Archive for July, 2018

Julius Karash

Today, I have the privilege of publishing a guest post by one of the best business writers to ever pass through the doors of The Kansas City Star. Julius Karash worked at the paper for 21 years before being laid off in 2008. He’s a freelance writer and lives downtown…And now, heeeere’s Julius!


The Kansas City Star news box sitting outside the Quaff Bar & Grill, 10th and Broadway, looked lonely and forlorn Wednesday afternoon. And empty.

“The Star hasn’t been delivered to our news box for weeks,” said Justin Clemons, manager/bartender.

Justin Clemons

“We miss it a lot. We used to get it every day. We had a guy who came by at 4 o’clock every morning to deliver the papers to the box, but we don’t see him any more. It (The Star) is where we got our information about what’s going on in town, so I could talk about it with customers.”

The Star hasn’t abandoned all of its news boxes. Papers beckoned from a news box at 10th and Main this week, along with a sticker on the box that said $2.50 DAILY – WEEKEND EDITIONS AVAILABLE IN STORES.

The new daily, single-copy price represents a 25 percent jump over the former price of $2. At the same time, the single-copy price of the Saturday and Sunday papers has jumped from $3 to $4 — a 33-percent increase.

It’s easy to understand why The Star will no longer be stocking its news boxes with weekend papers: More and more people are getting their news from the Web. And how many people walk around with $4 in change? Or even $2? (The boxes don’t take bills.)

It seems that more and more news boxes, like the one next to the Quaff, are going the way of the old-time newsroom re-write folks — the men and women who took information over the phone from reporters in the field and crafted it into a story. When was the last time you saw a news box for USA Today, The New York Times, the Wall Street Journal or the Kansas City Business Journal?

A box from many years ago, when you could get a single weekday edition for a quarter and a Sunday edition for a buck twenty-five. Photos by Julius.

As if print newspapers didn’t face enough pressures already, they’re now getting battered by a trade war. In a June 22 story, The Washington Post reported that the Trump administration has imposed tariffs on Canadian lumber and Canadian uncoated groundwood paper, from which newsprint is fashioned.

The Post said the U.S. Department of Commerce imposed the tariffs in response to a complaint from the North Pacific Paper mill in rural Washington state, which complained that Canadian paper manufacturers were being subsidized by their government and were therefore able to offer lower prices, giving them an unfair advantage over their U.S. counterparts.

A resulting jump in newsprint costs has dealt an especially hard blow to small papers, The Post said. Nonetheless, the increase quite likely played a role in The Star’s decision to raise single copy prices.

The International Trade Commission (ITC) is scheduled to hold a hearing on retaining the tariffs next week and is expected to make a final ruling this summer. Both the ITC and the Commerce Department must agree to make the tariffs permanent for them to remain.


On Wednesday, I paid a visit to The Star to greet old friends and make some new acquaintances. They are in the final stages of preparing to move out of the venerable old headquarters at 1729 Grand and into a new newsroom in the 12-year-old, green-glass press pavilion across the street on McGee.

The developers who bought The Star building last year (the City Scene website reported the price was $12 million) are planning to transform the east side of the first floor into an indoor-outdoor bar with a variety of games, including volleyball and ping-pong.

The Star’s newsroom now, days before reporters and editors move to a new one across McGee Street

I worked for The Star from 1987 to 2008, when I got laid off with many of my colleagues. I’m grateful for the time I spent there and grateful that things have turned out all right for me and my family.

Some of the folks I spoke with Wednesday felt a little sad about leaving the landmark building. As I have written in this blog previously, it’s a beautiful, historic structure, built between 1909 and 1911 and designed by Jarvis Hunt, the famous Chicago architect who also designed Kansas City’s Union Station.

The 18th & Grand building holds a special place in the hearts of most people who have worked there, including me. The building resounds with history and conjures up former inhabitants, such as Ernest Hemingway. If you worked at 18th & Grand, you felt like you were part of that history.

It may serve as small or no consolation, but The Star is one of many newspapers around the country that have sold their iconic headquarters buildings in recent years. Newspapers don’t need all that space any more. What they need is cash, and cash from real estate sales fits the bill.

But on the whole, the mood of those working in the second-floor newsroom Wednesday was “let’s get on with this move and keep doing our jobs.” The newspaper industry ain’t what it used to be, but it’s still a crucial component of our lives. The reporters and editors at The Star — and other papers, Web sites, radio stations and TV stations — are working their tails off to continue their journalistic mission.

