I was present for the deaths of two newspapers: The Des Moines Tribune in 1982 and the Kansas City Times 24 years ago today.
The first time I was an editor at the surviving paper, the Des Moines Register. It was rough watching our sister paper die and it was rougher watching 50-plus journalists on both staffs lose their jobs. But it was unquestionably better, if you kept your job, to work for the surviving paper.
In Kansas City, the death was shared between the two staffs. The evening paper was dying, but that was the Star. And the name of the surviving paper was the Star, so the Kansas City Times was dying, too.
The company pretended that both papers would live on somehow in the new morning Star. The final edition of the Times didn’t even merit an above-the-fold mention. The story is at the bottom of the page, with the bullshit headline: “Death of a newspaper? No, a grand rebirth”:
Compare that with the Tribune’s mournful recognition of the fact of its death (one small brief on the cover about the day’s other news):
The Times wasn’t necessarily a great paper, but it was a damn good one at its death, with an outstanding staff striving for recognition with a name that wasn’t as well known. The Star name was on the company and the building. Ernest Hemingway’s writing had once graced the pages of the Star.
But the Times had luminaries of its own. Long before Arthur S. Brisbane was a vice president of Knight-Ridder and public editor of the New York Times, he was a Kansas City Times columnist. Before moving on to the Washington Post, Rick Atkinson won the 1982 Pulitzer Prize for National Reporting for a Kansas City Times series on the West Point Class of 1966, which later became the book The Long Gray Line. The Times and Star shared the 1982 Pulitzer for their coverage of the collapse of a skywalk at the Hyatt Regency Hotel.
My job from 1985 to 1990 was directing the Times’ national and mid-America staff, with bureaus in Washington, St. Louis, Jefferson City, St. Joseph, Lawrence and Topeka, as well as roving national and regional correspondents based in Kansas City. We covered big national, regional and even international stories of interest to KC readers. An extraordinary group of colleagues covered lots of memorable stories. I won’t list them all here, but I’ve always been grateful to Rick Tapscott for bringing me from Des Moines to Kansas City to join that staff.
I pondered waiting a year and sharing this front page on the 25th anniversary of the Times’ demise. That’s more the kind of number where you note an anniversary that distant. But I decided to share some historic front pages on the blog this year, and when I saw the final Times edition in my February papers, I realized I haven’t blogged much yet about my time in KC. So I decided not to wait.
I actually got a promotion and a pay raise in the “merger” of the Star and Times. In an incredible round of title inflation, I went from national/mid-America editor to assistant managing editor/national and mid-America news (the title barely fit on a business card).
Unlike the Register, the Star and Times did not cut staff in the merger. We would cut staff by attrition. In the reporting and photography ranks, this meant we could cover lots more stories (though it also meant we lost our people who were most attractive to other employers). My national and regional staff grew, adding bureaus in Springfield and Wichita, plus a political reporter and higher education reporter based in KC.
At the upper levels, though, the decision not to cut or even demote anyone (by title at least) resulted in a crowded bureaucracy. Before the merger, I had three editors above me: the editor, a managing editor and an assistant managing editor. The merger smushed the two hierarchies together and after my “promotion” to AME, I had an editor, executive editor, managing editor and two deputy managing editors above me. At the executive editor’s meetings of top editors, at AME rank and above, 14 of us crowded into the room.
In Des Moines and Kansas City, the “competing” papers were owned by the same companies: the Cowles family in Des Moines and Capital Cities/ABC in Kansas City (after my departure, the Star would be sold three times: to Disney, then Knight-Ridder, then McClatchy). Competition was fierce in the Des Moines and Kansas City newsrooms (in both cities, the competing staffs shared space), but in each city the public perceived us as one company and that company pocketed the profits from both papers.
In both places the decision to end evening publication was announced and marketed as a “merger” of the two newspapers, rather than as the death of one of them. Newsroom wags noted that the newspapers were merging much like a bug merged with a windshield. Or they noticed how much “merger” sounded like “murder.”
Newsroom competition, while undeniably fun, was unquestionably wasteful, a luxury a newspaper company could no longer afford. Why would a newsroom pay the salaries of two statehouse bureaus, two city hall reporters, two education reporters and so on?
In Des Moines at least, the newspapers had significantly different audiences. The Register circulated statewide, the Tribune just in metro Des Moines. The Trib was delivered to people interested in reading about their communities after work, the Register to people who wanted to start their day with a newspaper and their morning coffee. Not many people took both papers.
In Kansas City, though, the company didn’t even have control of its circulation. In a case that reached the U.S. Supreme Court, carriers argued successfully that the routes belonged to them and they could market the paper however they wanted. So they offered morning and evening papers as a single package, with one paper costing hardly less than both. So almost everyone took both newspapers. What that meant in the newsroom was that we didn’t duplicate stories. If we weren’t significantly advancing a story from the Star, we wouldn’t even run the story in the next morning’s Times. And vice versa.
