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Archive for May, 2018

Those of us with ties to The Star and the world of journalism in general tend to wring our hands and grit our teeth when there’s a new round of layoffs at The Star or a new quarterly report from its owner, the McClatchy Co.

For sure, it’s a terrible situation. One scenario that could save The Star from future degredation would be if a local, wealthy individual bought the paper from McClatchy (assuming McClatchy would part with its most profitable property) and gave The Star a fresh start.

The Washington Post was fortunate enough to experience such a change several years ago, when Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, although not local, bought The Washington Post from the Graham family for $250 million. Turns out it was a steal. Bezos invested heavily in the paper, and then along came President Donald Trump, and the fortunes of the Post and The New York Times spiked spectacularly.

That’s not likely to happen here, unfortunately. More probable is McClatchy selling all 29 of its papers to another national chain, one not gasping under the weight of a $710 million debt. I would bet the McClatchy crew in Sacramento would welcome a “white knight” that would come in, disperse the dark cloud hanging over corporate headquarters and send the top executives running to the bank with their golden-parachute checks.

**

With that, here’s a look at two chains that, in my opinion, would continue shaving away at The Star financially and substantively.

Gannett

Gannett, the largest newspaper chain in the nation, is the most likely procurer of McClatchy. Don’t be surprised if you see a headline within the next year or two saying something like, “McClatchy agrees to be bought by Gannett for $xxx million.”

(McClatchy paid $4.5 billion — and assumed $2 billion in debt — for KnightRidder’s 30 papers in 2006, but the sale price for all McClatchy holdings would now be less than $1 billion.)

Gannett’s holdings include a national paper, USA Today, and dozens of local ones, including The Courier-Journal in Lousville, KY; The Arizona Republic in Phoenix; the Indianapolis Star; The Cincinnati Enquirer; The Tennessean in Nashville; The Des Moines Register; the Detroit Free Press; and the Milwaukee Journal.

All of Gannett’s papers are a mess. Stripped down and gutted. Like McClatchy, Gannett has ordered many rounds of layoffs and has replaced a significant percentage of its papers’ veteran journalists with low-paid young people. In addition, most are all of its papers have two to four pages of generic content produced at Gannett headquarters in Virginia, outside Washington D.C. The generic content helps bulk up the papers, but it’s pablum.

Another thing: the Gannett papers’ websites are the most irritating in the land. Fighting off the pop-up ads and promos makes you feel like you’re in a nest of hissing snakes. Go, for example, to The Courier-Journal’s website and try dealing with its Rattlers and Copperheads.

Like a snake, Gannett is always lurking in the tall grass, looking for opportunities to ensnare failing newspapers or chains. Its latest major acquisition came in 2016 when it bought out Journal Media Group Inc. and its 15 daily newspapers, including the Milwaukee Sentinel, the Evansville (IN) Courier & Press; the Knoxville News Sentinel; The Commercial Appeal in Memphis; the Naples Daily News; and the Corpus Christi Caller-Times.

Later in 2016, it made a run at the former Tribune Publishing papers (now known as Tronc), including The Chicago Tribune and The Los Angeles Times, but pulled back after recording disappointing earning reports for the second and third quarters of 2016.

Gannett has debt of about $355 million, compared to McClatchy’s more than $700 million, but it is in an acquisitive mode partly because it has a market capitalization (total dollar market value of its outstanding stock shares) more than 15 times that of McClatchy — $1.3 billion vs. $75 million.

The next to last thing I would want to see is Gannett buy out McClatchy, but keep a lookout for that headline I predicted.

Alden Global Capital

The last thing I’d want to see is McClatchy getting bought by Alden Global Capital, which is…a fuckin’ hedge fund!

The Washington Post’s media columnist, Margaret Sullivan, called Alden “one of the most ruthless of the corporate strip-miners seemingly intent on destroying local journalism.”

Alden’s hostages — I mean properties — include The Denver Post, the St. Paul Pioneer Press (which was briefly a McClatchy paper); The Mercury News of San Jose; and The Orange County Register.

Alden got into the newspaper business in 2010 when it bought Digital First Media after that company’s parent company, MediaNews Group, declared bankruptcy. MediaNews was founded and fueled by William Dean Singleton, another newspaper strip-miner who, at age 66, has been largely sidelined by multiple sclerosis.

The Columbia Journalism Review said that in May a group of Alden shareholders filed a lawsuit alleging that Alden “had sucked money out of the newspapers it owns in order to make risky investments in Greek sovereign debt and a troubled pharmaceutical chain, among other areas.”

Among other things, Alden is alleged to have diverted $158 million into a southeastern U.S. pharmacy chain called Fred’s.

The journalism review quoted news industry analyst Ken Doctor as saying the suit “provides unusual visibility into the nest of secretive vultures.” (Gannett has its snakes, Alden its vultures.)

