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Archive for July, 2017

As you “up-to-date” Kansas Citians are well aware, we lost two business and civic titans in recent days — mortgage banker, philanthropist and political kingmaker Jim Nutter Sr. and Cerner co-founder Neal Patterson.

Maybe you saw their obituaries in The Star. Nutter’s ran yesterday and Patterson’s yesterday and today. (It won’t run again tomorrow.)

One interesting element of the obituaries is that, because of the closeness of the first letters of their last names, their obits ran side by side, straddling two pages. Had both obits been on the same page, they would have taken up nearly the entire page.

What many of you might not know is how significant a source of revenue the obits are for the print editions of The Star and other major daily papers. The Star began charging for obituaries many years ago, before significant reader migration to the Internet and the over-the-cliff plunge in classified advertising. What The Star — and probably many other papers — expected to be bonus income from obituaries in the end turned out to be a lifesaver.

The Nutter and Patterson obituaries made The Star a pretty penny, indeed. More about that in a minute, but first here are The Star’s obit rates:

:: First eight lines, free

:: Nine to 11 lines, $114

:: 12 to 15 lines, $170

:: Every additional five lines, $39

:: Half-column photo, $100; full-column photo, $125

By my calculations, each full page of obituaries generates about $6,000 in revenue. Wednesday and Sunday are the biggest days for obituaries, and today’s obits took up about two and a half pages — meaning The Star made about $15,000 on today’s obits.

Now, to Nutter and Patterson…

The Nutter obituary ran 479 lines, at a cost to the family of $3,800. The one-column photo pushed the cost to $3,900.

Patterson’s obituary, at 300 lines, cost the family $2,500 Day One, about $1,450 Day Two (with a second-day discount) and about $200 in photo fees.

One of my early editors told me to never make the reader do the math, so the grand total for both obits, with pictures, was about $8,000.

Those guys are certainly worth the ink, and I’m sure their families aren’t complaining about the price. Both guys made fortunes.

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On days like this — housebound by heat, just hangin’ around — I often entertain myself by going to YouTube and listening to oldies. And being a hopeless romantic (and kid at heart), I tend to home in on some of those great droopy-drawers songs from the early ’60s.

Sometimes I start with one song in mind and then meander to others, finally settling on one.

Such was the way I landed on a great oldie by The Lettermen, “The Way You Look Tonight.”

Come along, trace my footsteps…

Several days ago, something triggered in my head the old song “I’ve Got Your Number.” I couldn’t quite remember who did it — or, more correctly, whose version was going through my head. A YouTube search revealed it to be Peggy Lee, who recorded it in 1964.

Fantastic song…Listen…I love the opening three lines…

I’ve got your number
I know you inside out
You ain’t no Eagle Scout

I listened to it several times, then a YouTube list of songs from the same era diverted my attention to Frank Sinatra’s version of “The Way You Look Tonight.”

If you’re a Baby Boomer, like me, that song could well have special appeal for you: It has a rich history of making many a Boomer swoon for a boy or girl…or ache for lack of one.

…I’ve said before that high school was the loneliest period of my life: I was a good Catholic boy, going to an all-boys prep school in Louisville, feeling the rush of desire for contact with girls but not having much idea where to find them or what to do on the rare occasion I did.

So, it mostly came down to longing and imagining. Lots of it. Sinatra’s version, upbeat, hints at it. But it’s The Lettermen’s version — syrupy, yes, but irresistible, at least for me — that grabs the heart and squeezes ’til it almost cries.

The song is imbued with a special magic partly because it was written by the great Jerome Kern (1885-1945), with lyrics by Dorothy Fields (1905-1974). Kern wrote it for the 1936 movie “Swing Time,” starring Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire.

Jerome Kern and Dorothy Fields, working in Kern’s Beverly-Wilshire suite

In the movie, Astaire’s character, “Lucky” Garnett, sings the song to Rogers’ character, Penny Carroll, through a closed door, while Penny is washing her hair in the bathroom. You might wonder how that setting could be romantic, but check it out…

As good as Astaire’s original was, it was The Lettermen’s version that struck at the hearts of us Baby Boomers and our feelings of longing, inadequacy and uncertainty — or, perhaps, connection, or missed opportunity.

The Lettermen

The Lettermen recorded it in 1961. It was their first big hit. I was either a freshman or sophomore in high school. The record climbed to No. 13 on the Billboard Hot 100 singles in the U.S. and to No. 36 in the United Kingdom. How it didn’t get to No. 1 in the U.S., I don’t know, probably because The Lettermen were unknown before then.

…I’m not alone in the powerful emotions the song triggers. The proof is in the scores of comments written on the YouTube pages that feature The Lettermen’s version.

