Wanted: Five to 10 good men and women to leave The Kansas City Star newsroom right away.
That’s the “classified ad” The Star recently posted as it continues to probe how to publish a respectable news product with as few reporters, editors and photographers as possible.
With they buyout comes a few months’ severance pay and maybe the coveted sheet-cake party. (The sheet-cake party really should be written into the buyout deal because it helps lessen the indignity of the often-premature departure.) I’m told today is the deadline to apply for the buyout, and if I hear what happens, I’ll let you know.
The buyouts come on the heels of — according to a source — 26 layoffs in other divisions in recent weeks.
…By my last count, The Star was down to about 20 Metro reporters, and I hate to think what would happen if that number went down to, say, 15.
But slow asphyxiation does not appear to be a major concern of The Star’s owner, the McClatchy Co. of Sacramento. It has been trying to slash its way to greater profitability eight of the 10 years it has owned The Star.
Of course, that’s exactly what a one billion dollar debt will make a company do — gasp for air every day it operates.
The local template for this type of downward spiral was established many years ago with a company many of you will remember — Payless Cashways. Payless had been publicly owned and decided to take itself private. A group led by c.e.o. David Stanley (dubbed “Minnesota Dave” because he tried to run Payless while maintaining his permanent residence in Minnesota) bought the operation but made the fatal mistake of paying way too much. After a few years of treading water, the company went under. Dave flew back to Minnesota from KC for the last time, and Sutherlands took over some of the stores.
As I’ve said many times, McClatchy was a relatively small fish in the newspaper industry back in 2006, when upper management made the unwise decision to swallow the much larger Knight Ridder Co., which owned 32 papers, including The Star. Unlike McClatchy’s then-c.e.o. Gary Pruitt, Knight Ridder’s Tony Ridder saw the cliff that the newspaper industry was heading toward, and he pulled up at just the right time, making himself and several other top managers millions of dollars. Former Star publisher Art Brisbane, who had joined the corporate office, was one of the beneficiaries.
The Knight Ridder deal closed in 2006, and two years later McClatchy began laying people off. (In the most fortuitous move of my 36-plus-year career at The Star, I retired June 30, 2006, three days after the deal closed.)
I have no idea what’s ahead for McClatchy and The Star. I would love to see McClatchy sell The Star to someone who values newspapers and has deep pockets — someone like Warren Buffet, who has bought one chain, Media General, as well as the Omaha World-Herald and The Buffalo News — but I doubt that’s going to happen. The Star, I believe, has been and will continue to be the biggest moneymaker in the McClatchy chain, and McClatchy probably will continue to bleed it for cash as long as it can.
The main reason The Star has been able to maintain a good return on investment is this is a good advertising market and for many years The Star has managed to desensitize advertisers to very high print advertising rates. (Just last year, I demonstrated my belief in the power of print ads by spending several thousand dollars of a benefactor’s money on political ads agitating for a $15-an-hour minimum wage in Kansas City.)
Another place The Star is making good money is on its contract print operation. At its still relatively new and modern press building, which also opened in 2006, The Star is printing several other publications, including the Topeka Capital-Journal, the Lawrence Journal-World, the Pitch and the regional editions of the Wall Street Journal and USA Today. Just this week, The Star and The Wichita Eagle announced that The Eagle would be transferring its printing and packaging operations to The Star’s printing plant.
As a result, The Eagle is eliminating 74 full- and part-time positions, and it is planning to sell its downtown buildings.
Now, that’s fine and dandy for The Star but not good at all for The Eagle’s print subscribers. The Eagle’s evening deadline probably will move up to about 7 p.m., to allow time for the papers to be printed and hauled the 200 miles back to Wichita. Print subscribers will get little, if any, breaking night-time news in their morning papers.
The reasoning behind this move is to advance McClatchy’s strategy of weaning print readers to the electronic subscriptions. The problem is online advertising isn’t nearly as profitable as print. But being latecomers to the electronic waterfall, McClatchy and other chains really have no choice at this point.
It’s a shame that, in announcing the change, Eagle publisher Roy Heatherly — who honed his semantics at Gannett before switching to McClatchy last year — didn’t just come out and say that. Instead, he said: “We’re not abandoning print at all. We remain absolutely committed to providing a high-quality newspaper to our loyal print-edition readers while also focused on serving our rapidly growing digital audience. This is strictly a move to position us for growth. We are strong. We are profitable. We are committed to Wichita. And we are committed to downtown Wichita.”
Well, I’ll be curious to see what The Eagle does after selling its three-story building downtown. Wouldn’t surprise me if it rented space somewhere. McClatchy’s got to stay light-footed for whatever dance numbers it next choreographs.
Many of you have probably heard this, but a longtime Star editor, Kirk Weber, died Sunday. Kirk was an assignment and story editor, first on the former state desk and later the Metro desk. As a rule, compulsive personalities are plentiful in newsrooms — I was most assuredly in that category — but Kirk, with his affable, relaxed manner, was an exception. He got along with everyone, and I think it’s safe to say that just about every reporter who ever worked for and with him admired and liked him. Health problems plagued him on and off since he was in his 40s, but he pushed on without complaint. Among others, he leaves two daughters and a son. He was 65. Rest in peace, Kirk.