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On Thursday I wrote about the 2020 Pulitzer Prizes and made special note of my hometown paper, The Courier Journal in Louisville, KY, having won one for a series of articles on Gov. Matt Bevin’s shocking pardoning of criminals as Bevin was leaving office.

That got me thinking about another Pulitzer Prize the Courier Journal, long ago. The story was titled “Pfc. Gibson Comes Home.” It is one of the most incredible writing jobs — and most riveting stories — I have ever seen in a newspaper. I keep a print-edition copy of it (from a 2003 Courier Journal reprint my late father sent me) in my desk.

It is a story about an Army private named James “Little Duck” Gibson, of Knott County in southeastern Kentucky, who died in the Vietnam War. The Gibson family allowed Courier Journal writer-photographer John Fetterman to be present when Gibson’s body came home and when he was buried.

Fetterman’s story was published in the July 28, 1968, edition of the CJ Sunday Magazine. It won the 1969 Pulitzer Prize for  a category that was then called local, general, or spot-news reporting.

Fetterman died of a heart attack in 1975, when he was only 55. His daughter, Mindy Fetterman, has had a long career in journalism, including management positions at The Dallas Morning News and USA Today.

Today, I am running Fetterman’s story here, in its entirety. (This is a longer-than-usual post, but I believe you will find it worth your time.)


It was late on a Wednesday night and most of the people were asleep in Hindman, the county seat of Knott County, when the body of Private First Class James Thurman (Little Duck) Gibson came home from Vietnam.

It was hot. But as the gray hearse arrived bearing the gray Army coffin, a summer rain began to fall. The flat raindrops glistened on the polished hearse and steamed on the street. Hindman was dark and silent. In the distance down the town’s main street, the red sign on the Square Deal Motor Co. flashed on and off.

Private Gibson’s body had been flown from Oakland, Calif., to Cincinnati and was accompanied by Army Staff Sgt. Raymond A. Ritter, assigned to escort it home. The body was picked up in Cincinnati by John Everage, a partner in the local funeral home, and from that point on it was in the care of people who had known the 24-year-old soldier all his life.

At Hindman, the coffin was lifted out while Sgt. Ritter, who wore a black mourning band on his arm, snapped a salute. One funeral home employee whispered to another:

“It’s Little Duck. They brought him back.”

Most of his life he had been called Little Duck; for so long that many people who knew him well had to pause and reflect to recall his full name.

By Thursday morning, there were few people who did not know that Little Duck was home — or almost home. During the morning the family came: his older brother, Herschel, whom they called Big Duck; his sister, Betty Jo; and his wife, Carolyn.

They stood over the glass-shielded body and let their tears fall upon the glass and people spoke softly in the filling station next door and on the street outside.

The soldier’s parents, Mr. and Mrs. Norman Gibson, waited at home, a neat white house up the hollow which shelters Flax Patch Creek, several miles away. Mrs. Gibson had been ill for months, and the family did not let her take the trip to Hindman. Later in the morning, they took Little Duck home.

Sweltering heat choked the hills and valleys as Little Duck was placed back in the hearse and taken home. The cortege had been joined by Maj. Lyle Haldeman, a survival assistance officer, sent, like Sgt. Ritter, to assist the family. It was a long, slow trip — over a high ridge to the south, along Irishman Creek and past the small community of Amburgey.

At Amburgey, the people stood in the sun, women wept and men removed their hats as the hearse went past. Mrs. Nora Amburgey, the postmistress, lowered the flag in front of the tiny fourth-class post office to half-mast and said, “We all thought a lot of Little Duck.”

At the point where Flax Patch Creek empties into Irishman Creek, the hearse turned, crossed a small wooden bridge and drove the final mile up Flax Patch Creek to the Gibson home. The parents and other relatives waited in a darkened, silent home.

As the coffin was lifted upon the front porch and through the door into the front living room, the silence was broken by cries of grief. The sounds of anguish swelled and rolled along the hollow. Little Duck was home.

