Archive for October, 2015

Enough of the negative…Let’s turn to some of the great work Kansas City Star reporters have been doing.

As much as readers and we self-appointed critics highlight the deficiencies of The Star and its owner, the McClatchy Co., it is important to acknowledge that The Star remains a lot better than most other major metropolitan dailies.

Maybe you saw former business reporter Julius Karash’s  comment on my previous post, saying basically it would be a debacle if McClatchy sold its papers to Gannett, the nation’s largest newspaper chain.

As I said in responding to a comment on that post, my impression is Gannett is a cookie-cutter — a marionette operation that gives local publishers and possibly editors little latitude. You walk the line and take the generic filler copy that Gannett provides. McClatchy, on the other hand, while its papers operate on razor-thin margins, doesn’t hover over local operations — at least to the best of my knowledge.

The last few days, we’ve had two huge stories taking place in Kansas City: the Royals and the deaths of firefighters Larry Leggio and John Mesh. Let’s take a look at how The Star has handled those stories.

Royals coverage

The Star has been doing a fabulous job on the Royals, publishing special sections every day on the American League Division Series with the Houston Astros. Putting out special sections is a significant financial commitment, but it’s the right thing to do.

The columns by Sam Mellinger and Vahe Gregorian have been insightful and unfailingly interesting. As usual, the headlines have been outstanding.

After the Royals came back for a 5-4 win Friday in Houston, putting the best-of-five series at a game apiece, The Star’s front-page headline was “Houston, we have a series.”

The headline on the combined front and back pages of today’s special section was “Houston, welcome back to the “K” — with the “K” reversed for baseball’s iconic indicator of a strikeout.

Never take this sports section for granted, Kansas Citians. It is one of the best in the country, and management keeps finding one great columnist after another.

Many of us never thought they’d be able to adequately fill the shoes of the Jason Whitlock and Joe Posnanski, but these two guys we’ve got now are right up there in Jason’s and Joe’s league.

The Fire

The fire in the three-story building at Independence and Prospect broke out 7:25 p.m. Monday. That gave The Star just three or four hours to get the story. And believe me, it’s not easy to get a story on deadline when all hell is breaking loose and you’ve got firefighters crushed in the rubble of a collapsed wall.

But veteran reporter Bob Cronkleton (whom I oversaw in the Wyandotte County bureau about a dozen years ago) and relative newcomer Ian Cummings did an excellent job of producing a compelling and crystal-clear story for the Tuesday morning print edition.

The fifth paragraph began with a telling quote from Fire Chief Paul Berardi: “This is the worst day.”

They didn’t get the names of the two dead firefighters in the paper, but they were on the website in the morning. Excellent work.

The hardest and most challenging part of covering a huge breaking story, however, is how well you follow it up in the days after the event, particularly the next day.

The Star delivered masterfully. They put two of their most seasoned and reliable reporters on it: Laura Bauer, who covered the Brandon Ellingson drowing at Lake of the Ozarks, and Brian Burnes, who formerly was stationed in Independence, when The Star had a bureau there. (I worked there, alongside Burnes, from 2005 to 2006, when I retired.)

Cronkleton was also back on the story Tuesday morning, probably working on very little sleep. Cummings and longtime, top-notch photographer Keith Myers contributed to the report. (Myers also had two good photos.)

The main story, more than 60 column inches, laid out what happened from start to finish…It had everything except what caused the fire — hasn’t been determined — and the last firefighter fatality in Kansas City. (I’m not sure about this, but it might have been 47-year-old Battalion Chief John Tvedten Jr., who died in a warehouse fire in December 1999.)

Accompanying the story was a helpful timeline; an easy-to-digest graphic by artist Neil Nakahodo; and a stunning overhead photo by staff photographer Allison Long, showing the still-smoking building and the pile of rubble that engulfed Leggio and Mesh after a wall collapsed.

For an accompanying story, or “sidebar,” The Star dispatched investigative reporter Judy Thomas to interview the building owner, Bo Tran…In Thomas’ capable hands, Tran came across as genuinely more devastated by the deaths of the firefighters than the loss of his building. She quoted him as saying:

“I feel real hurt. Really, really hurt. There’s nothing baetter than people like that.”


After my previous post lambasting McClatchy and The Star for various felonies and misdemeanors, an email from a former KC Star staff member jolted me into focusing on the positive.

At one point, the former staffer said, “I hate to be one of those things-were-better-back-when guys.”

How well expressed…and something for all of us backseat drivers to think about.

So, thank you, Star staff members, for providing us with outstanding reporting and writing on two of the biggest, most important stories we have seen around here since at least the fall of 2014. It’s time-consuming, demanding work, and I’m now getting out of my chair to applaud you.

