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Posts Tagged ‘Kansas City Star’

The most interesting part of this fiasco going on at The Star — management asking veteran reporters Dawn Bormann and Karen Dillon to decide which of them should be let go in a down sizing — is that The Star apparently has done this at least once before. And got away with it.

Back in January 2011, five months before Mi-Ai Parrish was named publisher at The Star, my friend Hearne Christopher reported on his kcconfidential blog that a longtime copy editor name Don Munday (who also has a humorous verse in The Star every Monday) had been let go in a down sizing.

Hearne came back a day or two later, however, saying that might not be right, and it turned out that Munday was staying. It struck me as very odd that a guy would be cast off one day (I trusted that Hearne simply didn’t misidentify the target) and then be pulled back aboard the next.

But, as I recall (I could be wrong), nothing ever came out about the possibility that Munday and another employee might have been presented with the “you two make the call” option. Now, though, Hearne is reporting that the flip of the coin, so to speak, was between Munday and another longtime copy editor, Mike Garbus. Garbus lost the toss, or whatever, and Munday continued penning his verses.

And so the episode passed quietly.

Hearne sniffed out the latest game of “you-or-him” or “you-or-her,” and it has grabbed headlines in blogs and mainstream media partly because two women are involved. In addition, each has family caretaking duties: Bormann has a young child, and Dillon apparently helps care for two grandchildren.

What I make of this situation is that editor Mike Fannin in all likelihood engineered both rounds of this foolish game. Fannin would have brought the proposal to Parrish, who probably thought to herself something like, “Well, it worked out OK the first time, when I wasn’t here, so we might as well give it another run.”

If that is the correct scenario, this 41- or 42-year-old publisher has now found out that delegating significant personnel decisions to underlings is a huge mistake.

In addition, Parrish has not impressed me in the least. She has not built a civic profile for herself and her paper, and she is not a good salesperson, which a publisher has to be these days to be successful. Remember Jim Hale, publisher back in the late 1970s and into the 80s? He presented as an easy-going, aw-shucks Texan, but he wielded tremendous power of personality and built an imposing profile on the civic front. As a result, The Star’s profile rose to its highest point in decades and made money hand over fist.   

After Parrish was named publisher in 2011, I wrote that “putting a 40-year-old person with five years of publishing experience — especially small-market experience — looks like a rather big roll of the dice.”

I pointed out that she came from a paper, the Idaho Statesman, that was four times smaller than The Star in terms of circulation. Plus she had jumped to publisher in Idaho from the mid-level management job of deputy managing editor at the Minneapolis Star Tribune.

In that same blog I also wrote this: “On the digital side, her youth should work to her advantage because that appears to be where the future lies for newspapers. But her youth could work against her on the personnel side, unless she gets some very good advisers.”

Well, her youth and relative inexperience at the highest level of journalism has worked against her.

But the Dillon-Bormann situation isn’t the first time she has dropped the ball. Just before she was announced as publisher, Hearne reported (with the reportorial help of a much less prominent blogger…ahem) that Fannin had not one — as previously thought –but two D.U.I. convictions. We also uncovered a misdemeanor assault conviction in Texas, where he worked before he came to Kansas City.

That would have been the perfect time for Parrish to unload Fannin and bring in her own editor. But, as I told Hearne at the time, that’s not the way The Star operates. When its managers come under fire, they circle the wagons and hunker down.

Now, Parrish has no one but herself to blame. If she fires Fannin, it won’t change the fact that the buck stopped with her.

I think it very likely that, as a result of this debacle, Parrish is in her first and last publishing job at a major metropolitan daily.

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It’s always been interesting to me to see how two reporters covering the same event can come up with such different accounts — how one reporter can completely miss the mark while another takes deadly aim.

Such was the case with two newspapers’ coverage of Southeastern Conference Commissioner Mike Slive’s appearance Tuesday at the Kansas City Tiger Club meeting at the Westport Flea Market.

Fortuitously, I am in a position to compare The Star’s account against that of the Columbia (Mo.) Daily Tribune. I say fortuitously because, while driving around on Tuesday, I happened to hear, on the radio, either a lengthy excerpt of the event or a portion of live coverage.

