Posts Tagged ‘The Kansas City Star’

Yael Abouhalkah had a very interesting column in yesterday’s Star, in which he touched on some of the biggest challenges facing Kansas City Mayor Sly James at the halfway point of his first term.

First off, Abouhalkah said James is in great position to get re-elected in 2015 because “no current City Council member comes close to matching the wattage of James’ personality or his ability to influence policies and programs at City Hall.”

In the past (with the notable exception of James in 2011), the strongest candidates for mayor generally have come from the council’s ranks, and none of this council’s other members seems to be establishing a high profile for himself or herself.

Some of the major challenges that Abouhalkah listed were:

— Construction of a new, single terminal at KCI

— Proposed local control of the KCPD

— City Hall pension reform

In brief, here’s what Yael had to say about each of those issues…and my observations (not as brief).

Single terminal

Yael: “If it (the single-terminal concept) remains as unpopular  as it seems with a large contingent of Kansas Citians, James could face a possible defeat on a major issue.”

Me: Organized opposition to a single-terminal is growing, with the formation of a Save KCI! (savekci.com) group, and letters to the editor continue to tilt heavily to the status quo. Yesterday, the City Council voted 9-3 to move ahead with further planning for construction of a new, single terminal. The mayor voted with the majority, but it appears that he has begun equivocating on his previous strong stance in favor of a single terminal.

In a report on the meeting, KSHB-TV, Channel 41, said that James “admitted he is not completely sold on the current proposal, but said since Kansas City is not obligated to anything at this point, the process needs to continue.”

I don’t think James’ position on this issue will be a major factor in whether he gets re-elected. If he is going to establish himself as a strong leader on difficult issues, however, and if he wants to be remembered as a bold and farsighted mayor, he needs to stay out front for a single terminal and resist the impulse to assuage those who are steadfastly parochial and nostalgic about KCI.

If you’ve traveled to just a few other major airports in the U.S., you know that KCI sucks by comparison in just about every aspect except the distance between parking and gate. Now, that is an important consideration, but the facts…that KCI is way too expensive from a security standpoint and that it’s a HOLLOW, DARK, BORING, ANTIQUATED PIECE OF SHIT... far outstrip the convenience factor.

The correct call on KCI is as clear as it was on Sprint Center and the Power & Light District. If Mayor Kay Barnes hadn’t led courageously and pushed hard for those two massive attractions, Downtown would be a fuckin’ wasteland, and we would be well below Omaha (not to mention St. Louis, Denver and Louisville) in the category of downtown venues that attract tourists and area residents.

It seems abundantly clear that if we don’t get a modern airport within the next several years, usage of KCI will continue to drop dramatically and the airlines will shift many flights to other cities.

Don’t let us down on this, Sly. This isn’t a re-election issue; it’s a legacy issue. Do you want to be remembered as a big, energetic guy with a big personality — another H. Roe Bartle — or as a mayor who catapulted us into the ranks of big cities with great airports? 

Local control of KCPD

Yael: “The mayor appears ready to embrace local control of the Police Department…But if the panel (a commission he has appointed) balks at local control — or the (Missouri) legislature gives James the cold shoulder next year — the mayor could lose out on a key issue of how taxpayers finance public safety.”

Me: Again, I don’t think this is a big deal either way as far as the mayor’s chances of getting re-elected. (Can we just acknowledge that he’s going to serve six more years?)

But, just as with the single terminal at KCI, local control is an issue whose time has come. In fact, it came about 15 years ago, but the police bureaucracy has such a stranglehold on operations and on the Board of Police Commissioners that it’s been difficult for the advocates of progress to get any traction. James has wedged a foot in the door with the appointment of the panel to review the idea, but my guess is that the police hierarchy (along with just about every brain-washed, puffed-up police board member who has served during the last 30 years) will stamp their feet and holler so long and loud that the change agents will back off for another decade.

Sly James just might end up leading the local-control retreat, too…If he does, it will be another missed opportunity to be remembered as a gutsy, decisive mayor whose first interest was the taxpayers, not police commanders or the fat-cat commissioners appointed by Missouri governors.

Pension reform

Yael: “He (James) is still working to reform the unsustainable pensions for firefighters, police officers and other city employees — almost 18 months after a citizens commission delivered a how-to report on the issue in late 2011. The cost to taxpayers for retirement benefits has reached $60 million annually, up from $54 million two years ago.”

Me: Ho, ho, ho, ho, ho! Ha, ha, ha, ha, ha! Turn on the laugh tracks…Pension reform involving the firefighters? After James rode high and tall in a fire truck at the St. Patrick’s Day Parade a week before the 2011 election? And after he donned a bright red KCFD jacket after the JJ’s tragedy and said, famously, “Fire (department) doesn’t do gas.” ????


Mayor Sly James and Fire Chief Paul Berardi after the JJ’s explosion

The chances of meaningful pension reform involving the fire department during the next six years are slim and none.

The next mayor, though? The unfortunate, winning candidate who succeeds James?