I’m still an avid reader of The Star, subscribing to the electronic edition and buying the print edition occasionally. I count on The Star to keep me informed about what’s going on in the Kansas City area; it’s a big part of my life and the life of our city.

I know some folks won’t agree with me, but I believe that if The Star ever goes away, it’s going to leave a big hole in this town for a long, long time. I hope that never happens.

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I hate to be the person to break the bad news to you, but…Arthur Bryant’s is not nearly as good as it used to be.

I’m not going to say it’s terrible, but it sure has fallen from the lofty perch it occupied for so many decades, including a few after Arthur died in 1982 at age 82.

As it is now, I think Arthur would be unhappy.

I hadn’t been to Bryant’s in several years, and I decided to go last night after playing nine holes at Blue River Golf Course. I wound my way down Cleveland Avenue and then Prospect to 18th and cut over to Brooklyn.

I got there about 8:30, I would say, and the line was about 25 deep. The line at Bryant’s has always moved slowly, so I knew it was going to be a while. Fortunately, I had brought in the latest edition of Tee Times magazine, which has feature stories about local golf courses, golf tips and discount coupons for various courses.

Even with the benefit of reading material, however, the wait seemed interminable. I barely moved in the first 20 to 25 minutes. Part of the problem was that Mayor Sly James had brought a group of six to eight young people to the restaurant (I suspect they were out-of-towners), and when his group got to the service window, things came to a standstill. After that group had cleared, the pace picked up a bit, but I would estimate my wait (I was on my own) was about 45 minutes.

I’ve learned with experience that, in ordering brisket, it pays to specify “lean” — or you can end up with a lot of fat-laden meat or meat that is dry and burned.

So, I said, “beef sandwich lean…with fries.” Even when the server was slapping the traditional massive handful of beef onto the bread, however, I could see significant chunks of fat. The tab for the sandwich and fries was about $13.50 — a hefty price that Bryant’s management has learned it can get away with because of its reputation.

As usual, I got extra pieces of bread so I could break down the mound of beef and make some manageable half-sandwiches. As I began separating the “wheat from the chaff” in the meat, I found a lot of the latter. The parts that were actually lean had a nice, smokey flavor, and the half sandwiches I carefully constructed were, on the whole, pretty good, although the fat load was, again, unacceptable.

But the biggest, unpleasant surprises I got were with 1) the fries and 2) the sauce.

Bryant’s used to have, in my opinion, the best fries you could find anywhere. They were hand cut and totally potato-y, and when dipped into Bryant’s traditional gritty, sharp-edged sauce, why…there were unapproachable by anyone else.

But the fries are now different. I can’t completely explain it, but they seemed more cookie-cutter and a bit greasy. Then there was the sauce. I checked several tables looking for a bottle of “traditional” or “classic” sauce but found only “sweet,” “rich and spicy” and “heat” varieties. I didn’t try the sweet version, but neither the rich and spicy nor the hot heat tasted anything like the old sauce.

Debates over Gates’ and Bryant’s sauce raged for years, you know, and many people didn’t care for Bryant’s sauce partly because of the slightly gritty texture. Overall, I always preferred Gates’ classic sauce to Bryant’s, but, by God, when I went to Bryant’s, I wanted Arthur’s sauce with Arthur’s fries! Last night, I ate a few with ketchup, for God’s sake, trying to make them more palatable.

So, it was with a mixture of shock, horror and outrage that I realized last night that Bryant’s had changed…for the worse.

I ended up taking home a carry-out container of beef and three pieces of white bread (about all my daughter Brooks will allow in the house), and I tossed into the trash a big pile of fries and a small pile of fatty meat that even a hog might have spat out.


I hope the out-of-towners with Sly James enjoyed their dinner, and I hope the woman in line behind me, who was visiting from Nebraska, found that Bryant’s lived up to the glowing reports she had heard. But I’ve got to wonder if they didn’t walk away wondering what all the hoopla was about Arthur Bryant’s.

Considering that the state of barbecue in Kansas City is at an all-time high — with great places like Joe’s Kansas City, Jack Stack, Q39 and Gates, which remains in the top tier — the slippage at Bryant’s is very disappointing. (Thank God for the options!)

