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Archive for July, 2020

A wise uncle once told me, “Expect the unexpected.”

I’ve witnessed the accuracy of those words more than once, but not today.

With a decision made by the McClatchy Co.’s board of directors, the expected has, indeed, come to pass: The company, with its 29 daily papers (including The Kansas City Star), will soon pass into the custody of the Chatham Asset Management, a hedge fund out of New Jersey.

Chatham, McClatchy’s largest shareholder and biggest creditor, has been sinking its claws more deeply into McClatchy the last several years.

After the U.S. Bankruptcy Court approves the transition, the McClatchy papers will be owned by the same company that owns the National Enquirer. That, in itself, is a fact that should make any self-respecting journalist shriek.

I’ve said before, Chatham is a shadowy company; they don’t even have a website. The company was founded in 2003, and its managing partner is a man named Anthony Melchiorre…I’ve searched the web far and wide and have never found a photo of the guy.

What this tells me is journalists and avid newspaper readers here and in cities like Miami, Fort Worth, Sacramento, Charlotte and Wichita (also with McClatchy papers) should be cringing. The newspaper industry’s angle of descent has just steepened.

News of the pending transfer of ownership came in a press release issued by McClatchy this morning. The bitter, hard-to-swallow lead of the press release said…

“McClatchy announced today that the auction held as a part of its court-supervised sale process has concluded with Chatham Asset Management deemed the successful bid.”

It went on to say…

“The proposed agreement positions McClatchy to exit Chapter 11 protection in the third quarter of 2020, having achieved a resolution and restructuring of the company’s complex legacy debt and pension obligations, while maximizing value for the company’s creditors.”

Let me put that sentence into plain, sterling English: McClatchy’s 2006 purchase of the Knight Ridder chain for $4.5 billion was an abject failure, and the vulture that first sought to capitalize on the mistake will now gorge on the detritus.

So The Star, which was employee owned when I arrived as a general assignment reporter in 1969, will now have its fourth ownership change since 1996.

The blissful era of employee ownership died in 1977, when a newspaper-TV-radio company called Capital Cities Inc. paid $2 for every dollar of employee stock ownership, or a total of $125 million, which seemed like an astounding amount at the time.

The Star prospered under Cap Cities ownership for nearly 20 years, but in 1996 things started going south. That’s when Cap Cities, which had earlier acquired the ABC network, sold to Walt Disney Co., which had no interest in newspapers and put The Star and three other Cap Cities papers up for sale within a year.

Knight Ridder, a longstanding, tradition-rich newspaper company seemingly came to the rescue in 1997. But that didn’t go as expected, and Knight Ridder, under pressure from an unhappy, major shareholder, sold to McClatchy in 2006. (For a variety of reasons, including x-ray vision into the future, I retired on June 30, 2006, exactly three days after McClatchy closed on its $4.5 billion deal.)

So, here we are again. Or, I guess I should say, here again are the current crop of KC Star employees — the 250 or so that remain of a legion that once numbered more than 2,000.

What’s in the future for these employees? Hard to say, but changes at the top and more staff reductions would not surprise me. The hedge fund model is to extract as much cash as possible from businesses they own and reinvest the money elsewhere, at a bigger return on investment.

Ken Doctor, the best industry analyst around, put it this way in a recent New York Times story…

“The truth is, to make a huge profit in the newspaper business, you have to cut, cut, cut, and be willing to see the product get worse year by year. They (the hedge fund operators) will have a number, and they will cut whatever they have to — to meet that number.”

You don’t see anything in that quote about quality journalism because that isn’t part of the equation. It’s just hitting the numbers.

McClatchy, at least, made a pretense of quality journalism, but now that’s gone, and everybody down at 1601 McGee should brace for more unsettling changes.

We’ll see what happens. In the meantime, so long, McClatchy, it wasn’t that nice knowing you.

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Well this is passing strange.

I wrote three weeks ago that for the first time since he has been U.S. Attorney General, I agreed with a decision made by William Barr.

In that case, the Department of Justice issued a press release scheduling execution dates for four death-row inmates, including two of the Kansas City area’s most horrific rapists/murderers, Keith Nelson (Pamela Butler) and Wesley Purkey (Jennifer Long and Mary Ruth Bales).

Barr

Then came more welcome news late yesterday: The Justice Department is launching a new initiative to curb violent crime in Kansas City. The project will be named after LeGend Taliferro, the 4-year-old boy who was recently shot and killed in a drive-by shooting near 63rd and The Paseo as he slept in his bedroom.

The goal of Operation Legend will be to quell a “surge of violent crime.”

This appears to be a very focused and significant project. More than 100 agents from the four Justice Department law enforcement agencies — the FBI, the United States Marshals Service, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives — will be dispatched to work with state and local law enforcement agencies.

The department will also send additional resources to Timothy A. Garrison, U.S. attorney for the Western District of Missouri, to help handle an expected increase in prosecutions, the release said.

Operation Legend will begin in Kansas City and be expanded to other cities dealing with rising rates of violent crime, the release said.

Mayor Quinton Lucas said his understanding was the federal officials investigate unsolved murders and shootings and would not participate in daily policing or patrol activities.

Obviously, the timing could not be better. Kansas City is on pace to set a record for homicides in one year, and the Kansas City Police Department’s homicide resolution rate stands at about 50 percent, significantly below the national average.

Moreover, the situation seems to have swallowed up the police department.

The Kansas City Board of Police Commissioners — all but one of whose five members is appointed by the governor — has not directed Chief Rick Smith to produce a plan to address the spiraling murder rate, and Smith has not volunteered to produce one.

What we have seen, as I have written before, is Lucas — the only police board member not appointed by the governor — beating his breast and inviting the public to hold him accountable for the murder rate.

I don’t know why he does that because he is only one of five votes on the police board, having neither the power to fire Smith nor the ability to direct him to come up with a plan.

As a result, we’ve got a police department and city administration that are about 100 yards apart physically but about 10 miles apart in every other sense.

It’s a shitty situation, and it is abundantly clear that it is time for control of the police department to transfer from the state to the city. Unfortunately, that is probably going to take two elections (one local and one state) and maybe years or even decades.

…In the meantime, Bill Barr has made another good move. From 1,000 miles away, he could see the Kansas City Police Department wasn’t up to the job and is sending help.

Thanks, Bill…You’ve got a long way to go to redeem yourself, but you’re headed in the right direction.

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It is maddening and painful to watch The Star and Mayor Quinton Lucas wring their hands and nibble around the edges of two big issues that should be clear cut and unequivocal.

Before going any further, let me make clear the words we desperately need to hear from The Star’s editorial page and from Lucas:

“Kansas City needs local control of its police department, and it’s time for Police Chief Rick Smith to resign.”

First, let’s look at Lucas.

He has not called for Smith’s resignation, and he has been strictly equivocal on local control. Why? I’ve said it many times: He’s afraid to cross the police officers’ union, Local 99 of the F.O.P., which supported him in his successful election campaign last year.

As a result, we see Lucas hemming and hawing and calling for a preferential election to take the public’s temperature before he dares to take the plunge.

And regarding Kansas City’s spiraling murder rate, we see Lucas beating his breast and saying the buck stops with him, when, in truth (a truth he fully realizes) there’s little he can do. He’s just one member of the state-appointed, five-member Board of Police Commissioners, which calls the shots at 12th and Oak.

The people most responsible for the police department’s failure to respond effectively to the cascading homicide rate are the four other members of the police board, the ones other than Lucas.

The four who control the board are essentially cardboard cutouts. We hear absolutely nothing from them, and 99 percent of Kansas Citians couldn’t name one of them. They are insulated because they are appointed by governors sitting 145 miles away — a Republican governor who doesn’t really care what goes on in this Democratic city.

Wagner

I want people to know who these commissioners are because it is they who allow Smith and other police administrators to run the department however they want. The commissioners, besides Lucas, are Chairman Don Wagner, Vice President Mark Tolbert, Treasurer Cathy Dean and member Nathan Garrett.

Wagner, Tolbert and Garrett were all appointed by former Gov. Eric Greitens, and Dean was appointed by Gov. Mike Parson. I have to presume that all four are Republicans, which again puts them out of sync with this Democratic city.

It’s a pathetic and illogical situation. In this city of nearly 500,000 people (estimated in 2018 at about 492,000), the police department and its chief are not accountable to the local elected officials who authorize the funds to keep the police department functioning.

If we had local control, the mayor could tell the police chief, “Give me a murder-reduction plan in two weeks.” Instead, he’s limited to saying things like, “I’m heartbroken and disgusted by what our fellow Kansas Citians and our officers confront each day. “

…As much as I hammer on Lucas, I do not dislike him. I know he’s smart, and I know he cares deeply about the city and its residents. The residents know that, too, and they would follow him into the battle for local control if he would just swallow hard and step out front, where he belongs.

Now, The Star

Lot of tentativeness here, too. Maybe it’s the “Kansas City nice” thing. I don’t know. Whatever is holding back Editorial Page Editor Colleen McCain Nelson, it sure is frustrating.

Two recent editorials tell the story of timidity regarding Smith.

On June 2, during the George Floyd protests, The Star ran an editorial under this headline: “KC Mayor Quinton Lucas has met this moment. Will Police Chief Rick Smith join him there?”

The editorial was 95 percent about Lucas, but it tapped into the questions about Smith, saying: “When Lucas and Kansas City Police Chief Rick Smith spoke at a  joint news conference on Sunday, we saw only one of them meeting this moment with focus, leadership and urgency.”

The only other reference in the editorial to Smith came at the end, when it noted that Smith had joined Lucas in observing a moment of silence for Floyd and concluded with this backhanded compliment to Smith: “But that Smith showed up and showed respect at least makes progress seem possible.”

We sure haven’t seen any progress since then, have we? The murder rate has gone through the roof, and Smith continues to offer no strategy or plan to attempt to counter it.

Then, yesterday, the editorial page took ventured out a bit farther when it criticized Smith for indirectly blaming the recent shootings of two police offiofficers on critics of police brutality following the murder of George Floyd.

The editorial said the police-officer shootings “were not political” and went on to suggest that Smith should know better.

Nelson

Once again, Colleen McCain Nelson chose to hit Smith with a pillow and to leave the hammer on the work bench.

I don’t understand why she doesn’t just come out and say Smith is not the person to be chief at this critical juncture. He’s not a progressive chief; he’s not a good communicator; and he has alienated Jackson County Prosecutor Jean Peters Baker.

There’s no reason to feel sorry for Smith, either, as he will probably retire as a millionaire, or close to it. Remember, his predecessor, Darryl Forte, walked away in 2017 with $500,000 in accrued vacation, sick and comp time.

**

Regarding local control, the editorial page has spoken favorably but is hardly campaigning for it — which is what it will take to help coalesce public support.

After Lucas called last month for the preferential vote, an editorial urged the City Council to put the question on the November ballot and urged voters to approve it “in overwhelming numbers.”

I just wish Nelson would come out as strongly on the editorial page as lead editorial writer Dave Helling did in a June 8 Op-Ed column. Helling wrote…

“Kansas City has known for half a century that state control of the police is oppressive and undemocratic…Yet decades’ worth of studies, town hall meetings, debates, editorials and calls for change have produced nothing.”

But that was Helling speaking for himself, not for The Star.

Let’s hope, in the days ahead, Colleen McCain Nelson will borrow Helling’s hammer and start whaling away.

**

Note: The lead story in today’s Kansas City Star — titled “Invisible Man?” — is a detailed look at “embattled KCPD chief” Rick Smith. The adjective “invisible” alludes to the fact that while he frequently makes appearances in the predominantly white Northland and seems responsive to residents there, he is seldom seen at neighborhood meetings south of the river and is viewed as unresponsive to many there. Even former Chief Darryl Forte has found Smith unresponsive to his overtures…If you have a subscription, it’s a good read. The lead writer is longtime police reporter Glenn Rice.

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Happy Fourth of July, everyone!

Patty, Brooks and I beat the crowd out of town and back this week and had a mostly relaxing four days at Table Rock Lake. I say mostly because, well, you know any significant change of routine involves some bobbing and weaving and discombobulation.

This is the second time in the last five years we went to Table Rock, and we stayed at the same resort this time, Lighthouse Lodge in Kimberling City.

The cabins were a little rough in 2015, but we gave it another shot because we liked the setting and the nearby stores in Kimberling City.

We discovered that the resort is under new, group ownership and that some of the cabins, including ours, had been renovated and others were in the process of being renovated.

All in all, it was pretty good. The man who owns the cabin we were staying in was on the premises two of the four days we were there, and he was helpful and accommodating. He even let me borrow his kayak one day. (You’ll see that in one of the photos.)

I made a big mistake, though, by failing to arrange in advance to rent a boat. The boats at several marinas were booked, but I finally was able to arrange one-day rental of a pontoon boat at a marina in northern Arkansas. It took about an hour to get there, but it was a nice drive and we got to see a different part of the lake, right on the Missouri-Arkansas border.

With that, let’s get on to the pictures…

We love the old sign for the lodge, even though it hasn’t lit up for years. And our favorite part of the sign is the whited-out section under the word “pool.” The words that were there were “indoor toilets.” Fortunately, one of the new resort owners also loves the sign and is planning to refurbish it…including restoring the words “indoor toilets.”

The cabins — this was ours — are atop a relatively steep slope that eases down to the water.

This is the view from our cabin, looking down the slope. There are more than a dozen piers in this area for people to dock their boats.

Plenty of people swim off the ends of the piers. Here Brooks and Patty were enjoying life on floaties.

This was my first time in a kayak. It took a little getting used to — the craft responds immediately to the slightest shift in weight — but it was a lot of fun. Being out on the water on anything is fun…Photo by B. Fitzpatrick

It didn’t take Patty long to get the hang of driving the pontoon boat, while I “trolled.” The only setback related to the pontoon rental was our anchor got stuck — really stuck — at the end of the day, and I had to cut the line and consign the anchor to the bottom of the lake. That cost me an extra $65, plus the $20 to rent the damn thing. (Next time I’ll forgo an anchor and either just drift or tie up to trees.) Photo by B. Fitzpatrick

Here’s another singular sign, this one on Highway 13, no more than a mile from Lighthouse Lodge.

Just past the Kimberling City sign, Highway 13 swoops down to the lake and the graceful Kimberling City bridge.

I hate to end on this note, but I would be remiss if I didn’t show you this. I felt like I had stumbled on to Stone County Trump re-election headquarters, but it was just a pop-up operation out of the back of a trailer that had been set up in a strip mall on Highway 13. Business was brisk. Take a close look at those two “American” flags bearing images of guns. Also, the message on the flag in the foreground is unmistakable and, unfortunately, reflects the political persuasion that dominates southern Missouri.

 

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