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I was rooting around in the attic this morning, looking for some electrical adapters for an upcoming trip, when I came across some yellowed Kansas City Star editions I had filed away long ago.

The first thing that struck me was how narrow the paper has become — from 13 1/2 inches in 1993 to 11 inches now. It brought back memories of the pain we editorial employees experienced when the paper started to shrink — and kept on shrinking.

The second thing I noticed was a commentary written on Feb. 26, 1993, by then-Editor Art Brisbane.

It was a column about my most ignominious and embarrassing experience as a reporter — an incident that ended up being referred to in the newsroom as “Asphaltgate.” And, unfortunately, I was the one who opened the gate and let the shit come cascading down on myself.

It was so bad that my screw-up led directly to the appointment of a newsroom committee that was charged with writing a new KC Star ethics policy.

Fortunately, I survived Asphaltgate and went on, as I’ve recounted several times before, to tack my way to a conventional retirement with the most treasured send-off in journalism — the pizza and sheet-cake party.

But let me tell you about Asphaltgate, which very few people out there have been around long enough to remember.

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I was covering City Hall at the time, and Tuesday, Feb. 23, 1993, was my eighth wedding anniversary. My editor got a call that morning from a guy who owned a gas station at about 59th and Swope Parkway. The station operator said a Kansas City Public Works Department crew had come around earlier offering to sell cold-mix asphalt for $30 so station employees could fix several potholes on the station grounds. Clearly out of line, the public works crew was using publicly paid for asphalt mix to do pick up side money, all while on the city clock, of course.

The station owner told them to come back later and then called The Star. The editor sent me and a photographer out to the station to see if the crew returned and, if they did, to document and report it.

When I went out there, I planted myself just behind the office area. The photographer, Jim McTaggart, positioned himself a half block or so away with his camera and a long lens. Pretty soon, the city crew pulled slowly into the station. At that critical juncture, the station owner turned to me and said something like, “Do you have $30,” or, “Will you pay the $35?”

I as caught totally off guard. I hadn’t given a thought to the money for the transaction. But I had cashed a check that morning because Patty and I were going to dinner that night to celebrate our anniversary. So I reached for my wallet and gave the station owner $35. Immediately, it didn’t feel right, but I was caught up in the moment and, well, the money was now walking out to the crew.

The crew dropped a large pile of asphalt and left a rake and shovel for station employees to use to move the material around later.

At that point, I left the station, jumped in the photographer’s car, and we followed the crew to a public works maintenance site off Blue Parkway. There I confronted the crew leader, who had little to say. What could he say? He’d been caught red handed.

Turned out, though, I was in almost as much trouble as the crew was. Immediately after confronting the crew leader, I went to a pay phone, called my editor, told him what had unfolded and said, “I want you to know, I paid the $30 for the asphalt.”

The editor said, “Ooohh,” his voice trailing off, which confirmed my gut feeling that I had made a big mistake.

By the time I got back to the office, the in-house wheels were spinning. But instead of the editors being interested in a story about a city crew cheating the taxpayers, they were completely focused on me having paid for a story. I hadn’t really thought about it in that context — buying a story — but there was no denying that’s what it amounted to.

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Art Brisbane, as pictured in a 1995 column

The first decision the editors made was not to run the story. It was getting late by then, and I went home. As I recall, had a pretty nervous anniversary night. First thing the next day, Metro Editor Randy Smith escorted me to a meeting with Brisbane and Managing Editor Mark Zieman. The meeting was in the spacious, wood-paneled conference room, which featured a long, cherry table with a polished glass top. I remember that neither Brisbane nor Zieman offered any greeting. They were quietly conversing when I came in, and Brisbane turned toward me and started talking straightaway about the incident.

I had no idea what was going to happen, but I figured I wasn’t going to get fired. I had had a couple of close calls earlier in my career and had always avoided the ax, partly because I also had a history of turning out big stories that tended to offset my face-down spills in the mud.

This time, I was also lucky because the ethics policy was outdated and did not address the issue of “buying stories.” Had the policy specifically prohibited that, I think I would have been gone.

I didn’t get suspended, either. However, Brisbane told me he intended to write a column apologizing to the readers for the paper’s — for my — ethical failure. Sparing me the ultimate indignity, he said he wouldn’t name me; in print, I would be the anonymous reporter who dropped the turd in the punch bowl.

