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Archive for October, 2016

It was jolting to learn within the last few minutes that Frampton T. (Ted) Rowland III, one of the Kansas City areas notorious payday lenders is dead at age 52.

I do not know yet how Rowland died. Death occurred on Monday. No cause was listed. But death at 52 is unusual, and the obit in today’s paper was very low key, absent personal details and a photo.

I hope this was not a suicide, but if it was, Rowland would be the second payday lender to take his own life. The other was Blaine Tucker, a brother of Scott Tucker, who was the titular head of the payday-lending group. Blaine Tucker was 48 when he took his life in March 2014. A third Tucker brother, Joel Tucker, was also involved in the unseemly business.

(The Pitch newspaper, which has led the way on the payday lending story, has posted a story on Rowland’s death.)

All the men I have mentioned were or are defendants in federal, civil lawsuits growing out of their payday lending activities, and Scott Tucker, a former race car driver, is under criminal indictment in New York.

…I want to say this right here: I have broadsided these payday lenders, and I don’t regret it, but for their sake and that of their families I hate to see their lives shattered and some of them dying well before their time. It’s heartbreaking. Now, the victims are not only those who were cheated out of millions of dollars but the men who did the cheating and their families.

This is like a purposely set fire that whips back around to consume the arsonist and his home.  

Left behind in the wake of Rowland’s premature death are his mother, his wife and the couple’s three children.

Blaine Tucker left behind a wife, a daughter, his mother and, of course, his two brothers.

Rowland’s obituary doesn’t yield much information, other than that he was a graduate of Shawnee Mission West and KU, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in business. He was a member of St. Ann’s Catholic Church in Prairie Village. Whitepages.com has a listing for him in Mission Hills.

But Blaine Tucker’s obituary — which I read a few minutes ago researching this story — magnifies the scope of the tragedy.

Listen to how it begins:

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Blaine Tucker

Blaine Allen Tucker, 48, a kind and humble Kansas City area businessman, died unexpectedly on Sunday, March 9, 2014. An entrepreneur at heart, Blaine helped build some of the most successful restaurants and technology companies in the Kansas City area. But above all, he was a devoted family man that adored his wife, Nereyda, his beautiful daughter, Bianca, and his large, extended family.

Blaine was born in Kansas City, Missouri, to Norma and Robert Tucker. He attended Rockhurst and Shawnee Mission South High Schools and graduated from the University of Kansas with a degree in Business Administration.

Known by friends and family for his enormous generosity, Blaine supported many local charities, most notably the Children’s Miracle Network. He was a man always concerned for others with a knack for benevolence. And he was funny. His wry and witty sense of humor went unsurpassed, but never at the expense of others. It was always more fun when Blaine was in the room.

It makes me want to cry…Why did a guy who seemingly had so much going for him allow himself to be drawn into the damn payday lending business? How could a guy described as “kind and humble” end up taking advantage of poor people?

It doesn’t make sense…But, of course, it does make sense. I’ve written this before: It comes down to greed. When money is whipping around in the air, seemingly up for there for grabbing, it’s very hard to sit on your hands.

…I remember an occasion decades ago when greed overtook me at the old Ak-Sar-Ben racetrack in Omaha. I went to the mutuel window to cash a winning ticket that was worth something like $35. This was before computerized wagering and calculation of payouts. The mutuel clerk misread the ticket and started reaching for big bills. My eyes had to have widened as he said something like, “That’s $350, right?”

I paused for just a second and said, “Right.” The pause must have registered with him, because he quickly rechecked the ticket, looked up me and said angrily: “No, it’s not!” Lips tight and trembling, he counted out the $35 and slid it toward me with an icy glare. I walked away guilt-stricken and ashamed…My impulse had been to take the undeserved money. What I didn’t think about was that the mutuel clerk would have been held accountable for the error and would have had to make up the shortfall from his own pocket. I would have cheated a fellow human being, not the racetrack.

Greed is a powerful force. That’s why it’s one of the seven deadly sins. Like arson fires, it continues to wreak havoc, spreading forward and blowing backwards.

 

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When I was teenager in Louisville in the 1960s, one of our favorite places to go was the Gardiner Lane Ice Skating Rink, a couple of miles from my home in the Highlands section of Louisville.

