It appears that The Star’s new editorial page editor is now on the job.
Since Monday, the name of Colleen McCain Nelson has appeared on The Star’s masthead (the box at the bottom of the editorial page), beneath the name of publisher Tony Berg. In addition, I understand she was at a company-wide meeting the other day.
So, maybe the long weeks of seeing an editorial page filled with letters to the editor, political cartoons and occasional “As I See It” columns (which, by all rights, should be on the Op-Ed page) are nearing an end.
There’s a lot more to this, however, than the fact that the new editorial page editor has unpacked her bags and is occupying a desk at 18th and Grand.
Since her hiring was announced in late August, The Star’s editorial page has lost massive credibility. So much that I doubt it will ever get back to where it was, in terms of the paper’s ability to help set the local agenda on by editorializing on regional development and issues, endorsing political candidates and recommending approval or disapproval of ballot measures.
Let’s review just how much dysfunction has set in since early this year.
:: In early March, the editorial page was relatively healthy, with four editorial writers — page editor Steve Paul, Barb Shell, Yael Abouhalkah and Lewis Diuguid. In mid-March, Paul and Shelly accepted buyouts, leaving Abouhalkah and Diuguid to produce the editorial page, handle the letters to the editor, review guest columns and manage the Op-Ed page.
:: In late September, six weeks before the November general election, Berg summoned Abouhalkah, who had 32 years of experience on the editorial page, to his office and laid him off. (He’s now a blogger.) A week or so later, Diuguid announced he was leaving. After they left, there was only one name under the words “editorial board” on the masthead: Tony Berg’s…And he doesn’t write editorials.
:: For the election run-up, Berg recruited former editorial page editor Rich Hood — who had been fired in 2001 — to write several political endorsement editorials. With Berg’s blessing, Hood wrote editorials endorsing several Republican candidates whom Abouhbalkah almost surely would have spurned. They included U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt over up-and-coming, home-grown politician Jason Kander; Josh Hawley for Missouri attorney general over home-grown Teresa Hensley; and U.S. Rep. Kevin Yoder over newcomer Jay Sidie. (I have to say, Hood picked winners there; all three — Blunt, Hawley and Yoder — prevailed.)
:: After the election, with no one writing editorials, Berg decided to fill the page with letters to the editor and political cartoons, some produced by Star cartoonist Lee Judge, others from syndicated services.
:: A few weeks ago, with that situation either becoming too embarrassing or the supply of letters running low, Berg began fleshing out the editorial page with syndicated opinion columns and “As I See It” submissions. Such columns should, under no circumstances, be on the editorial page (that is, the left-facing page), which is sacrosanct ground reserved for the newspaper to express its positions.
It is at this nadir that Colleen McCain Nelson enters the building this week. Problem is, thousands, maybe tens of thousands, of editorial page followers have probably left the building, too, figuratively speaking.
I have talked to people who have said they are canceling their subscriptions because of The Star’s Nov. 8 endorsement line-up and because of the veritable void of an editorial page. Also, maybe worse, I hear no one talking about the editorial page. There’s nothing, really, to talk about.
Compounding the problem is the sharp turn in philosophy that Berg ordered up, taking the editorial page from liberal to center right in a matter of days. That’s his prerogative, but readers do not like to be whiplashed. He had to know that’s the risk he was taking when he laid off Abouhalkah, and he’s paying a heavy price.
The challenge facing Berg and McCain Nelson now involves more than just hiring some new editorial writers and churning out local copy for the page. They’ve got to try to lure back some of the readers they’ve lost and attract a new group of readers.
But like I said, I don’t think the editorial page will come back to where it used to be, at least where it was a few years ago. The paper as a whole has been headed downhill for 10 years. About the time the McClatchy Co. bought The Star in 2006, newspaper advertising began falling off a cliff: Nationwide, ad revenue is now less than half what it was in 2006. That precipitated a downward spiral involving layoffs, thinner papers, distribution problems and reader disenchantment.
It takes a trusted newspaper a long time to lose readers’ goodwill, but The Star has been doing it for the last decade. I’d sure like to see Berg and Colleen McCain Nelson restore a good and substantial editorial page, but, given the overall direction, I’m not optimistic.
So, take a good look at the new editorial page editor…It’ll be interesting to see how long she hangs around.