Brisbane didn’t say this, but I am sure he had consulted with Publisher Robert Woodworth and that it had been a joint decision to handle the matter with a public apology.

The column appeared two days later. Perhaps the most ignominious part was that I had to help write the column because, of course, I was more familiar with the circumstances than anyone.

The column appeared under the headline, “When paper manipulates the news, it’s time to back off.”

Besides recounting the facts of the incident, Brisbane made had two key points:

:: “In our eagerness to report the news, we stepped over the line of journalistic propriety.”

:: “By participating in this story, we have compromised ourselves. We regret very much that we have let our readers down in this case. We pledge to maintain the highest ethical standards in the future so that we may earn and keep your trust.”

**

After the column was published, several reporters sympathetic to me said they thought Brisbane had used the column as a back-door way of reporting a story he had decided would not be published.

Personally, I thought the matter should have been handled internally, but, on the other hand, city officials were aware of what had taken place and could have pointed quietly to The Star having conveniently overlooked an error in judgment by one of its reporters.

A couple of other factors were at play, too. For one thing, both Brisbane and Woodworth had ascended to their respective posts the previous year, 1992, and were undoubtedly eager to establish their bona fides. Woodworth had succeeded legendary publisher James H. Hale, and Brisbane had succeeded another KC Star legend, Joe McGuff.

Perhaps an even bigger factor, though, was that journalism had very recently been caught with its pants down. Just two weeks earlier, NBC had publicly apologized for a “Dateline NBC” program in which the network had staged a fiery test crash of a General Motors pickup truck. The network made it look like the crash was spontaneous, but it was rigged. Not only did NBC apologize but it also agreed to settle a defamation suit filed by GM. It was one of the biggest scandals in modern-day journalism.

Fresh on the heels of that blockbuster journalistic embarrassment, along came JimmyC reaching in his pocket and forking over $30 for cold-mix asphalt.

For many months after that, I was extremely pissed off at Brisbane and once spoke very critically about the paper at an intimate meeting among him, my editor and one or two other City Hall reporters. To Brisbane’s credit, he held his tongue. He could have unloaded on me then and there, or he could have bided his time and had me demoted. He didn’t do that, either. In fact, two years later I got promoted to assignment editor and took charge of the Wyandotte-Leavenworth bureau.

After the meeting, I asked fellow City Hall reporter Kevin Murphy for his impression of my performance. He replied, “Oh, I just figured you were still hot about asphalt.”

Yes, I was. Yes, I was. But I got over it. It only took a couple of years.

Oh…and those public works crew members? They were fired. Also, a week or so later, I turned in a phony mileage expense voucher for the $30 I had handed over. I even told my editor exactly what I was doing. He hesitated, then quickly scrawled his signature on the expense voucher and turned away with a grimace.

Just like paid advertising, circulation is continuing to drop at The Kansas City Star.

According to the Alliance for Audited Media, a nonprofit organization consisting of newspaper and periodical publishers, The Star’s average Sunday circulation for the quarter ending last September was 182,780.

Two years earlier, average Sunday circulation was 242,583. That’s a drop of almost 25 percent.

It was even worse for average Monday-Saturday circulation. For the quarter ending September 2014, that figure was 164,053. Over the ensuing two years, it plummeted to 117,734 — a 28 percent drop.

Those numbers include print and digital subscriptions, so it’s clear that The Star’s push to increase digital circulation is not offsetting the ongoing decline of print subscribers.

The Star, of course, is not alone in this cascade. Other major metropolitan dailies have seen double-digit-percentage circulation losses in recent years. For example, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch’s average Monday-Saturday circulation fell nearly 33 percent between September 2014 and September 2016. The raw numbers were 169,252 (2014) and 113,990 (2016).

The P-D’s Sunday circulation didn’t tumble as severely as The Star’s: It was down just 16 percent — from 459,072 in 2014 to 385,690 in 2016.

What does this mean for the future of The Star, the Post-Dispatch and other major metropolitan dailies?

Despite appearances, it’s very hard to say, and indications are it is way too early to consign print papers to history.

The prevailing view of many publishers is, “We’ve gotta move people over to digital so we can increase advertising revenue there.” A contrary school of thought, however, holds that print will not easily be unseated as the go-to medium for a majority of news consumers.