As I’ve written before, adolescence was difficult for me, partly because I attended an all-boys Catholic high school — St. X — and then an all-male Catholic college — Bellarmine.

(Thankfully, before my junior year in college, the ’66-’67 school year, Bellarmine merged with an all-girls Catholic college — Ursuline. That first year, the boys could sign up for classes at Ursuline and the girls could sign up for classes at Bellarmine…I’ve claimed ever since that I was the first boy on the inter-campus bus.)

Deprived of everyday female companionship, we St. X students desperately sought occasions and places where we could at least see some girls and perhaps make the acquaintance of one or two. So, on crisp, fall afternoons — after school — some of us would go to Seneca Park to watch the girls from Sacred Heart Academy, the closest all-girls school, play field hockey games. I can’t recall ever meeting a girl at any of those hockey games — which didn’t help my aching, anguished heart — but it at least put me within a few arms’ lengths of the girls as they ran by, exuding energetic and blessed femininity.

Another place where we could see girls, and where we had an even better chance to mingle with them, was the skating rink. I loved that rink, even though it was all I could do to stay upright and plant one foot in front of the other on the ice. Enhancing the experience was the rink’s excellent sound system, which constantly blared the Oldies that were on the pop charts at any given time.

I have a memory of one night and one song that particularly lifted my spirits. It was Bobby Vee’s “Walkin’ With My Angel,” released in 1961. For a lonely kid, it said everything…

Aww, when we’re strollin’ hand in hand
I’m as happy as can be
‘Cause she’s the prettiest girl in town
And everyone can see she belongs to me

Well I feel so proud
It’s as good as walkin’ on a cloud
When I’m walkin’ walkin’ with my angel

I think I skated better than ever that night, to that song. Even without “an angel” to skate with, I was almost giddy.

**

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Bobby Vee

“Walkin’ With My Angel” — written by the great team of Carole King and Gerry Goffin — was one of several hits for Bobby, who died Monday at age 73. Others included “Run to Him,” “Come Back Baby When You Grow Up” and “Take Good Care of My Baby.” (The latter, also written by King and Goffin, was Bobby’s only No. 1 hit.)

The New York Times’ obit on Bobby said, “Mr. Vee was one of a crop of dreamboat singers promoted by the music industry in the late 1950s and early ’60s, joining Ricky Nelson, Frankie Avalon, Bobby Rydell and others on the charts.”

Boy, those guys were great. Ricky, of course, died in a plane crash many years ago. Frankie and Bobby Rydell are still alive.

I tell you, each of them eased the pangs of adolescence for this boy from Derby City. And I’ll never forget that night at the skating rink, when Bobby Vee and “Walkin’ With My Angel” salved my restless, teenage soul.

 

Here’s the song.

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A high-powered journalist, David Von Drehle, spoke Sunday at an educational forum at my church (Country Club Christian) and explained in a context I had not fully understood some of the ramifications of the digital age.

Von Drehle (pronounced Von Drai-ly) is a 55-year-old editor at large for Time magazine. In addition to having written scores of cover stories for Time since he joined the magazine in 2007, he has written three books, including his most recent one, Rise to Greatness: Abraham Lincoln and America’s Most Perilous Year. Before going to work for Time, he was an assistant managing editor at The Washington Post. Von Drehle and his wife, Karen Ball, also a journalist, live in Kansas City.

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David Von Drehle

Von Drehle’s subject was the presidential election, and I was wondering how he was going to strike a balance, seeing as how Country Club is an old-line, traditional type of church that draws heavily from across the state line. (What am I getting at there is that the membership doesn’t look anything like The Kansas City Star newsroom; a goodly number of Country Club members probably will be voting for Donald Trump.)

As it turned out, being even handed was no problem for Von Drehle. Instead of assessing the two major candidates or trying to predict which of them would prevail in key states, he focused on how Trump has turned conventional campaigning on its head.

A key area in which Trump has vaulted ahead of Hillary Clinton — and ahead of almost all other politicians, for that matter, Von Drehle said — is disintermediation.

When Von Drehle introduced the word (wisely, he didn’t break it out until more than halfway through his talk), it left many heads in the room spinning, but he quickly explained it.