All afternoon and night they came, some walking, some driving up the dusty road in cars and trucks. They brought flowers and food until the living room was filled with floral tributes and the kitchen was crammed with food. The people filled the house and the yard. They talked in small groups and members of the family clasped each other in grief.

They went, time and time again, to look down into the coffin and weep.

The mother, a sweet-faced mountain woman, her gray hair brushed back and fastened behind her head, forced back the pangs of her illness and moved, as in a trance, among the crowd as she said:

“His will will be done no matter what we say or do.”

The father, a tall, tanned man, his eyes wide and red from weeping, said:

“He didn’t want to go to the Army, but he knew it was the right thing to do so he did his best. He gave all he had. I’m as proud of him as I can be. Now they bring him home like this.”

Around midnight the rain returned and the mourners gathered in the house, on the porch and backed against the side of the house under the eaves.

The father talked mostly of his son.

“I suppose you wonder why we call him Little Duck. Well, when the boys were little they would go over and play in the creek every chance they got. Somebody said they were like ducks.

“Ever since then, Herschel was `Big Duck’ and James was `Little Duck.’

“You work hard all your life to raise your family. I worked in a 32- inch seam of coal, on my hands and knees, loading coal to give my family what I could.

“There never was a closer family. Little Duck was born here in this house and never wanted to leave.”

Other mourners stepped up to volunteer tributes to Little Duck.

“He never was one to drink and run up and down the road at night.”

“He took good care of his family. He was a good boy.”

Little Duck also was a big boy. He was 6 feet 5 1/2 inches tall and weighed 205 pounds. His size had led him to the basketball team at Combs High School where he met and courted the girl he married last January.

Little Duck was home recently on furlough. Within a month after he went down Flax Patch Creek to return to the Army he was back home to be buried. He had been married six months, a soldier for seven.

The Army said he was hit by mortar fragments near Saigon, but there were few details of his death.

The father, there in the stillness of early morning, was remembering the day his son went back to the Army.

“He had walked around over the place, looking at everything. He told me, “Lord it’s good to be home.”

“Then he went down the road. He said, `Daddy, take care of yourself and don’t work too hard.’

“He said, `I’ll be seeing you.’ But he can’t see me now.”

An elderly man, walking with great dignity, approached and said, “Nobody can ever say anything against Little Duck. He was as good a boy as you’ll ever see.”

Inside the living room, the air was heavy with the scent of flowers. Little Duck’s mother sat with her son and her grief.

Her hand went out gently, as to comfort a stranger, and she talked as though to herself:

“Why my boy? Why my baby?”

She looked toward the casket, draped in an American flag, and when she turned back she said:

“You’ll never know what a flag means until you see one on your own boy.”

Then she went back to weep over the casket.

On Friday afternoon Little Duck was taken over to the Providence Regular Baptist Church and placed behind the pulpit. All that night the church lights burned and the people stayed and prayed. The parents spent the night at the church.

“This is his last night,” Little Duck’s mother explained.

The funeral was at 10 o’clock, Saturday morning and the people began to arrive early. They came from the dozens of hollows and small communities in Letcher, Knott and Perry counties. Some came back from other states. They filled the pews and then filled the aisle with folding chairs. Those who could not crowd inside gathered outside the door, or listened beneath the windows.

The sermon was delivered by the Rev. Archie Everage, pastor at Montgomery Baptist Church, which is on Montgomery Creek near Hindman. On the last Sunday that he was home alive, Little Duck attended services there.

The service began with a solo, “Beyond the Sunset,” sung by a young girl with a clear, bell-like voice; then there were hymns from the church choir.

Mr. Everage, who had been a friend of Little Duck, had difficulty in keeping his voice from breaking as he got into his final tribute. He spoke of Little Duck “following the colors of his country.” He said Little Duck died “for a cause for which many of our forefathers fought and died.”

The phrase touched off a fresh swell of sobs to fill the church. Many mountain people take great pride in their men who “follow the colors.” It is a tradition that goes back to October of 1780, when a lightly regarded band of mountaineers handed disciplined British troops a historic defeat at Kings Mountain in South Carolina, and turned the tide of the Revolutionary War.