 

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An article last year in the Columbia Journalism Review said although the number of people who read print newspapers has dropped 50  percent in the last 20 years, the Pew Research Center reported that print-only is still the most common way of reading news, with more than half of readers in 2015 opting for the print product over digital.

The author of the article, Michael Rosenwald, a reporter at the Washington Post, cited the work of a University of Texas researcher who had found in a survey of news readers 18 to 24 years old that 20 percent had read the print edition of a newspaper during the week they were surveyed, while less than 8 percent read it digitally.

In two other hopeful signs for print products, Rosenwald said the sale of printed books has risen every year since 2013, and surveys have shown that university students prefer printed textbooks over electronic ones.

The vast majority of newspapers’ revenue still comes from their print publications, partly because online ad revenue is significantly diluted by Google and ad auction companies taking their piece of sales.

A British paper, The Guardian, bought ads on its own website to see how much money it netted after the middle men got their share, and it was 30 cents on the dollar!

Rosenwald also pointed to an intrinsic, self-evident advantage that print newspapers have over online news sites:

“In recent years, a flurry of studies has shown that the reading experience online is less immersive and enjoyable than print, which has implications for how we consume and retain information. Studies show that readers tend to skim and jump around online more than they do in print—not just within individual stories, but from page to page and site to site. Print provides a more linear, less distracting way of reading, which in turn increases comprehension.”

That reminded me of something The Star’s new editorial board vice president, Colleen McCain Nelson, said last month at her first public appearance since starting work in December.

Talking about her preference to read news in print rather than online, she said: “There’s a certain order to it; it makes sense.”

While these big circulation dips are alarming, then, to those of us — the many of us — who treasure our print newspapers, it may be a long time before we have to start thinking about the print product getting the Last Rites.

To tweak a famous Sherlock Holmes phrase, “The game is still afoot, Watson!”

So far, The Kansas City Star’s factual coverage of the Yordano Ventura tragedy is wanting.

Sure, columnist Vahe Gregorian, whom The Star dispatched to the Dominican Republic, did a good job of tracking the lead-up to the funeral and related events, and photographer John Sleezer, who’s also there, has been delivering good photos and video.

It was a good idea to send those two, but The Star screwed up, in my opinion, by not sending one other person — an experienced reporter.

And I don’t mean a sports reporter, I mean a news reporter.

Instead, The Star has had Royals’ beat writer Rustin Dodd sitting at his desk here in Kansas City trying to sort out what happened in the early hours of Sunday morning in the Dominican Republic.

As we all know, there are plenty of questions about what happened, including:

:: Was Ventura alive when people first got to him after his Jeep went off the road and flipped onto its side?

:: Was he robbed of cash and perhaps his World Series ring while he was dying or after he died?

:: And what the heck was he doing leaving a party about 4 a.m. or after and embarking on a relatively long drive, on mountain roads, in the fog?

I’m not asking for perfect answers right now to all those questions; the answers to at least a couple should unfold in due time. But having an actual reporter on the scene — preferably one who speaks Spanish — would help get to the answers, and perhaps unearth new ones.

In addition, there is one important question that we should have had the answer to by now, but haven’t for want of good  basic reporting:

:: Exactly where was Ventura going and how long should it have taken him to get to his destination?

On that key point, Rustin Dodd’s reporting has been muddled and perhaps inaccurate. He reported in Tuesday’s paper that Ventura was intending to travel “about 80 miles” — from the province of San Jose de Ocoa “toward Cibao.”

I went to Google maps today to try to get an idea of his possible route.

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If Ventura was going from San Jose de Ocoa (bottom right on the map) to the city of El Cibao (upper right), the trip would have been 122 miles. Google pegs the duration of that trip at 3 hours, 43 minutes. If, on the other hand,  he was headed somewhere in the El Cibao Valley, the trip might have been closer to the 80 miles Dodd reported.

What we know for sure is that Ventura was an hour and 15 minutes (29 miles, according to Google) into his trip when he crashed in the town of Juan Adrian, which is not shown on the map. (And, by the way, as far as I can tell, The Star has yet to publish a map — a major omission.)

Exactly where Ventura was headed is very important because it means he might have embarked on a nearly four-hour trip, at or about 4 a.m., after being at a party that ran into the wee hours.