The gist of it is that in all presidential campaigns heretofore, the candidates went through intermediaries to get out their ideas and try to convince people to vote for them. Those intermediaries included the respective political parties, the candidates’ spokespersons, their consultants and pollsters, and, of course, journalists. But Trump has taken his campaign straight to the people, for the most part, thus waging a dis-intermediated campaign.

Trump planted the seeds for such a campaign on his hit TV show, The Apprentice, where viewers saw him unfiltered and felt like they got to know him. Two years ago, when he set out to attain the Republican nomination for President, he took the unfiltered approach to a higher level, using mainly his phone and his Twitter account to send his thoughts and ideas directly to millions of followers.

Von Drehle was quick to point out, however, that Trump doesn’t have a corner on disintermediation. There is an excellent local example, he said, citing the issue of whether Kansas City should build a new, single-terminal airport.

Before disintermediation, Von Drehle said, civic and political leaders — probably aided and abetted by The Kansas City Star — would have paved the way for a new airport by holding hearings, coming to a consensus and calling an election on whether to issue bonds to build a new airport.

The familiar script was followed to some extent…except that after a mayoral-appointed commission held hearings and determined a new, single terminal was the way to go, at least one City Council member, Teresa Loar, began squawking. It would be a big waste of money, she said, adding that the three-terminal facility that has served Kansas City for more than 40 years was convenient for passengers and did not need to be replaced.

By extending their electronic tentacles, like-minded people formed a wide circle around Loar’s position and effectively blunted not only the airport commission’s effort but the political push being led by Mayor Sly James. In the face of significant public opposition, James capitulated and put the onus on business leaders, saying if they wanted it, they needed to take the reins. Predictably, the initiative has languished.

The moral of that particular disintermediation story, as Von Drehle said, is this: In the disintermediation era, “no is easier than yes.” What that means is it’s easy to go online or onto Facebook and Twitter and grouse about the cost of a new, single terminal and assert that what we’ve got is adequate. And it’s much more difficult for a group of people, even influential people, to mount a strong case for a costly initiative that is vulnerable to simplistic opposition.

**

You probably already know how I feel about this, but here it is, for the record:

It’s a pathetic state of affairs when knee-jerking people decide they’re for or against something (or someone) on the basis of initial impressions formed and cemented in the absence of research and reflection that would cultivate a more reasoned, informed position.

And that’s where we are in regard to a badly needed new airport:

The status quo is held hostage by a bunch of people intimidated by a big price tag and grasping desperately at the notion that a new airport cannot possibly be as good as the 40-year-old one, which is as gloomy and lifeless as Donald Trump’s campaign.

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It’s a blockbuster story with classic elements: beautiful women, sex and revenge.

It revolves around Carolyn J. Heckert, now charged with first-degree murder, and Sarah DeLeon and Diana Ault, young Kansas City area women who were killed more than 20 years ago.

The story hit big Thursday, with news of the arrest of Heckert, a 48-year-old real estate agent who lives in Smithville.

Unfortunately, local news consumers couldn’t get the story in understandable context from any single news outlet. It took me more than an hour to sort it out from a variety of sources.

I’m sure people who read about this case yesterday or heard about it on radio or TV were asking themselves, “What the hell was going on there?”

Many of those same news consumers probably read or watched only one account of Heckert’s arrest and were left with their curiosity brimming.

…Having been a reporter who “ate his bylines for breakfast” (that’s what one of my first editors once said of me), I wasn’t going to let it lie until I had checked it thoroughly. That meant going to the websites of The Kansas City Star and the four local TV stations — KCTV5; Fox4, KSHB, Channel 41; and KMBC, Channel 9.

**

Ground Zero for me was The Star’s long but limited account, which said DeLeon and Ault were the victims of harassment or bullying before their deaths. The Star quoted Kansas City, KS, police as having said several months ago, “The investigation has revealed that the suspect and an accomplice have been involved in other incidents involving the harassment and intimidation of romantic rivals.”

OK. That provided a motive. Then it was on to the TV websites…

:: Fox4, which tends to be very aggressive in its crime reporting, offered nothing, not even the “romantic rivals” element.

:: KSHB’s only insight was this line: “Last May, KCK police told 41 Action News they suspected DeLeon may have been targeted because she was a romantic rival.