Well, the pension situation will be at crisis point by then; the new mayor and City Council will have to do some incredible belt-tightening and make some mighty unpopular moves; and they’ll all serve one term and be thrown out of office.

Thanks in advance, Sly.


Editor’s note: You’ll recall that I wrote about the steps taken by the North Kansas City Mayor and City Council to put in motion a possible sale of North Kansas City Hospital. Well, last night KCPT ran a nine-minute piece, reported by special correspondent Sam Zeff. It featured, among other things, an interview with me, as well as video of Patty’s clothing manufacturing business on Swift Avenue. Here’s the link. If you watch it, I think you’ll find it interesting.

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On Monday, I met Mi-Ai Parrish and heard her speak for the first time since she arrived in Kansas City last August to succeed Mark Zieman as Kansas City Star publisher.

Parrish spoke to the 40 Years Ago Column Club at the Plaza III restaurant. A crowd of about 35 was on hand, including longtime society writer Laura Rollins Hockaday and Guy Townsend, president and publisher of  Townsend Communications. (Townsend will be the featured speaker at the club’s February meeting.)

It was an interesting and informative session, and Parrish demonstrated that her leadership style is much different than Zieman’s.

The last Star publisher, in my experience, who had a strong personal appeal was the late James H. Hale, who brought a Texas-sized personality from the Lone Star State after Capital Cities Inc. bought the employee-owned paper in 1977. (That was the first in a series of transactions that ended up six years ago with The Star in the hands of The McClatchy Company.)

It appears to me that with some aggressive profile building, the 40- or 41-year-old Parrish also has a  chance  to establish a strong personal appeal and, in so doing, push the paper toward renewed stability and greater profitability…Just because the newspaper industry is in the tank doesn’t mean that every paper has to fare poorly.

Financially, The Star reached its apex under Hale; for years, it was a virtual money-disgorging machine. Of course, the environment for newspapers was much, much stronger back then, but I think it was not just favorable economic conditions that enabled The Star to flourish under Hale. He was a reporters’ and editors’ publisher — a colorful guy who was accessible, funny and didn’t hesitate to take on the established powers, even though he drank and ate barbecue with them.

Hale was succeeded by a series of arched-back publishers, including Robert Woodworth, Mac Tully and Zieman, all of whom thought The Star was a cut above the other major businesses in town and that they, personally, didn’t need to sell the community on the value of the paper.

They knew they needed to sell papers; they just didn’t understand that, like selling cars, a key ingredient is a good salesman or saleswoman.

They ran it like it was on autopilot, and then, almost overnight, the motor stopped, thanks to the rise of the Internet and the Great Recession.

So, against the backdrop of an insipid entity (The Kansas City Star Co.) and in the worst newspaper environment we have ever seen, along comes Parrish.

She can do one of two things:

Present the same cool, presumptive demeanor that her immediate predecessors did and watch the paper’s fortunes continue to decline, or…

Let down her beautiful hair (figuratively, because it’s already down literally) and push “my Star,” as she calls it, with demonic persistence throughout the community.

After lunch yesterday, when Parrish stood up and began to speak, I was worried.

She proceeded to read a prepared speech, in which she traced the tired history of The Star. (Sorry, that doesn’t even excite many members of the 40 Years Ago Club.) She also talked about how, in the future, we’d be reading the paper on all sorts of electronic gadgets. We’re already doing that, of course, but I guess she meant there’d be even more, fancier gadgets down the road.

Not only did she read the speech, she read it fast, like she wanted to get through it as quickly as possible. In the process, she made no connection whatsoever with the audience.

The only line that really caught my ear was this:

“When people ask me, ‘Why should I care about the newspaper?’ I say, ‘If you value democracy, you damn well better.’ “

After the prepared speech, however — when she began taking questions — she showed another, more open side of herself.

Among other things, she said that:

:: The Star remains profitable. (Reassuring, for sure.)

:: We were seeing the “infancy” of the new Star model develop before our eyes. (Put that way, it sounded a lot more interesting than what gadgets we might be using to access the paper.)

:: Printed newspapers would be around “for many, many, many, many years.” (Encouraging to me and, I’m sure, many other dead-tree devotees.)

:: The Star generates about 85 percent of its revenue from advertising and 15 percent from circulation. Before the precipitous decline of the newspaper industry, starting in 2005, ad revenue accounted for about 90 percent of revenue, she said. (As surely as Obama is going to kick Romney to the curb, the percentage of revenue from circulation must continue to rise.)

:: Even at $1 a copy on newsstands, the daily Star remains a bargain. (Probably true.)

:: The Star is among the top three properties in the McClatchy chain. “We’re a big dog,” she said. (See next graph.)

Like the prepared speech, the “big dog” comment bothered me because that dog, while it’s still pretty big, doesn’t have nearly the bite that it used to. And it’s by no means safe to assume that most or all of its teeth will stay around “many, many, many, many years.”

All in all, I saw more positives than negatives in Parrish. For one thing, she talked about a specific story and mentioned a specific reporter, demonstrating that she’s closely in tune with the product and that, like Hale, she might be a reporters’ and editors’ publisher. (Which, in my opinion, translates into a readers’ publisher.)