The same article quoted a columnist for the Minneapolis Star-Tribune as saying Alden “has for years treated one of the biggest media companies in the country like a big ATM.”

On Tuesday of this week, anger at Alden boiled over in Denver, where current and former Denver Post staff members participated in protests against Alden’s cost-cutting and its alleged attempts to influence editorial policy. The protests occurred at the Denver Post production facility in Denver and Alden Capital’s headquarters in New York City.

This is what news of more layoffs at the Denver Post looked like earlier this year when staff members got the word.

Earlier this year, 30 employees were laid off at the Post. One report said the announcement of the layoffs was greeted with “sobs, gasps, expletives.”

Naturally enough, Alden, with offices far away in New York City, wasn’t offering any explanation. Sullivan, The Washington Post columnist, wrote that when she tried to talk to someone at Alden headquarters, she was told no one was there to speak to the news media. “When I asked to be connected to managing director Heath Freeman’s office,” she said, “the receptionist hung up on me.”

**

So, while McClatchy looks bad, keep those two outfits in mind when you think about an ownership change at The Star…Gannett and Alden Globe Capital. Whoa.

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The call for KC Star suburban editor Tod Palmer came when he was in the shower on May 1, a week ago last Tuesday.

When he got out of the shower he saw that the call had come from the Human Resources Department. That concerned him. He listened to the voice message, and it wasn’t from someone in HR but from KC Star Managing Editor Greg Farmer.

That told Palmer all he needed to know: “Oh, shit,” he thought, “I’m getting laid off today.”

Sure enough, when he called back, Farmer and Star Editor Mike Fannin delivered the bad news: His last official day — and the official last day for nine other Star employees being laid off or taking early retirement — would be Friday, May 11.

Tod Palmer, back when he was covering University of Missouri sports

Just like that, at age 39, Palmer’s 17-year career in the newspaper industry had arrived at a crossroads. Quite possibly, it was finished.

“I didn’t dream my newspaper career would be over before I hit 40,” he said.

**

I had a lengthy and wide-ranging phone conversation with Palmer this morning. His situation — a young person caught in the uncertainty of the newspaper industry’s cloudy future — is emblematic of what tens of thousands of young journalists are experiencing across the country.

But this has happened so much in the industry the last 10 to 12 years — widespread layoffs and reorganizations — that it no longer comes as much of a surprise to anyone.

While not expecting the call at the particular time and particular day it came, Palmer had realized for months he was probably on borrowed time at The Star, considering the precarious situation of its owner, the McClatchy Co., which has carried hundreds of millions of dollars in debt since purchasing The Star and about 30 other KnightRidder newspapers in 2006.

After becoming suburban editor last August, Palmer predicted to his wife Angie Palmer that he would be laid off in six to 18 months. (It was nine months.) So convinced was he of his thread-thin status, he told me today, “I felt like a hospice caretaker for those (suburban) products.”

Palmer’s ongoing sense of job insecurity had spiked recently after McClatchy’s flagship publication, the Sacramento Bee, laid off more than 20 employees and after McClatchy issued its first-quarter financial report, which showed the company with a quarterly loss of $39 million and, more alarmingly, revenue of 10 percent less than the first quarter of 2017.

**

Palmer grew up in south Kansas City and attended Raytown High School. He then went on to William Jewell College, where, in 2000, he got a degree in communications with an emphasis in public speaking. His first full-time newspaper job was at The Chanute (KS) Tribune, where he was sports editor. In 2006, he got a job as a page designer at The Olathe News, which The Star had purchased in 2000. (That was six years before McClatchy purchased The Star and the other KnightRidder newspapers.)

When Palmer went to work at the Olathe paper, it employed more than 50 people. Between March 2008 and April 2009, however, employment plummeted to five employees, and it became an afterthought to The Star’s overall operation.

Palmer landed on The Star’s sports desk in 2009 and in 2013 was awarded one of the most important “beats” on that desk, covering University of Missouri sports. He held that post until late last summer, when Star management decided it wanted its MU sports reporter to live in Columbia. Palmer turned that down, partly because he and Angie have sons 10 and 4, and her family lives in the Kansas City area.

The Star then hired two young men fresh out of MU’s Journalism School, Aaron Reiss and Alex Schiffer, to take up where previous MU beat writers like the legendary Mike DeArmond (retired) and up-and-comer Terez Paylor (former KC Chiefs’ beat writer and who recently became an NFL writer for Yahoo.com) had left off.

To stay in town and remain at The Star, Palmer took the news editing job in which he oversaw publication of the 816 North and 913 publications; The Olathe News; the Lee’s Summit Journal; and the Cass County Democrat. (On the side, he did some contract work for the Sports Desk, helping with coverage of Kansas Speedway races.)

**

Unlike some who have been laid off at The Star — particularly in the early days of layoffs — Palmer is not bitter. He’s not even angry about being laid off over the phone. “I didn’t take it personally,” he said.

