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Archive for January, 2016

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.

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Tony Berg, in The Star’s newsroom today

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.

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Soon after arriving in Kansas City in the fall of 1969, I began reading and hearing about this place called the Country Club Plaza, which for months I pronounced “plah-za,” elongating the first syllable. (To this day, you hear a lot of newcomers struggling with the pronunciation of what would seem to be a simple word.)

And, truly, it was like nothing I had ever seen before. Block after block of beckoning, solidly built retail stores and restaurants. The district was so extensive it seemed like a maze. Three of my favorite places were on the west side of the district — the bowling alley, Sears and Gateway Sporting Goods.

One of my outstanding early memories of Kansas City was buying a ping-pong table at Gateway. I lived at 59th and McGee in a rental house with four other guys, all MU graduates, including a KC Star colleague named Harry Hill. (Harry left the paper after a few years and went on to become a state representative and later a lobbyist at the State Capitol.) One day Harry and I decided it would be a good idea to buy a ping pong table for the dining room, which was devoid of furniture. We didn’t even have a table there; for dining we had a picnic table with two benches in the kitchen.

So Harry and I went down to Gateway and bought a ping pong table. The next problem was how to get it home. Being young guys with low salaries, we didn’t want to spend whatever it cost to have the table delivered. We talked about it and Harry came up with the brilliant idea of me holding the box while lying against the back of his dark green VW, with feet planted on the back bumper.

Do you get the picture? I was leaning against the gently rounded back of the VW, arms spread wide and holding the big box in front of me. The only thing people behind us could see of me was my hands and feet.

“Drive very, very slowly,” I told Harry.

And off we went — onto eastbound Ward Parkway, over to Main (which then crossed Brush Creek), down to Brookside Boulevard and up either 57th or 59th to McGee.

We made it without mishap, and that ping pong table served us well for several years. I believe it was still there when I moved out in 1977.

…Those old stores that many of us remember fondly — the three I mentioned, along with others like Macy’s, Woolf Brothers, Jack Henry and Putsch’s cafeteria — left the Plaza long ago. But the Plaza has always remained a special and wonderful place for Kansas City. It’s our “crown jewel” for good reason.

And now, for just the second time since J.C. Nichols built it in 1923, it is having a change of ownership.

Kansas City area residents were concerned after the Nichols Co. folded and a Raleigh, NC, named Highwoods Properties bought the Plaza in 1998. With a few hiccups along the way, Highwoods proved to be a responsible owner. And, most important, the Plaza has continued to prosper.

From today’s Kansas City Star story, it appears to me that the Plaza once again is landing in responsible hands. The incoming owners — who will pay $660 million for the Plaza — are two experienced shopping center owners — Taubman Centers and the Macerich Co. Taubman, based outside Detroit, owns and manages 23 shopping centers in the U.S. and Asia. Macerich is the third largest owner and operator of shopping centers in the U.S, according to Wikipedia. The company was founded in 1994 and has its headquarters in Santa Monica, CA.

I don’t have any firsthand knowledge of Macerich, but I have become familiar with a Taubman property — Taubman Prestige Outlets in Chesterfield, MO, just west of St. Louis. I have stopped there several times on the way to or from St. Louis or Louisville, my hometown.

One of the things I like about the Chesterfield outlet mall is it doesn’t look like a mall from the front. It could pass for a large, low office building but for the names of some well-known stores on the facade. The stores do not have front entrances, however. People funnel into the mall through a brick walkway that opens into a wide walkway flanked by stores on both sides. Almost all pedestrian traffic is not visible from out front. It is something like the inner pathway at the Prairie Village Shopping Center, if you can picture that, although much longer. Contributing to a pleasant, relaxed atmosphere in the “center court” are sculptures and a variety of plants.

Of course, it is impossible to say from this example that the Plaza will continue to prosper under Taubman. But I think it’s a good sign…Also, I wouldn’t worry about the Plaza becoming an outlet mall. With rent rates what they are on the Plaza, merchandise almost has to be top of the line, full price.