…I met Arthur Bryant one time. It was in the 1970s. I was in the main dining room, where, you’ll recall, a pop machine stood against the center wall. Arthur was emptying the machine of change, and some of the change fell on the floor. I was nearby and he said, “Young man, would you pick that change up for me? I can’t get down like I used to.”

“Sure,” I said, squatting to gather up the coins. He smiled and thanked me as I handed them to him.

Today, if that soda machine was still there and I was emptying it and coins fell to the floor, I’d have to recruit some young person to squat down and pick them up.

Arthur Bryant…and Bryant’s…stood for quality. Now his fries and his sauce are gone, and I doubt if they’ll ever return. And I’m afraid the fat is there to stay. And I’m kinda sick about it…

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The most intriguing local story of the day is that of an insurance company paying the city of Overland Park $107,000 for a glass sculpture that was broken beyond repair after a 5-year-old boy lifted the sculpture off its base and tumbled to the ground while struggling to hold it aloft.

The story is, as we would say in the news business, “a talker.”

With good reason, The Star is playing it front and center on its website. It’s getting thousands of “views,” I’m sure, and most people who click on the story will also take the time to watch the accompanying one minute, 44 second video that captures the incident from start to finish.

The sculpture, named “Aphrodite di Kansas City,” was on loan to Overland Park, where it was on display and for sale at the Tomahawk Ridge Community Center, 119th and Lowell.

As a result of the insurance company payout, the sculptor, Bill Lyons of Kansas City, will be getting $99,000 — the amount he would have gotten had the piece been purchased while it was on display at the community center.

The boy’s mother, Sarah Goodman, told The Star she had not known about the insurance company’s payment and questioned the estimated six-figure value of the artwork. Goodman has speculated that her son was trying to hug the sculpture, although she — and no other adult caretaker — was on hand when the accident occurred.

The soundless video tends to depict the boy making a conscious effort to lift the artwork off its pedestal, perhaps wondering how heavy it was and if he could hold it.

Aphrodite di Kansas City — before her fall

The first thing the video shows is three women sitting on sofas and talking in what appears to be the lobby of the community center. At the back of the room, people can be seen passing by the sculpture. We see one boy walk by the sculpture, stop, reach up and touch the sculpture.

Then, another boy — who turns out to be “the boy” — comes along, accompanied by a man who could be his father. That boy steps up on the slightly elevated base and takes a close look at the sculpture without touching it. In seconds, the man beckons for the boy to come along, and he quickly steps down and follows — but not without the seeds of destruction being planted.

The video fast forwards to where the same boy comes back, this time with another boy who looks to be about the same age. Boy No. 1 — the one briefly introduced himself to Aphrodite earlier — goes straight to the sculpture and again steps up on the base.

The dominoes leading to disaster then fall in quick succession:

— Boy No. 2 moves a few yards off to the right, watching Boy No. 1.

— Boy No. 2 takes a few steps forward but quickly backs away when Boy No. 1 wraps his arms around the sculpture. Boy No. 1 lifts the sculpture off the pedestal, and Boy No. 2 raises his hands to his mouth in anticipation of impending doom.

— In a minor feat of strength, Boy No. 1 manages to hold the sculpture aloft for a few seconds, but then he and the sculpture fall to the ground, with the sculpture possibly grazing his head and shoulder on the descent. Looking stunned and putting a hand to his head, Boy No. 1 quickly gets up.

— Without hesitation, Boy No. 2 backtracks past the scene and down the hallway from which he and Boy No. 1 had come.

— One of the three women sitting on the sofas gets up and goes over to see what happened. Boy No. 1 breaks into a run, toward and down the same hallway his buddy just disappeared into.

— A woman who appears to be a community-center staff member enters the scene from the right, and the woman who had gone to investigate approaches her, recounts what happened and points toward the hallway.


Now, I understand Boy No. 1 is (or was) only five when this incident took place May 19. But as I watched the video over and over, I couldn’t help but wonder how W.C. Fields, comic actor from the 1930s and 1940s, would have reacted.

Fields got a lot of mileage out of his avowed antipathy toward children — on stage and screen, at any rate — and he had some great quotes about children. I think if he were alive today and could see the video of “An Occurrence at Tomahawk Ridge,” he would repeat one of his funniest lines about children:

“Children should neither be seen or heard from – ever again.”

Of course, I don’t believe that. Not for a minute. I feel sorry for the family, and I know it was an accident. At the same time, though, Boy No. 1’s instincts sure didn’t measure up to those of Boy No. 2, and the result was an insurance company essentially buying a pricey sculpture.

