On Monday, October 21, 2013, Greg Farmer, senior assistant managing editor of The Kansas City Star, placed a rare call to Karen Dillon. He wanted to know when Dillon would be in the office that day.
Good reporters are invariably compared with canines: "dogged," a "pit bull," a "bulldog." Dillon belongs to this breed; she's the kind of journalist whom other journalists admire. On the morning Farmer called, Dillon had been with the Star for 22 years, during which time she had earned a reputation as one of the city's best investigative reporters. In 1998, she won a George Polk Award for a series of stories on gender-equality violations at the NCAA. A report on controversial practices by Missouri police during drug-money seizures earned her the 2001 Goldsmith Prize for investigative reporting from Harvard University. More recently, Dillon had been patrolling Johnson County for the Star, uncovering stories about missing municipal money in Merriam, improper searches of homes in Leawood, and the fractious city government in Shawnee.
Dillon, in other words, possesses the sharp instincts that build up over the course of a career in bullshit detection. But even a rookie would have intuited something amiss about Farmer's call. Dillon paused, then asked Farmer if she was being fired.
"You know the drill, Karen," Farmer said, according to Dillon.
She did. Less than a year before, on December 10, 2012, Dillon had answered a similar call from Farmer. He asked her to meet him in the publisher's conference room — grim site of dozens of the layoffs that have decimated the Star's ranks over the past decade. There, she met the firing squad: Farmer; Steve Shirk, the Star's managing editor; Mike Fannin, Star editor and vice president; and Chris Piwowarek, human resources vice president. Also present in the room, curiously, was another Star reporter, Dawn Bormann.
"Fannin explained that he had been told to eliminate a position and he had selected either my job or Dawn's," Dillon tells The Pitch. "He said I had seniority, so if I decided to leave, Dawn would stay, and vice versa. Piwowarek talked about the process and said we had one week to decide."
Dillon and Bormann exited the building and spent the next several hours talking over the ugly and bizarre task their employer had just assigned them. They eventually agreed that Dillon would stay — she had two young grandchildren to take care of.
"I had thought that being fired would be the worst thing I could face," Dillon says. "I realized I was wrong. I hadn't prepared myself for being put into the position of sacrificing a friend."
By the following day, word had spread in KC media circles. Hearne Christopher Jr., the former Star gossip columnist who took a buyout from the paper in 2006, published an account of the meeting on his blog, KC Confidential, comparing the Star's management approach with something out of The Hunger Games. Christopher's piece caught the eye of Jim Romenesko, who runs a nationally influential journalism site.
"Any chance you want to comment on being put into this position?" Romenesko asked Dillon in an e-mail.
"I knew that any response would be frowned upon by management," Dillon says. "I also knew that journalistic cowardice would not be acceptable. I decided to walk the tightrope the best I could by responding truthfully, yet not criticizing management."
She wrote back: "It's one of the most difficult situations I've ever faced."
Romenesko's story was subsequently picked up by several other outlets, including Gawker, The Huffington Post and Bloomberg Businessweek.