As editorial pages shrink, the Kansas City Star chooses to go big instead

For editorial pages as well as other cornerstones of legacy metro newspapers, these are generally bad times, if not the worst of times.

  • Two Gannett papers, the Journal Sentinel in Milwaukee and The Tennessean in Nashville, now operate with one-man bands — that is a single editorial editor and writer.
  • In times of digital transformation, it is not clear whether traditional local editorials and op-eds can build a strong presence in pixel-land.
  • Polarized partisanship seems to be displacing measured persuasion. Not the least of the editorialist's challenge is deciding whether to call out each fresh outrage from President Trump or turn the volume down a notch and risk seeming wishy-washy.

And, of course, when the call goes out for newsroom cuts, editorial board veterans may be among the expendable.

In the spirit of holiday cheer, however, I would like to highlight an extreme outlier — McClatchy's Kansas City Star.

In September 2016, two senior editorial-page staffers left, leaving a staff of ... zero. Through the balance of the year, the Star got by with a skeleton page — lots of letters to the editor, syndicated material and a few editorials and columns from freelancers.

However, after deliberating on what to do next, publisher Tony Berg and editor Mike Fannin decided not to let the operation fade away but instead expand — and expand big.

They began by hiring Colleen McCain Nelson, who shared a Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing at the Dallas Morning News and was on the Wall Street Journal's 2016 political reporting team. Nelson, who began as editorial page editor in January, picked up the story from there in a phone interview.

"It was a great opportunity to put together a new editorial board from scratch," she told me.  And the new bosses were not stinting on resources.

In short order, she hired Melinda Henneberger, a native Midwesterner with stops at the New York Times, Washington Post and USA Today; she also landed four transfers from the newsroom, including two political writers, a metro columnist and the reader's representative. And, Nelson said, she has one more job still open.

Returns on that investment were expected going in and have materialized, Nelson said. "Done well, we thought (the expansion) could ensure the Star's place in the community and drive readership."

For a "meet the board " event, at the public library early this year, 400 turned out.  Subsequent events with a congressman and local candidates, booked to smaller venues, were way oversubscribed.

As for translating editorial page fare to the digital space, Nelson said, "we are still trying to crack the code on that." But Facetime interviews with Sen. Claire McCaskill and two candidates for governor were good draws, and analytics show traffic for opinion content doubling over last year.

I wrote in June about McClatchy's "reinvention teams" working sequentially through visits to the company's 31 newsrooms. The caravan came to Kansas City, Nelson said, and she is comfortable with having opinion pieces, like news stories, tailored more closely than before to measures of where readers choose to spend their time.

I asked if there had been particular successes in 2017, and Nelson had a ready example:

"One of our writers found that Kansas City's mayor was getting ready to award a $1-billion — that's billion with a B — no-bid contract for airport expansion. We broke the story and then advocated for an open and competitive bid. The process was opened up and the mayor's choice finished in last place; the winning bid was $300 million lower. It wouldn't have played out that way were it not for our work."

(Since Nelson and I spoke, the Kansas City City Council made moves to reopen the airport bidding, prompting a fresh round of editorials).

In an echo of where the Star has gone, the Chicago Tribune, traditionally a leader among metros in editorial page ambition, no longer has a dozen editorial writers but still produces an editorial page and four pages of commentary daily.

Elsewhere, tightened resources are the rule. My professional friend, Rosemary O'Hara, opinion editor at the Tronc's Sun Sentinel in Fort Lauderdale, summed it up this way:  "When I started at the Tampa Tribune in 2002, we had an editorial board of 11. Now the Tribune is closed, and there are three of us here."

O'Hara worries that the rigorous reporting that animates the best of editorials gets harder to do all the time. "But there is a business case that a strong opinion channel (online) is a driver of digital subscriptions. Even if the traffic numbers are not as high as for a sports story, this is content people will pay for." That has been a consistent finding through the Tronc chain, she said.

Given the industry's emphasis on trying to build digital subscription revenue as advertising prospects dim, that finding could be a route back for opinion staffing.

David Haynes, opinion editor at the Journal Sentinel, took the plunge earlier this year of dropping print editorials most days of the week and pivoting to digital platforms instead. Haynes has been publishing a readable weekly newsletter round-up Tuesdays, and I see some of the same e-mailed opinion offerings at the newsletter-happy Boston Globe.

For the New Year, editor Haynes will be his own writing staff with a budget for some freelance pieces. He also has decided to shift to solutions journalism. "I don't know what it will look like a year from now," he said, but with editor George Stanley he decided "partisan pro-con doesn't get you very far."

An example of a solutions approach, Haynes said, might be a survey of the experience in other states with red-light cameras, being considered in Milwaukee as a check on reckless driving.  (It hasn't worked in Florida, I can testify).  Or to launch discussion of workforce training in Wisconsin in advance of the huge FoxConn iPhone factory coming soon.

Necessity or not, Haynes said that he believes that fostering more dialogue on state and local issues and more contributed opinion from readers will make editorial pieces relevant.

Speaking of opinion in these polarized times, consider the case of President Trump. I am among the admirers of the Los Angeles Times's decision earlier this year to assemble the case against Trump, in a series of six carefully-crafted editorials. 

But there is also a case for meeting outrage with outrage. Witness the often placid USA Today's this-is-the-final-straw reaction Dec. 12 to the President's nasty tweet about Kristen Gillibrand tweet with an editorial suggesting Trump was not worthy of cleaning toilets at the Obama presidential library.

Eventually the today-in-Trump cycle may begin to seem stale as news or editorial fodder — but not yet. I am told even at high end outlets like the New York Times, traffic is reliably higher — way higher — for stories with the president as protagonist, than any other policy and politics content.

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