Here’s a sample…

Topaz Dupree (one year ago): My husband and I were married September 30, 1961. We stopped at a diner that evening for a snack, and he played this song over and over on the jukebox. It’s a very special memory.

Tandy Warwick (four years ago): I have great memories of this song (from) 12-31-70. I was dancing with my first love that night and to this song, and even though we’re not together any more, this one song plays in my head each New Year’s Eve.

Reg Dunlop (two years ago): Dancing cheek to cheek.

J. Puglisi (two years ago): Finally a slow song. I’m gonna ask her to dance.

Michael Hickey (one year ago, writing in response to Puglisi): I did, she was my first love and I think of her often to this day.

Frank Oakes (one year ago): This recording, I am sure, brought along my 3rd child. Dancing with my wife…Oh, my.

Chuck Ranker (two years ago): Married in 1965 and lost her July 2012. Will never recover but it’s OK.

Terilynn Wells (one year ago): Washing your hair, setting it on horrible brush curlers; sitting under a dryer with a hood, painting your nails with Revlon’s “Hot Pink”; then teasing the crap out of it, spraying it, putting on a Bobbie Brooks outfit…It all went to pieces — JFK’s trip to Dallas in in Nov. ’63, then Vietnam.”

Tim Drumm (five months ago): Brother, did these guys ever — truly — capture the phenomenal story line, the motion of love, in this classic.

Ah, yes, the motion of love. Listen. Feel it… 

Keep that breathless charm.
Won’t you please arrange it
Cause I love you…just the way you look tonight.

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I’ve written my share of criticism of shoot-first-ask-questions-later cops, but today I was glad to see that a Kansas City International Airport Police officer was cleared of a harassment allegation.

The Star’s Matt Campbell had a thorough, well-balanced report on the incident and the ensuing complaint, and from that account it appeared to me the officer encountered a chronic loudmouth who did his best to bait the officer into losing his temper.

Apparently, it didn’t happen, and that officer, Sandy Thompson, can now look back on that day and be very satisfied with how he handled a difficult situation.

The complainant, Michael McGill Jr., contended Thompson ordered him against the outside wall of the terminal and threatened him by fingering his gun three times after Thompson had pulled over the car McGill’s mother was driving. She was dropping him off. The car, which must have been registered in Missouri, didn’t have a front plate.

Employing a line that many a quick-to-the-trigger police officer has employed in the courtroom to good effect, McGill said, “I was in grave fear for my life.”

His problem, though, is airport audio and video don’t show him in any fear at all. What they show is a guy exhibiting diarrhea of the mouth. He was jabbering away from the start, and in an audio recording, Officer Thompson is heard saying McGill has been “extremely rude from the get-go.”

Even his mother was trying to shush him. The video shows McGill jabbering away on his phone, while Officer Thompson is attempting to talk to him. His mother is heard on the audio telling her son to “shut up and let the man talk,” and video shows her moving to put her hand over McGill’s mouth.

Michael McGill Jr. (right), his mother and KCI Police Officer Sandy Thompson on April 29

Thompson denied ordering McGill against the wall and said he never grabbed at his gun. The video shows the officer reflexively and momentarily touching the bottom of the holster at one point, apparently to adjust his belt.

After McGill filed his complaint, the Airport Police asked the Missouri Highway Patrol to investigate the case, and after doing so, Highway Patrol Superintendent Sandra K. Karsten concluded Officer Thompson was guilty of “no readily discernible criminal act.”

In a way, it’s too bad this had to go all the way to the highway patrol superintendent, but if that’s what it takes to clear an officer wrongly accused in a delicate situation, well then we in the public should be grateful the incident got scrutiny from a lofty level of law enforcement.

And congratulations to Officer Sandy Thompson. If he ever stops me at the airport, I’m going to congratulate him…and then keep my mouth shut.

**

Another KC Star story gave me a shuddering sense of deja vu. In a crash that was eerily similar to the I-70 crash last year that took the life of a Warrenton couple’s children, a retired Johnson County fire fighter named Paul W. Scott was killed in KCK on Thursday when his SUV was struck from behind after Scott’s vehicle had stopped for traffic congestion.

Paul W. Scott, years ago when he was a Johnson County fire fighter

Scott, 68, of Tonganoxie, was stopped on westbound Parallel Parkway in his tan SUV. Another westbound driver, apparently paying little or no attention, rear-ended him in a white SUV. The impact plowed Scott’s vehicle into another vehicle at the intersection of Kansas 7.

I would bet just about anything we will learn the other driver, whom The Star had not yet identified, was either texting or playing dial-a-tune on his phone.