Shortly before Little Duck was hit in Vietnam, he had written two letters intended for his wife. Actually the soldier was writing a part of his own funeral. Mr. Everage read from one letter:

“Honey, they put me in a company right down on the Delta. From what everybody says that is a rough place, but I’ve been praying for the Lord to help me and take care of me so really I’m not too scared and worried. I think if he wants it to be my time to go that I’m prepared for it. Honey, you don’t know really when you are going to face something like this, but I want you to be a good girl and try to live a good life. For if I had things to do over I would have already been prepared for something like this, I guess you are wondering why I’m telling you all of this, but you don’t know how hard it’s been on me in just a short time. But listen here, if anything happens to me all I want is for you to live right and then I’ll get to see you again.”

And from another letter:

“Honey, listen, if anything happens to me I want you to know that I love you very, very much and I want you to keep seeing my family the rest of their lives and I want you to know that you are a wonderful wife and that I’m very proud of you. If anything happens I want Big Duck and Betty Joe to know that I loved them very much. If anything happens also tell them not to worry, that I’m prepared for it.”

The service lasted two hours and ended only after scores of people, of all ages, filed past the coffin.”

Then they took Little Duck to Resthaven Cemetery up on a hill in Perry County. The Army provided six pallbearers, five of whom had served in Vietnam. There was a seven-man firing squad to fire the traditional three volleys over the grave and a bugler to sound taps.

The pallbearers, crisp and polished in summer tans, folded the flag from the coffin and Sgt. Ritter handed it to the young widow, who had wept much, but spoken little, during the past three days.

Then the soldier’s widow knelt beside the casket and said softly, “Oh, Little Duck.”

Then they buried Little Duck beneath a bit of the land he died for.

John Fetterman

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The 2020 Pulitzer Prize winners were announced on Monday, but a lot of Kansas City area residents might not know about it: I don’t think a single local media operation ran a story.

Just like last year, The Star published a maddeningly narrow story, saying that editorial board member Melinda Henneberger was a finalist, as she was in 2019.

And just like last year, The Star’s story was misleading, in that, for much of the story, it sounded like Henneberger, as a finalist, was still in the running for the big prize.

It was not until the twelfth paragraph that the story indicated the competition was over and that someone else — Jeffery Gerritt of the Herald Press in Palestine, TX — had won the prize in editorial writing.

In equally maddening and parochial fashion, The Star did not report the winners in any other category.

(Note: Today’s print edition, which was delivered after this post was published, carried a story about three Kansas writers who were recognized in the fiction, nonfiction and feature writing categories.)

…Prizes were awarded in 13 different journalistic categories for work published in 2019. Here are the winners in several categories.

Breaking News

The award went to my hometown paper, The Courier Journal, in Louisville, KY. The CJ’s staff uncovered how last-minute pardons by Kentucky’s departing governor, Matt Bevin, were made unilaterally and violated legal norms. More than a dozen Courier Journal staffers were involved in the coverage, which included an ambitious digital presentation of Bevin’s actions and his explanations and a racial breakdown of those whose sentences he commuted. Two days before Christmas Eve, the newsroom also produced an eight-page special section. The CJ is owned by Gannett.

Public Service

The winners were The Anchorage Daily News and Pro Publica for a year-long investigation of sexual violence in Alaska.

Investigative Reporting

Thirty-one-year-old Brian M. Rosenthal of The New York Times received the award for a five-part series on how reckless loans, handed out by a group of taxi medallion owners, put thousands of immigrants in debt while bankers made huge profits.

Explanatory Reporting

The staff of The Washington Post prevailed for a series on global warming. The series demonstrated how parts of the earth have already warmed by 2 degrees Celsius, a threshold scientists consider dangerous.

Local Reporting

The staff of the Baltimore Sun won for exposing illegal self-dealing by Mayor Catherine Pugh. The reporting resulted in the mayor’s resignation and her being sentenced to three years in prison.

National Reporting

Two organizations were honored. Three Pro Publica reporters won for an investigation of a series of accidents in involving America’s 7th Fleet, and four Seattle Times reporters took similar honors for coverage that exposed design flaws in Boeing’s 737 Max.

Audio Reporting

This American Life got the first Pulitzer awarded for audio journalism for a story that focused on the Trump administration’s “Remain in Mexico” policy and how it affected asylum seekers.

International Reporting

The staff of The New York Times won for a series of stories that exposed Russian President Vladimir Putin’s predatory regime, including its successful effort to destabilize elections.


Nikole Hannah-Jones

Nikole Hannah-Jones of The New York Times won for her Times Magazine spread, “The 1619 Project,” which re-evaluated and re-centered the role of African-Americans, including enslaved people, in American history. (Her project took up most or all of one magazine issue.)

Editorial Cartoons

The winner was Barry Blitt, who has contributed cartoons to The New Yorker for more than 30 years. He was honored for a series of unflattering caricatures of President Trump, like this one…



One more thing about The Star…It took a mighty swing at a Pulitzer in the investigative reporting category with its “Throwaway Kids” series, about foster children and problem-plagued, state foster-care programs.

It was a good series, but it seemed to me to have been mapped out primarily with the goal of winning a Pulitzer. The reporters, as well as Editor/President/Publisher/Zoom-conference-coordinator Mike Fannin, must be smarting; the series not only didn’t win, it was not one of two other finalists. (As I said above, Brian Rosenthal of The Times was the winner in the investigative category.)

Here is a complete list of the 2020 winners in all categories.

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Now, class, I’ve got three graphics to show you today, so don’t doze off on me.

The first is the number of new coronavirus cases in the Kansas City area as of Monday. The area includes Kansas City and Jackson, Clay and Platte counties in Missouri and Johnson and Wyandotte counties in Kansas. On Monday, according to The Star, the area saw its “sharpest rise in the number of new COVID-19 cases.”

That’s not the sharpest in the last week or so — the sharpest since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic.


The next graphic shows the number of new cases in the New York City metro area.

The last graphic shows the number of new cases in the rest of America.

Now, if I was President…or governor of Missouri or Kansas…or a mayor in any of the municipalities in our metro area, I would be hard pressed to tell my constituents, “OK, let’s get about opening things up.”

And yet, state by state, area by area, we are reopening. Clay County and Platte County began opening the gates Monday; Kansas City is having a “phased reopening” starting today and expanding on May 15. Jackson, Johnson and Wyandotte counties are “closed” until Monday, and I’m not sure what’s going on with those jurisdictions after that.

I understand the pressure our elected officials are under to reopen businesses and let people get back to work so they can start getting paid again. And I understand, to a lesser degree, the libertarians who fuss and fume and say, “You can’t shackle me!”

But, my God, I fear the price. Nationwide, we are now at more than 71,000 deaths officially, and the real number is probably a lot higher. We’ve all heard the predictions of a much higher incidence of new cases and additional deaths, and with this stampede to reopen it looks to me like we could easily be at 140,000 deaths by the end of June of middle of July.

…Well, Patty and I are not among those champing at the bit to go back to the restaurants, department stores, box stores, even the grocery. I learned my lesson March 24, which was Day 1 of Kansas City’s lockdown. I wrote blithely about going to six stores that day…Yes, six! A few readers rightly chastised me, including our son Charlie, who works at the University of Chicago Medicine. One reader told me to limit myself to one store once a week and added, “Be a good citizen.”

The rebukes hit me like a bucket of water in the face, and I immediately reformed. Since then, I’ve averaged no more than one store a week, and, for the most part, we have relied on Instacart for our groceries.

Most of the people who are screaming to get out of jail free are younger and less vulnerable to COVID-19 at its worst. I sense that most older people, like me, are more willing to wait another one, two or three months to make sure the case numbers have been going down instead of staying steady or rising.

Before this pandemic hit, I didn’t know much at all about the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic, but we’ve all heard a lot about that now. And we’ve all heard, haven’t we, about the pandemic’s deadly second wave — more deadly than the first — and the third wave in 1919?

History is staring us in the face, and it has presented us with a gun, which we’re holding in our collective hands…It looks like we’re about to squeeze the trigger.


