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Archive for December, 2012

Last week, I recounted some of my favorite stories about a former KC Star Publisher Jim Hale, who died in 2003. (Here’s the link, in case you missed it.)

The post drew a lot of readers and a lot of comments. When I wrote that piece, however, I knew of at least one person in Kansas City who was a lot closer to Hale than I. And that is Mike T. White, development attorney with White Goss Bowers March Schulte & Weisenfels. Shortly after Hale arrived in Kansas City in 1977, he hired White to represent The Star in most business matters. White held the job for many years, and he developed a close personal, as well as business, relationship with Hale.

At the time I posted the blog, I sent Mike an e-mail, asking him to comment on the Hale post. He said he would, and yesterday, Christmas Day, he pulled together some of his recollections and sent them on to me as a “comment” at the end of my Hale story.

Well, it didn’t take a genius to see that Mike’s recollections deserved much higher billing than the comments section of a week-old post, so I’m taking the liberty of publishing them as a “guest blog” for your reading pleasure.

With that, Heeeeere’s Mike!

***

I met Hale in 1977, when Capital Cities Inc. brought him here from The Fort Worth Star Telegram (from which Wesley Turner, another former Star publisher, recently retired as publisher). He brought Gerald Garcia with him to serve as executive editor. Garcia’s main role was to trim excess people from the payroll to make the papers lean and mean. (Editor’s note: In one bloody day alone, Garcia herded 20 or more long-time Star editorial employees into a room and fired them. They didn’t need sympathy, though, because most left The Star as millionaires, having scored big when Cap Cities paid $2 for every $1 of Star stock they owned.)

mikeyI started representing The Star in 1979. One of my first assignments was to defend a regulatory action by the EPA against The Star because it was discovered that we (the paper) had polychlorinated biphenyls (a banned carcinogen) in some of the electrical transformers in the building.  While this was going on, I was surprised to open the paper one morning to read a story about it in which an enterprising reporter simply went around the building interviewing anyone who knew anything about it. I complained to Hale, saying “Good Lord, when you are in litigation, it’s not a good idea to have your employees talking to the other side.” He told me there was not a damned he could do about it. “If I tried to tell a reporter what to write, they’ll all quit,” he said. “You’ll just have to live with it the best you can.”

We settled the case.

When the society editor, Elsye Allison was fired, she sued for age discrimination. We tried the case to a jury in federal court. Elsye’s lawyer tried to intimate that Hale was having an affair with a young, attractive anchorwoman at one of the local television stations. She was married to another young, attractive anchorman who looked like a movie star.

I had Hale sit on the front row while she testified. That killed their theory. All I had to say about that in closing was “Really?” Afterward, Hale told me that he thought that was the first jury trial The Star had won in the last 40 years. I guess their losing streak started with the WDAF antitrust case in the 1950s. Hale always felt bad about firing Elsie, and she literally, but unintentionally, haunted him: After that trial, he said he ran into her everywhere he went and that he would see her driving down the street in her beat up, old Thunderbird.

I remember the episode that you recounted about O.J. Nelson getting fired. Actually, O.J. tells this story better than anyone, and with a great deal of self-deprecation. There was another person (I can’t remember who) involved, and both were sitting in Hale’s office when Hale said to Executive Editor Mike Waller, “And these two assholes should be fired!”

I think O.J. just kept coming to work until Hale started to speak to him again, as if nothing had happened.

I think the guy that asked you to leave the Chamber of Commerce Board meeting was Dino Agnos. Hale hated going to those meetings anyway and absolutely detested attending the dinners because everyone read their speeches. He thought if they were going to write the speeches out word for word ahead of time, they should just send them to him and he could read them in his spare time. The final straw was when they sent him a list of Chamber of Commerce members who were delinquent on their dues. He said, “They want me to call some guy that owns a body shop and tell him to pay his dues. Not gonna happen.”