He’s grateful for the journalism experience he accumulated and for some of his memorable experiences as a sports writer, including getting to drive a race car 145 miles an hour at Kansas Speedway and having a hand in covering the Kansas City Royals’ World Series appearances.

“I can tell you that champagne burns when you breathe it in,” he said.

Currently, Palmer is applying for writing jobs, but he’s open to changing careers, if he has to. Right now, he’s not extremely concerned about finances. The Star is giving him — and the others laid off — six months’ severance pay plus eligibility for limited, ongoing health insurance under the federal COBRA law. And his wife works full time at a call center.

Looking at the newspaper industry as a whole, he thinks one of the biggest problems is that many people in the upper ranks at newspaper chains are not good business people and are “thinking with their hearts, not their heads.”

Assessing the situation in Kansas City, he said The Star remains uniquely capable of doing something no other local entity or company can do — putting out a first-class daily, printed newspaper.

Problem is, he said, “That’s the thing they don’t seem interested in doing at the highest possible level.”

Tod with his father at Fenway Park last month

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If I was betting on whom Jackson County Executive Frank White will appoint as interim Jackson County Sheriff, I probably would put money on former Kansas City Police Chief Darryl Forte.

Of the three finalists selected today by an advisory committee, Forte has by far the highest profile and has attained the highest level of law enforcement management.

But this is not an ordinary situation, and it should by no means be an open-and-shut matter, with Forte getting the appointment.

Consider the background…

As we all know, the previous sheriff, Mike Sharp, who recently resigned in disgrace, ran an utterly fast-and-loose operation for the almost 10 years he served. It all exploded on him last month, when reports of sexual and managerial impropriety in recent years hit the news.

As I wrote in an April 20 post, signs of Sharp’s unfitness for office dated all the way to 2008, the first time he was running for the post. My former Kansas City Star colleague Kevin Murphy wrote a story back then, saying Sharp was “once part of an email exchange among city county law officers that included images of nude women.”

The email exchange group included 25 Jackson County deputies, sergeants and other officers.

Nevertheless, Sharp, who had the Democratic machinery behind him, rolled into office by a large margin and was re-elected in 2012 and 2016.

Now, do you think Sharp, once elected, went in and cleaned up the office, strictly prohibiting pornography, sexual harassment and impropriety?

Given what unfolded recently, I doubt it!

Why, just today, Sharp’s former girlfriend and one-time personal assistant dropped her two-year-old discrimination and harassment lawsuit against the county. She did not get any money, but the case has cost the county about $400,000 in legal fees, according to The Kansas City Star, including $67,420 to pay a lawyer representing Sharp.

Clearly, this fish smells from the head down. And what is needed is a thorough house-cleaning at Sheriff’s Office headquarters in Lee’s Summit.

Forte

Even though Forte was police chief for six years and had a spotless record, there are things about him that bother me. Mainly, I have the feeling that some of these guys who have gotten to be chief, including Forte, are motivated mostly by the money. Forte, when he resigned last year was only 55 and, strikingly, came into a $500,000 windfall for accrued vacation, sick and compensatory time. He knew he had that much coming, but the public, as well as many city officials, did not.

I think the windfall contributed to his hasty, out-the-backdoor getaway: He even refused to give longtime KC Star police reporter Glenn Rice a farewell interview.

Something just doesn’t smell right there, so, if I were Frank White, I’d pass on Forte.

That leaves the two other finalists the advisory committee selected today: retired KCPD Major Rosilyn Allen and Capt. Michael Rogers, who commands the Jackson County Sheriff’s patrol division.

And from that field of two, only one should be given serious consideration because the last thing we need is an insider like Rogers.

KCUR-FM quoted Rogers as saying in his interview with the committee: “The Sheriff’s Department is not broken. We’re essentially at the highest point we’ve ever been.”

All I have to say to that is if it’s at the highest point it’s ever been, it’s about a mile and a half under water.

**

Allen

I don’t know much about Maj. Allen — never heard of her before today — and The Star’s electronic library doesn’t have many stories about her. But here are some things I found out about her from a City Council resolution honoring her upon her retirement.

:: She retired in December 2013 after 30 years of KCPD service. Her last position was commander of the violent crimes division. (Whitepages.com says she’s in her 60s. I would think early 60s.)

:: She is a lifelong KC resident, has a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice and a master’s in public affairs. She is also a graduate of the FBI National Academy, Avila University’s Women’s Leadership Institute, the DEA Drug Unit Commanders Academy and the U.S. Department of Justice’s School of Organizational Leadership for Executives.

:: In 1998, she founded and served as president of the Missouri/Kansas Women in Criminal Justice, and she has served on the boards of the Rose Brooks Center, the Black Police Officers Association and the National Association of Blacks in Criminal Justice.

In her interview with the advisory committee, Maj. Allen said increasing diversity among the Sheriff’s Department ranks was “not a priority, it’s a necessity.”

