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Archive for July, 2017

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.”

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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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