Post-Royals-victory addendum

It’s abundantly clear after tonight’s great Royals’ win over the Astros in the American League Division Series that I should never venture into sports prognostication and commentary.

Here are some of the things I wrote about the Royals in recent weeks.

Aug. 23:

“The Royals…probably aren’t going to win the American League Championship.”

“Alex Rios is a pretty boy who can’t hit.”

“Lorenzo Cain looks like he’s on a sea cruise.”

“Yorlando Ventura is a kid…who probably wont’ make it with the Royals.”

Sept. 7:

I facetiously dubbed Johnny Cueto “The Fantastic Johnny C” and linked to the song “Boogaloo Down Broadway.”

— All I can say now is that, as most of you know, I have a lot of hats, and tonight I’m starting to eat them one at a time. Yea, Royals! (And after the Royals beat the Blue Jays for the American League championship, please join me in boogaloo-ing down Broadway.)

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For the sake of the loyal, hard-working journalists remaining at The Kansas City Star, I really dislike flogging the paper and its owner, the McClatchy Company, for their shortcomings.

Fact is, though, the problems are increasing, and subscribers, readers, employees and former employees are entitled to know about them.

Here’s the latest:

:: The Star is now running some editorials that are not being written by the four members of the editorial page staff. 

The Star and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, among others, are “outsourcing” some editorials to a service called “Opinion in a Pinch,” run by an Oregon man named Chris Trejbal, a former editorial writer for the Roanoke Times in Virginia.

The Columbia Journalism Review had an interesting story on Trejbal, who has shrewdly capitalized on reduced editorial-page staffs at newspapers across the country. The journalism review story says of Trejbal:


Chris Trejbal

“One of his first clients was The Kansas City Star, whose editorial page was then run by Miriam Pepper—who, after retiring from the paper in 2014, would go on to join Opinion in a Pinch as a freelance editorialist.”

…This is all news to me — The Star running some outsourced editorials and Pepper apparently writing some of the “commissioned” editorials in The Star.

The problem for me — and I trust for many of you — is that The Star isn’t identifying outsourced editorials. They are simply dropped in along with editorial researched and written by the four remaining editorial board members — Steve Paul (editorial page editor), Yael Abouhalkah, Barb Shelly and Lewis Diuguid.

The Post-Dispatch, on the other hand, has chosen to identify editorials not produced by its editorial page staff, which is now down to two members.

The Post-Dispatch uses this disclaimer in parentheses: “This editorial was commissioned from freelance editorialists and edited by the Post-Dispatch editorial board.”

…Now, that’s at least being straightforward. But listen to how Steve Paul rationalized The Star’s lack of transparency to the Columbia Journalism Review:

“When we’re ‘in a pinch’—vacation mode, etc.—we call on him (Trejbal) occasionally to help back us up. I discuss topics with him, we discuss ed (editorial) board positions, he reports and writes, we edit. I don’t see the need to disclose that; in a sense, he’s an adjunct member of the editorial board, a leg man who reports for us, or a ghost writer of pieces that never have been signed anyway.”

I think the non-disclosure is reprehensible, and I totally agree with the assessment of the former KC Star reporter who alerted me to the journalism review story.


Steve Paul

The former reporter — who declined to be quoted by name because he respects Steve Paul — wrote in an email: “I regard editorials as one of a newspaper’s sacred duties — they should be thoughtful, local and well-researched.  It’s hard for me to imagine that they accomplish any of those goals this way.”

…For the sake of its remaining credibility, The Star should immediately begin identifying outsourced editorials. To Steve Paul and KC Star editor Mike Fannin, I say, “Stop misleading the readers!”

:: Another example of The Star misleading, or at least confusing, readers appeared on the back page of Saturday’s paper.

In a legally required “Statement of Ownership, Management and Circulation,” The Star listed Fannin as editor and Greg Farmer as managing editor.

But the part about Farmer is incorrect. After Steve Shirk retired as managing editor a few months ago, The Star didn’t name a successor. Instead, it divided his duties among a few people, including Farmer.

I left a voice message for Farmer this morning and he sent me an email addressing the published statement.

“That was a mistake,” he said. “I’m leading the investigative/enterprise team as Senior AME (assistant managing editor).”

…My guess is that whoever prepared the statement simply plugged in Farmer’s name for the sake of convenience. But to be totally honest and accurate, the statement should have said the post of managing editor was “currently not filled.”

It would have been that easy to be transparent.

:: Major problems persist with distribution of the print edition.

A longtime carrier told me today that changes over the last few months have prompted some carriers to quit and that many inexperienced and incompetent carriers have been hired as replacements.