I’ll say…KCUR has reported that out of 94 sworn deputies, 90 are white, with zero Hispanics or Asians.

**

We need someone who will come in, play absolutely no politics and upend the good-ol’-boy culture that has long prevailed. I’m concerned that Forte wouldn’t go far enough and also that he might be trying to rack up another big salary and a secondary pension.

Maj. Allen looks, to me, like the person we need. I think she’s our best bet to clean up that department, expose the warts and cauterize them.

Come on, Frank, do the unexpected: tap the lady candidate and give her the opportunity to chart a new, progressive course for the Sheriff’s Office.

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Yesterday was the first Derby I haven’t been to in several years. And while I really wanted to be there, as the day went on and the rain continued to fall in Louisville, I felt a lot better about being here in Kansas City on a picture-perfect, early-May day.

In case you haven’t heard, three inches of rain fell in Louisville yesterday, making it the rainiest day in Derby history, according to some reports.

I’ve been to the Derby when it rained — including last year, when there were three rounds of rain — and it’s not very fun. With 150,000 people on hand, the premises — most notably the restrooms — get really grungy, and a nice, crisp outfit can easily turn limp and soggy.

In more than 35 years of following the Derby, I have picked very few winners; I could probably count them on one hand. The last winner I had was Big Brown in 2008.

But even if your horse doesn’t win, the Derby is a lot of fun as long as your horse is in the hunt, as long as you can spot him (or her occasionally) and feel like your horse has a chance at some point midway through the race or later.

And yesterday, thrillingly, my horse was in contention for almost the entire one and a quarter miles.

Our son Charlie lives in Las Vegas, where he’s working toward a master’s degree at UNLV, and Patty and I had him place bets for us at one of the many casinos that have “sports books,” which take wagers on all manner of sporting events.

We had a mini-Derby party at our house, with Patty’s sister Vicky and Vicky’s daughter Laura, joining me, Patty and our daughter Brooks, who did not bet.

The field consisted of 20 horses. I had Charlie bet $100 to win and $100 to place on Good Magic, which came out of the No. 6 gate. Patty bet $2 to win, place and show on the No. 9 horse, Hofburg, and $5 to win on Vino Rosso (she lives her wine), which came out of the No. 18 post position.

The favorite was the No. 7 horse, Justify, which went off at odds of 5-2 — meaning if you bet $2 to win, you’d get back about $7, including the $2 you bet.

Good Magic went off at odds of 9-1, which I thought was a bit high, considering he had been the 2-year-old champion (the Derby is for 3-year-olds) and had won his last prep race, the Blue Grass Stakes, run April 7 in nearby Lexington, KY.

Justify broke out second, trailing a horse named Promises Fulfilled, and Good Magic was close up. After the horses hit the 3/4-mile marker, Justify took the lead, and Good Magic moved into second place, running outside Justify.

At the head of the stretch, as they rounded the home turn, it looked like Good Magic might be ready to uncork a challenge to Justify. At that point, I jumped up out of my chair and yelled, “Take him!”

But Justify, which had run all three of his prep races in California, responded to the challenge and started pulling away.

At that point, I needed Good Magic to hold on for second in order to win the “place” money. He just barely did, holding off a fast-closing horse named Audible by a head. Several yards after the finish line, Audible put a head in front of Good Magic, but it was too late.

Justify nears the finish line in the slop. Good Magic, in gold, was second.

Patty’s horses, Hofburg and Vino Rosso, finished seventh and ninth respectively, but neither had been a factor in the race.

When the prices were posted, I was surprised to see Good Magic paid $9.20 to place on a $2 bet. That meant the return on my $100 place bet was $460 (50 times $9.20). Subtracting my initial layout of $200, my profit was $260.

Charlie sent me a text saying, “Congrats!” I sent him one back, telling him to keep $25 for himself as a tip. After all, if you’re lucky enough to be able to place a bet when you’re 500 miles away from the track, you need to reward the courier.

**

I’ve always loved reading the Derby “chart,” which is the official description of how each horse fared in the course of the race.

Charts are prepared for every North American race by an organization called Equibase, which is considered “a statistical bible” of horse-race data.

At their best, Equibase’s race charts are written in colorful, descriptive language. Here is how the writer described the fortunes of the top three horses in yesterday’s Derby.

“JUSTIFY came away in good order, shadowed PROMISES FULFILLED under rating three deep, moved alongside with five furlongs (five-eighths of a mile) remaining, spurted clear leaving the three-furlong marker, rebuffed the bid of GOOD MAGIC approaching the stretch, dug in when put to a stern left-handed drive leaving the three-sixteenths and was unwavering to the wire.

“GOOD MAGIC was in hand between rivals in good position, shifted out and made his run at JUSTIFY nearing the quarter pole, continued a valiant chase to deep stretch, flattened slightly late and just held the place.