When I tuned into the event, already in progress, I thought I was listening to a news conference, but the crowd was so boisterous and there was so much laughing and joking that I was thrown off balance. Only later, when I heard or read news coverage online, did I realize that it was an appearance before a large group of Missouri fans.

It was apparent from what I was hearing that Slive, who has been the SEC commissioner for almost 10 years, had the crowd in the palm of his hand.

Slive

He was answering questions confidently, and he was often droll and funny. It seemed like every other answer he gave drew a big, embracing laugh. It was clear that the crowd was enthralled.

So, when I saw a story about the event in The Star on Wednesday, I was eager to see if the reporter, Terez A. Paylor, would be able to re-create the energetic and enthusiastic atmosphere that permeated the Flea Market’s back room a day earlier.

I have to say, I was terribly disappointed.  Here’s how Paylor, who recently succeeded Mike DeArmond as Missouri athletics reporter, started his story:

It didn’t take Southeastern Conference commissioner Mike Slive long to realize the passion of Missouri Tigers supporters in Kansas City.

Slive was greeted warmly by a crowd of a couple of hundred fans Tuesday, as he served as the guest speaker at the Kansas City Tiger Club’s weekly meeting at the Westport Flea Market.

“If this is the energy from the University of Missouri that’s going to come to every one of our events, I’m gonna have to go home and warn our guys to be careful,”  said Slive, shortly after he was greeted with a standing ovation. “The energy in this room is phenomenal.”

And it remained that way over the course of an hour, as Slive, who came to Kansas City from the SEC’s offices in Birmingham, Ala., took questions and spoke about a number of pertinent issues, including the possibility of Kansas City playing host to the SEC men’s basketball tournament, the status of his conference’s television deals and the status of cross-division rivalries in football.

Paylor

It was a lame start, and Paylor went on to report, blandly, what Slive had to say about some of those issues that arose in the wake of Missouri’s decision to switch from the Big XII to the SEC.

Exactly where and how did the reporter fall on his face?

:: He talked about the passion of the fan club and the energy in the room, but other than noting the standing ovation, Taylor failed to show the reader how the interaction between the fans and the commissioner established the energy in the room.

:: He did not relate a single question that the fans posed to Slive, and he made no attempt to establish the humorous and convivial tone, which is what distinguished the event and spawned a strong bond between crowd and speaker.

Now, let’s set The Star aside and pick up the Columbia Daily Tribune.

Matter

Covering the event for the Tribune was a sportswriter named Dave Matter. I don’t know him, hadn’t read a thing he had written until I saw his story online this morning.

Here’s how Matter began his story:

Southeastern Conference Commissioner Mike Slive couldn’t have expected his biggest applause line yesterday to be a one-word answer.

A Missouri booster in the middle of a jam-packed crowd at the Westport Flea Market Bar & Grill asked Slive a perfectly reasonable question at the Tiger Club of Kansas City luncheon that sounded like this: Could you explain how the decisions were made to put Texas A&M in the SEC West and Missouri in the SEC East?

Slive’s reply came without hesitation.

“No,” he said.

The crowd, and Slive, erupted in laughter.

The 71-year-old Slive had the boosters rolling, but do not mistake the man for a court jester. Yesterday, he was feted like a king.

With several university and civic dignitaries in attendance, the SEC commissioner made his first public appearance in Missouri since November’s announcement that MU was joining Texas A&M as a 2012 addition to the SEC. For the 250-plus fans crammed into the booster club’s weekly watering hole, the buzz was still raging.

Look at some of the words and phrases that Matter uses to show, tangibly, how the bond developed and the energy burst forth.

— “…a jam-packed crowd”

— “The crowd, and Slive, erupted in laughter.” Note, it was a shared laughter.

— “…had the boosters rolling.”

— “…feted like a king.”

— “…the buzz was still raging.”

Raging.

And about that standing ovation…Paylor simply had it happening spontaneously, without explanation. But Matter…well, he framed the greeting by reporting that Missouri athletic director Mike Alden introduced Slive, calling him “the finest commissioner in all of college athletics and one of the most respected folks in all of sport.”

