The Kansas City Star is now three weeks into its new rotating metro columnist system, and, while it’s far too soon to judge the success or failure of the initiative, it’s a good time to take a closer look at the concept.
Personally, I think it’s going to be difficult for any of the six new columnists (there are three carryovers, C.W. Gusewelle, Steve Kraske and Mary Sanchez) to gain traction with readers. That’s the whole idea of columnists, you know — to have them become trusted, if controversial, voices whose work becomes a destination point for readers.
Maybe this is an experiment designed to cull the reporting ranks for a new, marquee columnist or two, but this move strikes me as more of a money-saving mishmash, a cheap alternative to hiring or promoting at least one new, permanent columnist to replace the two being replaced.
But I certainly don’t claim to have a perfectly clear perspective on this, so I sought the views this week of two top, former editors who have deep wells of experience in newsroom leadership and organization.
One is former KC Star executive editor Mike Waller, who went on to become publisher at The Baltimore Sun; the other is Mike Jenner, former editor at The Bakersfield Californian, who last year was named the Houston Harte Endowed Chair at the Missouri School of Journalism. At MU, Jenner focuses on innovation in journalism.
Before we hear from them (and more from me), let’s back up and look at how all this evolved.
Setting the stage for the columnist shake-up, The Star lost two longtime columnists within three weeks. First, Steve Penn, an African-American who frequently wrote about African-Americans and developments in the black community, was fired in mid-July for plagiarism.
On Aug. 3, Mike Hendricks, a Lenexa resident who often donned his white, suburban columnist hat, announced that he was returning to full-time reporting.
The same day, next to Hendricks’ column, The Star ran a graphic laying out the new lineup. Here it is:
Gusewelle continues on Sunday, the only day there is a stand-alone Local section;
Sanchez runs on Monday and Thursday (as well as on the Op-Ed page on Tuesday);
James Hart (police blogger); Alan Bavley (medical writer); and Joe Robertson and Mara Rose Williams (education reporters) alternate on Wednesdays;
Christine Vendel (KCMO cops), Glenn Rice (who primarily covers the Northland) and Mark Morris (federal courts reporter) alternate on Fridays;
Kraske (politics) moves from Sunday to Saturday in a downsized, single column format.
Of those nine, Gusewelle, Kraske and Sanchez have the strongest name identity with readers. While the names of the six others, all reporters, will ring bells with many regular readers, they’re not well known.
In addition to their regular duties, those six reporters will write periodic columns — columns, that you can expect to be rooted in developments and stored knowledge from their respective "beats."
For example, I don’t expect Christine Vendel, longtime KCMO cops reporter, to suddenly start writing about the Kansas City nightlife scene. Ideally, she’ll be giving the readers an inside look at investigations and operations at 12th and Locust.
Now it’s time for our experts to weigh in.
Mike Waller (in an e-mail):
"I have two thoughts: Having nine columnists is about four or five too many, if only because there aren’t that many good columnists on any paper!
"Writing a column is an art, and it takes a couple of years to get really good at doing it. My second thought is…rotating nine columnists means that none other than Gusewelle, who is already established, will be able to get much of a following. Readers need regularity and consistency. So do the columnists.
"This is simply a bad idea."
Mike Jenner (in a telephone interview):
"I’m intrigued by their approach. It is kind of unusual…Certainly some of them (the six reporters new to the mix) are going to generate a following and some are not."
Jenner, who worked with Waller years ago at The Hartford Courant, said The Star’s strategy, as suggested earlier, might be to see if a few of the new columnists can "separate themselves and gain a following." If so, The Star might reduce "the mix" and field one or more of them as marquee columnists.
Jenner added that one element that major metropolitan papers badly need these days — and which marquee columnists can provide — is personality.
"There’s not enough personality in newspapers," he said. "In the old days the staff writers got to have their own brand, or cache, and I think that was a good thing."
In general, then, Jenner puts The Star’s move in the "innovative" category rather than the penny-inching category.
"We tend to cling to the traditional," Jenner said, "but the traditional is not necessarily moving us forward."
Me? Well, I put in 37 years as a reporter and editor at The Star, and my instincts have run along the traditional lines. More and more, however, as the newspaper business, in general, continues its downward spiral, I recognize the need for innovation.
So, if I were editor of The Star, here’s what I would try…The best and most recognized columnist at the paper now is sports columnist Sam Mellinger, who succeeded Jason Whitlock, after Whitlock was dumped last year.
Mellinger, a young guy with amazing perspective relative to his limited experience, is The Star’s only marquee columnist. Recognizing that, the editors have started to run his column, from time to time, on the front page of the paper, not just on the front of SportsDaily.
Just last Saturday, for example, his column about the fight between Kansas City Chiefs’ veteran Thomas Jones and rookie receiver Jonathan Baldwin ran at the top of Page One. That was a bold, smart move by the editors, in my opinion.
For years, it has been a truism at The Star that reports of Chiefs games and developments within the organization are the one sure thing that causes newspaper sales to spike. When I was at The Star, box sales always took a big jump on Mondays after Chiefs’ games.
My idea, then? Give Mellinger a foothold on the front page every Sunday and let him write about whatever sports subject is on his mind. Last year, if you’ll recall, The Star made a huge mistake when it commissioned Whitlock, the marquee columnist at the time, to write a weekly Op-Ed column in addition to his sports columns. The column dribbled away after a few weeks.
So, have Mellinger stick to sports. It’s one news product that sells now.
Think about it: In most big cities, good sports coverage — intermingled with insight and strong opinion — is about the only thing that people relish or want any more from their local papers.
Reprinted with tender, loving care with the kind permission of the gentleman known as Jimmy C