Finally, I think it’s safe to assume the Plaza Lights tradition will continue. It’s a big expense, but it draws people from throughout the Midwest.

…At this point, I have just one piece of advice for the new owners: Drop the damn fireworks display on Thanksgiving night, when the lights are turned on. (I have already written a letter to Robert Taubman, chief executive of Taubman Centers, about that. Out with the fireworks!)

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Ladies and gentlemen, it’s now time for the main event.

Please welcome in the blue corner The Great Kraskini, aka, Steve Kraske, political columnist for The Kansas City Star. In the red corner, it’s little-known, but always game, Jimmy C (formerly The Fabulous Jimmy C).

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The Great Kraskini

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Jimmy C

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The ref

 

Tonight’s bout will be five rounds, predicting the outcomes of five national and Missouri state political contests on tap for 2016.

Round 1: The Republican presidential nomination

T.G.K. throws a wild haymaker, picking Ted Cruz.

Jimmy C, having seen time and again that arrogance is a terrible burden to haul up a steep hill, counters with a crisp left jab and says Marco Rubio.

Round 2: The presidential election

:: T.G.K. and Jimmy C split this round, both picking The Lady With Her Own Email Server to win big.

Round 3: The Republican nomination for Missouri governor

T.G.K. unleashes a bolo punch (straight over the top, toward the crown of the head) and says Lt. Gov. Peter Kinder, who has held the No. 2 job for 12 long years, will be the Republican nominee.

Jimmy C sees the overhead punch coming and slips it. He also sees Rex Sinquefield’s millions pushing Catherine Hanaway past Kinder, who once dated a stripper. (Not that there’s anything terribly wrong with that; it’s just hard to envision a former strip-club patron in the governor’s mansion.)

Round 4: Missouri governor

T.G.K. throws a right cross, pegging Democrat and current attorney general Chris Koster as the next governor.

Jimmy C leans away, Rope-A-Dope style, and plasters T.G.K. with a straight right to the nose…Catherine Hanaway.

(T.G.K. might be able to look a short distance into the future, but his knowledge of history is suspect. He must have forgotten the front-page, 2014 New York Times story that exposed Koster as a slave to special interests…The story recounted how a lawyer for 5-Hour-Energy buttonholed Koster at a convention of state attorneys general and prevailed on him to grab his cellphone and pull Missouri out of a multi-state investigation of 5-Hour-Energy…At a meeting of Republicans in Kansas City early last year, Hanaway passed out bottles of 5-Hour Energy drink bearing a caricature of Koster under the name “24-Hour Corruption.” )

Round 5: Missouri’s U.S. Senate race

T.G.K. goes with a conventional right hook and picks the incumbent, Republican Roy Blunt, but then he slips on the canvas, seeing Blunt “barely getting past a stronger-than-expected Jason Kander.

Being a good sport, Jimmy C catches T.G.K. before he falls to the canvas and guides him back toward his corner, whispering in his ear, “Kander gets slaughtered.”

(Again, T.G.K.’s institutional memory fails him. In. 2010, long before the Red Sea flooded Missouri, Blunt beat Democrat Robin Carnahan by 264,000 votes out of about two million votes cast.)

**

Although the fight should be over, the referee signals a bonus round for the wildly cheering fans…

Bonus Round: Which presidential candidate wins Missouri — Mrs. Bill Clinton or Rubio/Cruz?

T.G.K. remains seated in his corner, exhausted and beaten down. Jimmy C  walks to the center of the ring, grabs a fat Sharpie from the ring announcer and writes on the mat, “The Republican, of course.”

As one, the fans scream, “Why?”

Before donning his robe and exiting through the ropes, Jimmy C scratches this on the mat…

2008 — McCain, 1,445,814; Obama 1,441,911

2012 — Romney, 1,482,440; Obama, 1,223,796

2016 — Fill in the blanks

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