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The vast majority of newspaper stories these days — in print and online — are, of course, about COVID-19.

I’ve been wondering if a particular reporter or publication was out in front of the herd on this story, and yesterday The New York Times provided the answer.

A story in the Business section said a longtime health care reporter identified Helen Branswell as the pacesetter. On New Year’s Eve — almost three months ago, when virtually no one in the U.S. was thinking about a sweeping illness — Branswell referenced in a Twitter post an “unexplained pneumonia” in central China.

On Jan. 2, she tweeted a Chinese newspaper article about the new coronavirus and said, “Not liking the look of this.”

Helen Branswell

Branswell works for a very successful digital publication called Stat, which is based in Boston. Her first article about the new coronavirus appeared in Stat on Jan. 4. Since then, Branswell has written about 50 articles on the pandemic.

Before going to Stat in 2015, Branswell was a health care reporter for The Canadian Press.

Stat is a digital success story. It is owned by Boston businessman John Henry, who bought The Boston Globe from The New York Times for $70 million in in 2013. Like Stat, The Globe has also been very successful under private ownership…It has about 150,000 digital subscribers, by far the most of any major metropolitan newspaper. (The Star, by comparison, has about 12,000 digital subscribers.)

**

The Star’s coverage of local developments and situations regarding COVID-19 has been helpful, but every day I see areas where it could be much, much better.

Yesterday, for example, the lead story bore this headline: “About 200 KC businesses cited for violating virus rule.”

Well, that’s very interesting, but the first question that came to my mind was, “Which businesses?”

But nowhere in the story did reporter Alison Kite name any of the businesses, say where the list could be found or explain why they weren’t being named.

Once again, I say, where the hell are the editors?

I’m starting to think there aren’t any editors other than Managing Editor Greg Farmer and Editor/Publisher/President/Kansas City-area-McClatchy-bankruptcy-manager Mike Fannin.

**

Although many local newspapers are reporting big spikes in digital readership because of the coronavirus, the pandemic will be another gut punch to the newspaper industry.

Newspaper advertising has been in free fall since 2006 (the year McClatchy bought The Star and the other Knight Ridder newspapers), and it’s accelerating with the advance of COVID-19.

Ken Doctor

In his most recent story for the Nieman Lab, newspaper industry observer and analyst Ken Doctor said this…

“The problem is the same it’s been for years: The increases in reader revenue are outmatched by the declines in advertising. So this very welcome swell of support from audiences is being swamped by the much larger evaporation of ad revenue. News publishers nationwide are afflicted with existential gut checks — aches that get a little worse with each day’s new dot on the chart of coronavirus cases…The earliest reports of cuts and layoffs at daily newspapers have begun to seep out. Expect a lot more of them…Layoffs, furloughs, salary cuts, four-day weeks — however it’s framed, cuts to staffing are on the way.”

One major chain, Gannett, announced Monday it would be instituting furloughs and pay cuts at its papers, and The Tampa Bay Times announced it would suspend print publication except on Sundays and Wednesdays and would furlough some non-editorial staff members.

What irony: Newspaper audiences are way up due to one of the biggest stories of the past 100 years, and, for the very same reason, the business is headed further down.

**

As many of us have found, the COVID-19 story takes on greater immediacy and concern when you know someone who contracts it. The person I know is Washington Post columnist David von Drehle, a Mission Hills resident.

In a March 24 column, von Drehle reported that he had “mild to moderate” symptoms — and said that was about all he could stand…”

“Seven days into the waves of fever, I was drifting half in and half out of sleep. I was wearing a down jacket with the hood cinched around my head. I was buried under the covers, teeth chattering. A week like that is a very long time. (Nine days, and counting, is still longer.)”

David von Drehle

I have written about von Drehle, and I met him in late 2018 at a meeting of the Forty Years Ago Column Club. A few days after reading his COVID-19 column, I sent him an email, inquiring how he was doing. On Monday, he replied, saying, “Day 15 is much brighter than before. Thanks!”