The reporter she mentioned was Steve Kraske:  “Steve Kraske?, she said, illustrating her assertion that the paper was still a bargain. “He’s totally worth a dollar a day.”

The story she mentioned was Kent Babb’s fabulous but disturbing Sunday take-out on the brainwashing and intimidation that Kansas City Chiefs’ employees are being subjected to under Chiefs’ owner Clark Hunt, president Mark Donovan and general manager Scott Pioli.

Other general, positive indications were that Parrish answered questions directly, for the most part, and made it clear that she is taking personal responsibility for The Star’s future.

In addition to referring to it as “my Star,” she said, in explaining why the paper remained a good deal for customers: “I put the whole darn thing together for you, and I deliver it to you.”

She wasn’t looking for a pat on the back there; it seemed to me that she was simply accepting responsibility for keeping the presses running and making sure the paper got to people’s front yards.

And since she is willing to put that responsibility squarely on her shoulders, I say this:

Mi-Ai — Get out there every chance you get; attend every luncheon you possibly can; do every TV and radio interview you’re asked to do; attend every major civic function you can weasel your way into; don’t miss an opportunity to mingle with members of the public and tell them who you are and what your vision is for the hometown paper.

In short, make your presence felt; let the Kansas City area know who you are and why “your Star” is important to us…True, The Star isn’t what it used to be, but you’re right about it still being important and a good deal.

Sell it, lady!

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It’s on days like this that only The Kansas City Star can put everything in context.

I’m talking, of course, about the Chiefs incredible win over the Packers yesterday in Romeo Crennel’s debut as head coach of the Chiefs.

I was yelling and screaming at the TV like I haven’t done in a long time. Like everyone else in town, I really wanted the Chiefs to win that game and for Crennel to have a great start after three years of suffering through that screwball Todd Haley, who most of the time looks like he stepped out from under a bridge with a cardboard sign.

But once the victory was in hand, there was nowhere to turn, immediately, for the reinforcement and analysis that would make the win complete.

Len Dawson and Mitch Holthus, as good as they are on the game broadcasts, can’t deliver the type of overview and analysis that a game like yesterday’s calls for. When Mitch asked Len for his reaction to the game, Len said, “I’m surprised; I really am.”

Uh, that’s not quite what we were looking for, Len…

The 101 The Fox post game show absolutely sucks. For one thing, you have to sit in torment through about 20 minutes of post-game advertisements just to get to “The Turning Point Play of the Game,” which, of course, was Jackie Battle’s fourth-quarter touchdown.

Then there’s another 10 to 15 minutes of ads, and along comes the inimitable Art Hains — he of the sonorous voice but vacant mind.

If you tuned in to Metro Sports, Channel 30 on Time Warner Cable, you got some fairly decent commentary from former Chiefs players Danan Hughes and Rich Baldinger. While it beats the heck out of 101 The Fox, Metro Sports still doesn’t give you any truly satisfying insight into the big questions, like, “Does this seal the deal for Crennel?” and “Is Orton now the long-term quarterback?

So, what to do? If you’re like me, you turn off the radio, turn off the TV, enjoy the glow of victory and wait for Monday’s Star.

And when the paper hits the pavement, there it is, just what you’ve been waiting for — Sam Mellinger’s column, down the left side of the paper, above the fold, under a headline that reads, “In Big Win, KC Finds a Leader.”

He recounts the Gatorade bath, which prompted the first smile from the serious-minded Crennel, and then he tells me something I didn’t know — that Crennel wiped tears from his eyes as he walked off the field. (With that fatherly and comforting countenance, Crennel is already irresistible, but to know that he shed a tear or two makes you want to call Scott Pioli and demand that he immediately name Crennel as permanent head coach.)

Then, in his “nut graph,” Mellinger sums up what yesterday’s win meant to the organization.

“Three critical developments, in ascending order of importance, emerged from Sunday’s improbable upset: The Chiefs maintained a sliver of playoff hope, reminded a city that football can be fun and almost certainly found their new head coach.”

From Mellinger’s column, you go to the Sports Daily, where you find five full-length stories about the game and dozens of sidelights, including the “Do Tell the Truth” feature, which says of Crennel: “He is experienced, calm and popular. More than that, he showed Sunday that he’s an outstanding football coach.”

The “report card,” a popular fixture in reports of Missouri, Kansas, Kansas State and Chiefs games, gives the Chiefs an “A” in the coaching category.

“Romeo Crennel may have shown more true leadership in six days than Todd Haley did in three years,”  the report says.

The two stories on the section front go right to the heart of the two big questions posed above. The headline on the top story is “Romeo wins players’ hearts,” and the second story, about Orton, carries this sub-head: “Who will be quarterback next year? Picture just got more complicated.”

In the story about Crennel, The Star wisely picked up the coach’s opening line from the post-game news conference:

“The Chiefs played a very good game today. They played the way I would like to see the Chiefs play all the time. They followed the game plan, they had energy, they had effort, and they played their hearts out.”