“AUDIBLE, between foes early, gathered momentum leaving the three-eighths pole while removed from the inside, altered toward the rail midway through the second turn, steadied soon after in traffic, continued toward the rail and found room entering the lane, finished up nicely and just missed nailing GOOD MAGIC for the runner-up spot.

**

At the other end of the action, a horse named Mendelssohn finished 20th and last. Here’s how Equibase described his experience.

“MENDELSSOHN was bumped and forced in at the start, was banged around in traffic, moved up under a hard ride into the first turn, steadied but was pushed along to remain in contact past the five-eighths to the second turn and stopped, was eased to the wire but walked off.”

Ouch. Brutal trip.

Mendelssohn, which had gone off as the fourth favorite in the race, finished more than 50 lengths behind Justify.

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Regrettably, I won’t be at this year’s Kentucky Derby, to be run about 5:50 p.m. today, central daylight time, in my hometown of Louisville, KY.

One reason is I had back surgery two weeks ago and am not up to the drive and the output of energy a Derby requires. The other is I’m going back to Louisville the first weekend of June for the 50th reunion of my 1968 graduating class at Bellarmine University.

I’ve been to the Derby every year in recent years, and to the vast majority of them since starting to attend in 1981. During that time, I’ve had quite a few interesting Derby Day experiences, and today I’m going to share one with you.

**

I moved to Kansas City from Louisville in 1969 and after a stay of few months in an apartment on Armour Boulevard, joined a co-worker and three of his MU classmates in a rental house in Brookside.

One by one, the roommates went their separate ways, and in 1977, after Capital Cities bought The Star — with a lot of us making good money on sale of Star stock — I bought two-bedroom house at 5103 Grand.

To christen the house, I decided to host a Kentucky Derby party that spring. I prepared and served mint juleps…tasting every one for quality assurance. We wrote the horses’ names in chalk on half a ping-pong table set on its side, and we formulated a rudimentary betting system in which all pool money was returned to the winning bettors.

Derby party special guest

The party was a big success, and I decided to make it an annual event. People loved them, and some who hadn’t been invited would call and ask if they could come. My answer was always, “Come on over.” One year, the guest of honor was U.S. Sen. Thomas Eagleton, who was Sen. George McGovern’s vice-presidential running mate in 1972. (For the record, Tom declined my offer of a mint julep, but he still started to get into the wrong car when he was leaving with staff aide Woody Overton.)

As good as the parties were, in 1981 I decided it was time for me to go to the Derby. Although I was born and raised in Louisville, I had only been to the Derby once during the 22 years I lived there. As I recall that was in 1963, when a horse named Candy Spots was the favorite but came in second. My boyhood friend Don Huber and I went to the Churchill Downs Infield — the cost was about $5 then ($80 today) — and all I remember is hearing the track announcer calling the race over the loudspeakers and catching glimpses of the horses from the Infield as they circled the track.

**

In ’81, I determined I was not going back to the Infield. So, I and some of my friends got tickets in an area called the Grandstand Terrace, which sounds good but in fact affords the lowest — and worst — vantage point of the track. (Generally, the higher you are, the better your view of the races.) We were at the top of the stretch, however, where the Derby starting gate is located and where we had a tremendous view of the start and could hear the gates slam open for the Derby and feel the penetrating ringing of the starting bell.

I had made a bold and very big bet — big, that is, relative to what I normally was betting back then. I put $50 to win on a horse named Pleasant Colony, a closer, who went off at odds of 7-2.

As the race got underway, I couldn’t see where Pleasant Colony was. These were the days before monitors and big screens for spectators’ convenience, and, as in 1963, about all I could do was listen to the track announcer’s call. That told me enough, however, to know that Pleasant Colony was on the move about three-quarters of a mile into the mile and a quarter race.

As the horses neared the turn into the stretch — where we were standing and straining to see — I picked up Pleasant Colony. He was accelerating and passing horses easily. I let out a whoop, and as the horses turned for home, Pleasant Colony went to the front and powered to a one- to two-length lead…My heart was about to explode from my chest.

Still, a quarter of a mile remained, and the outcome was far from certain. By then, all we could see was the horses’ rumps undulating frantically and rhythmically and getting farther from us with every second.

I could see enough, though, to tell that another horse was moving up on Pleasant Colony. He was gaining — gradually, steadily — and the question was: Would Pleasant Colony be able to hold him at bay? When they hit the finish line, I was pretty sure Pleasant Colony had held on for the win, but I wasn’t sure: I’d have to wait for the numbers to go up on the big electronic tote board in the Infield.

My lifelong friend Bill Russell, who was in the group, didn’t help matters. Instead of assuring me Pleasant Colony had held on, he started saying, “I don’t know, Jim, it looked like that other horse was comin’ on really strong. He might have caught him.”

Bill continued needling me, sowing seeds of doubt — and laughing — as we waited for the numbers to go up. Finally, after what seemed like half an hour but was really only a few minutes, Pleasant Colony’s No. 4 lit up at the top of the tote board…He had held on by three-quarters of a length to defeat a horse named Woodchopper.