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Since graduating from Temple University in 2014, 26-year-old reporter Ali Watkins has held high-profile reporting positions with four organizations, including The New York Times, which hired her in December as national security reporter in the paper’s prestigious Washington bureau.

For a January story on the Temple journalism school’s website, a reporter asked Watkins how she had become so successful so quickly. Her answer was…

“It’s more of just showing up at the odd hours when no one else is showing up. Showing up all the time and eventually running into somebody who knows something.”

What she neglected to tell the J-school reporter was that it also helps to be dating the people you’re covering.

Maybe you’ve heard Watkins’ name. She’s been the subject of several national stories since it was reported that she had an extraordinary pipeline to inside information due to the fact that for at least three years (starting when she was 22 or 23) she carried on a romantic relationship with a 57-year-old, high-ranking aide on the Senate Intelligence Committee…Oh, and he was married.

The aide, James Wolfe, who handled classified material for the committee, was arrested in June as part of a leak investigation by the U.S. Justice Department. In the course of the investigation, Justice Department officials surreptitiously seized Watkins’ phone and email records.

James Wolfe and Ali Watkins

Wolfe has now been charged with lying to the FBI — although not with leaking classified information — and Watkins has been transferred out of The Times’ Washington bureau and reassigned to a new beat in New York, where she will have a “mentor,” who will help her get off to “a fresh start.”

(The Washington Post has reported that the indictment document includes various instances in which Wolfe received sensitive information and then communicated with Watkins on the same day.)


When this story was first reported, it raised alarms with me. How, I wondered, could a young reporter be so dumb as to hook up with a man more than twice her age, exposing herself to at least the suspicion that she was trading sex for inside information? It struck me as absolutely the wrong road to take if a reporter was striving for a long and successful career in the business.

At first, however, the emphasis in news stories was on how outraged journalists were at law enforcement officers seizing her phone and email records. I was more curious about Watkins’ judgment, as well as The Times’ decision to hire her on the basis of such a quick, hop-scotching career ascent.

The first organization she worked for was McClatchy (which, of course, owns The Kansas City Star), where she started out as an intern during her junior year in collect. There she helped break a national story about the CIA spying on the Senate. After she graduated, McClatchy offered her a full-time job, and the next year she was a Pulitzer Prize finalist for her work on the CIA spying story.

In quick succession, she went on to work for the Huffington Post, BuzzFeed and Politico. At each merry-go-round stop she worked as a national security reporter and, presumably, was covering the Senate Intelligence Committee, for whom her gray-haired boyfriend worked.

Her dizzying career climb culminated late last year when she was hired by The Times. During the hiring process, she told editors about her relationship with Wolfe and said it had ended about four months earlier.

I’d like to think that if I had been one of the editors interviewing Watkins for a job at The Times, loud bells would have started ringing in my head. A 26-year-old woman had a three-year relationship with a 57-year-old Senate Intelligence Committee staffer? And she kept coming up with one big national security story after another? And she had already worked for four major news organizations?   

As the old saying goes, when something looks too good to be true, it probably is. Somebody in the hiring chain at The Times should have thought about that. Surely, they did but ultimately set any misgivings aside in the face of the woman’s sterling and astounding reporting record in just four years.

In hindsight, Times editors seem to have awakened from the soporific state they were in when they hired Watkins.

In today’s story about Watkins’ reassignment, Times executive editor Dean Baquet said, among other things, “For a reporter to have an intimate relationship with someone he or she covers is unacceptable.”

Very true. It was also very true when Times editors were interviewing Watkins and learned that she had been engaging in that “unacceptable” conduct for three long years.

In the wake of the embarrassing Watkins episode, Baquet said, The Times would “tighten our job-candidate screening process to ensure that significant questions make their way to the newsroom leadership for full discussion.”


Unfortunately, dating and having sex with a man whose agency she was reporting on (she also briefly dated another committee staff member following the affair with Wolfe and while still at Politico) wasn’t Watkins’ only mistake. After Justice Department officials notified her in February they had seized her phone and email records, she did not tell her editors, instead keeping that information to herself on the advice of her personal attorney.

In an understatement, Baquet said that decision “put our news organization in a difficult position.”