The changes include:

— The Star distancing itself from direct responsibility for delivery of the paper by hiring distributors who have formed LLCs and assumed full responsibility for delivery operations. Carriers’ checks no longer come from McClatchy but from the distributors. In addition, when carriers don’t show up for one reason or another, the distributors — not  The Star — are responsible for getting the papers delivered.

— Reductions in the pay carriers receive for delivery of each paper. (Loss of circulation has also hit carriers hard in the pocketbooks, since their pay is on a per-paper basis.) The carrier I spoke with said his income from delivering the paper was about half what it was several years ago.

— Installation of a new computer system, which has resulted in paycheck delays, among other things. “The new system has not worked from Day One,”  the carrier told me.

Along the same lines, it continues to be very difficult to get through to a live person in the circulation department. A friend who was having delivery problems was put on hold for more than 30 minutes yesterday, and today, as a test, I held on the line for at least 10 minutes before giving up.

:: Finally, McClatchy announced today it is closing its foreign bureaus and bringing those staff members back to the Washington bureau.

The bureaus to be closed are in Beijing, Mexico City, Istanbul, Berlin and Iraq.

A Poynter Institute story about the restructuring said:

“In discontinuing its foreign bureaus, McClatchy is scaling back its international coverage in favor of an editorial strategy that emphasizes regional stories and political coverage.”

Poynter said McClatchy’s international reporting will be “project based and less frequent.”

Jonathan Landay, a high-profile reporter in McClatchy’s Washington bureau, was quoted as saying:

“At a time when the world is careening into greater chaos and mayhem, Americans want to know what’s happening and how this is going to affect them. By closing the foreign bureaus, we’re shutting off an important source of news and analysis at a time when we need to be paying more attention because our mission is to inform and educate.”

landayPerhaps not coincidentally, Landay recently announced he was leaving McClatchy for a job with Reuters. When Knight Ridder still owned the papers that McClatchy later bought, Landay produced some of the most skeptical coverage of U.S. intelligence claims that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction.

Although McClatchy said there would be no layoffs, you can be assured that this is a money-saving move. Maintaining a foreign bureau is an expensive and time-consuming proposition.

In the same money-saving vein, many major metropolitan dailies, including The Star, have shrunk their national and international coverage in recent years. The emphasis on “local, local, local” is simply a cover story for reducing page count.


With all this going on, it is no mystery why publisher Mi-Ai Parrish departed for The Arizona Republic in Phoenix, where she will be working for a new company, Gannett, that was recently spun off from its parent company (renamed TEGNA) and is starting afresh with no debt.

With McClatchy, every publisher who gets up in the morning and goes to work carries with them the burden of the parent company’s nearly $1 billion debt — a debt incurred when McClatchy unwisely bought the Knight Ridder chain just when things were starting to go south for the newspaper industry.

Now, at the local level, every McClatchy paper is crying out to be set free.

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We just got home last night from south central Colorado, where we spent a few days with friends who have a cabin in the Wet Mountains (a range of the Rockies), near the town of Westcliffe.

I was there last year with the cabin owner and another guy, and that time we took the overnight train from Kansas City to Trinidad and drove the 60 miles up to the cabin in a rental car. This year we drove, and I can tell you even though it’s a long drive, sitting in the car for 12 hours is a lot more comfortable than trying to sleep in a tilt-back chair on the train.

An even bigger bonus: This year we had women! Woo-hoo! I tell you it was a veritable nonstop party for three days…well, as much of a nonstop party as one person in her late 50s (Patty) and three in their and 60s can have.

I know you’re dying to see the photos, so let’s get started!


We had just gotten to the town of Colorado City, not far from the cabin, when we happened upon this view.


I took this one from the same vantage point, different view.


Our cabin was a bit on the rough side, but…oh, wait…wrong photo.


Not rough at all, actually. Kaler, who co-owns the place with his cousin, calls it “the little cabin in the woods.” I call it the Grand Villa.


We shared the deck with some fine feathered friends.


One day we took a 4.2 mile hike (two up, two down) to St. Charles Peak, elev. 11,784 feet. Strangely enough, Patty and Kaler were the only two who made it to the summit. Maybe if Kaler’s wife Eileen and I had laid down and rested we would have made it, too.


The aspens had turned, and, boy, was it beautiful.


On Colorado 165, the road to Kaler’s cabin, looms a structure called Bishop’s Castle, which a guy named Jim Bishop built by himself. It’s quite a tourist attraction. You can climb all the way to the top, if you have courage, strong legs and an iron will. The four of us came up lacking in each of those departments. Ground level is as high as I got.


Then there’s the town of Westcliffe, at the feet of the Sangre de Cristo mountain range. One of my favorite stores in Westcliffe is a pawn shop called the The Loan A Ranger. Lots of guns for sale…Oh, baby, I just love those firearms!