It struck me immediately, when I first heard him say it, that he didn’t say “we.” It was “they,” giving full credit to the players.

Sunday was a great day for the Chiefs, for Romeo Crennel and for Kyle Orton…And Monday was a great day for The Kansas City Star.

Congratulations, hometown paper! You made this former employee proud.

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As many of you probably know, Local 42 of the International Association of Fire Fighters supported former Mayor Mark Funkhouser in his bid for re-election earlier this year.

Within a day or two after Funkhouser finished third in the primary, officials with Local 42 met with Sly James and Mike Burke, who advanced to the general election by finishing first and second respectively in the primary.

In short order, the firefighters endorsed James, who went on to win the general election handily.

With the firefighters, there’s always a price to be paid — usually a big price — for their backing.

In the coming weeks, Kansas Citians will find out just how many pounds of flesh Local 42 president Louie Wright was able to extract from James.

The telling, upcoming issue is pension reform, which will have a massive effect on city finances — one way or the other — for decades to come.

Today, the City Council Finance Committee will consider recommendations from a special Pension System Task Force, which has been meeting for almost a year, trying to devise a plan for moving the city forward on pensions in a fair but responsible way.

Task Force Chairman Herb Kohn, a lawyer with extensive political ties, will discuss the task force’s recommendations with the Finance Committee.

Naturally, Local 42 opposes the key recommended changes because they would reduce the lavish, defined pension system that firefighters — and most other city employees — enjoy.

According to the lead editorial in Monday’s Kansas City Star, task force recommendations include:

:: Increasing the employee contributions rate by a minimum of 1 percent in all four of the city’s pension systems.

:: Eliminating the 3 percent annual cost of living adjustment for many retirees and substituting one that could average 2 percent or less per year.

:: Changing the funding formula so that employees have to work a few more years before they are eligible for full pensions.

The editorial, probably written by Yael Abouhalkah, says the main thing missing is a recommendation to quickly establish a 401(k)-style plan for some workers.

The pension issue essentially will put James and the 12 other council members in the position of choosing between city and citizens’ interests on one hand and union interests on the other.

You can bet that Local 42 has been lobbying the council for weeks and that its officials laid the foundation for this battle early this year, when they decided which candidates to endorse.

You can also bet that the council members, including James, will be squirming in their seats as they try to balance any pledges they made to Local 42 with their fiduciary responsibility to the public.

James — who has had a nice, smooth, seven-month honeymoon — will be the main person on the spot. We will be able to judge by his actions on this issue if he is a mayor for the people or a mayor for the special interests.

My guess is that the task force’s decision not to push quickly for the institution of a 401(k)-style plan at City Hall was the first major concession to Local 42 and the city’s other major union, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.

Local 42 will be looking for more concessions, and they’ll be wielding the hammer of  past promises against the anvil of future endorsements:

“Vote with us, like you said you would last year…Vote with us or we’ll defeat you the next time you run.”

In its editorial, The Star laid the challenge at James’ feet.

“James and the council need to resist the pressure to protect the current arrangements. The special committee’s recommendations would go a long way to control the cost of taxpayer-financed pensions.”

Sly James…your honeymoon is about to end. The cards are being dealt; we will be watching to see how you play them.

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The latest Audit Bureau of Circulation figures must have publisher Mi-Ai Parrish and other top KC Star executives squirming.

Daily circulation (Monday to Friday) has hit a new low in the modern era.

For the first time since the paper passed the 200,000 mark on the way up to that level — probably 60 or 70 years ago — it now is below 200,000.

According to the figures, released on Tuesday, The Star’s total average daily circulation was 199,222 for the six-month period ending Sept. 30. That figure includes digital subscriptions.

Daily circulation had been 209,258 for the six-month period ending March 31 of this year.

The dip below 200,000 hurts in more than just the pride category: Those big, round, benchmark figures are important to advertisers. Where a little over 200,000 weekday circulation might draw a shrug from advertisers, the new low would likely draw some frowns and consternation..maybe even a re-evaluation of ad placements and an attempt to negotiate lower rates.

Another shaky development was on Sunday circulation, which is now above the 300,000 mark by the thickness of a piece of newsprint, at 300,450.

For the previous six-month period, total average Sunday circulation was 305,113.

Actually, Sunday circulation dipped below 300,000 at one point last year, but it regained the 300,000 plateau in the spring, after a an ABC rules change allowed papers to include in their figures newspapers distributed through Newspapers in Education (NIE) programs and copies sold in bulk to places like hotels and restaurants.

Now, it would appear, Sunday circulation will fall below 300,000 next March, barring unforeseen, favorable developments.

As recently as March 2009, Sunday circulation stood at 333,000.

Despite the lower numbers, The Star’s circulation still looks pretty good when compared to that of The St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Although it has the benefit of being in a much larger market, the P-D’s daily circulation, at 191,631, is less than The Star’s.

The P-D is still above 300,000 on Sunday, at 332,825.


Back on the journalistic front, The Star’s Glenn E. Rice had an exceptional story in Wednesday’s paper about the comings and goings of Lisa Irwin’s parents the night she disappeared.