He would much rather sit around and drink Usher’s Green Stripe Scotch with Charlie Price (the late Charles H. Price II, who was a former U.S. ambassador to England) and the late John Latshaw (a Kansas City investment banker and businessman who died in 2010). That went on until Hale got a little put out with Latshaw after Latshaw called to tell him that he had just bought the prize steer at the American Royal and that Hale owed him half.

Hale thought very highly of Arthur Brisbane. In 2000, when discussions began about the new production plant, Art asked me to handle the legal side. It was very clear that the paper could have saved $10 million to $15 million by building the plant in Lenexa, and Tony Ridder (Knight Ridder c.e.o.), couldn’t understand why, from a business perspective, that wasn’t a no-brainer. Art stuck doggedly to his guns, reasoning that the paper had editorialized against urban sprawl and excessive economic incentives and that it would’ve been hypocritical in the extreme to just look at the bottom line. Furthermore, the incentive package that we finally negotiated was just enough to pay for the excessive costs for building the plant where it is today — which was very difficult. I told Art I could have negotiated a better deal, but he turned it down.

I agree with you that Hale was a character and a reporter’s publisher. That comes as no surprise given that he had about every job in the newspaper business as he rose through the ranks. He was also very successful. But let’s not forget that he took over the papers at a very opportune time, when profits could be increased by adopting modern technology; eliminating The Times (the morning edition of The Star); and raising the price. Brisbane, on the other hand, had the misfortune of being at the helm when the Internet really began to take off.

Hale did two things that, while simple, exemplified his style: He had the first paper off the press delivered to his door every morning, and he signed every non-payroll check.

More later, when I get time.

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If you’re sitting around today with some time on your hands, having taken at least a day off from the usual hurly-burly of life, I recommend that you plant yourself behind a computer — or go to a grocery store that’s open and get a copy of Sunday’s New York Times — and read “Snow Fall: The Avalanche at Tunnel Creek.”

It’s a sensational story, written by sports features writer John Branch, about a group of experienced and top-flight skiers and snowboarders who, early this year, let the prospect of an exciting and challenging ski run override good sense; they ended up getting caught in an avalanche that killed three of them a mountain in Washington state.

The story was months in the making, and here’s the twist: It was done, first and foremost, with the Web in mind. It started on the Web site last Thursday and concluded a day later, I believe.

The story integrates video, photos, graphics and personal profiles of the main players like that has never been done before by a newspaper. Rebecca Greenfield of The Atlantic Wire Web said the project “makes multimedia feel natural and useful, not just tacked on.”

I saw the story on The Times’ home page last Thursday and realized from a glance at the title and a full-screen video of snow blowing off a mountain side that it was probably going to be very captivating. I resisted the urge, however, to jump into the Web version because I simply don’t like to read extremely lengthy stories online, while sitting at my desk.

On Sunday, The Times published a 14-page, special section with the story and accompanying photos and graphics. When opened, the entire front and back pages of the section depicted the back side of Cowboy Mountain — a so-called “backcountry” skiing area — where the disaster took place. A teaser at the bottom right-hand side of the front page said, “A group of world-class skiers and snowboarders set out to ski Tunnel Creek. Then the mountain moved.”

It took me at least a couple of hours to read and absorb the story and accompanying features, but the time flew by. Like a good writer can do, Branch transported me to Cowboy Mountain and I wanted to stay there until the drama had played all the way out.

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John Branch

I couldn’t remember having read anything by Branch, but when I ran him through Google, I found that late last year he had written another in-depth feature called “Punched Out: The Life and Death of a Hockey Enforcer.” That story, which ran over four days, tracked the career and related death of hockey player named Derek Boogaard. (I remember the series clearly, but I didn’t read it.)

Telling one interviewer how he got Boogard’s family to cooperate with him in doing the story, Branch said: “I committed to doing it right, taking time, and I told them we would probably put more resources into this than any other sports story this year.”