:: KCTV5 had a curious report, but it did offer some illumination. A reporter interviewed DeLeon’s father, Bill Laskey, who said he had long believed Heckert had killed his daughter.

carolyn-heckert

Carol Heckert

But the story immediately turned curious, when, out of the blue, Laskey was quoted as saying: “I said no, it wasn’t a robbery. It’s the b**** your son’s been with. I think it’s Carol.

The story offered no indication who Laskey was addressing when he said, “it’s the bitch your son’s been with.”

The answer to that question became a bit clearer two paragraphs later, when the reporter dropped in this telling line: “Ault’s husband admitted to an affair.”

Voila! Laskey must have been speaking with the mother or father of Diana Ault’s husband.

The Channel 5 report concluded with this: “Laskey said Heckert threatened his daughter. As a result, Ault changed her locks and phone number, even filing a harassment report with Independence police. Within weeks, she would be dead.”

:: To put the final pieces of the puzzle together, I had to go not only to KMBC’s Thursday story but also to a 2004 KMBC story that gave the full backdrop.

Here are the key paragraphs from the 2004 story, which quoted Ault’s husband, Tim Ault:

“Ault said he had an affair and moved out to live with another woman shortly before his wife’s death. The other woman was Tim’s co-worker at a Kansas City, Kan., postal facility.

“Investigators found out she had ties to another murder victim — 18-year-old Sarah DeLeon. DeLeon was stabbed to death fours years earlier and her body dumped by some railroad tracks. Police found her car abandoned on 78th Street underneath Interstate 70.”

Why did Sarah DeLeon die? The 2004 story said the postal worker (undoubtedly Heckert) had had an affair with DeLeon’s boyfriend (not named) during a period when the boyfriend and DeLeon were broken up. DeLeon was murdered after the boyfriend dumped the postal worker and went back to DeLeon.

**

Now, people wanting to know what’s going on with any big story shouldn’t have to go to that much time and trouble to get to the root of it. Some reporter and at least one of the five news outlets I went to should have pulled the Heckert-Ault-DeLeon story together.

Seriously, it wouldn’t have been very difficult…But, unfortunately, that’s the way it is in journalism’s “new and not-improved” era.

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The wrenching changes — diminution, that is — of newsrooms and editorial pages across the nation were the subject of an interesting discussion on KCUR’s Central Standard show today.

Host Gina Kaufmann’s main guest was Yael Abouhalkah, a Kansas City Star editorial writer for 32 years..until Publisher Tony Berg fired him (with severance) a few weeks ago.

As most of you are painfully aware, The Star currently has no editorial writers and has been filling the editorial page with letters to the editor — a great thing for letter writers but not so good for the community at large, especially in the weeks leading up to the Nov. 8 general election.

What has happened at The Star is not unique at major metropolitan dailies. You have to look no farther than to St. Louis, where that paper’s editorial page was down to two people a while back. Also, of course, the number of editorial employees at newsrooms nationwide is severely diminished from 10 years ago, when the sledgehammer effect of people turning to the Internet for their news and opinions began registering.

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Scott Reinardy

Scott Reinardy, a journalism professor at the University of Kansas, said on today’s show that between 2005 and 2015, newsrooms across the country cut about a third of their editorial employees, or about 20,000 people. Some newspapers, he said, sliced editorial-side employment 60 to 70 percent.

A third guest, David Uberti of the Columbia Journalism Review, said that as newsrooms cut loose experienced employees, what they forsake is “local or regional knowledge of power players” and a font of institutional knowledge.

“Editorial writers,” Uberti said, “tend to be very experienced journalists with deep ties to the communities. There’s no substitute for experience in that regard.”

A new editorial page editor — Colleen McCain Nelson — is due to begin working at The Star perhaps late next month, and she will face big challenges. In addition to having to assemble a staff (I doubt that Berg will allot her more than a couple of writers) she will have to familiarize herself with the community and its political and civic leadership. Although she is a KU graduate, she has never worked in this area. She’s currently a political reporter for the Wall Street Journal, and before that she was an editorial writer for the Dallas Morning News.