Good to hear he appears to be on the mend.

**

Finally, you know how everybody is saying, “Stay safe out there”??

Well, that’s a nice sentiment, but staying safe is, to some degree, out of our control and just doesn’t seem to me to be an accurate “complimentary close.”

Better — and more on target — is the complimentary close that former Kansas City Times managing editor Tom Stites used in an email to me Monday.

“Stay soapy,” Tom said.

Now that I can control 100 percent.

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I made a run over to Richmond, MO, today to play golf (by myself, walking, wearing gloves on both hands), and all the way back I listened to the ’60s on 6 on SiriusXM.

Disc jockey Pat St. John was playing “feel good” songs in an effort to lift listeners’ spirits during this time of national and worldwide crisis.

As I rolled west on Missouri 210, a nice ride in the country (at least outside the Clay County part), I let my mind drift back to my high-school and college days, when life was still a battle but those great songs came spilling out of the recording studios, soothing life’s rough edges and planting seeds of hope for love and adulthood.

After getting home today, I researched a few of the songs I had heard and found three, in particular, with interesting stories behind them.

Here are the three I settled on. I hope they make you feel as good as they made me feel this afternoon.

**

“It’s Not Unusual” by Tom Jones

I defy anyone to listen to this song and not start singing along with the horn section and not start bobbing his or her head to the staccato beat.

The song was written by Les Reed (“There’s a Kind of Hush”) and Gordon Mills. Jones was unknown at the time. Wikipedia says Reed and Mills first offered the song to Sandie Shaw (“(There’s) Always Something There to Remind Me”). Jones recorded what was intended to be a demo for Shaw, but she was so impressed with Jones’s version that she recommended Jones release it himself.

It reached No. 1 in the UK singles chart in 1965 and peaked at No. 10 in the U.S. on the Billboard Hot 100, marking Jones’s first hit here. Jones performed it three times on The Ed Sullivan Show — twice in 1965 and once in 1968.

On the day of the recording session, Jones’s group, Tom Jones and the Squires, was missing its regular keyboard player. Someone ran across the street to a coffee house in London’s Tin Pan Alley and recruited a keyboard player named Reginald Dwight.

Dwight later adopted the stage name Elton John.

On “It’s Not Unusual,” Dwight’s (John’s) playing is overshadowed by the horns, strings and myriad other instruments, but you can catch the keyboard from time to time in the background.

 

**

“This Is My Song” Petula Clark

You would never guess who wrote this song…Charlie Chaplin.

The silent film star wrote the song in 1966 with the intention of using it in the movie A Countess from Hong Kong, which Chaplin wrote and directed. Wiki says Chaplin saw the film as a throwback to the shipboard romances that were popular in the 1930s and wrote “This Is My Song” with the intent of evoking that era. He was determined to have the old vaudeville performer Al Jolson sing it, but, unbeknownst to Chaplin, Jolson had died 16 years earlier.

Chaplin then considered having “This Is My Song” recorded by Petula Clark, who had a home in Switzerland near his residence. Clark’s husband and manager Claude Wolff received a copy of “This Is My Song” in September 1966 and liked it. However, Clark’s regular collaborator Tony Hatch wasn’t taken with it and refused to arrange it for Clark to record.

Eventually, Clark recorded it at Western Studios in Los Angeles. Another interesting side note is that the recording session featured the backing of the Wrecking Crew, a loose collection of Los-Angeles-based studio musicians who were employed on thousands of rock-‘n-roll recordings in the ’60s and ’70s. The cast of the Wrecking Crew included the great bass guitar player Carol Kaye, the only female member of the group.

The song hit No. 1 in the United Kingdom, No. 3 in the U.S. and No. 4 in Canada.

