Star Search: The Truth & Nothing But the Truth Re Steve Penn’s Firing by The Star

I’m about to do the unthinkable…

I’m going to tell you exactly why Steve Penn was fired by the Star. In my humble opinion. But trust me, I spent 16 years toiling in the belly of the beast and I know how things work at 18th and Grand.

Steve Penn wasn’t merely fired because he slipped up and got caught. He was fired because he wasn’t very good – which is being generous – and the paper stumbled on to an unimpeachable reason to rid itself of him.

It’s really just that simple.

Frankly – and allow me to first say as a person I like Steve – his columns were somewhat obviously, poorly written and of little consequence to most readers. Steve was a byproduct of the Baby Boom generation of editors – post Watergate journalists who wanted to right the wrongs of their predecessors.

Two of those wrongs being the presence and treatment of women and persons of color in the newsroom.

When I came on board in 1992, for example, two of the main thrusts by new editor Art Brisbane were to place women in charge of the features section (now FYI) and hire African American and women columnists.

To that end, no fewer than four female "Metro" section columnists were installed, starting with Jennifer Howe then Betty Cuniberti and continuing – in failure I should add – with Barb Shelly and Miriam Pepper.  They all failed to ignite anything approaching significant followings or interest by readers before leaving or being promoted to positions where attracting readers was of less importance.

That’s a brutal assessment  – and they’re all nice people, so I apologize on that count – but stand by the obvious.

Steve Penn was in most people’s minds a minority hire. A dude who worked his way up, but let’s be real; few of his columns were of much consequence or substance. Penn was the default "black guy" in the newsroom who could be counted on to deliver blow jobs to Wayne Cauthen or Ollie Gates – not that they did or didn’t deserve them –  and cover odds and ends in the black community. But not much else.

And in today’s bottom line driven, wide world of sports – where trimming fat (along with bone) is a painful reality, Steve had to go. They whacked his pay by a third along with fellow columnist Mike Hendricks two years back. But even if he’d been making $60,000 after the wick trimming, that still left a $40,000 paycheck on the table, and that was $40,000 too much.

Catching Penn turning in passages from press releases and the like as his own work was the perfect out.

Nothing incites the paranoia gene more with the still-largely white, middle aged management at the Star than race issues. Crossing swords with Kansas City’s African-American community. In other words, letting Steve go could only be done if they got him in the Jason Blair Zone.

Blair, you recall, was a black New York Times reporter axed in 2003 for "frequent acts of journalistic fraud."

And like Penn in today’s newspaper, Blair’s public execution was an extremely high profile affair.

Few staffers get disgraced in the pages of the Kansas City Star as thoroughly as Penn did today.

Think about it. The last one I recall was Gib Twyman in the early ’90s. Sports columnist Gib went down ugly, just like Penn, but Gib was screwing up on all four cylinders.

Clearly the newspaper wanted to leave no doubt whatsoever as to why Penn was let go. No way did it dare risk any kind of backlash whatsoever from the black community on the silencing of one of its few voices at the paper.

Penn needed to go down hard and clean and that’s exactly how he was exterminated.

That’s why the Star went on and on into practically each and every boring detail of Penn’s journalistic infractions.

Let me add one more thought…

In a perfect world, Penn would have been long gone years ago. It was obvious at the paper that he wasn’t up to the task. I recall during Obama’s campaign in 2008, a friend of Penn’s telling me that Steve had argued that there were 200 million African Americans living in the United States.

Several years back, I was working late one night at the Star when I got a call from Mike Hendricks.

Mike had been writing a column that went in the Joco edition of the Star (and later the Missouri side) and – as he explained to me that night – had been put on probation because his column was not being well read.

Mike was bummed and the conversation consisted of equal parts crying on my shoulder and asking for advice. I don’t recall exactly what I told Mike, but I do remember that he began to ramp up the sex appeal on his column post haste.

One of the first things Mike did was start a campaign to get "Goin’ to Kansas City" named the official city song.

I thought it was a bit queer but some City Council members signed on and Mike helped get it done. Then he began dialing in far more edge and attitude and in the ensuing years managed to piss off Bill O’Reilly and make a bit of a name for himself.

I’ve heard through the grapevine that editors attempted to light a similar fire under Penn but obviously they failed and fairly miserably. But if indeed Steve was ever put on "probation" like Hendricks, they never made it stick.

They should have…

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22 Responses to Star Search: The Truth & Nothing But the Truth Re Steve Penn’s Firing by The Star

  1. smartman says:

    Penn Not Mightier Than The Sword
    So Steve gets caught with his hand in the cookie jar which makes his dismissal a no brainer. When does the rest of the obvious dead weight get dispatched?

    Was this part of an ongoing investigation or perhaps part of a self assessment ordered up by the new publisher?

    Wonder if Alvin and Alonzo will call for a candle light vigil outside the Star?

