When you’re hired on in some businesses, you have a week or two to settle in, take an introductory tour around the facilities and maybe even go through an orientation program.
In the newspaper business, though, you’re usually thrust right into action.
On my first day at The Kansas City Times, in September 1969, a reporter named Harihar Krishnan (how could I forget that?) gave me a brief newsroom tour, showing me where to hang my coat, get notebooks and other supplies and how to use the criss-cross directories. He then said, “That’s about it.”
“What do I do now”? I asked Krishnan.
“Sit down, put your feet on the desk, smoke a cigar, read a magazine — do whatever you want,” he said.
…Now this, I thought, is pretty good!
Within minutes, however, the phone on my desk was ringing. Puzzled, I picked up the heavy black receiver and said, “Hello.” The voice on the other end said, “This is the McGilley Midtown Chapel; I have one for you.”
I had no idea what the person was talking about and asked him to hold. Covering the mouthpiece with my hand, I shouted over to the city editor that somebody on the line apparently had the wrong number.
“No,” the city editor called back. “It’s a funeral home calling with an obituary; take down the information.”
It was at that moment I learned I hadn’t really been hired as a “general assignment reporter” but as an obituary writer — which, at the time, was the apprenticeship every KC Times and Star reporter had to serve before reaching true general assignment status.
I bring up my Kansas City Times indoctrination as a parallel to what has occurred since Steve Vockrodt, formerly of The Pitch, started work as development reporter at The Star on Monday, June 6.
I expected Vockrodt, an experienced reporter, to get out of the blocks quickly, but his production has surprised even me. By my count, using the kansascity.com “search” box, Vockrodt has had nine bylined stories in eight working days. That’s churning ’em out, and it shows what an impact the hiring of one experienced journalist can have. It also illustrates, by contrast, the enervating effect that laying off and buying out experienced reporters can have.
Since 2008, two years after McClatchy purchased The Star and about 20 other Knight Ridder papers, The Star has shed scores of newsroom employees — and hundreds in the overall operation — to the point where the news hole got so small that many people wondered how long The Star could continue publishing the print edition every day.
No longer do I hear significant speculation about the prospect of some daily print editions being dropped, and the hiring of Vockrodt and several other young journalists in recent weeks tends to indicate The Star has steadied after years of tumbling down the cliff.
..But back to Vockrodt and the impact one reporter can make. His most recent story, posted today, is about Cabela’s announced intention to build a new store in Lee’s Summit. Should it come to pass, it undoubtedly would hurt business at the only existing area Cabela’s store, the one at Village West in Kansas City, KS.
As part of a development agreement with the Unified Government, Cabela’s apparently agreed not to build another store within 150 miles until at least 2023. The Unified Government is now considering its options, which, presumably, could include legal action. In his story, Vockrodt said a spokesman at Cabela’s corporate offices in Sidney, NE, did not respond to “several attempts seeking comment for this story.”
This is an important story and one that might not have gotten the attention it deserved if Vockrodt was not on the job. But it’s a symbolic of a bigger picture, too. To execute its mission — providing readers with the news they need and want — major metropolitan newspapers have an obligation to maintain strong reporting staffs. They need a lot of people watching and applying pressure in various places — including private enterprise and government agencies — and making those “attempts seeking comment for this story.”