There is only one perverse positive element to this situation…It is Baby Boomers, by and large, who elected President Trump, and it is they who will suffer the most from these premature reopenings. If it gets grim, as I suspect it will, more and more people of my generation will turn on Trump.

It’s not much to cling to because I think Trump has already done himself in. But it’s the only glimmer I see on the dim horizon.

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What to make of this Joe Biden problem?

Along with a lot of other Democrats, I’ve been struggling with that question the last couple of weeks.

If there’s not an outright fire, a lot of smoke is swirling around former aide Tara Reade’s assertion that Biden pinned her against a Senate building wall in the spring of 1993, kissed her neck, put a knee between her legs and penetrated her vagina with his fingers.

Reade said that when she resisted the advances, Biden said, “Aw, man, I heard you liked me.” Then, she alleged, he pointed a finger at her and said, “You’re nothing to me.” And, finally, according to her account, Biden shook her by the shoulders and said, “You’re OK, you’re fine” before walking away.

Reade, who had begun working for Biden in December 1992, was fired in August 1993.

Let’s take a look at some of the probable incriminating factors in this case and also at some of the possible exculpating and curious factors…(These are not all of the factors in this case.)


:: Reade’s account just sounds plausible, in the details and especially the terminology: “Come on, man, I heard you liked me.” That’s the way Biden talks; everyone has heard him say, “Come on, man,” or something like that.

:: Speaking to The New York Times a few weeks ago on the condition of anonymity, two friends of Reade corroborated parts of her story. One said Reade had told her about the alleged incident in 1993. The other recalled Reade telling her in 2008 that Biden had touched her inappropriately and that she had experienced a traumatic event while working in his office.

:: Last week, two more people came forward to corroborate parts of Reade’s story in interviews with a publication called Business Insider. Lynda LaCasse, a former neighbor in California, said Reade described the incident to her in 1995 or 1996. “This happened, and I know it did because I remember talking about it,” LaCasse was quoted as saying. Adding to LaCasse’s credibility is her party affiliation. “I personally am a Democrat, a very strong Democrat,” she said. “And I’m for Biden, regardless. But still I have to come out and say this.”

:: The other woman who came out last week, Lorraine Sanchez, worked with Reade in the office of a California state senator in the mid-1990s. Sanchez said Reade told her at the time that Biden had harassed her and that, because of that, she had been fired.

:: Also last week, video emerged of an unnamed woman Reade says was her mother calling into a 1993 broadcast of CNN’s “Larry King Live.” The show was about the culture of Washington, DC. The woman claimed her daughter had run into unspecified “problems” with a U.S. senator. She said: “My daughter has just left there, after working for a prominent senator, and could not get through with her problems at all, and the only thing she could have done was go to the press, and she chose not to do it out of respect for him.” The call came from San Luis Obispo, CA, and CNN has confirmed that Reade’s mother, Jeanette Altimus, now deceased, lived in San Luis Obispo around that time.

:: Biden waited five weeks before addressing the issue publicly and in person. (On MSNBC’s Morning Joe show last Friday, he said, “I’m saying unequivocally it never, never happened.”)

Exculpating and curious

:: Last year, Reade was one of several women who came forward with complaints of Biden hugging or touching them in ways that made them uncomfortable, but Reade did not go public with her assault accusation until March 25. She says she tried to share her story with the media earlier but got “shut down.”

:: Reade is the only woman who has claimed Biden sexually assaulted her.

:: The two friends who spoke to The New York Times would not go on the record.

:: No former Biden staff members have corroborated any details of Reade’s allegation.

:: Reade said she filed a general harassment complaint against Biden with a Senate office in 1993, it has not turned up.

:: Reade’s brother, Collin Moulton, confirmed parts of Reade’s account to a publication called The Intercept in March, but, for whatever reason, he would not speak to the Times, which did the most extensive investigation. Moulton spoke to The Washington Post and said Reade had told her in 1993 that Biden had touched her neck and shoulders, but he said nothing about an alleged assault in the interview. In a text message days after the interview, however, he told the Post he also recalled Reade saying Biden had put his hand “under her clothes.”