One day we went to a place called The Winery, at a former abbey near Canon (pron. Canyon) City.


The wine tasting was $35 a head, except for me, a non-drinker. I drank grape juice and got in for the discount price of $10…That’s Kaler in the front and Eileen, Patty and me.


As we left The Winery, a cloud buildup was underway.


Like I said, a cloud buildup was underway. The cloud formations change quickly in the Centennial State.


A friend of Kaler’s owns this place, with a view of Turtle Rock (left peak).


A closer view of Turtle Rock.


Naturally, I wanted to get an old-fashioned selfie, using the 10-second self-timer on my Lumix, but I couldn’t scramble down the rocks in time to join my companions. Tempus fugit, that’s for sure.

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We’re in Day Two of The Kansas City Star’s redesigned website and print edition, and I thought you might be interested in getting some “expert opinions” on the changes. So, yesterday and today I sent emails to several former Star staffers, seeking their observations.

Here’s what the former insiders had to say…I will add the opinions of others, if I receive any, and I would like to get your observations. So, comment away.

Kevin Murphy, Metro Desk:

Web: I am still a print guy, but I like the redesign of the website better than I do the remade newspaper itself. The Star banner at top gives the home web page a newspaper look, and I like that a lot of headlines show up on the screen immediately without having to scroll down.

Print: The section fronts look like shoppers in a way, with the italic headings — Sports Daily, Chow Town, etc. The type face of the copy is unnecessarily large, especially in classifieds and makes for a smaller news hole. It’s encouraging to read that the paper will stress investigative work plus breaking news and beat reporting. Do they have enough reporters to do that?

Gene Meyer, Business Desk

Web: The new format looks a lot cleaner on the web. But the content seems thin. The Star was the slowest of five sources I checked to run the announcement that the Plaza was up for sale and didn’t add anything TV stations didn’t already have.
Print: The new format is going to take some getting used to. My initial impression of the print product is that it reminded me of the old Weekly Reader, the recap of each week’s news events prepared for elementary and junior high schools. About as deep and reasoned as some  of those old Ed Herlihy newsreels they used to show at movies when I was a kid. The waist-up portraits of the local columnists got me, too. We junked those shortly after I joined the old Kansas City Times staff in 1983.
Screen shot 2015-10-01 at 1.45.49 PM

Karen Brown, Editorial Page

Print: They may have finally lost me as a diehard subscriber. More air (white space) and less news. Who needs or wants that? I lived through many “redesigns,” and not one of them contributed to increased circulation or readership. I know many people now get the majority of their news online — I’m one of them — but for people who still want something of a print version, this latest iteration of The Star is even farther away than the last one.

Mike Rice, Metro Desk

Web: I think they’re just polishing a turd. Sure, they’re going to put a great piece of journalism like Laura Bauer’s story (“Saving Govi”) on the first day, but what comes after a week or two? I hate the pay wall and the pop-up ads. And most of all how there is no indication from the headlines whether it is a local or national story. For instance, you see a headline that says “Man Bites Dog.” You think, hmmm, that’s interesting — where did this sick puppy commit this act? Olathe, Northland, my neighborhood. You click it, and once you maneuver the story around the pay wall, you find that this happened in Florida!

Print: I cancelled my subscription to The Star after they laid me off and never renewed. I buy the print edition on occasion and am both amazed and depressed by how small it is.

Julius Karash, Business Desk

Web: I think the site looks better and is more compelling, and the electronic version of the print edition (E-Star) is easier to navigate on my laptop now. The website’s search mechanism seems to be improved but still needs work. To test it, I requested a search for the oldest Dave Helling byline and was presented with an item, “GOP Site Selection Committee Arrives,” which the website says is “about 174 years old.”  

Print: I am pleasantly surprised to see that there is still a business section. I like the additional subheads on news stories to help readers seeking quick summaries, but I question the value of publishing long, in-depth news features on weekdays. (Note: Julius stopped taking the print edition recently after experiencing delivery problems at his downtown residence.)


As Karen Brown noted, those of us who worked at The Star many years went through several redesigns, and it always took me at least a few weeks to get used to the changes.

Here are my initial, major observations of the redesign:

— The front page of the print edition contains just two stories a day, instead of three or four. Lame.

—  The ridiculously small amount of national and international news in both the print edition and on the website is not changing. Embarrassing.

— The larger type face is good, especially for the older readers, who comprise the vast majority of print-edition readership. One thumb up.

Finally, here are the opinions of the two women I live with:

Patty: “It looks like a small-town newspaper.”

Brooks: “It looks like they’re turning it into a picture book…You can quote me.”

Ah, the kid knows the lingo. Warms my soul.

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