It would have been bad enough had he left at 4 a.m. on an 80-mile trip on mountain roads and in fog. But if, indeed, it was a 122-mile, nearly four-hour trip, it casts even  more serious question on Ventura’s judgment. (Not to mention the fact he wasn’t wearing a seatbelt.)

**

In any event, The Star would have better served its readers if management had sent an experienced news reporter to the Dominican Republic Sunday. We look to sports writers to tell us things like how fast Ventura could throw a baseball and how he gets along with his teammates. But we don’t look to them to sort out the facts of a news story with many tentacles.

If Star editors made a decision not to send a news reporter, they made a mistake. If they did propose sending a reporter but were rebuffed by upper management because of the cost, upper management made a mistake.

To paraphrase the late Chicago Cubs announcer Harry Caray, it could have been…it should have been….a home run! But, alas, the ball came down at the warning track.

So, I just want to compliment many of the people in the room. I have great respect for the news and great respect for freedom of the press and all of that.

Donald Trump, at a Jan. 11 news conference, addressing the news media’s handling of reports that Russia had compromising information about him.

 

I have a running war with the media. They are among the most dishonest human beings on earth.

Donald Trump, in a visit to the Central Intelligence Agency on Jan. 21.

**

If your reaction to those two quotes is “Huh?”, I’m sure you’re not alone.

Sooo, which do you think it is: Does our president loathe the press? Or does he have “great respect” for it? And how, given those two polar-opposite statements, are we to know where our president stands — not only on that issue but any number of others, many more important than how he feels about the press?

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John McWhorter

Gratefully, an English Literature  professor at Columbia University named John McWhorter had some excellent suggestions in The New York Times Sunday. In a commentary titled “How to Listen to Donald Trump Every Day for Years,” McWhorter broken open the pineapple containing the code to deciphering our president’s waterfall of words.

Here are some of the key points McWhorter makes:

:: We Americans are accustomed to hearing our presidents talk in quasi-speech form, even when they’re speaking extemporaneously, such as at news conferences. We are not used to hearing a president “talk” in a style similar to how we might chat with each other by the office water fountain.

The important thing to keep in mind, McWhorter says, is that while we are expecting Trump to “speak,” he is actually just “talking.”

donaldEvidence of Trump’s “talking,” the writer said, can be found in his “false starts, jumpy inserts and repetition,” such as when he laces his comments with interjections like, “Believe me,” and “OK?”

Far from shocking, McWhorter says, it was just a matter of time before a talker, if you will, reached the highest office in the land:

America’s relationship to language has become more informal by the decade since the 1960s, just as it has to dress, sexual matters, culinary habits, dance and much else.”

Trump’s style befuddles the news media because, as McWhorter observes, “it is novel that someone in the Oval Office can’t be bothered with trying to be articulate.

To get one’s arms around Trump’s style, McWhorter continues, members of the media should hark back to Keegan-Michael Key’s “anger translator” routine with President Obama at the White House Correspondents’ Association dinner in 2015. (Obama: “…Because despite our differences, we count on the press to shed light on the most important issues of today.” Key: “…And we can count on Fox News to terrify old white people with some nonsense…Sharia law is coming to Cleveland. Run for the damn hills!”)

It’s folly, then, to try to parse Trump’s every statement or attempt to follow him through his oratorical maze.

In closing McWhorter says…

teddyI think of Theodore Roosevelt. While he was quite articulate on all levels, he was an ebullient, ever-curious person, about whom an observe once said, with affection, ‘You must always remember that the president is about 6.’ Linguistically, I listen to the man who is now president as if he were roughly 12 years old. That way, he is always perfectly understandable.

 

News of the death of young Royals’ pitcher Yordano Ventura makes it difficult to be cheery about anything today, but nevertheless it’s important to report — and take satisfaction in — the fact that The Kansas City Star’s editorial page roared back to life today, after months of dispiriting enervation.

Not to overstate the situation, but it’s almost as if flesh that had fallen away from a body was suddenly, almost miraculously, restored.

It’s like a Higher Being intoned the words “Get off your pallet and walk!” — and somehow it happened.

I’ll tell you, the mug shots of six new editorial board members stripped above The Star’s flag on the on today’s front page was a welcome and encouraging sight. (Also pictured was editorial cartoonist Lee Judge, who is not a member of the “editorial board.” Not pictured was publisher Tony Berg, who heads the editorial board.)