That made for exhilarating and exasperating competition. Both news staffs formed special teams of our best reporters to cover the collapse of a leading local developer, Kroh Brothers, in the late 1980s. I supervised a team of Paul Wenske, Charlie Crumpley and Dave Hayes and they absolutely rocked, breaking story after story in explaining the complex nature of Kroh Brothers’ financial schemes and structures.
On weekends, the Times had the Saturday paper and the Star the Sunday paper. The Saturday paper wasn’t as hefty as the Sunday paper, but car ads made it sort of thick, and we treated it like a Sunday paper, featuring enterprise stories we’d worked on all week. Three weekends in a row, my team worked late Friday night, writing and editing our stories and looking across the newsroom, where the Star’s Kroh Brothers team (I don’t recall who the reporters were, but they were among the Star’s best) worked feverishly on the Star’s Sunday story on the Kroh Brothers. And three weekends in a row, the Star published no Sunday story on Kroh Brothers. Each was a glorious victory for the Times team: We had covered every angle the Star was working on and blown them out of the water.
But it was an incredible waste for the company: Three of our best reporters and an editor wasted their time three weekends in a row.
Of course, all that had to stop.
In retrospect, I think it would have been better, probably in both communities, to take a middle course, publishing morning and evening editions with a single news staff. The Omaha World-Herald did that when I was a reporter there from 1993 to 1998 and from 2000 to 2005. We did have the cost of two copy-editing shifts and two production and distribution shifts, but we didn’t inflate costs with duplicative reporting and two editing hierarchies. The World-Herald still produces an evening edition.
I frankly think an evening edition makes more sense these days in many communities than a morning one, though I wouldn’t argue for such a big change that would focus so much energy and attention on a print product.
Back to Kansas City: The Star made better note of the final evening edition:
I like that the photo showed a printer putting the Star together. I also like (in a shred of that old competitive spirit) that a Times editor, Beth Flansburg, suggested the lead headline the Star used on that final edition: “Goodbye; see you in the morning.”
Star columnists noted the passing of the evening edition, but their front-page promo played it as a beginning, too:
Turn inside to C.W. Gusewelle‘s final evening column, and he tells you more about the Star through the years than he probably intended to. See if you can find a single woman among the colleagues he recalls fondly (that group of 14 top editors at the new Star included only two women):
I learned a lasting lesson about the newspaper business as we engaged the community (we didn’t call it “engagement” then) in seeking suggestions for what we should include in “your new morning Star.” The No. 1 request: Keep the New York Times crossword puzzle (from people who viewed the Star’s puzzle — I think it was the Chicago Tribune puzzle — as insultingly easy). The No. 2 request: Keep the easy puzzle (from evening crossword fans who were daunted by the difficult New York Times puzzle). We heard the message loud and clear.
The new Star was designed with an “amusements” page opposite the comics page, with a few extra comics along with puzzles and games. It had both puzzles, one above the other. I’m sure at least a dozen people, including me, saw that page before we launched the new Star.
And what was the No. 1 complaint the first morning of the new Star, March 1, 1990? The lower puzzle was on the fold. Crossword fans like to quarter-fold their paper to work on the puzzle, and our location had flummoxed fans of the lower puzzle (the easy one, I’m pretty sure). We quickly redesigned the amusements page for March 2, putting the puzzles side by side at the top of the page, perfect for folding.
And a perfect humbling for journalists who thought people took the newspaper for our hard-hitting news coverage and our watchdog reporting. That stuff is fine, but don’t screw with the crossword puzzle.
Occasionally when I hear or read old-school journalists whining about the listicles and cat videos that get mixed in with digital journalism, I remind myself of all the time and space many of those same editors spent (and some still spend) on crossword puzzles, comics, horoscopes, jokes, Bible verses, bridge columns, TV listings and other newspaper content that didn’t have a thing to do with news.
The first edition of the new Star was pretty unremarkable:
The front-page letter from Publisher Jim Hale assured readers in the second paragraph that the new Star would have the puzzles (and other features) from both papers.
Alas, I have lightened the load of my historic-newspaper collection through the years and did not save the inside sections, so I can’t show that one-day-only amusements design with the puzzle on the fold.
The death of a newspaper is a sad experience, causing upheaval in the staff and harming the surviving product. Looking back, I can’t say that the new Register or the new Star represented improvements over the competing papers they replaced. They represented cost savings for the owner. That’s necessary. And it remains necessary today as the industry tries to manage our transition from the print past to the digital future.
The Star was a miserable place to work after the “merger.” I was gone in less than two years. I have fond memories of my time in Kansas City, including many at home or at the city’s sports venues and restaurants. The fond memories from the newsroom took place before the death of the Times.
Update: Prompted by Chuck Offenburger’s suggestion below, I have added this video: