Hearne: Can the Pitch Survive Departure of Key Staffers & Dark Days of Print Publishing?

It’s way too easy writing about the difficult life and times of the Kansas City Star

After reading the Star for something approaching a lifetime, writing about it while running the Pitch for several years and finally working at it for 16 years, I pretty much know the players and where the bodies are buried at 18th and Grand. Trust me.

Covering the Pitch however is a different beast. It’s been 20 years since I darkened its door as an employee, its staff is far smaller and the turnover has been great given all the regime changes.

That said, the Pitch is as far up you-know-what creek as the Star and any number of other print publications around the country.

Which is unfortunate, because in a perfect world, Kansas City deserves to field a first class alt weekly. Unfortunately, that’s seldom, if ever, been the case.

Prior to my beginning to take the reins in the mid-late ’80s it was little more than a record store rag. When I left, taking most of its key staff including editor C.J. Janovy, it ran mostly rudderless under a succession of editors and experts as its owner battled to keep it alive until it was sold to a company that became Village Voice Media in the late 90s for beaucoup bucks.

Janovy was brought back, but was unable to evolve the Pitch into anything even close to St. Louis’s Riverfront Times or Denver’s Westword. She just didn’t have the horses or the vision. Oh, the Pitch improved – how could it not? – but despite the contribution of several good writers remained largely a long-in-the-tooth hippie rag.

Opening the door for the Star‘s Ink to come in three years ago and eat what was left of the Pitch‘s lunch. Not journalistically, mind you. Ink is little more than what blogger Tony Bottello referred to as "an ad rag."

Earlier this year after years of trying to unload the Pitch, Village Voice finally did so to a Nashville publisher.

Janovy had already seen the handwriting on the wall and bailed to KU Med last year. Followed by top writing gun Nadia Pflaum who fled the biz as the sale was being going down. Interim puppet editor Joe Tone opted to stick with the Mother Ship (Village Voice).

And one by one since, the dearly have departed.

including art director Sarah Norwood (who left for Riverfront Times), calendar editor Crystal Wiebe (last seen hawking promotional products for Staples and blogging about lost dogs), music editor Elke Mermis (now a copy editor at VML) and staff writer Peter Rugg (the dude who flung a drink at me in a drunken fit two years back at Lew’s in Waldo). Now even David Martin, the Pitchs new managing editor and most credible remaining writer, is joining Janovy at KU Med.

Whew!

That’s a lot to lose for a small, freebie pub like the Pitch. Giving the impression the rats are either leaving (or being let go from) the sinking ship.

Raising a really scary question for Kansas Citians who care about local pop culture and edgy news…

Is it possible KC’s only thinking person altnerative weekly could bite the dust? 

You know, just go away like the 50-plus year old Johnson County Sun did this past summer?

Not many people would have thought the Sun‘s setting possible as recently as even two years ago. After all, its owner NPG only bought it five years earlier for a reported $20 million. That’s a lot to walk away from.

Can the Pitch even survive? Good question.

But outside of its blogs and online action – which likely yield little in the way of meaningful ad revenue – there’s not a whole lot left to love. The average issue of late only having a single cover feature, maybe a news short and Charles Ferruzza‘s food column before breaking into a column or two, the calendar and classifieds.

Content-wise and otherwise, times are clearly tough for the Pitch.

Its big guns are gone and it’s gripped by the toughest of times. It won’t be easy and anything could happen. It all hiinges on how deep the pockets are of new owner SouthComm and whether the Nashville publisher can keep it all together until if and when better times return.

Unfortunately the jury is clearly out on both those counts…

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16 Responses to Hearne: Can the Pitch Survive Departure of Key Staffers & Dark Days of Print Publishing?

  1. Mark X says:

    Nice update, but …
    … when It’s gone, will anybody REALLY care?

    The dead tree media has died and some STILL haven’t gotten the news…

  2. chuck says:

    A dude threw a drink at ya?
    Did he catch ya with Anderson Cooper?

    WTF?

    Ya gotta tell us that story Hearne.

    Did Andy throw him out?

    Sounds like bare knuckled, “Housewives of Waldo County” revenge.

    What did you do to piss him off?

  3. chuck says:

    If a guy ever throws a drink in my face,
    after I quit laughing, I am gonna pull his hair.

  4. Robertoe says:

    Who dat?
    That bearded dude in the picture might be the drink throwing perpetrator but we’ll never know!

    Yep. Print media is having a tough road to ‘hoe.

    So is online media that can’t handle simple shit like hotlinks, picture captions and social media interfaces!

  5. Orphan of the Road says:

    Get in the Way-Back Machine Sherman
    The existing media has always been confused and befuddled when a new form comes along. In the past there were forward looking people in the industry who would make a change to the new medium. Sometimes they were thwarted (see ownership of TV/Radio stations by newspapers in the 50s).

    One of my instructors in college was a reporter/editor for The Philadelphia Inquirer when Annenberg owned it. Annenberg saw the potential of TV and started WPVI (which eventually bought ABC). My instructor was dragged kicking and screaming to the TV newroom. He felt at the time the new medium was not worthy of calling what it put on the air news.

    Of course the Supreme Court shot down dual ownership (KC Star was the case when they owned WDAF). Those poor souls who were non-receptive of their new jobs carved out a decent medium for news. Never as good as print, until now. And it isn’t that the broadcast media has gotten better as much as the print media has declined.

    There was a great rush of investors and non-journalistic companies to buy up newspapers. They were the final straw which completed the transition from JOURNALISM business to journalism BUSINESS.

    The transition wasn’t very smooth nor successful.