An even more encouraging sight was two pages, 14A and 15A, of exclusively local editorial content. In addition to two staff-written editorials (the first in months), new editorial board vice president Colleen McCain Nelson wrote about her vision for The Star’s opinion pages. She summed it up by saying, “The Star is redoubling its effort to take a leading role in civil public discourse and to deliver unique, impactful opinion content.

To some readers, today’s hoopla might seem over the top, but I think it’s completely warranted in light of the fact the bottom had fallen out of the editorial page, leaving readers to guess if a resurrection was even possible.

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**

The lead opinion piece on the editorial page (the left-facing page) was titled “Giving Trump a chance.” The second editorial was titled “Greitens off to strong start with call for ethics reform in Jefferson City.”

Those headlines, along with the text beneath them, told us a lot about the editorial tone and philosophy we’ll be seeing. This will not be a “slash and burn” approach, like it was when the editorial page was under the unofficial direction of longtime editorial writer Yael Abouhalkah. With Nelson, we can expect restrained evaluation of issues and individuals, segueing into strong opinions. Today, Nelson put readers on notice she will taste before she chews and tap before she hammers.

In recent months, The Star has probably lost a lot of readers who vote Democratic. And while the new editorial tack might run off even more of those, I think a tone of moderation will bring back many readers who felt abandoned. It could also attract new readers who haven’t taken notice previously and who have never looked to The Star for guidance on local and national issues.

**

For evidence of the new, measured approach, let’s take a closer look at today’s two editorials.

:: In an email, Nelson told me Dave Helling, political-reporter-turned-opinion-writer, wrote the lead editorial, “with input from the rest of the board.”

The headline, “Giving Trump a chance,” surely will have many local readers grinding their teeth because Trump, with his arrogance and his reckless and contradictory pronouncements, has already exhausted whatever trove of goodwill opponents apportioned him immediately after the election. You have to read the editorial, however, to see The Star is taking a wait-and-see approach to the Trump presidency.

The editorial said that “declaring this a failed presidency before it even begins won’t help our country.” At the same time, it noted the “widespread unease” with Trump that overflowed Saturday in Washington D.C. and several other major cities, and it acknowledged the fear Trump has aroused with his attacks on the press and individuals who have criticized him.

The editorial closed with these thoughtful words:

We are committed to measuring the president’s words and actions against the same yard sticks this newspaper has always used to judge public figures: honesty, transparency, facts. If President Trump succeeds, you’ll read it here. If he fails, we’ll write about that, too.

:: Just as the headline on the editorial about Republican Gov. Eric Greitens could give the impression The Star will support him gung-ho, the editorial itself bestowed qualified praise. It applauded Greitens for his push on ethics reform, including a ban on lobbyists’ gifts to legislators, and it suggested the paper would support Greitens’ call for term limits for all statewide officeholders.

At the same time, the editorial laid into Greitens for hypocrisy by refusing to disclose the sources of about $2 million in anonymous contributions he received and also for accepting $1 million in contributions from a Joplin businessman and his sister.

**

As critical as I’ve been of The Star in recent months, particularly about the demise of the editorial page, I have said all along I was confident Tony Berg had a long-range plan for change. We saw signs of it last year with the addition of the four-page “In Depth” pullout section that runs in the Tuesday-Saturday papers, and today we see it in even more striking fashion.

I don’t think it’s overstating the situation to say that even with its depleted reporting and editing staff…even with the loss of more than 1,500 total employees…even with its parent company lugging around a debt of $900 million…even with print circulation and advertising continuing to decline…this could be — should be — the start of a new, better era for The Kansas City Star and its readers.

Berg deserves a round of applause, and — as today’s lead editorial said about Trump — Berg and Nelson deserve to be given a chance.

In her first public appearance since being hired as vice president and editorial page editor of The Kansas City Star, Colleen McCain Nelson pledged Monday to have a “robust opinion page” that would be “smart, interesting and a little bit unpredictable.”

By unpredictable, she indicated readers should not expect the newspaper’s editorial positions to be consistently and decidedly liberal, as they have been in recent years.

“I think it will be more difficult to characterize the editorial board’s views in the future,” she said.

