Saturday, March 21, 2009

Listen... Do you hear laughter?

Listen. Did you hear?

Did you hear the sound of three men laughing? Stan Rose, Tom Leathers, and Hal Townsend. Laughing their heads off, they were.

I got curious to see if an old compadre, Loren Stanton, was laid-off at the Star. Sure enough, his name appeared on some of the early lists . Later his name appeared on some typically well-written stories on the Johnson County Sun Website. He’s a professional and his writing has always reflected a touch of simple journalistic elegance.

Loren and I were at the Sun when the Star first hatched the bright idea to create “zoned” editions and tap into the lucrative advertising base in the suburbs. The idea was to fight the inroads we upstarts at the Sun and at Leathers’ and Townsend’s papers were making into their monopoly. The government busted their monopoly in 1957. The Star was forced to sell WDAF TV and radio, and quit punishing advertisers who also wanted to advertise in competing publications – those owned by Rose, Leathers and Townsend, I think, though the original case doesn’t appear to name them.

Listen to the laughter. Now the Star appears to be giving up the battle. If you look at the layoffs, including the layoff of Loren Stanton who was editor of the Blue Valley-Leawood Neighborhood News, you can see the Star is cutting deeply into its suburban bureaus. Can the elimination of zoned coverage be next?

All this just seems to me to go against logic. Early on the logic was demographic and in Kansas City that means geographic. The Star couldn’t hope to subsist on advertising generated only by the core city. Its own reporting showed just how ridiculously sprawled out the city had become in its rush to white flight. To thrive, the Star had to create and maintain a strong presence in Johnson County, Platte County, Clay County, Raytown, Parkville, Oak Grove, Olathe … you name it. So, Goliath tried to smother the likes of Rose, Leathers and Townsend with “local” coverage because the government wouldn't let him do it through rigged advertising policies.

But the Star was still easy for reporters to beat because just stationing people in Southern Johnson County didn’t mean better, more personal, more readable, more local stories. They confused quantity with quality. As I said before, the Star could always be first but Loren and I could always be better. And they still buried local stories inside and in special sections. They still wanted to be Goliath, with national and international news on page one and a national presence to brag on.

The Davids aren’t exactly flourishing today, but they are still swinging their sling shots. Some research shows the smaller newspapers are the only ones growing today. Free newspapers are growing the most. And the Star, well the Star has retreated inside the castle in what appears to be a counterintuitive strategy.

If it weren’t for the real lives of the real people Goliath has cut loose, it would be funny.

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