Now the reader can understand how a biased crowd could be catapulted into a near frenzy, can’t he?

Slive, as Paylor reported, later returned the favor to Alden, saying in answer to a question about the SEC’s $3 billion TV contract, “I am optimistic that we can make Mike Alden very happy.”

Another burst of laughter.

Everybody left happy…except those who weren’t there and had to rely on Terez Paylor’s reporting.

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Very interesting, this E-tax situation. Not just the Kansas City situation but the combination of Kansas City and St. Louis.

Quite a contrast, actually. In both cities, voters overwhelmingly approved retention of the one-percent tax on salaries and business profits. But that’s where the similarities end.

Consider:

— In Kansas City, the opposition, led by eastern Missouri billionaire Rex Sinquefield spent about $600,000 trying to defeat the tax. In St. Louis, there was no organized opposition.

— In Kansas City, all indications are that it will be “business as usual” at City Hall and that a serious, extensive review of city taxes and finances is not likely to occur. In St. Louis, however, it appears that it’s almost a foregone conclusion that the E-tax will be eliminated before the next retention election, which would take place in five years.

So what’s the deal?

Well, it seems clear to me that, in St. Louis, Sinquefield and Mayor Francis Slay, a friend of Sinquefield, made a deal.

Here’s how the conversation that led to that gentleman’s agreement likely went…

Rex — “Uh, Francis, you know you’ve got to get rid of that E-tax; it’s killing job and business growth.”

Francis — “Yes, Rex, I realize that. But we can’t chop it off all at once, you know. How about this: If you don’t contest it on April 5, I promise you that we’ll get rid of it before it comes up for retention in five years, and we’ll come up with ways to replace the revenue.”

Rex — “You got it.”

How could such a clear-cut deal take place in one city, while, at the other end of the state the battle will be re-engaged every five years for the foreseeable future?

It’s the difference between a strong mayor form of government (St. Louis) and a council-manager form of government in Kansas City.

Slay can make that deal without having to worry about being undermined by the Board of Aldermen. In Kansas City, however, the mayor can’t promise anything, unless he’s got the signatures of six other council members, giving him a 7-6 majority, including himself.

Slay

To see the difference in the E-tax intentions of leaders in the two cities, one had only to read Slay’s comments in today’s St. Louis Post-Dispatch and Mayor-elect Sly James’ comments in The Kansas City Star.

James: “What a great victory. We now have confirmation that we’re going to have the earnings tax that we need so much.”

Slay: “What we saw here was a step, an important step toward what I believe to be a necessary and inevitable change in the way the city delivers services and the way the region is governed.”

The Post-Dispatch story went on to say that city officials already had begun talking about other ways of getting the revenue that the E-tax generates. “I don’t think there’s going to be another campaign on this earnings tax” in five years, Richard Callow, pro-earnings-tax campaign manager was quoted as saying.

That about says it all, doesn’t it? The wheels are in motion in St. Louis, and the E-tax is going away.

Now, if Kansas City leaders are paying attention, that should set off all kinds of alarms.

Two reasons:

1) The E-tax undoubtedly is hurting business and job growth in Kansas City. We’re already getting poached to death by the Kansas side, and now, with many Missouri-side suburbs growing, they, too, will pick up the cherry-picking pace.

2) After St. Louis gets rid of its E-tax, it will start competing more stoutly for businesses that are looking to relocate to Missouri. And when it lays out its package of incentives, it can say, “If you come to St. Louis, you won’t have to worry about an earnings tax, but if you go to Kansas City, you’ll be hit for one percent of your profits.”

Ouch!

Let me make this clear: I was not only for the E-tax, I was on the Save Kansas City Committee steering committee and made two presentations on behalf of the tax. At both appearances, however, I advocated for a thorough review of Kansas City finances.

And while I like the idea of forcing the “sundowners” — those who leave the city after work each day — to help pay for the amenities and facilities that bolster the urban core, I think this newfound focus on the E-tax is fostering a lot of unnecessary resentment among the sundowners.