Rice, who has been in on the story from the beginning, hit a home run with his straight-to-the point lead paragraph.

“The night before her 10-month-old daughter disappeared, Deborah Bradley spent several hours talking with a friend, smoking cigarettes and drinking five to 10 glasses of wine.”

From there, Rice gave a no-frills, right-down-the-line account of what took place in the Bradleys’ house that night…well, everything, of course, besides what happened to Lisa.

Wisely, Rice kept his voice out of the story and simply let the facts spill out. (Rice relied on an anonymous source who was “familiar with the family’s recollection of events from Oct. 3 and 4.”)

From the story, it appears to me that neither of them attempted to cover up anything that night. I now tend to think it was either an abduction — perhaps by someone familiar with Deborah’s drinking habits and Jeremy Bradley’s working schedule — or maybe a “baby giveaway.”

Maybe Lisa was interfering with Lisa’s wine-drinking sessions and had simply become too much of a bother for her. Also, if Deborah was drinking as much as she said the night of Oct. 3, I don’t think she would have had her wits about her enough to engineer, God forbid, the murder of her child without leaving any telltale evidence.

Of course, we don’t know everything that the police have — and they seem to think Deborah had something to do with the disappearance — but the fact that the mystery has gone on this long tends to indicate that clues are in short supply.

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I don’t know how many people noticed (probably not too many because The Star didn’t publish it, to the best of my knowledge), but The Star is losing another key cog in its editorial operation.

Anne Spenner, who has been assistant managing editor/metro the last few years, is leaving later this month to become vice chancellor of marketing and communications.

In UMKC’s website announcement on Aug. 30, Chancellor Leo Morton put Spenner’s title in capital letters and said, “Anne will direct UMKC’s marketing, branding and communications efforts and will play a key role in developing a comprehensive strategic communications plan.”

Well, you get the idea: She’s going to be the school’s chief flack.

Anyway, good for her; she’s getting out at a good time after a nice run of more than a decade at The Star.

Among other accomplishments, she founded the paper’s online Midwest Democracy Project, a successful vehicle for keeping abreast of political developments and linking readers to local blogs of interest (including this one, sometimes).

Spenner’s defection follows that of former Metro Editor Randy Smith by two years. Smith, who had moved on to the paper’s business side a few years in about 2007, joined MU in 2009 as the first Donald W. Reynolds Endowed Chair in Business Journalism. His job involves, among other things, developing, testing and writing about new digital models of journalism and advertising.

When Smith resigned, The Star did not write about it. I thought they should have run at least an item because of the high profile he had enjoyed at the paper.

Although Spenner maintained a lower profile, I think that her move also merited at least a mention in the paper. The metro editor is a mid-level manager who comes into contact with many members of the public and whose name is recognized by more people than any other desk editor.

My personal theory on why neither Smith nor Spenner got a mention is that The Star is embarrassed about the defections of high-ranking people. It’s another sign that the ship at 18th and Grand continues to take on lots of water.



Congratulations to Mike Hendricks, who had an outstanding A1 story Tuesday on the KCK elephant that seemingly cannot be brought to the ground — the old Indian Springs Shopping Center.

To the readers’ benefit, Hendricks has been doing a great job since he returned to full-time reporting recently after years as a metro columnist. He was the lead reporter on the Kansas City curfew story a few weeks ago, and yesterday he jumped the state line to report on an issue that continues to flummox Wyandotte County’s Unified Government.

Among other things, Hendricks contrasts the mushrooming growth out west — at the Legends shopping center and the adjoining Village West development — with the frustrating situation at Indian Springs, I-635 and State Avenue.

The Unified Government thought it had a deal worked out for redevelopment of the shopping center a few years ago, and it borrowed $11.4 million to get things going. Unfortunately, the deal fell through, partly because of the Great Recession.

Now, only about 30,000 square feet of the mall is occupied — all, or almost all of it, accounted for by city-related programs — but the city is paying $635,000 a year in debt payments on the loan. That amount will jump to $1 million in 2015, Hendricks reported, “whether there’s an income stream of sales tax revenue from the project or not.”

In Kansas City, it’s the still-new-looking Power & Light District that’s draining millions of dollars away from neighborhood and community services. In KCK, it’s a moribund, 40-year-old shopping center. Let’s hope it comes down within at least a few years of the razing of the World’s Worst Development Gone Awry — the West Edge project on the Plaza.

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Many of you may recall the stories I wrote July 21 and 29 about Jason Noble, The Star’s former Jefferson City correspondent.

Noble made four significant errors in an attempted “gotcha” story about a Republican state senator from St. Joseph.

Noble wrote the story on the way out the door, apparently after he had accepted a job with The Des Moines Register, where he started early last month.

If it’s any solace to Jason, he’s not alone in the multi-correction arena.


Even the very best reporters sometimes manage to litter their stories with errors. Take, for example, John F. Burns, The New York Times’ London bureau chief.

Burns, 66, has won two Pulitzer prizes. He appears frequently on PBS, and Wikipedia says he has been called “the dean of American foreign correspondents.”