 

**

“I Can Hear Music” by the Beach Boys

This song was written in 1966 by Phil Spector and the incredible team of Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich, who wrote such songs as “Be My Baby,” “Baby, I Love You,” “Then He Kissed Me,” “Da Doo Ron Ron,” “Hanky Panky” and “Do Wah Diddy Diddy.”

It was first recorded by Spector’s group the Ronettes but only spent a week on the Billboard Hot 100…at No. 100.

Three years later, the Beach Boys recorded it, and it went to No. 24. It was also released on the Beach Boys’ album 20/20, with Carl Wilson on lead vocals. “I Can Hear Music” is considered by many to be Carl Wilson’s first taste at being the “leader” of the group, succeeding brother Brian Wilson, who stopped touring in 1965.

A lifelong smoker, Carl Wilson died of lung cancer in 1998 at age 51.

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I’ve been meaning to write about Dr. Deborah Birx, coronavirus response coordinator for the White House and an almost daily presence on the Trump coronavirus team’s daily briefings.

Not only is she a straight shooter — like the other day when she called out that idiot Sen. Rand Paul for going about business as usual after he’d been exposed to the virus — this retired Army colonel who has two grown children and grandchildren is the perfect blend of class, authoritativeness and style.

She has caught the attention of more writers than I. For example, Robin Givhan, fashion critic for The Washington Post, said this about her sense of style…

Birx doesn’t dress like a lady politician in jewel-tone suits and statement jewelry. She doesn’t wear power dresses, those sleek sheaths that are a critical part of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s professional wardrobe. She doesn’t turn up in a white coat as if she’s there to take the nation’s collective temperature. Birx’s style can be called classically feminine when she wears her shirtwaist dresses and knots silk scarves around her shoulders. She exudes academic wonkiness with her earth tones and tunics and mufflers double-wrapped around her neck. She never looks bland or nondescript. She doesn’t look like an automaton or someone who has lost herself in the data and computer models. And in doing so, she offers a subtle but important reminder to people that while this crisis is serious and meeting it is hard, we are still human. Do not lose yourself. Be kind to yourself.

Kirsten Fleming of the New York Post said this…

In every briefing…Birx has brought her special brand of sartorial serenity and strength to the country. Unlike many women in top perches of American society, who thrive off the fumes of their structured, angular power suits and unimaginative shift dresses, Birx relies on soft silhouettes, feminine frocks and her seemingly unending supply of scarves that she neatly drapes and wraps around her shoulders. Instead of look-at-me reds and electric hues, she opts for muted dark blues and namaste earth tones.

On Friday morning she entered the briefing room in a silver raw silk dress with a fuller skirt and oversize monochrome sash. Her trademark scarf neatly hung over her right shoulder. The retro form could have been plucked from June Cleaver’s closet, but on Birx, it was thoroughly modern housewife — cleaning up our nation’s mess with her brains instead of a vacuum and marigold gloves. It was a testament to the versatility and power of femininity.

Dr. Deborah Birx

Dr. Birx also knows how to handle Trump. On Monday, for example, she was back at the podium after having gone missing over the weekend.

She explained that she had stayed at home because of a low-grade fever. At the mention of fever, Trump made a mock gesture of shock and playfully retreated a few steps. (It was the funniest thing I’ve ever seen Trump do or heard him say.)

Dr. Birx just smiled and waved him off before explaining that she had been tested and the result had come back negative.

…We can’t have Dr. Birx getting sick. No, no, she is one of our most illuminating and inspirational leaders in the war against Covid-19…as well as a testament to the power of femininity.

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Lockdown, day one

I ventured out into the wild today.

The two main things I was armed with were a long list of grocery items and a sandwich bag that Patty had filled with disinfectant wipes.

I hadn’t been to the store, or stores, since the weekend, which is a long time for me. In ordinary times, we tend to shop nearly day to day, and I’m adjusting to thinking longer term.