That was 2011…Well, he did it again this year — in an even bigger way — and the readers are the beneficiaries.

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Well, it was the biggest blogging blowout of the year last night…Yes, I’m talking about Hearne Christopher Jr.’s annual “KC Confidential Christmas Wilding.”

I was lucky enough to be invited. In fact, Hearne, owner and operator of the wildly successful blog site kcconfidential.com, called me in the afternoon to make sure I was coming. Told him I wouldn’t miss it.

This year, as some of you undoubtedly know, Hearne had to move the party from Jardine’s to the Uptown, reason being that Jardine’s ran into a spot o’ trouble last year (including not paying the help) and closed. Boy, Hearne loved that place, and he threw some pretty, pretty wild parties there. Didn’t hurt that for a while he dated the owner, Crazy Beena. (I never met her myself, but Hearne told me a few stories.)

Just like Jardine’s, the thing with Beena didn’t end so well, and, all in all, it’s best that Beena went her way and Hearne lived to host another Christmas wilding somewhere else.

Hearne is close friends with the Uptown’s owner, Larry Sells, who got the place for a song (or even a phrase) 20 or more years ago when he was a commissioner on the Jackson County Land Trust. (Sells, a ne’er-do-well lawyer, got off the commission after he made off with the object of his eye, the venerable theater.)

So, it was fitting that Hearne would have his party at the Uptown — “Doors 5 p.m.” —  and he had the usual array of local celebs and brilliant writers.

Hearne and Bill Nigro

Hearne Christopher and Bill Nigro

Those on hand included Westport impresario Bill Nigro; lawyer Harris Wilder — he of the large smile and ebullient personality; Roger Naber, promoter of the Legendary Rhythm and Blues Cruises;  some KC Confidential writers, including Brandon Leftridge and Jack Poessiger; KSHB-TV weekend assignment editor Rick Hellman;  and the one and only advertising and public relations guru Tracy Thomas — the beloved “TT.”

But back to the party…The only thing that struck me as odd was that it was absolutely devoid of “hotties.” For those of you who don’t know what “hotties” are — in KC Confidential lexicon, anyway — they are attractive, sometimes-cheap-looking, curvaceous women. Hearne’s classification of hotties has run the gamut, from strippers to Kansas City Star publisher Mi-Ai Parrish.

(The day that McClatchy Co. announced the appointment of Parrish, in June 2011, Hearne gushed on his blog, “Blessed mother of god, they hired a hottie!”)

In fact, I can’t recall Hearne having written about “hotties” in recent months. Perhaps Hearne’s aura of fame and wealth is slipping, or maybe his new (and considerably younger) wife Kimberly Christopher gave the hotties the heave-ho. (Kimberly had not arrived at the party by the time I left, but she would definitely fall into the hottie category.)

When I pointed out the conspicuous void to Hearne, he responded with a shrug and a rare moment of silence. Didn’t even try to fabricate an excuse.

I guess marriage has slowed the old boy down.

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Last week, I mentioned that the late Jim Hale was the last truly high-profile publisher of The Star. (Apologies to Art Brisbane, who entered the publisher’s job with a profile that he had molded during his days as a columnist.)

If you knew Hale, you know he was quite a character. When he retired from The Star in 1992, after 15 years as publisher, he left a lot of friends and a trail of stories behind. One the things that endeared people to Hale was his easy-going, loose manner, if you will. Also, he had an endearing southern drawl that he brought with him from his native east Texas.

Hale wasn’t a bit stuffy, his door was open to everyone, and he always had time to chat, when approached. As his slow gait indicated, he never seemed to be in a hurry. You knew he had everything under control, and he delegated exceptionally well. He appointed good people to upper management jobs, and he mostly stayed out of their way.

I was lucky enough to have established a relationship, of sorts, with Hale. Whenever I felt the need or the urge, I’d go up to his third-floor office and take up with him whatever issue was on my mind. He was always receptive.

jimhaleWith that, I’d like to share with you a few of my favorite memories of Hale, who died in 2003.