I cut loose with some more whoops and throat-threatening yelling and went to cash my winning ticket. I got back $225 — $175 in winnings, plus my original $50.

Full of myself and feeling very large, I treated our group of about eight people to dinner that night, and, as I recall, the $175 in winnings covered the entire tab, including drinks…Of course, that was 1981, the year of my first real and unforgettable Kentucky Derby.

Pleasant Colony, headed down the stretch in the 1981 Kentucky Derby

 

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The Kansas City journalism scene lost another great one this week — former city editor and weekend editor Bob Lynn.

Lynn, renowned and most admired, perhaps, for his refusal to bow and scrape to upper management, died of a massive heart attack Tuesday outside the Lowe’s store in Roeland Park.

Karen Dillon, a good friend of Bob’s, wrote on the Kansas City Star Bylines Facebook page: “A registered nurse happened to be in the parking lot and rushed over to him and began giving him CPR but he had no pulse.”

Lynn, 71, is the fourth titan from The Star’s heyday to die in the last 15 months.  First it was reporter Rick Alm in February 2017. Then it was Laura Hockaday, former society editor, last October, and finally it was Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Mike McGraw just four months ago.

Because he spent his career as an editor, Bob was not as well known to the public as Alm, Hockaday and McGraw.

He was every bit as legendary in The Star’s newsroom, though.

Bob, with mother Betty (2003)

Reporters loved working with him because of his easygoing disposition, lack of ego and the fact that he treated everyone equally, disbursing advice clearly and concisely. Upper managers respected him because they knew he was extremely competent and pulled not punches.

The highest position he attained was city editor of The Kansas City Times, the morning Kansas City Star, until it merged with The Star in 1990. He then worked as an editor on the State Desk and later became the weekend editor.

It was as weekend editor that many reporters got extensive exposure to him and learned to appreciate his skill and lack of ego. All reporters had to work occasional weekend shifts, and it was to Bob they’d report for Saturday or Sunday duty. On the KC Star Bylines page, reporter after reporter wrote Thursday about memories of weekend duty with Bob.

Here’s a sample:

Julius Karash, retired, former business reporter: He was an inspiration! We used to bitch about weekend metro duty, but working Saturday or Sunday with Bob was fun: Journalism, sedition, story-telling and barbecue. I don’t think I realized at the time that those weekend metro duty shifts would turn into great memories some day.

Dawn Bormann Novascone, former reporter: Bob was such a good man and a great editor. I learned so much from working with him on the weekend. I’m sure I owe him $100 or more from all the times he spotted me money for Rosedale (Barbecue) when I could barely make rent.

Ed Eveld, former reporter: Great boss. Great editor. Coolest dude.

Bob was also incredibly insightful and had an excellent feel for the state of the newspaper — that is, if things were going well or slipping. Karash recalls, for example, that after McClatchy Co. purchased The Star and the other KnightRidder papers in 2006, Bob was one of the first to sense that layoffs were on the horizon.

One day, Karash said, he and Bob were reading a note on the bulletin board about a longtime, high-ranking newsroom editor who, to the surprise of many, was moving to the Human Resources division — an exceedingly strange move for a newsroom denizen.

Karash said Bob turned to him and said, “He’s going to be the hatchet man.”

Sure enough, in 2008, when The Star announced the first round of layoffs under McClatchy ownership, the former editor was intimately involved in the layoffs and sat in on every meeting where staff members were given notice.

Bob had such great foresight that he recognized at the time of the first wave of layoffs that The Star was no longer a reliable employer. Karash recalls, again, that with the announcement of the 2008 layoffs and buyouts, Bob went to management and offered to take early retirement, saying he would be willing to go if it meant someone else could keep his or her job.

And that was that. He walked out and called it a career. He later worked as a librarian at the Mid-Continent Library in Riverside.

A minimalist to the end, Bob was cremated, and there will be no funeral service.

…So long, buddy. You were a hell of a newsman.

With his 1964 (and a half) Mustang (Photos courtesy of Karen Dillon)

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One after another, minutes apart, Jackson County jail inmates paraded into the courtroom of Judge Richard Standridge today so the judge could determine the status of their cases, mostly whether they had lawyers.

Some of the inmates were white, some black. But they all had three things in common: They were young, they wore orange jumpsuits bearing the words “DETENTION CENTER,” and they had waist chains that their transporters could attach to other chains to secure them in transit.

And then the parade took a decidedly different twist. Judge Standridge called the name David Jungerman. From just inside an adjacent room where the inmates were awaiting their turns, a court official called out, “Jungerman!”

With that, out came an 80-year-old man, shoulders slightly hunched, with two or three days’ stubble of white facial hair and slightly disheveled hair that was long on the top and short on the sides.