  2. chuck says:

    Hearne – nice effort.
    “”And the noise was in the beast

  3. Robertoe says:

    thumbs up, hearne
    Nice piece. There’s some substance, and you didn’t pull punches. The KC Star and WR Nelson have such stellar reputations, Its just sad and pathetic what’s going on there now. Even the Brisbane McGuff days conveyed class. Its a fortress mentality on the Titanic there now. Its not just Penn or the other gals you mentioned, no one is writting anything of substance there anymore. This online shit is the future. You just need to step up your game on the mechanics of how its done.

    I got a little glimpse of some of the inner workings of the Star when I signed onto their ‘Midwest Voices’ program at the start of the year. Lets just say I wasn’t impressed to the point that I bailed out mid-program. I did lots of online and a couple published pieces. They screwed up both published pieces with shitty headlines and unapproved editing. I was contracted to do 4 more pieces for them. Nope. Bailed out. Can’t stand the KC Star now. They insisted they could add any headline and do any editing, add my name to it and not grant me any approval process. Hasta la Vista DeathStar!

    “”Miriam, I’ve decided to bail out from your Midwest Voices. I just don’t have the respect or confidence in your operation to continue.
    I feel like I asked for very little and got back zero.
    Best of luck to you and your archaic, hierarchical employer, RA”

    Here’s the deal. I know I’ve probably made more money writing than any scribe or manager working there. And I did it from scratch, not from riding some venerable newspaper’s coat tails. Back in the old pre-internet days after I left Koch Refining, I actually started the first faxed newsletter on oil markets in the world. I had +350 clients, mostly traders and oil execs paying +$760 / year. After the first Gulf War, I sold it for 7 figures and kept writing it on a contract basis.

    So screw it. Screw the irrelevant DeathStar. I’m blogging too. Got’s to get the word out on a very consequential issue. Just call me Cassandra.

    http://www.OilisNotWell.com

  4. talk about missing the point says:

    “This online shit is the future.” And since The Star has the busiest website in town, that means they’re not doing anything online? Wake up and smell the coffee, Robertoe.

    Zieman probably left a lot of messes and this was one of them. I mean goddamn, this was going on since 2008! It was swept under the rug.

  5. Cliffy says:

    I guess this means Steve won’t be attending your next party at Jardine’s, eh?

    Can’t say that I was surprised by anything in it but your perspective made for an interesting read. Nicely done.

  6. Cowboy says:

    What A Sad Tale
    Knew Steve at Entercom, seemed very nice. He did alot at KMBZ about local stuff. I think in many ways he is the one who was mislead and injured. The Star has always been a phony do gooder paper. When really they can and often are mean MF’s to those who they don’t like for politcal reasons. Take Johnny Dare,NOW its ok to like him, five years ago they thought he was a doped up, drinking,long haired white trash loser. Not now. He won, they lost so he’s their pal now. They misjudge too many people, and jump on the bandwagon of some real dumb bells like Clay Chastin. Jeez.

  7. Robertoe says:

    wide awake
    The Death Star is just resting on their laurels. They get the traffic because they are the venerable Star of old and they have kansascity.com. Its not due to quality they put out or any type of innovation. They are totally clueless on any social media (some local media gets it: look at KMBZ Channel 9 for great FB videos and sucinct weather updates and such). The Star website graphics suck. And I heard them admit that they screwed up when they self coded out their current online blogs and such. They arent hitting the right SEO parameters and their hit counts dropped through the floor when they launched. Unfortunately Hearne followed the same errant path here.

    Here’s a prime example. I’ve got a good track record on writing and online entrepreneurship. I wrote Mike Fannin and couldn’t even get a meeting scheduled. Why wouldn’t he take 20 minutes and just listen? Mark Zieman was at least approachable but Fannins too busy protecting his archaic sinking deathStar.

    “Mike,
    The old newspaper hierarchical structure isn’t very efficient in today’s fast change online environment. I would think you’d have interest in keeping someone like me involved and contributing to your operation.

    Energy, oil, economics and depletion are going to be biting harder in the near future. I’ve got a unique background and perspectives on these very topical subjects. I spent 8 years at Koch Refining. I subsequently worked for the first Russian oil company to by seats on a U.S. commodity exchange. I could make it interesting.

    I’ve also built up substantial online community and respect on Facebook, a peak oil message board I started over 12 years ago (still going strong) and numerous other online associations. Its time to capitalize on this. I also do website development and code out Facebook and smart phone apps….”

    No interest, no meeting, no communications. And the issue wasn’t money.

    Shoot look at the recent Huffington Post sale. It can be done. But it won’t be done based on the way the DeathStar goes about it. “I’m the bossman and I’m gonna protect my paycheck and my hierarchy!” Ha! As it takes on more water….

  8. Geez Louise says:

    what a surprise
    Geez, What a surprise. Hearne bashing the newspaper that fired him again.