— One or our top editors was Michael (O.J.) Nelson, who recently retired as editor of the Lincoln Journal Star in Lincoln, Neb. O.J. admired Hale so much that he patterned himself after Hale, right down to walking with shoulders hunched forward, his head slightly preceding the rest of his body. It looked odd, because where Hale was kind of dumpy and had a beer gut, O.J. was slender and had no excuse for bad posture.

At any rate, O.J. was a nervous, smothering type of editor who was always worried that he might be exposed as dispensable, so he worked very hard at seeming to be indispensable. On one occasion, there was a big screw-up in the features department, which O.J. headed, and Hale blew his top. He did that occasionally, but it was hard to tell when he was really mad and when he was just blowing smoke for effect.

As I recall, Hale either told O.J. he was fired or that he was going to be fired. That put O.J. into a frenzy. However, executive editor Mike Waller then stepped in — he knew Hale front and backward and was his equal in histrionics — and went into Hale’s office to talk him down. “If you’re going to fire O.J. you’re going to fire me, too,” he told Hale.

With that, Hale became quiet and turned his attention to other matters…And O.J. was able to continue his very successful career at The Star.

—   One time when I was City Hall reporter (’85-’95), an editor either sent me to cover a board meeting of the Chamber of Commerce or I went on my own because they were taking up an issue that was on my radar. I walked into the meeting in one of the downtown office buildings and got myself a nice, leather-upholstered chair at the big table. About 20 civic big shots were gathered around, and one was Hale, who was on the board. I gave him a smile and a wave, he reciprocated.

Shortly after the meeting got underway, I notice that a few people were engaged in some whispered conversations with one of the board members, who was the manager at KMBC-TV, Channel 9, I believe.

Pretty soon, the station manager came around and asked me to step outside. In the lobby, he apologized for the interruption but told me that board meetings were closed to the press and that, unfortunately, I’d have to leave. I was taken aback but not totally surprised because I’d never been to a Chamber board meeting and didn’t know the drill.

As I recall, I was still in the elevator lobby when Hale emerged from the meeting and came up to me and said something like, “I’m leaving, too. If the place isn’t good enough for you, it’s not good enough for me, either.”

Of course, I was thrilled that the publisher had backed me up. It had to take some courage to get up and walk out of a meeting with some of the most powerful c.e.o.’s in Kansas City. Later, Hale wrote a letter to the Chamber expressing his chagrin at my ouster. I’ll never forget, too, that in the letter he referred to me as “one of our most competent reporters.”

Again, I appreciated the back-up, but from that point on, I thought that perhaps I wasn’t the hotshot that I envisioned myself. I was just competent.

— Around the same period, as I would return to The Star building at 18th and Grand from City Hall, I saw that our dark-brick building was looking very shabby because the green paint on the big window frames had faded and was peeling. I always took pride in our building and wanted it to look first class, in keeping with the paper’s standing in the community.

I marched up to Hale’s office one day, sat down and said, “Jim, our building looks like hell; the windows need painting.”

He laughed and said he’d see what he could do. It was no small project, of course, because it’s a large, three-story building with probably 100 or more windows, each of which is about six feet tall and three or four feet wide.

Within weeks, work crews were out there scraping and painting, and the building regained its eminent appearance.

A few weeks later, I was chatting with Scott Whiteside, who was our in-house attorney and sort of Haley’s right-hand man. Laughing, Whiteside remarked that I was “the most powerful reporter” at The Star because I had been able to initiate a job, not budgeted, that cost the company thousands of dollars.

— One more quickie. Back in the late 80s, I think it was, we had what would have been the first offer of buyouts. Of course, I was many years from being eligible, but it caught my attention because I heard that our architecture critic (yes, we had one back then), Donald Hoffmann — a brilliant writer and critic — intended to take the buyout, while another, much inferior, arts department writer — also eligible — meant to stay.

