Posts Tagged ‘William Rockhill Nelson’

With each passing day, the Fourth Estate, as the newspaper industry has been deferentially referred to for about two centuries, is becoming less of an estate and more like common ground.

(FYI, the term seems to date to the 1700s, when there were three “estates” of Parliament — the Lords Spiritual, the Lords Temporal and the House of Commons.)

Newspapers used to be the great purveyors of information. The big-city papers operated out of hulking fortresses, their minions scrambling around inside to meet deadlines and their delivery trucks spoking out for a hundred of more miles to deliver the precious product onto the lawns and to the newsstands for the waiting masses.

Some of the papers wore their hubris under their mastheads…like the Chicago Tribune, which for many years claimed the mantle of “World’s Greatest Newspaper.”  Then, there’s our own Kansas City Star, which still uses as its slogan the imperious words of founder William Rockhill Nelson: “A Paper for the People.”

(Doesn’t it just make you want to cry out, “Oh, thank you, Mr. Nelson, thank you!” ?)   

Others, like The New York Times, touted (and still do) their earnest and hard-working approach — “All the News that’s Fit to Print” — or, in the case of the Atlanta Journal, their mission — “Covers Dixie Like the Dew.” 

For outsiders — those not baptized in black ink — it was, and still is, difficult to get over the moat and into the fortresses. To peel a layer from the old saying about Las Vegas, what went on behind those walls stayed behind those walls.  

Over the years, though, and particularly in recent years as the news-gathering business has feathered and fractured with the galloping expansion of the Internet, some papers have gotten humility and have realized it’s time to descend from the stratosphere and get down to street level, where people are inhaling the exhaust fumes.

The Star, for example, has its Midwest Voices program of contributing columnists, and it also periodically invites area residents to The Star building at 18th and Grand to sit in on the editors’ afternoon news conferences to learn more about the paper’s inner operations.

Now, a Connecticut newspaper has taken things to an entirely new, egalitarian level. Peter Applebome reported in The Times on Thursday that The Register Citizen in Torrington, CT, has a sign out front inviting residents to the Newsroom Cafe for coffee and muffins.

The paper also circulates fliers around town, inviting members of the public to attend the daily 4 p.m. news conferences, where editors discuss and evaluate the stories that are in various stages of development. A sign on a newsroom wall, near the conference area, says, “Newsroom story meetings — 4 p.m. daily. Right here. Public welcome.”

Applebome says the open-arms approach reflects the paper’s commitment to the new, online-dominated journalism. John Paton, chief executive of the paper’s parent company, “has become a hero to new-media gurus,” Applebome said, “by taking a newspaper company emerging from bankruptcy and turning it into a company militantly focused on the Internet.”

The paper’s slogan says it all: “Digital first. Print last.”

Obviously, The Star and other big-city, mainstream papers are not going to be able to turn their ships around as fast as small operations like The Register Citizen. But they’d better start spinning the wheel faster, while there’s still time to salvage the evolving and weakening link between newspaper and reader.

With a few notable exceptions, like the Sulzberger family that controls a majority interest in The Times, industry leaders are no longer aristocrats. They are business people scrambling to figure out how to save an industry and what they can do to get lost readers back.

In my opinion, it’s important for newspaper editors and publishers to do whatever they can to shed the fortress, high-on-the hill image and to give the public more access to their buildings and their inner workings…within reason, of course.

The Star has taken the first baby steps, but I think it’s time for a more courageous move, one that tampers with the paper’s very origins.

Here’s my idea.

For those of you who subscribe, when you look at the bottom of the Op-Ed page, what do you see? Next to the masthead, listing the names of the top editors and executives, looms the frowning visage of William Rockhill Nelson, next to his words, “A Paper for the People.”

I say, get rid of the photo. Off with his head! That high-collared shirt, bulbous nose and icy frown send the wrong message in this day and age. The collar, the nose, the frown — they don’t make people want to buy the paper; they push people away!

I know this is a bold step. But The Star has taken bold steps before. Why, until about the early 1980s, the words “The Kansas City Star” were followed by a period on the flag (the top) of the paper. Some of you may remember. A period. Nobody understood it, but it was sacrosanct. 

Then, a publisher named Jim Hale, who had come along after a media conglomerate bought the paper in the late 1970s, decided one day to do away with the period. And so, poof, it disappeared. No one (or very few people, anyway) said a word.

The highfalutin photo of Nelson could disappear just as quickly and quietly. So could the slogan.

Read Full Post »