry, was killed last December.)

“The notion that somehow or other this thing reaches into the upper levels of the Justice Department is something that. … I don’t think is supported by the facts…It’s kind of something I think certain members of Congress would like to see, the notion that somehow or other high-level people in the department were involved. As I said, I don’t think that is going to be shown to be the case — which doesn’t mean that the mistakes were not serious.”

***

Here’s a late addition to our Parade of Prevaricators…

Marine Cpl. Dakota Meyer, who recently became the 296th Marine to earn the Medal of Honor for bravery in action in Afghanistan. In a big battle, Meyer claimed to have saved the lives of 13 U.S. service members, leave his vehicle to rescue 24 Afghans and lead a final push to retrieve four dead Americans.

McClatchy correspondent Jonathan S. Landay, who was embedded with Meyer’s unit, set the record straight in a story that ran on the front page of today’s Kansas City Star. According to Landay, Meyer was, indeed, deserving of the Medal of Honor, but he greatly embellished his heroism.

***

I’m not sure any of these guys deserve to be wished a Merry Christmas.

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By now, many of you know that I have a keen eye for unusual corrections in newspapers.

That’s mostly because, as a reporter for 25 years and and editor for almost 12, I lived in fear of winding up on the correction page. (It happened more often than I care to admit.)

Occasionally, I would wake up in the night and either fear or realize that I had made a mistake in a story and that it was too late to correct it. Sometimes, before going to bed, I would call the copy desk and make sure that my mind was not playing tricks on me and that I had written something the way I remembered having written it.

Then, there was one nightmarish correction — like one I’m going to tell you about — where I had to write a correction to a correction. That night, I’ll never forget, the night city editor said, “Fitz, I bet you’ll be glad to get this one behind you.”

No shit.

But it happens. It evens happens to The New York Times.

A correction that ran in The Times on page A2 yesterday was a doozy. It started out like this:

“An article on Thursday about a push to ban horse-drawn carriage rides in Central Park misstated part of the name of an organization to which an upstate New York veterinarian belongs…”

After correcting the organization’s name, it went on to the more embarrassing mistake: The original story had referred to the carriages as “hansom cabs,” and that, as it turned out, is a misnomer.

As the correction noted, “…the carriages have four wheels, and therefore are not ‘hansom cabs,’ which are two-wheeled. An accompanying picture caption, as well as a subheading in some editions, and a correction in this space on Friday repeated the error about the cabs.”

So, there’s the correction to the correction. But there’s more…

The last line of the correction, in parentheses, went like this:

(A reader pointed out this inaccuracy in a letter published in The Times in 1985, but this is the first correction of numerous such references through the years.)

Think about that…The Times had referred to carriages as hansom cabs “numerous” times over the last 26 years, despite a reader’s best effort to get the paper on the right path in 1985.

Well, at least The Times was big enough to acknowledge a 26-year track record of screw-ups on the same subject.

To its credit, The Times is anal about accuracy, and that’s a good thing, isn’t it?

And one thing I can guarantee you is that Emily B. Hager, who wrote that front-page story, is now an authority on the distinction between horse-draw cabs and carriages.

Now, as I trot off to bed, I’ll leave you with what a hansom cab looks like…

And its cousin, a horse-drawn carriage…

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All the hubbub over the drawing of new lines for the six city council districts in Kansas City culminated last Thursday in a debate that I couldn’t tear myself away from.

I wasn’t there, but I watched  a rerun of the legislative meeting on Channel 2, the Kansas City government channel. I’m an old government junkie, you know, having covered the Jackson County Courthouse for seven years (’71 to ’78) and City Hall for 10 (’85 to ’95).

The debate wasn’t compelling because it was heated; it really wasn’t. It was because council members spoke fervently and eloquently about their reasons for wanting to either keep the lines that a citizens advisory committee had drawn up or make minor alterations.

The highlight of the redistricting discussion, which lasted about 30 minutes, was an impassioned speech by Mayor Sly James, who exercised his option to speak last.

The Star’s Lynn Horsley covered the redistricting debate, but, because of space limitations, she wasn’t able to get much of James’ speech in the paper. Before I lay out for you what James said, let’s back up…

In the final days of the redistricting discussion, the biggest issue was whether the former Bannister Mall area should be in the 5th District, where the citizens advisory committee had moved it, or whether it should revert to the 6th District, where it has been all along.

That was one of several significant boundary changes that the advisory committee made as it attempted to equalize population, district to district, based on the 2010 U.S. Census.

Councilman John Sharp, who does his homework and almost always makes a reasoned case for what he favors or opposes, led the charge to bring the Bannister Mall area back into his 6th District. He spoke at length in favor of an amendment that would return the site to his district.

He said that 6th District residents, having suffered through the demise of the mall, had earned the right to see the area redeveloped, if and when a good plan comes along. Then, 6th District residents could take pride in that area once again.

After Sharp and a few other council members had spoken, it was clear that he didn’t have the votes to get the mall moved back to his district, but Sharp has always been good at making a strong case in the face of overwhelming opposition.

After everyone else had had their say, James exercised his right to have the last word, and he was impressive.

Following is his speech, edited for length…

“You know, the real problem here is twofold. No. 1, we wouldn’t even have to be going through this nonsense if we weren’t a segregated city. The Voting Rights Act wouldn’t apply. But none of us are talking about that. This concept that somehow changing a line on a map disenfranchises you from going somewhere, doing something, or (changes) who you are the day before is, in my opinion, total and utter nonsense.

“We have too many people sitting here saying, “My this, my project, my district, my line, my house.”

“Let me say this: This is my city. Everything in it is my city. So I guess I’ll just ask all of my colleagues: Do you love your council district more or your city more? Because if you love your city more, we’ll put this nonsense to bed, stop worrying about all these lines that we’re using to divide us, and we’ll move on.

“Nobody’s life will change because their district lines change. I would be willing to bet you that you can walk into any district in this city and ask the first 50 people you see what district they’re in and 40 of them won’t have a clue…and won’t care.

“This is the reason that we are still struggling to do the things in this city that need to be done…Because we systematically play one district against the other so that nobody gets what they need. We’re talking about 500 people here (moving them from one district to another). If it’s that big of a nothing, then why worry about it? If it doesn’t really change that much, then what’s the big deal about not doing it?

“Why are we spending so much time talking about two parcels of land…Geez, people. The only thing that matters is this city. That is the only thing, and until we start acting like that, we will continue to have these fights and arguments over pieces of property hither, thither and yon.

“I don’t understand it. This has gotten totally off track, totally out of whack…It is time for us to change our attitude and start believing in the entirety of this city. Each and every one of us took an oath to the city, not to our council district…

“If there’s no other discussion, will the clerk please call the roll?”

The clerk did not announce the vote after the roll call, but from what I could hear, it sounded like only Sharp and Councilman Ed Ford voted for the amendment and everyone else voted “No.”

The council then took up the redistricting ordinance itself, and Sharp cast the only “no” vote.

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