In a Vanity Fair story, a former Times executive editor, Jill Abramson, put it much more strongly, saying…

“People are entitled to make mistakes and learn from them and be forgiven. But the original mistake is compounded by not initially telling the Times that her records had been seized and searched. Putting myself back in the executive editor’s chair, it’s sort of like, everyone who works for the Times is conscious that at all times, the reputation of the place is something you’re responsible for protecting, and when anything material to your work happens, you have to tell your editor. That’s a pretty big lapse.”


My guess is we will be hearing very little from Ali Watkins, in the role of journalist, in the future. She’ll probably drift off into obscurity under the watch of her new babysitter…uh, mentor…and will be cut loose completely within a year or so.

For the short time it lasted, it was a wild ride for the hotshot out of Temple University. Now she’s going to have a long time to think about the ramifications of her early decisions.

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A story in today’s KC Star about the tragic death of a 38-year-old man who died in a fluke highway accident Friday is the latest example of the deteriorating state of affairs at our formerly reliable and well-edited daily paper.

In a feature story about the death of trucker Jorrard Davis, veteran reporter Joe Robertson omitted a critical piece of information, which enabled him to take the story in the direction he wanted to take it — that is, suggesting the accident was more the fault of police and another driver than of Davis’ poor judgment.

The facts are straightforward: After being pulled over because the rear door of his semitractor-trailer had come open, Davis walked into a lane of interstate traffic. Traffic was slowing when he got out of the truck, but another 18-wheeler struck an unmarked police car that was among the vehicles slowing down and knocked the police car into Davis.

Almost shockingly, Robertson failed to report in his story that Davis was walking in a lane of traffic when he was struck.

Instead, Robertson left it at this:

Davis had gotten out of his truck when another semitractor-trailer struck an unmarked police car in the lane next to Davis’ truck and knocked the police car into Davis, killing him.”

The omission of Davis wandering onto the interstate strongly enabled Robertson’s portrayal of heartbroken family members who are now trying to blame the police department and the driver of the other truck.

It is possible that the police department and the other trucker are partly to blame but the fact that Robertson failed to report Davis’ own faulty judgment certainly failed to paint an accurate, even-handed of what happened.

The omission was almost shocking, as I said above, because a story about the accident in Sunday’s paper — a story by another reporter — ran under this headline in the printed edition…

Police: Trucker killed in I-29 wreck was walking on highway.”

That story was written by a young reporter named Max Londberg.

Londberg reported something else that Robertson didn’t bother to repeat: Not only had the door of Davis’ truck come open, but “items inside had nearly fallen out.”

Obviously, the sight of items in danger of falling out the back of the truck had to increase the police officer’s sense of urgency in pulling Davis over.


The only conclusion you can draw from Robertson’s flawed account is that he wanted to indulge the family members’ recriminations and second-guessing.

Robertson introduced a lengthy section of second-guessing with these words — “Now questions trouble the family of a man who relatives described as “the glue” that held generation together…”

The first second-guesser Robertson quoted was a cousin, who was demanding to know, “Why was the second cop car blocking the second lane?”

Farther down the story, Robertson quoted an aunt of Davis who talked about what a safe driver he was. And then there was speculation from a great uncle that the driver of the rig that struck the unmarked police car was distracted.


I can certainly understand why family members want to know more about the unmarked police car — why it happened to be at or near the scene — and if the other truck driver had not been paying attention or had been going too fast.

But as a reporter, Robertson had a duty to include all pertinent facts. And there he failed.

And he wasn’t the only journalist who failed on that story.

As I’ve said before, the quality and quantity of editing has fallen off a cliff at The Star. Whoever edited that story should have made sure he or she was familiar with Londberg’s story before editing Robertson’s story. It would appear that the editor either had not read Londberg’s story or — and I sure hope this wasn’t the case — intentionally did not hold Robertson’s feet to the fire.

I know all too well it can be easy to shrug and let a reporter have his or her way, especially an extremely experienced reporter like Joe Robertson, who’s been with the paper at least 20 years and possibly closer to 30.

But it’s wrong, and it’s another sign The Star is increasingly enfeebled.

We all know why The Star is deteriorating: Like many other formerly great metropolitan dailies, it has fallen victim to corporate journalism as conducted by people trying to either cut their way out of debt or bleed their properties for all they can before they sell or go bankrupt.

In the meantime, while we wait to see the ultimate fate of The Star and the 28 or so other dailies in the McClatchy chain, I think the least readers can ask for is an honest and complete presentation of facts from the reporters and editors still drawing salaries down at 17th and McGee.

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