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With Redesign, Kansas City Star Hopes To Reinvent Itself For Digital Age

Elle Moxley
Corinne Corley, 60, reads the Kansas City Star on Thursday, May 14, 2015. The day before, the Star broke the story about former Missouri House Speaker John Diehl swapping sexy texts with an intern.

When Corinne Corley, 60, moved to Brookside two decades ago, her morning Kansas City Star came around 5:30.

“Now, it comes between 6:30 and 7,” says Corley, clutching her cup of coffee as she reads the headlines on her tablet. She has a digital subscription to the New York Times, but she still gets the Star delivered to her door.

“There’s just something about the feel of a newspaper in your hand,” she says.

Her paper arrives with a thud around 6:25 a.m. Corley waves to her carrier.

“Good morning!” she calls. “Thank you!”

Corley first subscribed to the Star in the early ’80s. She’d grown up reading the newspapers in St. Louis and even wrote for one as a student reporter.

Back then, “The morning news was – news. Things you didn’t already know. Slowly over time, it’s reached the point where the newspaper is mostly advertising and human interest stories, which are fine – for the FYI section.”

Last Thursday, though, there was hard-hitting news on the front page. The Kansas City Star broke the story that former Missouri House Speaker John Diehl was swapping sexy texts with a college intern.

But Corley flips past it.

“The headline article, I read yesterday on the internet,” she says.

Can a newspaper still break news in print?

Instead of holding the Diehl story for the Thursday print edition, the Kansas City Star staff published it online around 10 a.m. Wednesday morning.

Credit Elle Moxley / KCUR
Kansas City Star Editor Mike Fannin points to a framed copy of an Ernest Hemingway letter in his office. Hemingway wrote for the Star before enlisting in World War I.

“The way we view content these days, is when a piece of content is ready, it’s ready,” Kansas City Star Editor Mike Fannin says.

That’s part of the Star’s digital-first strategy. But it means by the time the scandal appeared in print, readers like Corley had already seen it.

“This concept of us throwing a newspaper on your driveway and you coming out to get it ­– that's still a wonderful thing,” Fannin says, adding he hopes it’s part of the Star’s business for a long time. “The truth is in today's world we have to work a lot harder to go find readers with our content than we did before.”

That’s why a forthcoming redesign of the Kansas City Star is so heavily focused on digital. But the print edition will get an overhaul, too. That’s part of parent company McClatchy’s strategy for all papers.

Fannin says the new Kansas City Star, expected to launch in late September, will have the same look and feel as the Sacramento Bee, which rolled out its redesign earlier this month.

Now the Bee is organized into three sections – a news section recapping the last 24 hours, an insight section with investigative pieces and a combined sports/features section.

(Don't panic, sports fans. Fannin says the Star nixed that idea.)

But Fannin acknowledged the newsroom’s resources will shift. Think, the Diehl story. Or last year’s investigation into inflated rankings at the University of Missouri-Kansas City’s Bloch School of Management.

“I think that what we're trying to give readers in our printed product is more of that lean-back experience that they want to have,” he says. “News will continue to be a vital and important part of the printed product, but it's pretty hard to ‘break news’ in a printed edition these days.”

With smaller staff, Star produces fewer stories

Fannin wasn’t willing to put a number on how many people the Star has let go or bought out in the seven years he’s been editor. Suffice to say the newsroom is smaller than it’s ever been.

“Obviously, the Star is a lesser presence in Kansas City,” says Randy Smith, veteran Star editor and a former director of strategy for the paper. “They're great journalists. They're working as hard as they possibly can. But I often think of how many stories go untold every day, how many things we don't know about.”

Credit Elle Moxley / KCUR
KCUR 89.3
The big, blue glass building with the Kansas City Star logo is home to press operations. The newsroom, 1729 Grand, is in an old brick building.

Smith left the Star in 2009 for the University of Missouri, where he’s Donald W. Reynolds chair of business journalism. But in his three-decade career at the Star, he held a variety of positions. Smith was day city editor in 1981, the year the staff won the Pulitzer for its coverage of the Hyatt skywalk collapse.

“It wasn't just winning awards and covering stories, covering beats,” Smith says. “We were also fighting all the time to keep the doors open to government. You wouldn't believe how many people want to close the doors to a school board meeting.”

It wasn’t once or twice, either. Smith says in its heyday, the Star was filing a dozen of these open meetings challenges a month.

What changes at the Star means for Kansas City

That kind of scrutiny is harder to come by these days.

“The Star used to have a Wyandotte County bureau and a Wyandotte County insert,” says Kansas City, Kansas, Mayor Mark Holland.

Now the Star has the 913 section, but in Holland’s opinion, that’s geared toward Johnson County.

“I don’t begrudge the Star,” Holland says. “They don’t have the resources I don’t think to do as much coverage as they want to. Every time I talk to someone at the Star, they’ve very eager to find out what’s going on in Kansas City, Kansas.”

Back in Brookside, Corley is paging through the Star for information about an overseas factory fire. She’d seen the headline online the night before. But she can’t find it in the print edition.

“People need to decide if this method really works for them anymore,” Corley says. “Is it that we’re getting our news here, or is it that we can sit on the porch with this open and it’s a reminder of what we used to be? Maybe the Star doesn’t need to be relevant. Maybe it just needs to be physical.”

Elle Moxley covered education for KCUR.
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