If Burns was flying high lately, he came crashing down to earth recently after the Times published a 781-word story by Burns about CNN talk show host Piers Morgan’s possible involvement in the telephone-hacking scandal in England.

The story ran on Aug. 5.

Yesterday, Aug. 31, The Times published a 271-word correction that consumed 6.5 column inches. That’s a half inch less than Noble’s infamous correction.

Actually, the printed correction should have been longer than it was because the online version of the correction tacked on yet another screw-up in the story. (Maybe the final error was discovered after Wednesday’s paper had gone to press.)

If I’m reading the correction — the online version — correctly, Burns made seven errors in the story.


The errors ranged from incorrectly naming the newspaper (The Daily Mirror, not  The Mirror) that Piers Morgan once worked for to reporting incorrect details about an alleged hacking of a phone message from Paul McCartney to his former wife, Heather Mills.

Burns, whose name I’ve seen in The Times but whose work I’m not particularly familiar with, has some controversy in his background.

He was awarded the 1993 Pulitzer Prize in International Reporting for his “courageous and thorough coverage of the destruction of Sarajevo and the barbarous killings in the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina.”

However, the Wikipedia article about Burns says: “Some of Burns’s reporting in Bosnia and Herzegovina was later put in doubt for using questionable sources. Within the book “Media Cleansing: Dirty Reporting Journalism & Tragedy in Yugoslavia,” Burns is criticized extensively, accused of journalistic malpractice by its author Peter Brock.”

Burns won his second Pulitzer in 1997, that time for “his courageous and insightful coverage of the harrowing regime imposed on Afghanistan by the Taliban.”

Burns joined The Times in 1975 as a metropolitan section reporter. Wikipedia says he “has been assigned to and headed several of The Times’ foreign bureaus.”

It’s pretty disturbing, don’t you think, that a reporter with that much experience and such lofty credentials could be so casual and careless?

You know, I love The Times, and this doesn’t change my opinion a bit. But it goes to show you that even the best, when they “mail it in” — as Burns obviously did — can fall in the deepest of mud puddles.

Today, Burns has mud caked all over him, and it’s going to take him a long time to clean up.

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Now that the volcanic ash has started to settle from last week’s eruption at 12th and McGee, I’m starting to think that some good might come out of the three-day debacle.

Some good…

despite John Covington intentionally (I feel sure) squirting lighter fluid on the always-burning-embers of the Kansas City school board;

despite school board member Arthur Benson flying off the handle and accusing board president Airick Leonard West of causing the eruption;

and despite West apparently dabbling in the mechanics, at least, of a proposed multi-million-dollar bid that was supposed to be the province of the superintendent.

And how, you ask, might some good come out of this?

— It helped, I think, to bring into full public view the fact that significant problems exist between Benson and West and that those two bookends must reconcile their differences if the board is to move forward effectively.

— It showed that West has to be watched closely and has to learn, if he can, to resist the temptation to dip his hands in contractual matters that are off limits to the board until those matters are brought to the board for discussion and approval.

West and Benson

On the first point, Benson said on Friday — the day Covington accepted a new job in Michigan —  that he felt Covington had “used” him and that he was “completely distraught.”

What he apparently didn’t say to West, at least in public (if The Star’s front-page story is a guide) is “I’m sorry.” Those were the words that he should have spoken to West in the wake of his call for West to resign, when he obviously believed that Covington resigned because of West’s meddling.

However, even though Benson might not have apologized publicly, the front-page photo of him with his right arm around West’s shoulder at a Friday news conference spoke volumes.

These two guys need each other, and Kansas City needs for them to work well together. They’re both very bright; one has the benefit of years of experience; the other has the benefit of youth, vigor and good political instincts.

As for the second point — West dipping into matters that are supposed to be left to the administration — an Aug. 26 story by The Star’s Joe Robertson and Dave Helling contained a very disturbing section.

The story said:

“…e-mail records show Covington made a Sunshine Law request earlier this week seeking copies of correspondence between West and bidders hoping to win an $85 million project to modernize the energy efficiency of all district buildings.”

“West provided copies of e-mails to The Star that he believed were responsible for the concerns. Bidders were alerted in the project bid regulations not to have any contact with board members.

“The e-mails, from Peter Hinkle with Schneider Electric, shared a list of best practices and questions to ask in assessing such an energy services contract. Hinkle also shared concerns about the process in an e-mail that records show West forwarded to Covington.

“West wrote Covington, saying, ‘I contacted these folks because I thought they had questions about whom to contact regarding district projects. As it turned out, they wound up being more informative to me…’ “

The company found West to be “more informative” than Covington. Why, West must have been amazed that Schneider officials were so solicitous to him — little old Airick, just one of a handful of people who would ultimately decide who got the contract.

Everybody, even those with limited vision, can see the potential problems with a vendor cozying up to the board president.

I sure hope that West, who is 31 and doesn’t have much in the way of career achievements, can stay on the right side of the road. He’s got a lot of potential, but it could all flood away in an instant if he let temptation and greed get the better of him.