:: In the past, Reade wrote and posted tweets praising Russian President Vladimir Putin. Recently, she has backtracked, saying she is not a fan of Putin and that her comments were “misguided.”


Back to the issue I posed at the beginning: What to make of all this?

Here’s my read…

Some Democrats, maybe a lot, are doing the equivalent of putting their hands over their eyes, plugging their ears and humming loudly to blank out anything suggesting Reade’s story might be true.

A comparable approach (what a friend of mine prefers) is blaming this on a Republican conspiracy to drag Biden down. One of many problems with that theory is if this is a giant, well-planned conspiracy, it would have to have been launched in 1993, when Reade’s mother made that call to Larry King.

If this was a felony prosecution and I had listened to the evidence that’s come out so far, I would say the prosecution had not proved its case “beyond a reasonable doubt.” On the other hand, based on what I’ve read and heard, I think it’s more likely than not that Biden did what Reade says he did. Regardless of how strongly he has condemned sexual harassment, I can envision how lust, impulse and a sense of entitlement — especially in a much younger Joe Biden — could have co-mingled and prompted an aberration.

That said, am I going to abandon Biden and vote for Trump? Of course, not. Like LaCasse, “I’m for Biden, regardless.”

Nevertheless, this tumult has, at the very least, diminished Biden. He can say it ain’t so, but, like me, a lot of other people are looking at him more circumspectly than they did two months ago.

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The weather forecast for Louisville tomorrow is partly cloudy, a high of 83 degrees and a 10 percent chance of rain.

Sounds like a perfect day for a Kentucky Derby.

The only problem is the Derby isn’t being run today. It’s been scheduled for the first Saturday in September…but there’s even doubt about that.

This will be only the second time since the Derby was first run in 1875 that the Derby will not have been run on the first Saturday in May. The only other time was 1945, when the U.S. government had put a temporary ban on horse racing because of World War II.

Patty and I had planned on going to Louisville for the Derby this year — and we still might — but today we’ll be in Brookside. Not a bad alternative, but, darn!, I hate to see that great tradition disrupted.

I suspect I’m going to be feeling pretty wistful today, and I can only imagine what the emotions are going to be like among Louisvillians. In an ordinary year, they would be culminating two weeks of Derby-related events with “the most exciting two minutes in sports,” the Run for the Roses, in the late afternoon.

I’ve been to quite a few derbies since 1981, and it’s true what Kentucky author and humorist Irvin S. Cobb once said…

“Until you go to Kentucky and with your own eyes behold the Derby, you ain’t never been nowhere and you ain’t seen nothin!”

When Cobb said that, he had in mind, I’m sure, that the best part of the Derby is not the race but the atmosphere — the tidal wave of joy, excitement and energy that comes from an assembly of 150,000 people, all primed to cut loose and have fun and most dressed in the fanciest and most creative outfits they could come up with.

I don’t know what September is going to bring or how long it will take for the Derby to return to what it was, but I’m sure grateful for my Louisville roots and for the good times I’ve had at Churchill Downs on past first Saturdays of May.

On this would-be Derby Day, then, let me show you some of the happy moments Patty, Brooks, Charlie and I have had at past derbies.

At Derby 143 in 2017 — the last Derby I attended — I ran into a guy named Tom, from Indiana, who was wearing the very same hat I had. I’ve still got that hat — straw, by Goorin Bros. It’s good for at least one more Derby.

Derby 140 in 2014 was the last time Patty and I went to the Derby together. When she owned a garment manufacturing business, which she sold last year, spring was her busiest time of year. (She looks just as good now as she did then!)

Here are Brooks and Patty at Derby 137 in 2011. It was the only year all four of us went to a Derby. I bought five single tickets — two in the same box, the others scattered — outside the track, and we rotated in and out of the box all day.

Again from 2011…That’s Charlie on the right and his friend Patrick Schell, who traveled from Oklahoma for the occasion. Charlie had told Patrick, “Come on up; my Dad will get us tickets.” It was a challenge, but I did.