    The consolidation of the industry has meant the individual voice and reach of newpapers, main stream and alternative, has been greatly muted.

    Alternative newspapers were once a place a young writer could carve his voice and learn to write. Today they come out of a school with a Communications degree and are really only prepared to regurgitate press releases and news handed to them by someone with a dog in the fight.

    I hope The Pitch can weather the storm and make a comeback. The Star surely isn’t going to break any new ground, they barely cover old ground and then with blinders on.

    And as much as I enjoy having a place like this to pontificate, it is more Skip Slyster than HL Mencken.

  6. Skeptic says:

    Classic!
    “more Skip Slyster than HL Mencken” Good one, Orphan!

  7. balbonis moleskine says:

    Pitch still does what it is supposed to do
    When I need to figure out what is going on in KC, I look at the paper Pitch or Pitch.com.

    Until someone comes along to beat that, the ALT Weekly will continue to survive in this and any other midsized town.

    I find your argument about staff turnover unconvincing as some left for better ALTs while others moved up or into different industries. ALTs have always been the tricycle of newspapers, their writers often move on to bigger and better things, or move out of the industry entirely.

    All that I see is that the Pitch got sold by one major conglomerate of ALT weeklies and bought by another regional conglomerate of ALT weeklies. That doesn’t seem to show any sort of underlying financial weakness. Remember the Star can’t be sold by their parent, not even to Private Equity interests. Nobody wants them.

  8. Hearne Christopher says:

    The Pitch does pretty good traffic on its Web site, but I seriously doubt that’s anywhere close to being enough to support a paid staff of writers and reporters. It’s possible that more readers in what the Pitch would like its demo to be – as in younger – read it there rather than in print.

    The biggest overlap in the Pitch’s print readership is older readers and Star readers. That’s who still do print.

    But you’re right, not many people who read the “dead tree” version of it will miss it unless they find a way to get the content back up. Right now there just isn’t very much there to miss.

  9. Hearne Christopher says:

    I wrote about it here at the time. You musta missed it.

  10. Hearne Christopher says:

    Good guess, Robertoe. Dat bearded dude be Peter Rugg

  11. Hearne Christopher says:

    Two things….

    Look at his pic; not enuff hair to get a grip on. Second, he did it Chicken Little style. I was at a high top table talking to owner Andy Lewellen against the back wall and he tossed the drink from afar while hastily walking out alongside the bar. Mostly hit the waitress and Andy, I was kinda collateral damage

  12. Hearne Christopher says:

    Nice spin, but no cigar….

    The key people that left or are leaving – Martin, Pflaum, Rugg – are not being replaced. The staff has been pared way down. This clearly is not merely a case of ebb and flow, of journalists coming and going. They’re fleeing for safer jobs in entirely different industries.

    The Village Voice was losing money here and trying to unload the Pitch for years, according to former owner Hal Brody. The guy who said they offered to sell it back to him for pennies on the dollar of what they paid him for it years ago. The page count is dramatically down. The print news content has withered away to next to nothing.

    And as pretty much everybody in the biz knows, making enough money on the Web to sustain a full blown print pub and staff has yet to be done.

    Moved to different industries? Heck yes, because they saw what was happening to this one. Yes, the art director left for a “better” alt weekly, but she did so by taking a lesser position.

    Not sure what the point of your spin here is, but I suspect that you know better.

  13. ...but keep trying. says:

    Also not convinced…
    I’ve been a reader of the Pitch for years. Their page count has been the same (give or take) for quite a while now, at least a year. You were where I found out that they are also publishing the new women’s magazine and I think I read here about Southcomm buying two other alt weeklies recently, in Tampa Bay and somewhere else. You have mentioned several times that it looks like the new owners know what they are doing and then you print this?

  14. mark smith says:

    gotta agree on this one
    Nadia was probably the best pure writer the pitch has seen, with martin running a close second. Rugg was good as well, despite his poor aim and weak arm. Tone, in my opinion could have breathed new life into the pitch, and I’m willing to bet Nadia and martin would have stayed if Joe had. The pitch is in a slow death spiral journalistically speaking.

  15. Hearne Christopher says:

    Good point. SouthComm’s Nashville Scene is everything the Pitch was and still is not.

    But they’ve had years – many of which during far better financial times – to make it what it is. Buying an alt weekly like the Pitch during today’s difficult times and trying to turn it around long distance with largely the same cast of characters is an entirely different matter.

    Do they know what to do? Based on SouthComm’s other pubs, the answer would appear to be yes. Can they pull the right puppet strings from afar while fighting off the red ink, the exodus of its best writers and reporters and live to tell the story in today’s economy? That remains to be seen.

    Clearly they’ve cleaned up the Pitch but unfortunately its news content remains paltry. And you’re right, the Pitch has been stuck in the 40 page world for a year or longer – well down from what it was several years back. But that’s also a reflection of SouthComm’s failure to take it to a higher level.

    This is the fourth quarter, so it’s hard to imagine bigger issues aren’t just around the corner. But who is going to write the stories they need for those issues with Nadia, Martin and Rugg gone? And where are the replacement writers? And when will they – if ever – make the move from newsprint to coated stock like their other publications?

    I think SouthComm knows what to do, but thus far they’ve yet to do it. It’s hard to blame them with the economy in the shape it is and fewer and fewer people reading print, where the vast majority of the ad revenue remains.

    I’m rooting for them, but it’s impossible to ignore the current realities. Go back and read some of David Martin’s stories / columns and then try to imagine him as a PR shill for a hospital. He’s not leaving to follow his muse or pursue his dream – it’s about survival.

  16. Merle Tagladucci says:

    Orphan, your comments are always good reading.

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