KC Star photo by Keith Myers

It wasn’t the natty David Jungerman — in khakis, white dress shirt and neatly cut and combed hair — I saw four months ago in a Nevada, MO, courtroom, when he appeared for a hearing in a different case.

Things have changed a lot for David Jungerman…and his appearance shows it. Back then, he was just charged with one felony, a relatively minor one at that — attempted burglary — and a misdemeanor harassment charge.

Now, he’s charged with five additional felonies in two new cases, and one of those charges is the most serious a human being can face: first-degree murder.

This seemingly harmless, fast-fading old man (seemingly being the most important word there) is alleged to have shot Kansas City lawyer Thomas Pickert outside the Pickert home in Brookside the morning of Oct. 24, 2017.

Today marked his first court appearance since being charged with Pickert’s murder.

When he entered the courtroom, several lawyers — one or two for Pickert and three representing the Jackson County Prosecutor’s Office — got up and moved close to the judge’s bench. The appearance didn’t last long, maybe three minutes. Jungerman had previously entered a not-guilty plea, and today’s appearance was only to determine the next step.

A defense attorney requested a preliminary hearing. The purpose of a preliminary hearing is for the prosecution to present enough evidence to convince a judge to “bind the case over” for trial. It is the route that some criminal cases take before going to trial or plea.

Judge Standridge

Before Judge Standridge scheduled a date for the preliminary hearing, one of the prosecutor’s mentioned the possibility of taking the case to a grand jury. If the prosecution seated a grand jury, it could present evidence to the jury in closed session, and the jury would decide whether to “indict” Jungerman. If the jury returned an indictment — which would be a matter of open record — a preliminary hearing would not take place; the case would be scheduled for trial in Circuit Court.

Judge Harrell

Judge Standridge scheduled a preliminary hearing for 10 a.m. June 11 and assigned the case to Judge Kevin D. Harrell, who has been a Circuit Court judge six years.

The proceedings over, Jungerman turned and began walking back toward the room he had come from. Just before reaching the door, he made eye contact with a women — perhaps a lawyer — who was seated at the end of the bench in front of the low wall that separates court officials from the audience.

Jungerman’s eyes brightened, he smiled and said in a whisper, “Hi, how are you?”

And with that, he disappeared into the room, where the chain around his waist would be secured to another chain and he would be walked the short distance back to the Jackson County Detention Center, where he’s been held without bond since March 8.

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When McClatchy Co., The Star’s owner, announced in January it was going to a new “regional” system of editorial leadership and newspaper management, I knew it signaled one thing: Contraction and more layoffs company wide.

The first big hit under the new system came two weeks ago, when a 37-year-old regional editor announced more than 20 layoffs at the Sacramento Bee, McClatchy’s flagship paper.

Lauren Gustus, who had just been elevated to regional-editor status in January, issued a statement that said in part, “Our future requires us to adapt and innovate, and we will continue to change as we forge a path forward.”

As we’ve seen the 10 to 15 years with most remaining newspaper chains, forging a path forward can be translated only one way: “How do we cope with the disintegration of our business model?”

Yesterday, another shoe dropped, this time here in Kansas City, with the announcement that The Star was laying off — or parting ways with — at least 10 employees.

Finn

Chrostowski

Long

Among those who are packing their pencil or photo bags, according to KCUR’s Laura Spencer, are pop music writer Tim Finn; photographers Allison Long and David Pulliam; reporter David Frese; and editors Tod Palmer, Greg Branson and Michelle Smith.

Another editor, Keith Chrostowski, a four-decade veteran of the paper, is retiring.

In a non-explanation of the layoffs, KC Star editor Mike Fannin and managing editor Greg Farmer said in an internal memo that editors in the new midwest region (which Fannin heads) had determined in meetings that “we can do more to realize the future faster.”

Well, uh, the future certainly is coming at us pretty dang fast, but I’m not sure that stating it as a fact is going to help these editors cope with the mess they’ve got on their hands.

The whole idea the last several years has been for newspaper chains to transition subscribers from print to digital. That’s a good strategy, but it does not appear to be working for some companies, including McClatchy.

Consider three key points from a recent Poynter Institute analysis of McClatchy’s first-quarter, 2018 earnings report:

:: “Total revenues for the first quarter this year were down 10.1 percent compared to the same period in 2017.

:: “Digital-only subscriptions increased to 112,000, up 32.8 percent from a year ago. But spread across 30 properties, that is a modest number — a promising start but not enough to have much impact financially.  By contrast, the Boston Globe has roughly 100,000 paid digital subscribers and the Minneapolis Star Tribune 50,000.

:: “Digital subscription revenue did not grow nearly as much as the raw number. Digital-only audience revenues grew 16 percent year-to-year. And since McClatchy assigns a share of print-digital subs (subscriptions) to digital, total digital audience revenues were up just 2.6 percent.”