(Coincidentally, a former editorial-page colleague of hers at the Morning News, Tod Robberson, was named editorial page editor at the Post-Dispatch early this year. Robberson and Nelson worked on a series of editorials that won the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing. The series, called “Bridging Dallas’ North-South Gap,” focused on gaps in economic opportunity, race relations, housing and education in different parts of Dallas.)

gina

Gina Kaufmann

As for Abouhalkah, who is 61, he has started a blog — http://www.yaelabouhalkah.com — and told Gina Kaufmann he did not go away mad. He managed to get a career in and build a financial nest egg that should afford him and his family a comfortable lifestyle.

I was lucky that way, too, having retired at age 60 in 2006. But a lot of journalists — those whose careers were cut down when they were in their 30s, 40s, 50s and some in their early 60s — not only went away mad, but frustrated and disillusioned. I know a few of them, and I completely understand how they felt and still feel to some degree. So does Reinardy, the KU professor, who has written a book called Journalism’s Lost Generation: The Un-Doing of U.S. Newspaper Newsrooms.

In a recent Columbia Journalism Review interview, Reinardy said that in doing research for the book he spent a lot of time interviewing current and former journalists. He described the mood that has formed in newsrooms around the country as a sort of “organizational depression.”

He explained it this way:

“There has been so much loss in those newsrooms. Journalists don’t necessarily just lose jobs, they lose careers and some real self-identity. I had many journalists who broke down and cried, who were so genuinely upset about what had happened to the profession they loved so dearly. It was really troubling.

“So I don’t have a statistical measurement for morale, but when you start walking into these newsrooms and talking to people who dedicated 20 years or 25 years or 30 years of their life to not only the profession but maybe even this individual newspaper, it was pretty telling to see how upset they were at what had occurred to their beloved industry.”

…One final note: Gina Kaufmann told listeners she invited Tony Berg to appear on the show. Berg accepted an invitation to appear on Central Standard back in March, two months after he had become publisher. But this time, when the subject matter was obviously going to be dicey for him, it was a different story. “We never heard back,” Kaufmann said.

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For a long time now, I’ve had what I considered a pretty clever way of dealing with tailgaters.

What I was doing — on highways for the most part, because that’s where you encounter the largest number of people dealing with corn cobs up their asses — was grad-u-a-l-l-y slowing down.

I did that for two reasons: First, to send the tailgaters a not-so-subtle message that they were free to go into another lane and shoot around me whenever they wanted. Second, I admit with some shame, I just wanted to aggravate them.

I guess I’ve been lucky not to have been shot while engaging in such gamesmanship.

Here I am at 70 years of age, glad to be happy and healthy. I’d like to get to at least 75 in the same condition. So, as of today, gamesmanship on the highways is in my rear-view mirror. When someone comes up on me fast, I’m going to signal for a lane change and do it as soon and safely as possible.

You might ask: Why the change of heart now?

Well, I’ve just read two stories on local news outlets about people who got shot to death on area roads recently after becoming involved in road-rage incidents.

One was a woman. On Sunday night, 22-year-old Whitney M. Gray met her demise after an altercation near Winner Road and Sterling Avenue in Independence. The craziest part of that case is that Gray had three children in her minivan when things got out of hand. Fortunately, the three youngsters — a teenager, a 3-year-old and a child of less than a year — were not injured.

Fox 4 News is reporting that youngest children were Gray’s.

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Whitney Gray and the two children who were in her car when she was shot and killed in a road-rage incident Sunday night in Independence.

The victim’s father, Sean Gray, told a Kansas City Star a reporter, “She was a great mother, and she was an awesome person.”

How awful — to be called by a reporter to sum up your dead daughter’s life after she was caught up in something as seemingly inconsequential as a roadway pissing match.

Independence police on Monday said they were searching for the driver of a white SUV they think was involved in the homicide.

**
Then there was the Friday night case of a rolling clash between 22-year-old Bobby Crumpton of Wichita and 35-year-old Clinton R. Alsobrook of Texas.

Alsobrook will be going back to Texas (or already has) in a coffin or urn. And Crumpton is in the Platte County Jail, charged with second-degree murder.