On my last trip, over the weekend, I learned that finding everything on a lengthy list meant going to several stores. For example, for wild Salmon and Milton’s crackers, it’s Brookside Market; for reasonably priced, sliced ham and swiss cheese, it’s Price Chopper at 85th and Wornall; and for milk, broccoli, cauliflower, oranges, bread, cookies, Greek yogurt and other basics, it’s Aldi at Meyer and Troost. (The first few times I patronized Aldi, I couldn’t believe how far $20 went.)

I started my odyssey at Aldi and got quite a few items on the list. The store was well stocked and not very busy, unlike over the weekend, when it had closed midday for restocking and a group of people milled outside awaiting the 2 p.m. grand reopening.

Although we didn’t need toilet paper, out of curiosity I went down the paper goods aisle and saw, not surprisingly, there was none.

My next stop was Brookside Market, the most expensive store in town, along with Whole Foods. I got two-plus pounds of Salmon, the crackers and a couple of other items. The tab: more than $50.

Out of curiosity, I went down the paper goods aisle and saw…no toilet paper.

Then I headed to Whole Foods. The only brand of potato chips I like is Boulder, and that’s the only store in Greater Brookside that carries them. I picked up two bags.

I also went down the paper goods aisle and saw…no toilet paper.

My last stop in Brookside was CVS. There I got some Kleenex, two plastic bottles of dish soap and a jar of moisturizing cream for Patty.

I went down the paper goods aisle and saw…empty shelves where the toilet paper used to be.

By this time, I was pretty…pretty proud of my purchases — although I wasn’t finished — and I stopped by the house to drop off what I had before heading out again.

Patty urged me to have lunch before leaving, but I didn’t want to break my momentum. And besides, I didn’t have what I needed for lunch, the sliced ham and cheese for a sandwich.

I was hoping Price Chopper at 85th and Wornall would be my last stop. I still needed a few other items, such as baking potatoes and zucchini, and I thought surely those would be available at Price Chopper. I was wrong.

Before leaving I made a point of going down the paper goods aisle. Yes…I mean no. No toilet paper.

So, as I had planned (damn, I planned this well!), on the way back home I stopped at Hy-Vee, 79th and State Line Road, which is my grocery ace in the hole. It’s big, well stocked and, you know, they’ve got those smiles in almost every aisle.

Sure enough, I found the last items I needed, including the potatoes and zucchini.

I almost forgot to go down the paper goods aisle but did so at the last minute.

There, to my utter shock, several employees had just arrived with a skid of Angel Soft toilet paper, and they began loading it on the empty shelves. I stood almost transfixed, watching this magnificent sight, which just a month ago would have been totally mundane.

Even though I was pretty sure our toilet paper supply at home was quite good, I called Patty just to make sure. She confirmed that we didn’t need any. As I was about to leave, I heard one of the guys unloading the product say “It’ll be gone in about an hour.”

I didn’t go back to find out, but I took this photo to prove that what I saw today at Hy-Vee was not a mirage.

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Countdown to Lockdown

As you know, the Greater Kansas City area Lockdown is scheduled to take effect at 12:01 a.m. tomorrow, Tuesday.

That’s great, but my questions are: Why not today? Why not yesterday?

Covid-19 is just as dangerous today as it’s going to be tomorrow and the next day, and if people think they’ve got some kind of pass to gather in groups today, or participate in activities they should be avoiding, it could easily contribute to the spread of this lethal virus.

As a matter of practicality, not much is going to change come tomorrow…You can still leave your house to get medicine or medical care, food or household supplies, and jog, walk or otherwise exercise as long as you keep your distance from others.

So, I don’t understand the magic of 12:01 a.m. Tuesday, and I haven’t seen an explanation. Anyone got a clue?

**

My own decision to Lock Down tighter than I already had came yesterday when I saw Judy Thomas’s online story in The Star yesterday about Dennis Wilson, a relatively healthy Johnson County man in his 70s who came down with Covid-19 in early March and died Saturday morning.