You remember, don’t you, E-tax proponent Dan Cofran’s now-famous quote to a woman who was frustrated because she had to pay the tax even though she didn’t live in Kansas City? “Then, don’t work here,” he said.

Ouch…again.

The reply didn’t hurt the tax’s chances of passage at all, but it didn’t help relations between those of us who live in Kansas City and those who don’t. We shouldn’t allow the E-tax to drive the wedge even farther between us and them.

So, let’s see what we can do about getting rid of that E-tax, OK, Sly? OK, council members?

The last thing we want, other than that wedge being driven deeper, is the sight of St. Louis steaming by us as we cling to a tax that only about 20 percent of the largest cities in the U.S. are holding on to.

Sinquefield

Also, this looks like a case where the big dog, Sinquefield, isn’t going away. He’ll be back in five years — assuming he’s still alive — and he and his minions will dump several hundred thousand more dollars into that campaign, and he’ll make our business community shell out another $1 million or so to try to beat him.

To me, he looks an awful lot like Local 42 of the International Association of Fire Fighters: He won’t quit until he gets what he wants.

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I hate to say this, but I am losing confidence in Mark Zieman as publisher — and ultimate leader — at The Kansas City Star. 

My colleague John Landsberg of Bottom Line Communications reported yesterday that there will be another round of layoffs at The Star. I can’t keep track of how many rounds there have been in the last few years, but I think this will be at least the fifth.

This latest news is particularly maddening and frustrating not because The Star’s staff apparently will get even thinner, but because of Zieman’s optimistic tone when he announced the previous round of layoffs last September.

Back then he said The Star was approaching the end of the year “financially strong” and that the industry was at a “turning point.”

To me, that not only was irresponsible, it was misleading and showed Zieman was indulging in wishful thinking. While such words might buoy employee morale temporarily, the words make it all that much harder for employees to swallow another round of layoffs. The real danger of statements like that is that they spread a sense of false hope and paint the publisher as someone trying to buy time before something even worse happens.

Employees of every organization like to hear words of encouragement and hope from their leaders, but, more important, they want a candid assessment of where things stand. Zieman has failed miserably on that front, not just in September but with unrealistically optimistic words with each round of layoffs.

So, now, unfortunately, it’s like the boy yelling fire in the theater. Except it’s the reverse because there is a fire and Zieman keeps trying to convince his troops it’s just about extinguished, when it’s obviously out of control. 

I mentioned that something big could happen. Like what? Well, how about a decision to drop the print edition several days a week. That seems like the next likely step to me.

Zieman probably won’t admit it until it happens, because he’s obviously reluctant to take off the rose-colored glasses. But it could easily happen, and it wouldn’t surprise me to see one or two weekday papers — maybe Monday and Tuesday — dropped within a year or two.

Several papers around the country have already dropped some or all print editions, and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch took a step in that direction last year, when it dropped single-copy sales — in boxes and convenience stores — of the Saturday paper. It still puts out a Saturday paper, but it goes only to subscribers.

In reporting the story last October, the Riverfront Times, the St. Louis alternative paper, asked Editor Arnie Robbins how long it would be before the Post-Dispatch would cease putting out a print publication altogether.

“I’m not feeling particularly clairvoyant this morning,” Robbins replied. “But I think in the next 10 years you could see the elimination of the weekday paper, with the Sunday still coming out in print. The rest of the week would be online or delivered through niche products and phone and e-reader apps. We’re working on a few of those projects right now that we’re excited about.'”

Well, let’s credit Robbins with some degree of candor. Ten years very likely is an overestimation of how much longer the daily P-D will survive, but at least he doesn’t have blinders on.

Now, compare that statement with what Zieman told employees in the September memo announcing that round of layoffs:

 “I know that weathering this recession has been exceptionally hard for each of you. But we will begin next year with a steadily improving revenue trend. We are posting record online traffic and revenue, we remain the dominant media company in our region, our presses and readership metrics are among the best in the country and our news products are recognized nationally for their journalistic excellence. The Star won’t die, but this recession will.”

Metrics. Journalistic excellence. The Star won’t die. Uh huh.

This is really a desperate situation in my view. I think The Star’s owner, McClatchy Co., is headed for bankruptcy.