The digital-only figure of 112,000 is less than modest; it borders on disastrous. That’s an average of 4,000 digital-only subscriptions at each of the company’s 30 papers. (A trade organization called the Alliance for Audited Media publishes circulation figures for all U.S. newspapers, but I cannot tell from The Star’s data how many stand-alone digital subscriptions it has.)

So, where is this headed?

I don’t know, but it looks to me like McClatchy is something of an empty sandwich board at this point. If it drops or curtails print editions to cut expenses significantly, it also sacrifices the main part of its subscription and advertising revenue. If it continues to push away gradually from print, while raising print subscription prices, it risks falling flat on the all-digital front.

**

As I said, I don’t have the answer. But at the very least, I would like to see McClatchy officials start publicly acknowledging the company’s dire situation and stop issuing platitudinous memos, like the one Fannin and Farmin put out yesterday.

That memo concluded with this…

“Progress is never easy, but we see a lot of compelling evidence of the impact we are having every day on the communities we serve. And we have a responsibility to those readers and to the businesses we all love to keep moving forward.”

Weatherford

A friend of mine, a laid-off, former Star copy editor named Les Weatherford, deftly punctured that hot-air balloon on the Kansas City Star Bylines Facebook page.

Weatherford wrote:

“And we have a responsibility to those readers and to the businesses we all love to keep moving forward…This is a recording…This is a recording…This is a recording…”

 

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It’s unusual to see The Star’s editorial board tiptoe around a big issue. The board usually states its positions resolutely and decisively.

But the issue of the proposed T-Mobile/Sprint merger seems to have smothered The Star’s normally edgy voice. At least that’s the indication from today’s lead editorial, titled, “Is a T-Mobile merger the last best hope for Sprint to survive?”

I could tell from that headline that the editorial would be an exercise in equivocation, and it was.

The reason for the equivocation is local jobs. At its peak, in about 2004, the Sprint World Headquarters Campus at 119th and Nall had almost 15,000 employees. The number is now down to about 6,000, and it’s about as likely to go back up as it would be for The Star to go on an editorial hiring spree.

Here are a couple of key paragraphs from the editorial:

“Sprint’s name will likely disappear if the agreement is approved by regulators. That’s worrisome in a region that sorely lacks a nationally-recognized corporate presence.

“Yet we can’t oppose the merger out-of-hand. The real truth is this: Any chance for Sprint’s long-term presence in our area, even in a diminished, unnamed capacity, likely requires a merger with a stronger company such as T-Mobile.”

That makes sense, but later in the editorial, the writer put on his or her rose-colored glasses, saying:

“Already there’s a furious argument about the impact of a merger on competition: Some believe prices will go higher with just three national carriers, while others argue that a strengthened T-Mobile could force costs down across the industry. We’re not ready to endorse either conclusion.”

OK, class, those of you who think cellphone fees would go down, please raise your hands. Do I see someone in the back of the room there raising his hand? Oh, sorry….Of course, you can go to the bathroom.

Rather than wring its hands about those 6,000 jobs — which are at risk in any event — I’d rather see the editorial board take the blinders off and consider what is best for consumers everywhere.

On that count, The New York Times was unequivocal in two articles — its lead editorial and an Op-Ed commentary.

Citing both companies’ pledges that prices would go down, hiring would go up and profits would increase, The Times editorial said: “All that’s missing from this list of promises is permanently blue skies.”

Love it…

The editorial takes a clear-eyed view of the prospect of prices rising, saying “…becoming much larger could change the financial calculus at T-Mobile, encouraging it to raise prices to lift profits and pay off Sprint’s debt” — which stands at a jaw-dropping $32 billion. (Makes McClatchy’s $700-million-plus debt pale by comparison.)

Tim Wu, a law professor who specializes in antitrust and telecommunications, struck an even harsher note. Here are a couple of key paragraphs from his Op-Ed piece:

“T-Mobile, the self-proclaimed “uncarrier,” has done an admirable job of attacking termination fees, abusive contracts and other mistreatment — often outperforming regulators as an agent of consumer protection. Sprint, meanwhile, has come to excel in its role as a price-cutting maverick. Allow me to advertise for Sprint: Did you know that it offers a service for $60 with an unlimited data plan?

“In short, competition has actually worked the way economists say it is supposed to, forcing firms to improve quality or face elimination. But it takes competitors to compete, which is where blocking mergers comes in. That’s a point well demonstrated by the case of the airline industry, where the government let the mergers happen. Over the last decade, Delta was allowed to buy Northwest, United to buy Continental, and American to buy US Airways, leaving behind just three majors. What happened next demonstrates the “curse of triopoly” in all its terrible glory.”

…I hope that future Star editorials will swing around to elevate the “curse of the triopoly” ahead of those 6,000 tenuous, local jobs.

Even if those jobs disappear and bulldozers have to clear away all those plain-jane buildings at 119th and Nall, the Kansas City area will continue to prosper. And that end result would be preferable to millions and millions of cellphone consumers getting gouged even worse than they are now.

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