Once again I marched into Hale’s office. “If Donald Hoffmann leaves and so-and-so stays,” I said, “it’s a miscarriage of journalism.”

Hale leaned back and laughed and said: “There’s nothing I can do about it, Fitz. The offer is out there for anyone who is eligible, and legally we can’t pick and choose.”

As it came to pass, Hoffmann retired and the other writer stayed on.

I didn’t win that battle, but I dearly wished Hoffmann had stayed. For, to me, that was the day The Star started to go downhill.

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Well, The Star had a rough week on the personnel and management front, but it got back to its stock in trade Saturday, with breathtaking coverage (at least for me) of the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre.

The editors played the story big, really big. Deservedly. They swung hard and hit a home run.

Above the fold — in large white letters on a striking, black background — the one-word headline “Horrific” jumped out at the reader. Below that was a margin-to-margin photo of Connecticut State Police officials shepherding a line of young students to safety, through a parking lot.

Above the word “Horrific” were three small sub-heads, centered left to right, that said: “School shooting leaves 20 children plus six adults dead;” “Shooter kills his mother at home and himself at school;” and “Principal, school psychologist are among the dead.”

Above the three sub heads was a thin white, separating line, capped with the words “TRAGEDY IN CONNECTICUT,” again in small font but all caps.

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If you had been in a cave and out of contact with the news on Friday and you picked up The Star and looked at the top half of the front page, you would have the gist of the story in a few seconds. With just 30 strategically placed words and one large photo, The Star distilled a complex and far-reaching story that has shaken the nation’s underpinnings.

But that above-the-fold gut punch was only the start.

Below the fold, on the left side, was the main news story, picked up from The New York Times news service. (Smart choice.) To the right of that was a series of three small photos, with black borders that continued the color scheme above the fold. One of photos showed a woman wailing and talking on a cell phone. Another showed President Obama appearing to brush a tear away from the corner of his left eye.

The highlight of the page, however, was an opinion column by The Star’s Mary Sanchez, under the headline, “We must act now, for the children of Sandy Hook.”

Sanchez’ experience over many years, during which she has found her voice and honed her style, gave her the confidence and depth to assemble the most profound column she has ever written. Her call for gun control was restrained but very impassioned, and it brimmed with clean, clear, powerful sentences.

Consider her first two paragraphs:

“The nation has a duty to protect its tiniest, most vulnerable citizens. Our children.

“America is failing at this task, and the proof is lying in Connecticut morgues.”

Chilling.

She went on to say, “If the slaughter of a classroom of children isn’t enough to press for reasonable gun control, then nothing will help America. We might as well hand out NRA memberships with birth certificates.”

Frightening.

The coverage then “jumped” to page 16, where the lead news story and Sanchez’ column continued. On the facing page (17) were a timeline of the nation’s deadliest mass shootings since the mid-1960s and three more stories. The Associated Press and New York Times produced two of the stories, but the third one — about schools being designed increasingly with safety as a top consideration — was written by The Star’s higher education writer, Mara Rose Williams.

Williams, a widely respected veteran within the newsroom, told about some of the safety features in new school-building designs, including double-door entries. At schools with such doors, Williams said, “Visitors are required to show an identification card, be photographed by cameras and answer questions through an intercom system at the door before being buzzed in by a secretary.” The idea being to keep potential intruders at the front door.

Adding to the impressiveness of the story was the fact that Williams assembled the story using only local sources — two architects and the Kansas City School District superintendent.

If all that coverage wasn’t enough, when you turned to the back pages of the section, the lead editorial collared you with this arresting headline: “Weep for the children, then pass sane gun laws.”

One of the most biting paragraphs went like this:

“If 26 persons were killed in a bridge collapse, we would have an immediate discussion about fixing our bridges. It makes no sense to continually skirt around the gun issue when innocent people keep dying from gun violence.”