Last but not least, here’s a photo my friend Marcie Blakeney of Louisville sent me a year or two ago. I’m pretty sure it was from Derby 112 in 1986, after I had just turned 40. Marcie’s husband at the time, John Blakeney, had gotten us tickets through the company he worked for, Brown-Forman distillery in Louisville. They were the best seats I’ve ever had for the Derby — third-floor grandstand, just beyond the finish line. A lot has changed since then: Among others, I lost my hair, and Marcie and John got divorced. But I’ll tell you this — Marcie is still beautiful!


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Things are going painfully bad for The Kansas City Star.

For the first time ever, I’m sure, The Star is seeking charitable contributions as a lifeline.

In today’s print edition and in stories online, the paper is soliciting money to “ensure we continue to report on the coronavirus and all of its impacts across our communities.”

That The Star is reduced to soliciting handouts is shocking to those of us who have deep backgrounds in journalism. At one time, back in the 1980s, when The Star was owned by Capital Cities Inc., the paper profited to the tune of tens of millions of dollars a year. Publishing the paper was a veritable license to print money.

My, how things have turned upside down.

More about the solicitation in a minute, but, in addition, in reading the paper today, I came across a full-page ad for the New Theatre Restaurant promoting a show called the “Million Dollar Quartet,” featuring the music of Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, Elvis Presley and Carl Perkins.

What jumped out at me about the ad was two words in big, white letters that said, “OPENS TUESDAY.”

Now, I knew the Kansas shutdown order was in effect until at least May 3, so I wondered what the heck was going on. I soon found out. New Theatre Restaurant had put messages on its website and telephone answering system saying The Star had incorrectly run the ad.

“Rest assured that is not the case (that the show opens Tuesday),” the recording and the website say. “New Theatre Restaurant will reopen, but only when it’s safe.”

I don’t know what that ad cost NTR, but The Star will have to compensate somehow, either by returning the money or maybe running the ad two or more times in the future.

In any event, it’s an extremely embarrassing mistake…

Did no one — NO ONE — look at that ad before the paper went to print and realize the only conceivable way that show could be opening Tuesday was if NTR was in Georgia?

…Now back to the more issue of The Star seeking charitable solicitations.

A story on 4A today solicits contributions for a nonprofit called Local Media Foundation. The story says in part…

“Your tax-deductible gift can ensure we continue to report on the coronavirus and all of its impacts across our communities. We aim to raise $200,000 to keep our reporters reporting, our videographers recording and our editors at work delivering essential news and information to you.”

Oddly and inexplicably, the story provides no background on the Local Media Foundation, which I’d never heard of. From its website I found it is the fund-raising arm of the Local Media Association (which I’d also never heard of), whose members include newspapers, radio and TV stations and digital sites.

Further complicating the solicitation picture, on April 23 The Star ran a story touting its hiring of three full-time reporters — all very young and with little experience — in partnership with a national program called Report for America.

Report for America is a three-year-old nonprofit whose goal is to place young journalists in local newsrooms so they can be trained to cover under-served regions or important issues. It is funded primarily by foundations and institutes but also solicits individual contributions, which the April 23 story noted.


This whole thing is puzzling. My first thought on reading the story about the Local Media Foundation was that it must be connected with the Report for America Project. But that’s not the case; the Local Media Foundation solicitation is separate and distinct.

If The Star is going to get into the solicitation business, it should at least offer a thumbnail sketch of each nonprofit it is using as a conduit. The Star has explained the Report for America project well, but so far it has dropped the ball on the Local Media Foundation. What is that? Who’s behind it? How long has it been around?

Most people will not consider giving to a charity without knowing anything about it, and to most people the Local Media Foundation is a blank slate.

Already today two people with longstanding connections to The Star have contacted me about the solicitation campaign. One was Tom McClanahan, who retired several years ago as a member of The Star’s editorial board. Tom summarized the situation succinctly when he said, “Something tells me that for newspapers, trying to survive as charity recipients is not a viable business plan.”


Do you remember that The Star’s story said it was seeking to raise $200,000 through the Local Media Foundation? At 5 p.m. today, a link to the donation page cited in The Star said 72 people had contributed $5,540.