Nelson’s appearance came at a meeting on the Plaza of the 40 Years Ago Column Club…When it organized many years ago, the club was open only to people who had been mentioned in a “Forty Years Ago” column. Now it is open to almost anyone who is interested. About 40 people, including several former KC Star employees, were on hand Monday.

Last week, the paper announced the creation of a reconstituted editorial page, with an editorial board that will consist of eight people — seven who are in place now and one to be hired in the coming weeks.

Leading the editorial board, of course, is the publisher, Tony Berg, who hired Nelson last August, after laying off longtime editorial writer Yael Abouhalkah. Another editorial page stalwart, Lewis Diuguid, also departed, leaving Berg as the lone editorial board member for more than two months. During that time, the editorial page has consisted largely of syndicated columns, letters to the editor and political cartoons.

The drought of staff-written editorials will end this coming Sunday, Nelson said, drawing smiles and nods of appreciation from several audience members.

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Colleen McCain Nelson, left, chatted with Mary Abbott yesterday after Nelson spoke to the 40 Years Ago Column Club at a Plaza luncheon.

Among other things, Nelson talked about growing up in Salina, attending the University of Kansas and working as a political reporter for the Wichita Eagle before heading off to bigger posts, including the Dallas Morning News’ editorial page, where she and two colleagues won a Pulitzer Prize in 2010.

Her husband, Eric Nelson, is also a KU graduate, and he, too, is working for The Star, leading the paper’s digital operation.

Most recently, Colleen (pronounced with a long “o”) Nelson spent five years writing for the Wall Street Journal, topping off her time there by covering the recently concluded presidential campaign.

Here is a sampling of her comments Monday on a variety of subjects:

:: On where she and her husband have chosen to live: “I live in Missouri (Brookside area, loosely) but have season tickets to Kansas basketball.”

:: On the relative importance of Kansas City’s City Hall in the editorial page hierarchy: “This is not an area we will step back from…We will be all over City Hall, to be sure.”

:: On the proposal for a new, single-terminal KCI: “That (deciding whether to recommend voter approval) is high on my list. I have a lot to compare KCI to, and I’m certainly aware of its shortcomings.”

:: On finding the right balance between Kansas and Missouri coverage: “That’s certainly a challenge. It is something we’re going to be taking a close look at.”

:: On her preference to read newspapers in print form rather than online: “There’s a certain order to it; it (the layout) makes sense.”

:: On the challenge that Tony Berg presented her with: “I feel fortunate to be part of the team The Star is building. I think The Star’s editorial page will match up with just about any editorial page in the country. He (Berg) gave me the running room to make that happen.”

**

Several people in attendance Monday said they came away impressed by Nelson. One member of the 40 Years Ago Column club, Mary Abbott, told me in passing, “I think there’s hope.”

And Laura Hockaday, retired KC Star society editor, sent Tony Berg an email later Monday, saying Nelson spoke “with great intelligence, knowledge, grace and poise.”

Hockaday went on to say:

“All of us Star alumni and others were most impressed and quite thrilled to hear the new editorial page editor speak with the confidence of her past outstanding career and her dedication to her new role in seeing The Kansas City Star move forward.”

Hear, hear. Tony Berg has been publisher about a year now. It’s taken a long time for him to get a credible editorial team in place, but it’s taking shape. Let’s hope we soon have a substantial, forceful and well-written editorial page that agitates for Missouri, Kansas and the Kansas City area in particular, to become better places to live, work and do business.

I hear a lot of people say, when referring to the print edition of The Star: “There’s no news in there anymore,” or, “It’s getting thinner and thinner.

Both statements are true to a degree, but only one — “it’s getting thinner” — is substantially correct.

Many readers are under the mistaken impression that, because the paper is significantly thinner and lighter (every day except Sunday, that is) it contains a lot less news.

Not so. The paper has definitely shrunk in size, but that’s mainly because so many advertisers have gone away. At the same time, what we in the business call the “news hole” — the space allotted to text, photos and graphics — has not shrunk nearly as much.

In fact, The Star’s news hole has grown appreciably within the last year, since Publisher Tony Berg added the “In Depth” pullout section, which effectively added two full pages to the paper Tuesday through Saturday. (It’s a four-page section, but one of the four is the editorial page and one is the Op-Ed page.)