That is exactly what happened last Labor Day evening when a 61-year-old Odessa man plowed his SUV into the rear of David and Jennifer Beaird’s car while they were stuck in traffic on eastbound I-70 near the Adams Dairy Parkway exit. The Beairds’ two children, Gavin, 13, and Chloe, 7, who were in the back seat, were killed. David, who was driving, was paralyzed from the waist down. Jennifer escaped serious injury.

In April, James L. Green pleaded guilty to two counts of second-degree murder and was sentenced to 25 years in prison.

As regular readers of this blog know, I have written about the Beaird case extensively, after going to Warrenton early this year to interview them.

On Friday, I spoke with David on the phone and told him about the K-7 crash. He was not surprised.

…David and Jennifer continue to recover from the trauma that was visited upon them by Green. They intend to move to either upstate New York, where Jennifer has family, or Myrtle Beach, which would seemingly present a more hospitable lifestyle for David, who is confined to a wheelchair.

For months, they have had their house on the market with no success. David told me Friday, however, that their real estate agent had put together a group of friends from her church and the group is going to build a deck on the back of the home. The lack of a deck or patio has discouraged prospective buyers, David believes.

I hope they are able to sell the house soon and get the fresh start they want in another part of the country.

Closer to home, my thoughts and sympathy go out to Paul Scott’s family…And my greater concern is that with the ever-increasing use of cells phones anywhere and everywhere, more and more of us are becoming sitting ducks in traffic stops and potential road kill under ordinary driving circumstances. My advice: Go slow and keep checking the rearview mirror.

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There’s no doubt that The Kansas City Star, being a link in the debt-laden McClatchy newspaper chain, is operating under significant financial constraints.

But one area in which a relatively small investment could pay big dividends is online reader comments.

Unfortunately, The Star took steps several years ago that had the effect of discouraging reader comments, and it has never made a serious effort since then to build a workable system. That apparent lack of interest and initiative has had two big, negative impacts.

First, it has made online subscriptions — where the paper’s future seems to lie — less appealing. At this stage, if online subscriptions are not growing by leaps and bounds, The Star is in deeper trouble than it appears. (For the record, I don’t know how The Star is doing in regard to online subscriptions, but I haven’t talked to a lot of people who have signed on.)

Second, The Star’s abdication on reader comments makes the paper less relevant than it would otherwise be. As the community’s single strongest information source, The Star could establish itself — with the hiring of two or three people — as the authoritative moderator of responsible discussion on important community issues. That would not only raise the paper’s much-diminished community profile, it would also attract a lot more online subscriptions.

…It’s not fair to compare The Star or, for that matter, any other American daily with The New York Times, but it’s nevertheless interesting to point out the amazing success The Times has had with its online reader-comment system.

Bassey Etim

The Times began enabling comments 10 years ago. The Times now receives about 12,000 comments per day. Every one of those comments is read and either approved or rejected by a 13-member “community desk” headed by Bassey Etim, who has been with The Times since 2008.

It is not uncommon for a big story to get more than 1,000 comments. Today, for example, the lead story in the online edition — a news analysis speculating about how many casualties there might be in the event of a limited war on the Korean peninsula — has attracted more than 1,000 comments.

(At random, I looked at seven KC Star online stories this afternoon and saw a total of six comments. A majority of the comments — four — were on a Kansas City Royals story.)

By virtue of its comments system, The Times has become the de facto clearinghouse on national discourse. Sometimes I will read scores of comments on a single story and spend much more time on the comments than on the story that generated the comments.

In a 2013 story in The New Yorker magazine, a writer named Maria Konnikova reflected on the psychology of online comments, saying they contribute to the reading experience and prompt many readers to want to engage each other on the topic at hand. She added:

In a phenomenon known as shared reality, our experience of something is affected by whether or not we will share it socially. Take away comments entirely, and you take away some of that shared reality, which is why we often want to share or comment in the first place. We want to believe that others will read and react to our ideas.

**

Now, I have no evidence whatsoever that The Times’ well-oiled comments system has contributed to its amazing success with sale of digital subscriptions — it is up to 1.9 million news subscriptions, after starting at zero in 2011 — but I have to think it has.

It just makes sense to me that many people, when they read other people’s comments, want to chime in, and I think the combination of getting a good news product (which The Star is) and then being able to weigh in on various issues is a powerful marketing combination.

I understand why The Star changed its approach to comments several years ago, banning anonymous comments and requiring that commenters be registered on Facebook. The trolls, particularly those with a racial ax to grind, were overrunning the comments and making them unreadable. (As an example of a horrible comments system, where anonymous comments are not only accepted but encouraged, check out Tony Botello’s local blog.)

All things considered, I think The Star is missing a golden opportunity. Over the last year, under still relatively new publisher Tony Berg, The Star has hired several young reporters and has done a complete and successful makeover of its editorial page. It wouldn’t take much of an investment — maybe $100,000 to $150,000 a year — to establish its own “community desk.” A few good hands could keep the trolls squarely under the bridges and trigger invigorating dialogue on any number of issues.