Crumpton gave this account of the incident to authorities:

Both drivers were eastbound on Missouri 152. As they exited southbound onto I-29, Alsobrook’s SUV struck Crumpton’s car. Both drivers pulled over. Crumpton, carrying a loadedl handgun, got out of his vehicle and walked toward Alsobrook’s SUV.

Here’s where you’ve got to take Crumpton’s account with circumspection:

Crumpton said he heard Alsobrook yell, “I’m going to kill you.” Then, according to Crumpton’s account, Alsobrook began to drive toward him and Crumpton responded by shooting toward the SUV’s engine block and driver’s side-view mirror.

Crumpton then got back into his car, drove to a gas station and called 911…Police did not find a weapon in Alsobrook’s vehicle.

The Star quoted Platte County Prosecutor Eric Zahnd as saying: “If you’re the victim of a road rage incident, try to drive to a safe place. If you’re the instigator, this case is a tragic reminder of how quickly things can get out of control.”

Good advice. Here’s better advice: Don’t let yourself get sucked into a road-rage incident in the first place. It usually takes two to engage. Me? I’m getting out of the business of trying to send not-so-subtle messages to drivers in a big hurry. Way too many of those people are out there on the roads, and the best policy is to move over and let ’em blow by, especially now that we’re in the lock-‘n-load era.

Like I say, I want to make it to 75. I might even have grandchildren by then.

 

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If you’ve ever thought about writing a “letter to the editor” for possible publication in The Kansas City Star — but for some reason didn’t act on the impulse — now’s the time to do so.

This is a very strange period as far as The Star’s editorial page is concerned. For the past three days — Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday — the editorial page (not the Op-Ed page, just the editorial page) has contained only letters to the editor and political cartoons.

The editorial page has been devoid of editorials, staff produced or commissioned. It looks and feels downright weird.

The last editorial to appear was on Monday, and it was a boring piece — obviously not staff written — about an Internet conspiracy theory that Texas Sen. Ted Cruz harbors.

The reason for this strange period, of course, is that the editorial board is down to one person, Publisher Tony Berg, who took charge of the paper last January. Berg recently fired the paper’s longtime lead-editorial writer, Yael Abouhalkah. Several days later, Lewis Diuguid, the only other editorial writer, resigned. Both men’s last day was last Friday, and since Monday, the only name under the words “Editorial Board” on the masthead has been Tony Berg.

Only at small-town papers do publishers routinely write editorials, and, as a result, Berg is a supervisor with no one to supervise, at least as far as the editorial page is concerned.

…From a few e-mail exchanges and the fact that Berg has reduced newspaper delivery problems (the level of complaints I’ve heard is way down), I have the impression Berg is a smart man and will pull the editorial page back together. A few months ago he hired a new editorial page editor, Colleen McCain Nelson, who has excellent credentials, but she won’t be coming for at least another month. She currently is covering Hillary Clinton’s campaign for the Wall Street Journal.

So we’re in an interregnum of sorts, between the Abouhalkah and McCain Nelson eras, and it’s a bit ugly right now. A friend pointed out that in addition to running loads of letters to the editor, the political cartoons are being sized much larger than they had been…I would think that would please only editorial cartoonist Lee Judge.

I have heard (and reported this recently) that former editorial page editor Rich Hood might be returning as an editorial writer. I have also heard that Miriam Pepper, another former editorial page editor, might be returning for a while. But I have no knowledge if either of those moves is happening.

All that being said, I haven’t received a lot of complaints about the lack of editorials, other than from a couple of friends who have repeatedly bemoaned the fact that The Star is without opinion writers at a time when the paper would normally be analyzing political races and running editorial endorsements.

As a dedicated reader and former Star employee, I certainly hope this situation gets turned around soon.

One other thing…I would like to see the editorial page returned to its rightful place on the last inside-facing page of the A section. It should be there every day, in the same place.

Currently, on Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday, the editorial page is on the second page of the four-page “In Depth” insert. But where the “In Depth” insert starts varies from day to day, making it difficult for readers to turn quickly to the editorial page.

“In Depth” has been a good addition to the paper, giving it more meat than it used to have. But hiding the editorial page four days a week is a big mistake. Tony Berg needs to fix that, and I suggest he start when Colleen McCain Nelson arrives.

For now, the king is dead. Long live the queen. She can’t be crowned soon enough.

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