Until reading that story, Covid-19 had been, for me, primarily a story of escalating numbers and “hot spots,” which, fortunately, have not included Kansas City.

Dennis Wilson and son Luke

But when I read about Wilson, a Lenexa resident and a former school district superintendent in southeast Kansas (Labette) and Missouri (Lamar), it was like a hammer blow to the head. There was Wilson in a photo, sitting across from son Luke, both of them smiling, happy and relaxed.

That was whenever that photo was taken. But the reality of his final days was starkly different. His wife Joanna described those days in a sobering Facebook post…

“It has been an indescribably horrible week of immeasurable suffering on the part of the love of my life and then certainly on the part of our three children and our 6 grandchildren who could only watch helplessly from a distance.”

“…immeasurable suffering”…”watch helplessly from a distance.”

He probably suffocated slowly and then died alone…alone except for the eyeballs of masked nurses and doctors gazing down at him.

Before reading that story, my golf group had hoped to play one final round today at Minor Park. We had been exchanging emails, and it was unclear if the course was going to be open, but if it was, we planned to play.

After reading the story, I immediately went online and wrote to my friends, “I’m going to chuck golf and stay inside as much as possible.” I included a link to the story.

This morning came word that Minor and the other municipal courses were closing immediately and indefinitely.

Good move!

**

It looks like the two places drawing the biggest crowds these days are Costco and gun stores.

A friend went to the Midtown Costco over the weekend, and even before the store opened, the line (undoubtedly prompted by concerns about maintaining social distancing inside) was around the building. My friend left. That’s what I would have done, too. More than a week ago, after seeing videos of “toilet paper mania” at Costco stores, I decided I would stay away.

The mania strikes me as ridiculous, although I understand people’s urge to feel like they’re in control of something at a time when it’s “back to basics” worldwide.

But the guns…the guns…I don’t understand at all. Today, The Star’s Eric Adler has a story about “9-millimeter ammunition, rifles and handguns” flying off the shelves at Frontier Justice, a gun store in Lee’s Summit.

Kansas City Star photo

Adler quoted Bren Brown, president and owner of the store as saying…

“I think the biggest concern in times like this, that are uncertain, is what happens when people lose their jobs and they run out of food. Desperate times bring desperate measures and people want to be able to protect themselves and their loved ones which, of course, is their Second Amendment right.”

That quote conjures up the images that Second-Amendment fanatics see in their heads…And that is — and let’s say it exactly like it is — poor, desperate, East Side Kansas City residents (black!) arriving in hordes, bearing sticks and stones and AK-47s; storming suburban houses; killing and maiming residents; raiding their refrigerators and making off with whatever valuables they can lay their hands on.

It’s a terrible specter for the paranoid. Keeps ’em awake at night.

Where most of us are locking down, they are locking and loading.

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The Beacon, which jumped out of the starter’s box Sunday before its planned debut, is continuing to establish itself as a source of interesting and useful local information on the Coronavirus outbreak.

As I reported earlier, The Beacon’s first story was a nuts-and-bolts piece by highly regarded health care reporter Andy Marso, one of several freelance writers that Beacon founder and editor Kelsey Ryan has engaged.

Barbara Shelly

On Tuesday came a story by freelancer and former KC Star reporter Barbara Shelly about how individuals and businesses were stepping up to help people in need. That story was accompanied by photos from a freelancer named Chase Castor.

My in-box today included a Beacon story from Cynthia Gregorian, also a former Star reporter, about the problems facing college students who have been displaced from student housing and whose classes have been converted to strictly online. That story also included photos by Castor and a sidebar — “I was tested for Covid-19” — by a female University of Missouri student.

Ryan also introduced a comprehensive “community resources” roundup.

Even in its early stages, The Beacon is helping fill the journalistic hole that has been created by the ever-atrophying Kansas City Star, and it is a welcome addition to the news/information/entertainment lineup in the Kansas City area.

