Wednesday, August 29, 2012

The Star can make anything sound positive, except its own endangered bottom line

The Star can make anything sound positive, except its own endangered bottom line.

Posted By on Wed, Aug 29, 2012 at 12:04 PM

Great news, Kansas City!
  • Great news, Kansas City!
To depart journalism for a more lucrative career in advertising, public relations or marketing has long been interpreted — by other journalists, at least — as a sign of compromised ideals (or else exhaustion). Flacks serve products, companies, corporations. Journalists serve truth. An advertising salary may buy you a big, comfortable bed, the thinking goes, but it’s easier to sleep at night knowing you’re in a line of work that helps prop up democracy.

That sounds a bit lofty, doesn’t it? And these days it rings unrealistic and quaint, too — particularly in Kansas City, where there are numerous ad agencies but virtually no job opportunities in mainstream media.

The Kansas City Star, like many daily newspapers in the United States, has spent the past decade bulldozing its editorial staff. At first, its corporate parent, the McClatchy Co., undertook layoffs to maximize short-term profits. Now the Star is struggling simply to stay afloat, stymied by the lack of a clear business model in the age of digital news consumption. Following furloughs and round after round of layoffs, it’s only natural that the shell-shocked survivors at the Star might cast about for cushier PR gigs. It’s less natural, and somewhat alarming, that a few of them seem to be auditioning for these jobs in the pages of the newspaper.

Take Robert Trussell. Let’s set aside the fact that the Star’s theater critic — a very nice man — is habitually unwilling to, you know, criticize local theater. Instead, let’s examine his latest passion: beating the drum about Kansas City’s vigorous, staggering — heroic, even! — support for the arts, while repeating the not-so-novel observation about how great great great that is for the economy.

The most recent example of Trussell’s relentless boosterism arrived Sunday, August 26, in a story on Deborah Sandler, the new general director of the Lyric Opera. In it, Trussell manages to shoehorn breathless civic boasting into what, in any other newspaper, would have been a simple profile. “Something’s happening in Kansas City,” goes the dramatic lead. “The arts are on the move.” Kansas City is a “can-do city.” Is this a newspaper article or a pamphlet from the KC Visitors Bureau? And how does a fusillade of clichés help us get to know Sandler?

Far more egregious, though, is the turd polishing that appeared on the front page of the Sunday A&E section a week before, on August 19. Here, Trussell attempts to digest a recent study published by Americans for the Arts. The purpose of the study was to measure the economic impact of the arts in American cities. It found that arts spending by audiences and organizations in Kansas City added up to $273 million in 2010. In St. Louis, that figure, over the same span, was $582 million. This despite a considerable handicap: Americans for the Arts had surveyed five counties in the Kansas City metropolitan area, whereas it had surveyed just one county (St. Louis County) in St. Louis.

To an ordinary citizen, the takeaway here is that St. Louis annually spends about $300 million more on the arts than Kansas City. If you were a writer or editor at a newspaper in Kansas City, this would seem to present an opportunity to galvanize support for increased arts spending in the city. It’s the stuff of a fine editorial: St. Louis is throttling us here. We can do better. Here’s how.

But The Kansas City Star does not permit itself to draw such conclusions. And so, Trussell instead goes into damage-control mode, reassuring us that the study is flawed. He finds that a higher percentage of arts organizations in St. Louis responded to the study than did in Kansas City. The connecting headline on the section’s third page reads, rather incredibly, “Numbers: Limited response skews results.” (That one is on the editors, not Trussell.) Then, Trussell quotes Randy Cohen, vice president of research and policy at Americans for the Arts, saying a bunch of nice things about Kansas City’s commitment to the arts. Well, what the hell else is Cohen going to say? That we’re a bunch of losers? The story ends with a quote about how beautiful the Kauffman Center is. What?

When The Pitch reached Cohen last week, he genially reeled off many of the same positive pro-arts talking points that he’d fed to Trussell, but he admitted confusion as to the point of the Star’s article. Of Trussell’s big scoop about the response rate, Cohen noted that all of KC’s major arts institutions were accounted for. (They were; we checked.) Cohen added: “Even if we had a completely full response rate from both sides, if you added them up, St. Louis would still far exceed Kansas City in spending. Which is not a good or bad thing. It doesn’t have to be about comparing who has the biggest bicep. It just is what it is.”

But over at 1729 Grand, numbers need not be limited to what they are. The Star is dribbling this type of participation-medal hackery across all its sections. In early August, news arrived that the Kansas City Public Schools had again failed evaluations and would remain unaccredited for another year. The Star’s headline: “In Missouri’s school performance reports, KC gets a better score.” Uh, hurray?

We won’t see the economic figures on the All-Star Game until October, but ask just about anybody who works in a restaurant, bar or retail shop in this city and you’ll hear confirmation that the game had a negligible impact on local business. Perhaps anticipating such an outcome, the Star on July 8 ran a front-page story with the headline “Biggest benefits of the All-Star Game for KC are intangible.” You were expecting tourists with cash? No, no — the real value of All-Star Week was the media exposure! Can’t put a dollar value on that, Kansas City! Yours truly, the Star.

McClatchy recently announced that all of its papers — including the Star — are putting up online paywalls before the end of the year. In theory, this is good news. Good journalism costs money and is worth paying for. But in-flight-magazine-style cheerleading doesn’t qualify as journalism. If you weren't already a print subscriber, would you pay to read a pro-tax-increment-financing Kevin Collison business column in which only the people who stand to make a mint on TIF deals are quoted (August 21)? Would you pay to read Jeneé Osterheldt’s ongoing defense of Nike (August 20 and 27)? And if you pay to take the paper now, how long are you willing to keep buying a Star that exhibits a pathological aversion to acknowledging room for improvement in your city?

Massaging the facts is the opposite of what newspapers are supposed to do. You can put a dollar value on a daily paper worth reading. Maybe we’ll get one again someday.

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