For all the ground that The Kansas City Star has lost in terms of print circulation in recent years, the situation is not nearly as bad as it is in St. Louis, where the Post-Dispatch has seen its Sunday circulation fall off a cliff.
Not only does The Star sell more nearly 20,000 more Sunday print editions than the Post-Dispatch, but it sells nearly an equal number of daily papers — and that in a metro area that is 40 percent smaller than its cross-state rival.
Over the last decade, the papers have strong parallels: Each was purchased by a newspaper conglomerate that was guilty of overreaching; each has lost significant print circulation; and each is in the stranglehold of corporations that are drowning in debt.
The Star, of course, is owned by McClatchy Co., Sacramento, whose debt is about $966 million, largely from paying way too much for The Star and about 20 other Knight Ridder papers in 2006.
The Post-Dispatch is owned by Lee Enterprises of Davenport, IA, which overpaid for the Post-Dispatch and Pulitzer Inc.’s 13 other daily papers in 2005. Lee Enterprises’ debt is $726 million.
Despite being on similar economic arcs, some differences are particularly disturbing from the St. Louis point of view. For example, The Post-Dispatch’s print Sunday circulation dropped 24 percent — from 249,873 to 190,881 — between March 2013 and March 2015. The Star’s fell, too, but by only 14 percent — from 244,057 to 209,947. Both papers sell about 115,000 print editions Monday through Friday — both down more than 20 percent from 2013.
To put The Star’s loss of daily print editions in perspective, in the late 1990s, when daily circulation was in the mid-200,000s, The Star launched a promotional campaign with the goal of bumping daily sales up to 300,000 a day by the year 2000. “Three hundred thousand by 2000” was the theme…But we didn’t come close, and the numbers soon started dropping, instead of rising.
Two other differences are worth noting: The Post-Dispatch’s longtime headquarters building at 900 N. Tucker Blvd. in downtown St. Louis is now up for sale, and the company-paid pension was frozen in 2010. (My understanding of a pension freeze is that the company stops contributing to employees’ pension plans; the company continues to pay what is owes retirees and what it has agreed to pay current employees when they retire, but that’s it. The faucet is turned off.)
In Kansas City, The Star building at 18th and Grand is not for sale, although it wouldn’t be surprising to see that happen. Also, as far as a I know, McClatchy is still contributing to employees’ pension plans. (My pension has not been affected, and I’ve never heard intimations that retiree pensions are in jeopardy.)
Another sign of distress at the Post-Dispatch is that for several months recently, the editorial page was down to two people, including Kevin Horrigan, a reporter at The Star in the 1970s. The good news is a new editorial page editor either has started or is starting soon, and Post-Dispatch Editor Gilbert Bailon has said the paper will return to having three editorial-page writers.
In Kansas City, by contrast, The Star has four editorial page writers: Barbara Shelly, Lewis Diuguid, Yael Abouhalkah and editorial page editor Steve Paul. That’s down one from when former editorial page editor Miriam Pepper retired in 2014.
One area in which I think the Post-Dispatch is superior to The Star is honesty and transparency with its customers. Both papers sometimes use “outsourced” editorials — purchased from a service — and while the Post-Dispatch identifies outsourced editorials, The Star does not.
In addition, Bailon, the Post-Dispatch editor, seems more forthcoming and accessible than Mike Fannin, editor of The Star. Fannin is rarely quoted publicly, and the only time I heard or saw him on a local radio or TV show last year was an interview on KCUR-FM. And then he was insipid and uninformative.
In a lengthy story this week in the Gateway Journalism Review, an online publication based at Southern Illinois University, Bailon candidly addressed staff morale and the state of his newspaper.
“I think there is always some level of concern in our business because it’s changing and we’ve had things like buyouts and layoffs and cutbacks and jobs that didn’t get filled…For the most part, I think there is a resounding feeling that we are valuable. I think (coverage of) Ferguson helped with that. What we do individually matters and because of that, that helps puts the focus on the right things.”
Finally, I don’t know how the Post-Dispatch handles circulation matters, but with The Star it has been a shell game for customers:
— A change in the delivery system a few months ago resulted in many people not getting their papers
— Subscription prices have been raised with little or no notice and often without comparison to old, or current, prices
— Subscriber calls about delivery problems are routed overseas, leaving many people frustrated and disillusioned, not only with the long-range dealings but with the lack of resolution to their concerns and problems.
Along with many other Star readers and subscribers, I am hoping we’ll start seeing significant improvements on all fronts — news, opinion, circulation and advertising — with this week’s appointment of Tony Berg as publisher. Although he’s only 38, he has a lot of experience on the advertising side, which is where the revenue is. If he’s smart, Berg will open the doors and windows down at 18th and Grand and let in some sun and fresh air. That would help generate not only badly needed goodwill but also more revenue.