Consider, for example, how interesting and intellectually stimulating it would be to get a wide variety of local views on the prospect of a single terminal at KCI — or the resolution of Brandon Ellingson case, or Kelsey Ryan’s Sunday story about Kansas City being a “murder capital.”

I tell you, it could enliven and uplift the entire community. And it could sell a lot of online subscriptions.

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I hope some of you have noticed that The Star’s editorial page has been as hot as the Royals lately.

Editorial page editor Colleen McCain Nelson and her band of writers have consistently been churning out substantive, well-written and interesting editorials.

From a low point just before last year’s general election, when the editorial-board cupboard was completely bare and many readers were wringing their hands in despair, the editorial page has roared back to life and has, to some degree, revitalized The Kansas City Star Media Company.

Readers and voters look to their local paper for analysis and guidance on major issues, and The Star is delivering in a big way these days. Consider the editorial board’s handling of three issues in particular:

A New KCI

As the city has bumped along, trying to unravel myriad knots presented by a first-ever, $1 billion, private-build proposal, The Star has dispensed sound advice at every turn. First, it urged the city to get more than the lone Burns & McDonnell proposal. Then, after the city opened the doors to more proposals, The Star advocated for giving companies more time to respond. The council did so. The Star also urged keeping open the possibility of the city issuing revenue bonds and retaining control of the project. City officials opted to keep that door open.

On Sunday came the strongest shot of all: The lead editorial unequivocally urged Kansas Citians to “embrace a new airport terminal.” The editorial laid out four main reasons for scrapping the three-terminal set-up that has lost its relevance and physical appeal. Likening KCI to a “warehouse,” the editorial batted away the widely held “convenience” argument, saying:

“At certain departure times, ticket and security lines stretch 100 to 150 people deep…Security stations are crowded and sometimes understaffed.

“Worse, passengers who clear security are penned inside glass-enclosed waiting areas, sitting in uncomfortable chairs and confined to cramped spaces that lack amenities found in other terminals.”

The editorial concluded by saying, “A new terminal will create jobs and opportunity and will move Kansas City into the 21st-century when it comes to travel and commerce.”

Finally, The Star promised an ongoing “series of editorials” explaining why it’s time to move forward on a new airport.

Damn…I love it!

The Brandon Ellingson Case

As you regular readers know, the Ellingson case has been particularly frustrating. The 20-year-old Des Moines area man drowned at the hands of a Missouri Highway Patrol officer who had arrested and handcuffed Brandon for boating under the influence. After months of shell games by prosecutors and the Highway Patrol, the trooper, Anthony Piercy, was charged with involuntary manslaughter. Last week, Brandon’s family, realizing a felony conviction was a virtual impossibility — like us, they’ve seen bad cop after bad cop acquitted in the killings of unarmed civilians — agreed to a deal that allowed Piercy to plead to a misdemeanor boating violation.

In an editorial on Saturday, The Star said the case “reveals the perils” of government taking action in the interest of trying to save money. The editorial said…

“In 2011, to great fanfare, Missouri merged the Water Patrol with the Highway Patrol in an effort, supporters said, to cut costs…The merger led to fewer troopers on the water, with less training for Highway Patrol officers assigned to water duty.

“And the decision almost certainly contributed to Ellingson’s death. At a coroner’s inquest, Piercy conceded his training was inadequate for the duties of the Water Patrol. He was cleared for “solo boat time” after two days of training. Two days. We’re told that things are better now. We hope that’s the case.

“Brandon Ellingson died needlessly. The best way to remember him is to make sure this never happens again.”

This case is coming to a totally unsatisfactory conclusion, but the editorial put it in the proper context by pointing toward what we all hope will be a future in which better-qualified people patrol state waters…And allow me to add a wish of my own: smarter, more caring officers working the water.

Claire McCaskill’s Tweet

Showing it’s no Democratic toady, The Star on Sunday sharply rapped McCaskill’s knuckles for a tweet she posted a while back in which she denied ever speaking to or meeting with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak.

The claim was exposed as false: In fact, she attended a reception at Kislyak’s residence and donated to a foundation of which he is a board member.

The editorial said that “in her rush to raise doubts about Trump administration officials, the senator got it wrong. And there’s no excuse for that.”

**

The way the Star’s editorial board is chopping wood these days makes you realize how low it had fallen when, toward the end of last year, it was down to Yael Abouhalkah writing all the editorials and the vastly overpaid Lewis Diuguid in charge of letters to the editor.

From this corner, the Colleen Nelson era gets the “new and improved” stamp of approval. Much improved.

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