Long before I had any idea that Mark Funkhouser would become mayor, much less that I would work in the Mayor’s Office, he pulled me aside at a City Council meeting and said that a recent story I’d written was “wretched, absolute drivel.”
He was right.
The story in question was a fictional piece about Kansas City set in the far future, a total slam on then-Mayor Kay Barnes. The upshot was that the city had become a living hell, with pot holes the size of Midtown and sidewalks in such disrepair that people needed dune buggies just to get around.
And it was horribly mean. What I remember most is its reference to the factoid that Barnes had been a sex therapist in the 1970s.
I wrote: “It must’ve been aversion therapy.”
The story was so bad that former Pitch editor C.J. Janovy singled it out in her going away column as one of the low points of her tenure.
I’m certainly not proud of it. The reason I bring it up again here is because the story of how that spoof article came into being reveals a lot about the company that owned The Pitch until very recently.
At some point in late 2002 or early 2003, Janovy was summoned to Arizona along with the editors of all of New Times’ other papers to meet with the company’s co-owner and co-founder, Michael Lacey.
Lacey, a notoriously mercurial and reputedly hard-drinking asshole, appeared to have been going through a mid-life crisis. He was in his mid-to-late 50s, I’m guessing, and he was concerned that his papers were losing their youthful edge.
He decreed that all of his papers would create “Street Teams,” which the younger members of the staff would be expected to participate in, so as to find the kinds of stories that would interest kids these days.
As you might imagine, this didn’t sit well with some of the more experienced members of the staff who rightly discerned that they were being excluded from opportunities and privileges, which is basically age discrimination. And the company has been sued for just that very sort of thing (and also this).
Lacey also wanted his papers to be “more fun.” And the way he wanted us to have fun was by writing fake stories.
When C.J. came back, she shared with us a few examples of what he was talking about, including a longwinded and snide story about Janet Napolatino, who was then a top official in Arizona.
So we gave it a try.
The first was a short article reporting that the owner of the Kansas City Zoo was a serial killer who murdered the animals in the middle of the night. It was very funny, very well-written, and it even included an editor’s note stating that the story was fake.
Big surprise: people believed it.
We were bombarded with calls and emails from people whose concern turned to rage when they learned the story was bogus.
We did three more, so far as I know: two by me, and another by Tony Ortega, now editor of the Village Voice. His fooled many people, including TV news reporters, and pissed off a lot of the paper’s loyal readers who felt as though they’d been made to look like idiots for falling for it.
New Times, now Village Voice Media, is a nationwide extension of Lacey’s personality. The way he keeps the paper in line with his unpleasant ethos is through a small team of lackeys/henchmen, also known as corporate editors, who lord over local editors like C.J.
The top two operatives are Andy Van De Voorde and Christine Brennan (who, as a bonus for Hearne and the many VVM minions out there, I’ll write about at length in a separate post). Our overseer was Van De Voorde.
Van De Voorde is a skinny guy with gray hair who would come to KC every few months to tell C.J. which of our stories were good and which sucked. C.J. would then have to turn around and get on us for any transgressions against the New Times gospel.
This sucked, obviously, but it was made worse by the fact that we staff writers would often write a story that C.J. and/or the managing editor thought was terrific and told us so, only to be pulled into her office and be scolded for writing supposed crap.
Actually, C.J. did a pretty good job of insulating us from corporate’s brutal no-doubt criticism, and she once told me she’d hoped that she could make The Pitch the one New Times paper with heart.
Still, a lot of staffers really feared and resented Van De Voorde.
He always had with him a carry-on suitcase with wheels that squeaked when he pulled it along behind him, a sound that soon evoked a Pavlovian reaction in staffers, who took to calling him “The Worm.”
I have to confess, I was probably the only one on staff who didn’t much resent Van De Voorde. I actually kind of thrived under the New Times system, mostly because enough of my interests as a reporter intersected with Lacey’s wants that I was viewed favorably by corporate, and also, I think, because I’m a chronic people pleaser.
(Though, I have to say, I recently went back and read a bunch of my stories, including ones that I was very proud of at the time of publication, and I was mortified. They were just too damned long. But that’s the way Lacey wanted them.)
In just the few short weeks since VVM sold The Pitch to a Nashville company, I’ve noticed a significant change in the paper. The stories are still intriguing, a little edgy, but they don’t feel sardonic or arrogant or mean, and I’m happy about that.
I’ve remained a fan of The Pitch and all the people who’ve written for it since I came here in 2000, and I’ll continue to be from afar.
Because despite all the fine-tuned mechanics of Lacey’s multi-paper megalomaniacal machine, you could always find some Kansas City heart in every story, sometimes more, sometimes less, but always because of the people down there at 17th and Main.