As I reported in June, Morningstar, the independent investment and stock research company, had a grim outlook for the company. An article in Morningstar StockInvestor, a periodical available to Morningstar members by subscription, said this:

“Our fair value estimate on McClatchy shares is $0.”

Are you listening, Mark? That’s zero. Nothing. Worthless shares for the stockholders.

At the time, McClatchy’s stock was selling at $4.28 a share. The stock closed Friday at $4.89 a share, but that’s no indication of a significant upswing. Sprint, as difficult as its situation is, has a much better chance of surviving than McClatchy does.

The company paid too much for KnightRidder in 2006 and bought the KR papers at precisely the wrong time.

Do you remember when Payless Cashways senior managers, led by then-chief executive officer David Stanley (fondly known to some as Minnesota Dave because he flew back to his home in Minneapolis every weekend) took the company private in 1988? They paid too much ($900 million); the company muddled along for about 10 years and then rolled over and died.  

McClatchy, too, is going to roll over and die, I believe…or get bought out for a song. I can hear the late “Dandy” Don Meredith singing from heaven, “Turn out the lights; the party’s over.”   

And what will happen with the papers McClatchy owns? I don’t know. But it isn’t a bright picture, and I hope Zieman doesn’t weigh in with more irrationally optimistic statements when he officially announces the newest round of layoffs.

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I don’t know if you share my opinion about this — of if you’ve even noticed — but it seems to me that the letters to the editor page of The Kansas City Star has gotten kind of moldy.

There’s too much lag time between the articles that triggered the letters and publication of the letters. As a result, the letters page has become increasingly dull over the last several months. 

I’ve been thinking about this lately, and on Thursday I decided to run a little test on the timeliness of letters that ran Wednesday and Thursday.

Here’s what I found: On those two days, a total of seven letters included parenthetical references to articles that generated the letters. (Some letters are about ongoing stories or situations and not pegged to specific stories.)

Of the seven, five referred to articles that had been published at least two weeks ago.  

To me, that’s pretty bad. 

I decided to compare that with the letters that appeared Wednesday and Thursday in The New York Times. On those two days, The Times published a total of 10 letters containing parenthetical references to articles that prompted the letters.

Of the 10, nine were published within eight days of the published articles.

To me, that’s pretty good.  

What is the upshot for readers? In my opinion, The Star’s letters page has a dated, heavy feel to it, where The Times’ page is lively and topical. 

Hate to say it, but that applies to the two papers in their entirety, too. Of course, The Star, like almost all second-tier dailies, has suffered terribly from contraction and readership loss, while the top-tier, national publications — The Times, the Wall Street Journal and USA Today — have held up somewhat better.

I must confess that one of the reasons I decided to run the test is that I submitted a letter to the editor on Sunday (Aug. 15) about a column that day by E. Thomas McClanahan of the editorial staff. McClanahan wrote eloquently and insightfully, in my opinion, about his opposition to the proposed mosque to be built two blocks from Ground Zero. (For the record, I’m against it, too.)

Lewis Diuguid, an editorial writer who calls letter writers to verify that they, indeed, penned the letters, called me on Monday and said he’d try to get the letter in.

Now, really, it makes no difference to me if the letter gets in. But I really would like to know what the public feedback is on McClanahan’s piece, and I don’t want to have to wait two weeks to get that feedback.

What really galled me was that yesterday a letter ran under the headline “Mosque at ground zero.” I eagerly went to the text, thinking it would be about McClanahan’s column. But, no, it was a letter from Chris Anderson of Basehor, who was writing about an Aug. 4 article titled “Mosque plans advance.” Anderson’s first line was “Where is the outrage over the project mosque by the World Trade Center?”

Well, the outrage certainly escalated between Aug. 4 and Aug. 18, didn’t it?  

I guess the letters pertaining to McClanahan’s column are waiting in a queue…waiting like tax returns stacked up for processing by the IRS.

Yesterday, I e-mailed Miriam Pepper, vice president and editorial page editor of  The Star, and told her about the results of my test and that I intended to write a blog entry on the subject. 