What has happened in Kansas City has been mirrored around the country. If you haven’t seen the figures, they are jaw dropping…Over the last 15 years, annual newspaper advertising revenue has dropped from $67 billion nationwide to about $16.4 billion, according to the Newspaper Association of America. With that kind of over-the-cliff performance, newspapers could not possibly continue publishing the hefty, healthy products of past years.

newspaper-ad-rev-to-2014

For nearly all newspapers, even the great national papers like The New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, prosperity is a thing of the past. Now, a newspaper is considered to be doing pretty well if it is just treading water.

**

As a reporter and later an assignment editor, I never had to concern myself much with the balance between ads and news hole. I remember that we in the newsroom would complain frequently about the relatively small size of the news hole, due mainly to the large number of ads. If we could have peered into the future, we surely would not have complained.

As I recall, the ratio of advertising space to news hole used to run about 60-40. Now, for many papers, those numbers have flipped, or worse.

In an effort to illustrate this phenomenon, I pulled out my green eyeshade and crunched some numbers relating to two sections of today’s newspaper.

The “A” section — which houses the international, national and local news and the editorial and Op-Ed pages — consists of 14 pages. Each page contains about 200 square inches of space, not counting the margins at top, bottom, left and right.

By my calculations, the A section had 2,065 square inches of news and other editorial material, while advertising (including obituaries, which are paid for) accounted for 735 square inches.

That’s a ratio of 74-26 percent, or nearly three square inches of news hole for every square inch of advertising!!

The story is a little brighter in the sports section, which traditionally has had the highest ratio of advertising. There, the ratio of news hole to advertising was only 2 to 1 (1,350 square inches of news and 650 square inches of advertising).

In a way, we here in Kansas City are lucky that the McClatchy Co., The Star’s owner, is allowing The Star this many print pages per day. There’s an expense associated with each page, and that’s the price McClatchy must pay for the newsprint — the actual paper that runs through the presses.

**

The news/advertising ratio greatly influences another major factor in newspapers — story lengths.

When The Star was flush and prosperous, as was the case until about the mid-2000s, dozens of reporters were covering all facets of the community, and all were agitating to get their stories in the paper. As a result, editors had to be ever-vigilant about story lengths. I remember a relatively brief period, back around 2000, when the edict came down that no story could exceed 30 column inches.

That is not very much for an important story requiring substantial explanation. The 30-inch limit generated a firestorm of criticism and squawking from reporters — and rightly so, because big stories often require 50 inches or more. That’s especially true of investigative pieces that have been weeks or months in the making. (I recall one former reporter, Rick Alm, demanding that his byline be taken off a story that editors cut down by more than half.)

With The Star now down to fewer than 25 reporters — and having necessarily reduced its coverage area — there’s less need to keep stories short. In fact, the pendulum has swung wildly in the other direction: Stories are often way too long. Today, for example, on Page 2, The Star ran a nearly 50-inch long story by Judy Thomas on the Catholic Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph banning a certain person from diocesan property because he had violated “safe boundaries” in his interactions with children.

It struck me as awfully long before I started it, but I kept reading, thinking it must contain something explosive or the diocese’s action was controversial. But no; there was nothing explosive and no controversy. The man, whom The Star did not identify because he is not charged with any crime, blandly accepted the ban.

Now, Judy Thomas is an excellent reporter, but her editors should have reined her in on that story; it deserved no more than 10 to 12 inches, in my opinion.

Elsewhere in the paper, examples of swollen verbiage can be found almost every day on the editorial page. On the left side, where The Star used to (and presumably will again) run relatively short editorials expressing the paper’s official viewpoint on a variety of issues, The Star has been running 30-inch wire-service pieces that take up two full columns. For the most part, it’s been “filler,” rather than meaningful, relevant commentary.

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All this is to show how the newspaper business has been turned upside down, at least as far as the print product is concerned. As I’ve said before, I’m very grateful The Star still publishes a printed edition every day. With each passing day, though, The Star is shifting its emphasis from print to digital, and I’m girding myself for the day when Tony Berg breaks the news that The Star will no longer be publishing on Monday and Tuesday. Those are the days on which the paper is in danger of flying a couple of houses away after leaving the delivery agent’s hand.

I ask you, 20 years ago who could have foreseen the era of the winged paper?