So now things now will settle down at 12th and McGee, and The Star won’t be dedicating as many column inches to the situation there. Nevertheless, Kansas City school district patrons, civic leaders and Star readers will be counting on Joe Robertson, KCMO school district reporter, to keep plenty of sun shining on school board proceedings and behind-the-scenes developments. There’s nothing like a nosy reporter to help keep people honest and alert.

West and Benson should provide another layer of public protection: As they work on their relationship, each will be watching the other like they’d scrutinize amoebae under a microscope.

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The Kansas City Star is now three weeks into its new rotating metro columnist system, and, while it’s far too soon to judge the success or failure of the initiative, it’s a good time to take a closer look at the concept.

Personally, I think it’s going to be difficult for any of the six new columnists (there are three carryovers, C.W. Gusewelle, Steve Kraske and Mary Sanchez) to gain traction with readers. That’s the whole idea of columnists, you know — to have them become trusted, if controversial, voices whose work becomes a destination point for readers.

Maybe this is an experiment designed to cull the reporting ranks for a new, marquee columnist or two, but this move strikes me as more of a money-saving mishmash, a cheap alternative to hiring or promoting at least one new, permanent columnist.

But I certainly don’t claim to have a perfectly clear perspective on this, so I sought the views this week of two top, former editors who have deep wells of experience in newsroom leadership and organization.

One is former KC Star executive editor Mike Waller, who went on to become publisher at The Baltimore Sun; the other is Mike Jenner, former editor at The Bakersfield Californian, who last year was named the Houston Harte Endowed Chair at the Missouri School of Journalism. At MU, Jenner focuses on innovation in journalism.


Before we hear from them (and more from me), let’s back up and look at how all this evolved.

Setting the stage for the columnist shake-up, The Star lost two longtime columnists within three weeks. First, Steve Penn, an African-American who frequently wrote about African-Americans and developments in the black community, was fired in mid-July for plagiarism.

On Aug. 3, Mike Hendricks, a Lenexa resident who often donned his white, suburban columnist hat, announced that he was returning to full-time reporting.

The same day, next to Hendricks’ column, The Star ran a graphic laying out the new lineup. Here it is:

Gusewelle continues on Sunday, the only day there is a stand-alone Local section;

Sanchez runs on Monday and Thursday (as well as on the Op-Ed page on Tuesday);

James Hart (police blogger); Alan Bavley (medical writer); and Joe Robertson and Mara Rose Williams (education reporters) alternate on Wednesdays;

Christine Vendel (KCMO cops), Glenn Rice (who primarily covers the Northland) and Mark Morris (federal courts reporter) alternate on Friday;

Kraske (politics) moves from Sunday to Saturday.

Of those nine, Gusewelle, Kraske and Sanchez have the strongest name identity with readers. While the names of the six others, all reporters, will ring bells with many regular readers, they’re not well known.

In addition to their regular duties, those six reporters will write periodic columns — columns, that you can expect to be rooted in developments and stored knowledge from their respective “beats.”

For example, I don’t expect Christine Vendel, longtime KCMO cops reporter, to suddenly start writing about the Kansas City nightlife scene. Ideally, she’ll be giving the readers an inside look at investigations and operations at 12th and Locust.

Now it’s time for our experts to weigh in.

Mike Waller

Waller (in an e-mail):

“I have two thoughts:  Having nine columnists is about four or five too many, if only because there aren’t that many good columnists on any paper!

“Writing a column is an art, and it takes a couple of years to get really good at doing it.  My second thought is…rotating nine columnists means that none other than Gusewelle, who is already established, will be able to get much of a following.  Readers need regularity and consistency. So do the columnists.

“This is simply a bad idea.”

Mike Jenner

Jenner (in a telephone interview):

“I’m intrigued by their approach. It is kind of unusual…Certainly some of them (the six reporters new to the mix) are going to generate a following and some are not.”

Jenner, who worked with Waller years ago at the Hartford Courant, said The Star’s strategy, as suggested earlier, might be to see if a few of the new columnists can “separate themselves and gain a following.” If so, The Star might reduce “the mix” and field one or more of them as marquee columnists.

Jenner added that one element that major metropolitan papers badly need these days — and which marquee columnists can provide — is personality.

“There’s not enough personality in newspapers,” he said. “In the old days the staff writers got to have their own brand, or cache, and I think that was a good thing.”

In general, then, Jenner puts The Star’s move in the “innovative” category rather than the penny-inching category.

“We tend to cling to the traditional,” Jenner said, “but the traditional is not necessarily moving us forward.”


Me? Well, I put in 37 years as a reporter and editor at The Star, and my instincts have run along the traditional lines. More and more, however, as the newspaper business, in general, continues its downward spiral, I recognize the need for innovation.

So, if I were editor of The Star, here’s what I would try…The best and most recognized columnist at the paper now is sports columnist Sam Mellinger, who succeeded Jason Whitlock, after Whitlock was dumped last year.