Miriam, one of the most solid and respected editors at The Star, declined to comment, and I can appreciate that. She has nothing to gain by defending the status quo, and feelings could get ruffled in house if she said the page needs improvement. 

Here’s the gist, though. The letters to the editor page is one of the most important parts of the paper. It’s where members of the public get to weigh in, in black and white, on issues that are of importance to them. It’s a garden of ideas, and it’s fun and informative to see what seeds are being planted and to try to figure out which might take root.

It’s important, then, that the letters be timely. In the computer era, people can get plenty of feedback on just about any issue, but millions of people still look to the letters page of their daily papers every day to gauge the ebb and flow of public opinion on current issues.

For the vast majority of serious current-events followers, I dare say, a letter published on the letters page of a daily paper, signed with a person’s real name and disclosing their city of residence, carries far more weight in the court of public opinion than an anonymous comment (or, for that matter, a signed comment) on any blog or Web site.

So, let’s get cracking down there, KC Star!

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The latest edition of Morningstar StockInvestor, a monthly publication of the renowned independent investment and research firm, contains a very grim forecast for the McClatchy Co., owner of The Star and several other newspapers.

McClatchy stock , which traded at about $50 a share when the company bought out Knight Ridder in 2006, closed Friday at $4.28 a share.

Morningstar StockInvestor, which is available by subscription only, opened its review of McClatchy this way:

“Since its poorly timed acquisition of Knight Ridder in 2006, McClatchy has struggled under the multiple weights of declining revenues, high debt, large exposure to troubled housing markets, and the continuing shift of readers and advertisers from print to online. Given the persistence and severity of these conditions, we think equity shareholders are at risk of losing the entire value of their investment.”

Gulp. Those two sentences should make everyone working at The Star and other McClatchy papers, like the Sacramento Bee and the Miami Herald, not only cringe but start looking for new jobs.

While McClatchy and other newspaper chains have tried to paint a rosier-than-real picture of the industry by saying, essentially, “the losses are lessening,” Morningstar throws the tinted glasses aside.

“Our fair value estimate on McClatchy’s shares is $0.”

That’s right, Morningstar analyst John Ayling, who wrote the piece, thinks that the balance eventually will tip from stockholders’  interests to creditors’ interests and that stockholders will be left empty handed.

“McClatchy’s $4.6 billion purchase of Knight Ridder was a bold bet on the future of print journalism,” Ayling wrote. “The acquisition added more than $2.5 billion in debt to McClatchy’s balance sheet. It more than doubled both the company’s portfolio of daily mastheads and its annual revenues. However, in 2007, it took a noncash impairment charge of $3 billion — evidence that McClatchy overpaid for the Knight Ridder acquisition.”

Ayling sees newspaper industry weakness continuing. “During the next five years, we think that advertisers and readers will continue to gravitate away from newspapers and toward the ease and flexibility of the Internet. Internet-based classified ad sites allow advertisers to target readers with specific interests at lower cost than print classifieds.”

I want you to know that as I sit here and write this, I don’t feel good about it at all. One reason is that I bought a significant chunk of McClatchy stock (at about $50 a share) just before I retired in June 2006. Like McClatchy, I wanted to make my own bet on the future of print journalism. I also wanted to demonstrate my confidence in the new owners of The Star.

I remember clearly when McClatchy CEO Gary Pruitt came into the newsroom shortly before the deal closed and talked about how he believed things would go well for McClatchy and us, the employees. When I asked him, in front of the newsroom audience, if he was planning any employee buyouts, he said, no, that McClatchy believed in adding people, not subtracting.

At that point, having been thinking about retiring after nearly 37 years with the paper, I knew that I had to make my own arrangements; there wasn’t going to be any golden parachute. A couple of months later, I retired, and the paper paid for a send-off pizza party in the Independence bureau, where I was an assistant metro editor.

I might have been the last person to get a company-paid going-away party.

The memories of that party, which marked a happy culmination of my career, help ease the pain of the subsequent stock-market loss I endured. For McClatchy stock, along with that of other newspaper companies, soon began a steep, steady decline.

In 2008, I sold out at $8 a share.

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