***

Friday was not only a day for the country to remember but a day to be remembered locally for The Star’s ability to rise to the tremendous challenge of distilling and capturing the horror and import of what might go down as one of the most heinous events in our nation’s history.

The Star acquitted itself beautifully, and for that I am immensely proud of my former employer.

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The most interesting part of this fiasco going on at The Star — management asking veteran reporters Dawn Bormann and Karen Dillon to decide which of them should be let go in a down sizing — is that The Star apparently has done this at least once before. And got away with it.

Back in January 2011, five months before Mi-Ai Parrish was named publisher at The Star, my friend Hearne Christopher reported on his kcconfidential blog that a longtime copy editor name Don Munday (who also has a humorous verse in The Star every Monday) had been let go in a down sizing.

Hearne came back a day or two later, however, saying that might not be right, and it turned out that Munday was staying. It struck me as very odd that a guy would be cast off one day (I trusted that Hearne simply didn’t misidentify the target) and then be pulled back aboard the next.

But, as I recall (I could be wrong), nothing ever came out about the possibility that Munday and another employee might have been presented with the “you two make the call” option. Now, though, Hearne is reporting that the flip of the coin, so to speak, was between Munday and another longtime copy editor, Mike Garbus. Garbus lost the toss, or whatever, and Munday continued penning his verses.

And so the episode passed quietly.

Hearne sniffed out the latest game of “you-or-him” or “you-or-her,” and it has grabbed headlines in blogs and mainstream media partly because two women are involved. In addition, each has family caretaking duties: Bormann has a young child, and Dillon apparently helps care for two grandchildren.

What I make of this situation is that editor Mike Fannin in all likelihood engineered both rounds of this foolish game. Fannin would have brought the proposal to Parrish, who probably thought to herself something like, “Well, it worked out OK the first time, when I wasn’t here, so we might as well give it another run.”

If that is the correct scenario, this 41- or 42-year-old publisher has now found out that delegating significant personnel decisions to underlings is a huge mistake.

In addition, Parrish has not impressed me in the least. She has not built a civic profile for herself and her paper, and she is not a good salesperson, which a publisher has to be these days to be successful. Remember Jim Hale, publisher back in the late 1970s and into the 80s? He presented as an easy-going, aw-shucks Texan, but he wielded tremendous power of personality and built an imposing profile on the civic front. As a result, The Star’s profile rose to its highest point in decades and made money hand over fist.   

After Parrish was named publisher in 2011, I wrote that “putting a 40-year-old person with five years of publishing experience — especially small-market experience — looks like a rather big roll of the dice.”

I pointed out that she came from a paper, the Idaho Statesman, that was four times smaller than The Star in terms of circulation. Plus she had jumped to publisher in Idaho from the mid-level management job of deputy managing editor at the Minneapolis Star Tribune.

In that same blog I also wrote this: “On the digital side, her youth should work to her advantage because that appears to be where the future lies for newspapers. But her youth could work against her on the personnel side, unless she gets some very good advisers.”

Well, her youth and relative inexperience at the highest level of journalism has worked against her.

But the Dillon-Bormann situation isn’t the first time she has dropped the ball. Just before she was announced as publisher, Hearne reported (with the reportorial help of a much less prominent blogger…ahem) that Fannin had not one — as previously thought –but two D.U.I. convictions. We also uncovered a misdemeanor assault conviction in Texas, where he worked before he came to Kansas City.

That would have been the perfect time for Parrish to unload Fannin and bring in her own editor. But, as I told Hearne at the time, that’s not the way The Star operates. When its managers come under fire, they circle the wagons and hunker down.

Now, Parrish has no one but herself to blame. If she fires Fannin, it won’t change the fact that the buck stopped with her.

I think it very likely that, as a result of this debacle, Parrish is in her first and last publishing job at a major metropolitan daily.

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