What a day here in our town!
We saw one of the most important positions in all of Kansas City re-filled today, and people everywhere were joyous, some almost delirious.
…Yes, folks, that’s how deeply the naming of a new publisher at The Kansas City Star can affect people.
The new publisher is 38-year-old Tony Berg. That’s awfully young. But he’s from this area, and he’s had 15 years of newspaper experience, including three years in charge of advertising at the Wichita Eagle and nearly a year in the same position at The Star. Berg was born and raised in Kansas and received a bachelor’s degree in strategic communication and journalism from the University of Kansas. His wife Audrey is also a KU graduate. They have two sons, Archer and Wyatt.
Like The Star, the Eagle is owned by the beleaguered McClatchy Co., based in Sacramento, CA.
The fact that Berg is young had to be a consideration for McClatchy, which is carrying a debt of about $966 million: They don’t have to pay him nearly as much as they would an older, experienced publisher.
He succeeds Mi-Ai Parrish, who put in a strange four years as publisher — strange as in ineffectual and nearly invisible — before moving on to the Arizona Republic last year.
The Star’s report on Berg’s appointment was accompanied by video of him addressing employees in the second-floor newsroom. I’ve been to several of such gatherings, which are traditional at big newspapers nationwide when a major player is introduced — usually a new owner, publisher or editor.
(One such gathering I distinctly remember was after the Walt Disney Co. had purchased Cap Cities/ABC, whose holdings included The Star and several other newspapers. Word on the street was Disney was not the least bit interested in the newspapers, that its main target was ABC and ESPN, which was part of the deal. But when Disney C.E.O. Michael Eisner appeared in the newsroom and addressed The Star’s staff, he said Disney had no intention of selling the newspapers. A year later, the papers were up for sale and were purchased by KnightRidder, which later sold to McClatchy.)
But with the arc of newspapers in an extended descent, there was little chance of Berg making reckless proclamations or promises.
After being greeted with enthusiastic applause and some cheers, he gave a heartfelt, down-to-earth speech that had to hearten the beaten-down staff, which has been overworked and preoccupied with job security since McClatchy paid way too much for the KnightRidder papers in 2006.
Berg acknowledged the wolf at the door — the Internet — but said he believed The Star could prevail in the battle for news supremacy in Kansas City and the rest of The Star’s distribution area. As he and every other new publisher is obliged to say, he asserted that The Star’s future was bright. He then added…
“We’re in a fight, and it’s a tough fight. But it’s not unlike the fight Col. (William Rockhill) Nelson fought 135 years ago when trying to take control of the paper business here in Kansas City. The only difference today is that the fight is on the digital front. That fight has no rules. It has no regard for how long you’ve been in business. But it is a fight that we can win…We have shown audience growth at a time when people said we were going to die. And we didn’t. Our audience has never been bigger than it is today.”
At another point, his words had to make the hearts of reporters and editors soar when he alluded to a recent expose that showed Kansas City Fire Department supervisors had failed to clear firefighters from an alley at a big fire on Independence Avenue. Two firefighters who were in a “collapse zone” that should have been cleared died when the wall of a three-story building came crashing down. Berg said:
“That piece…didn’t make us many friends, but you will learn this from me: It’s not just words; I will stand behind work like that very proudly, and I will stand behind work like that every day because that is what makes us so important in the community we work in. It’s what makes us so important to the towns we represent.”
And so begins a new era at The Kansas City Star. With today’s move, it’s a time to be guardedly optimistic. A young, seemingly energetic leader is on the scene, and he understands the challenges. My best advice to him would be what it was to Mi-Ai Parrish, who ignored it:
Get involved in civic leadership. Let the Civic Council and the Chamber of Commerce know there’s a new sheriff at 18th and Grand. Raise The Star’s flag, figuratively, everywhere you go. Accept every invitation to appear on radio and TV. Elevate The Star’s profile by raising your own profile. Sell the paper as confidently and as assertively as you sold ads. Go out and kick ass; you lead the best and strongest news-gathering operation between Chicago and the West Coast.
…Oh, I forgot to mention that I heard another fairly important position in Kansas City was refilled today. Great to have Gordo back…It’s been a great day in Kansas City.