  9. Jack Daugherty says:

    Devil’s bargain
    The sad part about the whole episode is that those who put Penn in that position knew him to be a substandard reporter, a sloppy writer and an ethically challenged employee who was close to being fired several times, yet they placed him in a position of prominence and responsibility where he was doomed to failure. And he did fail, with column after column of underreported and tritely written items. Plus, he rarely expressed an opinion more profound that “Can’t we all get along?” Despite this record, he was kept on. Why? Brisbane, Zieman, etc., were frustrated that time and time again, a talented African-American reporter/writer came onto the staff, and he or she left pretty quickly–why stick around at the dysfunctional Star when larger and more prestigious pubs would pay lots more money and move their careers forward more quickly. Penn, a hometown product, would be more likely to stay…he wouldn’t be controversial (some of those other African-American staffers could be SO angry and opinionated)…and they could say “look at our local African-American columnist.” Penn had enough self-awareness to know that he had stumbled into a pretty sweet deal… if he left to work at another newspaper, his talent and production shortcomings would quickly become obvious. Just one of the many messes left behind from the Brisbane-Zieman regime.

  10. Hearne Christopher says:

    And what a surprise, somebody at the Star changing the subject to take an anonymous shot that has nothing to do with the topic at hand

  11. Hearne Christopher says:

    Brisbane did hit a pretty good lick with another minority hire, Jason Whitlock.

    Funny thing though is that even when editor Mike Fannin either knew or strongly suspected that JW had appropriated material written by Greg Hall they did nothing about it. I know this because I spoke with Fannin about it years later.

    Oh yeah, they did do something. When Hall outted Whitlock for using his stuff in the Landmark, the Star sent a C&D to the newspaper to shut it up.

  12. Geez Louise says:

    Hypocrite
    I guess it’s OK to continously (and predictably) criticize your former employer, but it’s not OK to criticize you. Remember that old childhood expression? “You can dish it out , but you can’t take it.” That would be you. Hearne, you are thin skinned wussy.

  13. Orphan of the Road says:

    JW no hometown hero
    Penn was homegrown and a puppy. He wrote of the hood while hangin’ with Glazer at The Woodside. He did what every ham-and-egger in newsprint does, he gets sloppy and management just files it away for later.

    I would think the gal TKC calls Hoops is the new minority voice for the Star. Good luck again East Side.

    Robertoe, we probably know similar people in the oil & chem business. ACC for many years in Philadelphia.

    Hearne can be a little thin-skinned at times but he puts up with a boat-load of crap too. If I want to punch him in the balls I at least comment on what he has written.

    Chuck, I would take my googles and flippers to ponder the wonders of Sea Hunt in a muddy Missouri pond. Or maybe Ford Park f the polio scare wasn’t too bad. Sucker for the dialogue of Highway Patrol too.

  14. Mark X says:

    ..Love it …
    … nice Hearne.

    THIS is why I read KCconfidential!

  15. Max says:

    They need to get rid of all of em and get some young blood in there. People that actually, you know, live in the city. People that use the internet. People that haven’t rehashed the same column over and over again. The only people worth reading are Yael and McClanahan, and I hate McClanahan’s politics. But at least they are interesting.

  16. Hearne Christopher says:

    Gosh Louise, if I really couldn’t take it maybe I would have taken your snarky, anonymous comments down.

    Next….

  17. Hearne Christopher says:

    This was actually a tuff one to write because, even though I don’t know Steve very well, I do think he’s a nice guy and I know what it’s like to get laid off. Something kinda came over me and I couldn’t stop myself from telling it like it is.

    As for getting a compliment from Cliffy – wow – I’m working up my new touchdown dance now for this year’s Christmas party at Jardine’s

  18. roberte for the win says:

    Robertoe, the last person people at the Star are going to listen to are pompous, full-of-themselves windbags with an inflated estimate of their value. It’s clear you’re relying on third-hand information about The Star’s website (and horribly dated information at that) and you don’t have a clue about what’s really going on there. You sound like John Altevogt, only less stupid, since’s he’s on the short end of a continuum of dimwitted to retarded.

    If you never got an answer it’s because they are too polite to tell dimwits like you to go piss up a rope.

  19. Robertoe says:

    track record
    Let’s see Mr Currently-Earning-a-KCStar-Salary (bwahahaha!)

    I’ll let my track record speak for itself. How many information companies have you-or anyone else at the sinking DeathStar- innovated, built up and sold for 7 figures?

  20. Robertoe says:

    oh yeah…also
    The source of the info about your website travails was directly from M Pepper, earlier this year.

  21. Rainbow Man says:

    That is what i am talking about
    Now this is a blunt piece of well written ballsy inside journalism. This is why I have been reading this site for a couple for a few years now. We all knew Penn sucked. Hearne has the nads to write it.

  22. Hearne Christopher says:

    And for those who wondered if I pulled or edited it, the answer is no. Technical difficulty for a day or three.

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