Ryan is financing her non-profit enterprise through grants, individual contributions and memberships. Memberships can be purchased with a tax-deductible contribution of $50. You can read more about that here.

The biggest gap-filler so far, of course, has been KCUR, one of the nation’s most successful public radio stations.

Donna Vestal

Over the last decade, KCUR has been building a robust staff that now numbers about 60. Its ranks include, by my count, six former Star staff members: Steve Kraske, Donna Vestal, Dan Margolies, Scott Canon, Caitlin Hendel and Kathy Lu.

(Another interesting Star connection is that Traci Bauer, who was hired as KCUR’s director of journalism in 2019, is the sister of Star investigative reporter Laura Bauer.)

Even with a local newspaper that appears to be headed into ownership by a hedge fund, those of us who crave to be accurately and thoroughly informed can be grateful for a terrific information-and-entertainment source like KCUR and a promising, public-service-oriented startup like The Beacon.

The journalism scene in Kansas City is continuing to brighten and diversify. I urge all of you readers to give The Beacon a try. And, by all means, continue (or start) listening to KCUR.

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The New York Times headline triggered memories of the Great Recession:

“Here Come the Bailouts, Starting With the Airlines”

Yes, collectively they are asking for more than $50 billion in direct relief, and some carriers are asking for billions more in loans.

This is coming from the industry that has progressively narrowed airplane seats and tightened rows to such an extent that most flights of more than a couple of hours are uncomfortable.

…and from the industry that has steadily raised prices well above the rate of inflation; that is charging customers hundreds of dollars to rearrange flight plans; that has attached high baggage fees; and that has generally made flying an experience to be endured instead of enjoyed.

A few weeks ago, I flew on cut-rate airline Allegiant to and from St. Petersbug, FL, and the gate space at KCI was so tight that people had to step over and elbow by each other to get carry-on bag tags from an agent near the front desk…What that signaled was that Allegiant cuts corners on everything, including gate-space rental.

The only thing good about flying now is that you still get where you’re going fast…most of the time, anyway.

The government and the public learned a lot about inequity in bailouts a decade ago, however, and the government is now in position to at least attach significant strings to bailouts.

In an Op-Ed piece in The New York Times yesterday, Tim Wu, an author and contributing opinion writer, laid out a strong case for holding the airlines’ feet to the fire in return for bailouts.

The commentary had an agreeable title — “Don’t Feel Sorry for the Airlines.”

Wu pointed out that airlines have been incredibly successfully financially the last decade or so, partly because of consolidation and mergers. (The same thing is happening now in the newspaper business, where the two or three big companies left standing will have customers by the throat.)

Tim Wu

Wu posed this John-F-Kennedy-type question: ” As the government considers what we, the public, should do for the airlines, we should ask, Just what have they done for us?”

Wu proceeded to outline some “terms” the government could affix to any bailout agreements:

We cannot permit…airlines to use federal assistance, whether labeled a bailout or not, to weather the Coronavirus crisis and then return to business as usual. Before providing any loan relief, tax breaks or cash transfers, we must demand that the airlines change how they treat their customers and employees and make basic changes in industry ownership structure.

Beginning with passengers, change fees should be capped at $50 and baggage fees tied to some ratio of costs…We should also put an end to the airlines’ pursuit of smaller and smaller seats, which are not only uncomfortable and even physically harmful, but also foster in-flight rage and make the job of flight attendants nigh unbearable.

…Those are excellent suggestions and exactly what the federal government should demand in exchange for relief.

But will this administration show any backbone when faced with pressure from an indispensable industry?

The handwriting is on the wall. In a White House briefing Monday, President Trump said:

“We’re going to back the airlines 100 percent. We’re going to be in a position to help the airlines very much.”

If you take a flight between the upcoming airline bailout and the November election, think about those words when you’re crammed into your seat with your hat on your lap and trying to sleep with your chin on your chest.

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