Mellinger, a young guy with amazing perspective relative to his limited experience, is The Star’s only marquee columnist. Recognizing that, the editors have started to run his column, from time to time, on the front page of the paper, not just on the front of SportsDaily.

Just last Saturday, for example, his column about the fight between Kansas City Chiefs’ veteran Thomas Jones and rookie receiver Jonathan Baldwin ran at the top of Page One. That was a bold, smart move by the editors, in my opinion.

For years, it has been a truism at The Star that reports of Chiefs games and developments within the organization are the one sure thing that causes newspaper sales to spike. When I was at The Star, box sales always took a big jump on Mondays after Chiefs’ games.

My idea, then? Give Mellinger a foothold on the front page every Sunday and let him write about whatever sports subject is on his mind. Last year, if you’ll recall, The Star made a huge mistake when it commissioned Whitlock, the marquee columnist at the time, to write a weekly Op-Ed column in addition to his sports columns. The column dribbled away after a few weeks.

So, have Mellinger stick to sports. It’s one news product that sells now.

Think about it: In most big cities, good sports coverage — intermingled with insight and strong opinion — is about the only thing that people relish or want any more from their local papers.

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I was shocked when I opened Sunday’s paper and saw, on the front of the Local section, that a stunt pilot working the control stick of a biplane had crashed and died during an airshow Saturday at Wheeler Downtown Airport.

I hadn’t paid any attention to the news Saturday, so photographer Rich Sugg’s fiery, section-front photo really took my breath away. The headline was excellent, too: “Thousands see crash that kills veteran pilot.”

With my attention riveted, I proceeded to gobble up the story, written by Mike Hendricks and Glenn E. Rice. Appropriately, the story took up more than half of the section front and included a photo of a couple embracing after witnessing the tragedy.

One or both of the reporters did a good job of trying to profile the pilot, Bryan Jensen, who had been a stunt pilot the past 15 years. About six inches of text was on the section front, under a sub-head that said, “Air show closes for day after biplane spirals to ground, bursts into flame.”

Bryan Jensen and his plane

More information about the crash and quotes from witnesses took up the first two columns of the jump.

Then, out of the blue, the story took an odd, sharp turn. After an awkward transition recounting an earlier rain delay, the story proceeded to describe some attractions that people attending the show had seen earlier Saturday. That material consumed the final eight inches of the story, which ended with no further mention of the crash.

The story was totally bifurcated: The fiery crash and tragic loss of death on one hand, and, on the other, an account of people cheering the U.S. Army Golden Knights parachute team hours before the crash…followed by more drivel.

It was incongruous and inappropriate.

What happened, obviously, is that  Glenn Rice, whose name followed Hendricks’ on the byline, was dispatched to the airshow in the morning to write a feature story. Then, immediately after the crash, Hendricks probably was called in from home — or perhaps he had drawn a Sunday shift — to cover the aftermath of the crash.

So, both reporters came back to the office, each with divergent material. The next step — again obvious to anyone who knows how a newsroom works — is that an editor asked each of them to write up their material. Then, the editor made Hendricks’ material about the crash the “lead” or top part of the story and dropped in Rice’s material after the awkward transition.

In my opinion, the decision to include the mundane material about what had transpired earlier in the day was ridiculous. It was disrespectful to Jensen, his family and the other, grieving airshow participants. The crash rendered everything else irrelevant.

Airshow officials had the good sense to shut the show down immediately after the crash. Star editors should have had the good sense to shut down their story at the conclusion of the crash account.


Now here’s a mystery for you.

In Sunday’s New York Times, two section fronts carried stories with almost identical headlines and similar, large photos.

Leading the Styles section was a picture of young people partying at a nightclub under multicolored lights. The accompanying story was about the summer party scene in the Hamptons, a seaside resort on Long Island. The headline on the story was “The Night is Young.”

A section or two removed from Styles, the Business section was led by a story about how the good times are rolling in Silicon Valley, despite the overall economy.

The lead photo, also stripped across the top of the page, was of young people dancing under red-tinted lights in a tent that had been transformed into a nightclub setting. The headline said: “In Silicon Valley, the Night is Still Young.”

Were the mirror-like sections intentional or a blunder?

At first, I was convinced it was a big screw-up; that the weekend editors missed seeing the forest for the trees.

But later, my wife Patty, who often picks up subtleties faster than I do, said the sections fronts were too similar not to have been coordinated. She liked it. She also pointed out the wording of the headlines, with one saying, “The Night is Young” and the other saying, “The Night Is Still Young,” as if one played off the other.

I sent an e-mail to Art Brisbane, public editor of The Times and former Kansas City Star publisher, to see if he had the answer to the mystery. Brisbane, who is not involved in day-to-day operations at The Times, replied last night that he didn’t know.

On Sunday afternoon, I picked up one indication that the parallel presentations could have been accidental: On its website, The Times had substituted a different photo with the Silicon Valley story than the one that appeared on the section front. The new photo showed three young entrepreneurs, standing on chairs and talking to people attending the party. But the guys were the only people in the photo, making it very different than the original party pic.

I asked Art to let me know if he solved the mystery today. I’ll keep you posted.

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