New KC Star publisher Tony Berg had his public “coming out” yesterday with an impressive appearance on KCUR’s Central Standard show.
Berg exuded the energy one would expect from a 38-year-old person who two months ago landed the most important job on the Kansas City media scene. Among other things, he acknowledged that The Star was facing challenges and was in a critical period of “transformation,” with the company’s emphasis shifting from print to digital.
Asked by host Gina Kaufmann to name some of the biggest challenges, Berg said: “The one that’s at the top of my priority list right now is our delivery. I’m not happy with where it’s at. That’s an area we’re working quickly to rectify.”
If you’ve been reading this blog in recent weeks, you know Berg vowed from the get-goo to address the delivery situation, which crumbled under the previous publisher, Mi-Ai Parrish. He and leaders of the “audience development” department have responded personally to people who have complained about delivery problems. With that attitude, I feel, they should be able to get things smoothed out and perhaps even regain a significant number of subscribers who dropped the paper out of frustration and disgust.
Unfortunately, there’s still the matter of skyrocketing subscription rates — upwards of $40 a month for a standard subscription, from what I’ve heard.
(I’ve been meaning to tell you that I finally got the retiree discount I was entitled to but somehow wasn’t getting after my 2006 retirement. It’s a good deal, and I wish everyone else could get a rate approaching mine…I also want to let you know that, in the wake of an email I sent, Berg got the dial-by-last-name directory reinstated on The Star’s automated telephone answering system.)
Also in the interview (you can queue up the audio on this page), Berg hinted that he might initiate something else I’ve been advocating. “To some degree, we’ve been our own worst enemy,” he said. “We haven’t done a great marketing campaign to be out there.”
Out there, as in drumming in to people through an advertising campaign that The Star is still the primary and most authoritative news source for a majority of area residents, whether in print form or online.
Kaufmann spent several minutes pressing Berg on how The Star could grow — and be successful in its transformation — as long as it continued laying off employees and offering buyouts.
“Is there an end point?” Kaufmann asked, referring to the downsizing, which began in 2008 and has not let up.
Berg deflected the line of questioning, repeatedly asserting that the situation should not be looked at as reduction but rather a redistribution and realignment of resources.
Just this week, The Star offered another round of editorial-side layoffs, with the goal of cutting five to 10 staff members. The deadline for applying for the buyout was yesterday, and Kauffman said on the air that theater critic Robert Trussell had decided to take the offer. Trussell has been in the Features Department more than 30 years. In recent years, features has also lost its full-time movie critic (Robert Butler), its fine arts critic (Alice Thorson) and its full-time music critic (Paul Horsley). None has been replaced; The Star has chosen to outsource those tasks to freelancers, and you can bet that’s what it will do now with theater criticism.
It’s too bad that when Kaufmann was interviewing Berg, she didn’t know what former KC Star investigative reporter Karen Dillon posted on Facebook Thursday night.
Dillon, now a reporter for the Lawrence Journal-World, said other editorial-side employees who will take buyouts included Jody Cox, online editor, who has been with the paper about 20 years, and assistant sports editor Mark Zeligman, who has put in at least 20 years. But Dillon’s bombshell was that two of The Star’s four editorial-page writers, including editorial-page editor Steve Paul, are leaving. Paul has been with the paper more than 40 years. He was named editorial page editor 18 months ago.
Barb Shelly, the other departing editorial writer, has been with the paper more than 35 years. If Shelly and Paul are not replaced, it would leave The Star with only Lewis Diuguid and Yael Abouhalkah manning the editorial page, which sets the paper’s political tone and civic compass. I’ve got to assume Berg and Star editor Mike Fannin will fill at least one of the editorial-page posts being vacated. Otherwise, how could The Star continue putting out a decent editorial page? Already, the number of staff-generated editorials has dropped significantly, and the Monday Op-Ed page has been dropped.
When Tony Berg said The Star has challenges, yes, it sure does. It’s going to take all of Berg’s youthful energy and every bit of whatever resourcefulness he has to keep The Star moving forward.
By God, he’s determined, though, and seems very intelligent, and you can’t underestimate the significance of strength at the top of an organization. It was reassuring for me to hear him say on the radio, “It certainly won’t be on my watch that The Star goes down.”