I think McClanahan is probably right: Not a viable path forward.

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I wish I could see beyond the hilly horizon and get a glimpse of where The Kansas City Star is headed.

I want to think we’re going to have a viable paper five years from now — even if it’s just online — but things are changing so fast it’s impossible to say.

Consolidation in the newspaper industry is moving rapidly. There are now just four major chains: Gannett, McClatchy, Tribune and MNG (Media News Group).

Joshua Benton of the Nieman Lab wrote last week that the number could soon be down to two. That’s because McClatchy, which owns The Star and 28 other daily papers, is in bankruptcy and could be auctioned off, and Tribune could be acquired by MNG.

In addition to consolidation, the COVID-19 epidemic is savaging newspapers as much as about any other industry. Advertising had already plunged over the last 14 years, and now it’s in an even sharper slide. Some newspapers will not survive.

I think The Star will survive in some form — this is too big a metro area to not have a major daily paper — but what that will look like I can’t predict.

McClatchy has banked for years on a “print-to-digital transformation,” but it looks in retrospect like it was all pie in the sky. The Star, for example, now has about 17,900 digital-only subscriptions (up from 12,300 at this time last year), but that’s a very small number considering the metro area’s population is about 2.1 million.

The Boston Globe, by comparison, has more than 100,000 digital-only subscribers.


One thing I do know is that The Star’s print product continues to be plagued by poor editing and overall lack of attention, and I believe that’s a factor in the declining print-circulation figures.

The latest figures from the Alliance for Audited Media, an industry-funded organization, show that Sunday print circulation dropped 10 percent between March 31 last year and March 29 of this year, and Monday-to-Friday print circulation fell 6 percent over the same period.

The Sunday numbers:

:: March 31, 2019 — 86,398
:: March 29, 2020 — 77,468

The Monday-Friday numbers:

:: March 31, 2019 — 57,035
:: March 29, 2020 — 53,589

(Note: I incorrectly reported in February that Monday-Friday print circulation had fallen below 50,000 at the end of 2019, but I failed to include single-copy sales.)

Back to the editing problem…With very few display ads, the print edition, while very thin generally, has a huge “news hole.” More than a decade ago, the ratio of ads to news ran somewhere around 60-40, but now I would say it’s about 10-90.

(That’s why The Star and other papers have raised print prices so much in recent years; they’ve had to switch from largely advertising supported to mostly subscription supported.)

Many papers, including The Star, have also slashed their payrolls to the point that they have editorial staffs perhaps 20 to 25 percent of what they used to be — and those numbers might be too high.

At The Star, at least, the combination of a big news hole and a skeletal editorial staff has resulted in a lot of long, boring stories.

I’ve noticed in past weeks 50-, 60- or 70-column-inch stories that, in the past, would have been 30 to 35 inches. In addition to being too long, those stories seldom are accompanied by good photos and informative graphics, which offer the readers breaks from long legs of uninterrupted text and often add to a story’s appeal.

Column after column of text tends to discourage readers, unless a story is particularly important and compelling. Many readers turn away when they see that a story is going to take considerably more time to digest than they had bargained on.

…Until Sunday, I didn’t think the story-length problem could get any worse.

Until Sunday.

The lead story — one about COVID-19 nursing-home deaths — came in at 85 inches. It should have been about half that.

But the blockbuster, so to speak, was a story that appeared under the front-page headline “Overland Park businesses work to adapt to new reality.”

I read the first four paragraphs, which were on the front page, and then turned to the “jump,” where the story continued inside. To my astonishment, the story took up all of page 6A and all of page 7A, except for a 9-inch by 5-inch ad on each of those pages.

The column-inch count? 146. One hundred forty-six precious inches and two full pages of a 12-page section.

That kind of length is reserved for stories like a year-long investigation or a major scandal.

To quote my favorite lawyer — Seinfeld attorney Jackie Chiles — such story lengths are “outrageous, egregious, preposterous.”

In this case, Jackie might have added soporific.

I say: Will the last editor in the building please take a hedge trimmer to these ridiculously long stories before the remaining print subscribers fall into a Rip Van Winkle coma?

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