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Hard Times at Your Hometown Newspaper

Have you noticed lately that your hometown newspaper is a mere shell of its former self? That seems to be the case all over, and it pains us to say that the situation is particularly dire around here.
A couple of days ago we were taking home some blue-hot Khao-Paad chicken fried rice from the terrific Thai House joint over on West Street, and we ran into a fine old newspaper colleague who glumly told us about the latest round of newsroom layoffs that had come down earlier in the afternoon. We long worked with all three of the victims she mentioned, and well know all of them as good guys who did good work, and it occurred to us that they’re the kind of ever-loyal employees a business lays off right before it goes under.
Our friend told us there were still nearly 20 newsroom employees left, between the writing and editing and photographic and clerical staff, but that’s hardly enough to cover all the daily newsworthy events in a fascinating metropolitan area of half-a-million complicated souls, much less a fascinating state with some two-and-half-million complicated souls. Back when we first started as college drop-outs at the very bottom of the newsroom hierarchy, way back in the year President Ronald Reagan was first elected, the newsroom had well over a hundred extremely complicated employees we dealt with, and even then that remarkably talented group was never quite up to the task.
That was before the epochal internet, however, when the only way to get stock quotations and baseball scores and maybe a few relatively in-depth paragraphs about the latest local and state national scandals was by paying a full 25 cents for a thick and full-sized ad-filled copy of your hometown paper. Our hometown paper was printing money almost as fast as the basement’s presses churned out the state and county and hometown editions, and lavishly endowed its newsroom with well-credentialed new hires and generous expense accounts for statewide travel and even the occasional visit to Broadway for the theater critic and the Paris Air Show for the aviation writer, and it was an exciting time to be in the newspaper racket, and we’d always walk home through the empty downtown streets of early morning downtown Wichita with satisfaction that we’d helped to put out a pretty damned good newspaper for our hometown, and that it was at least worth one measly quarter from a Wichitan’s spare change.
These days the up-to-the-minute stock quotations and baseball scores are just a couple of free clicks away on the internet machine where you’re reading this, and high-tech targeted job sites and the clunky-looking Craigslist and various other for-sell sites have stolen all the once lucrative classified advertising business, so the old business model is no longer sustainable. Which leads to the lay-offs that devalue the product, which then goes up in price, and these days the paper is literally smaller — not quite tabloid-sized, but less than the full broadsheet of the glory days — and the remaining staff is stuffed into a start-up sized office space in Old Town and the rag now costs a full buck and a half. There are still some capable journalists left, but as much as we admire their daily efforts they’re hard press to come up with a full buck and a half’s worth of journalism from a dwindling number of readers every day. The news out of Topeka is mostly reported by the skeletal crew at the fellow McClachy-owned Kansas City Star, which the hometown paper once tried to scoop on any statewide story, the national stuff is all from the decimated wire services, and now that the paper is printed in Kansas City and trucked down the turnpike all of the Royals’ west coast baseball scores are a full day old.
By the time we’d scratched and clawed our way from the copy boy’s desk to a front-page by-line things were changing, but it was just in time to get in on the last of a golden age of local journalism. The expense accounts were no longer so generous, but we still spent an entire legislative session in Topeka, and routinely a couple of fill-ups in the western expanse of Kansas, There was plenty to gripe about with our local newspaper, but its crusty old executive editor frequently feuded with his corporate bosses and allowed us to freely vent during the daily staff meetings, and the paper did a lot of good work. Most of our colleagues had been inspired to enter journalism by the movie “All the President’s Men”, and wanted nothing more than to bring down the local equivalent of President Richard Nixon, whereas we’d been inspired by the movie “His Girl Friday,” and mostly wanted to wear fedoras and shout into candlestick phones and wind up with such a hot sassy gal as Rosalind Russell, but between us we came with a full half-bucks worth of daily reading.
Those crusading left-wing baby-boomers did uncover a lot of shady dealings by both Republican and Democratic officials, and ¬†for a couple of decades we enjoyed a middle class lifestyle by filing factual accounts of some obscure public ¬†another as well as some occasional right-of-center commentary and numerous well-told New Journalism tales of what it was like for some folk artist recreational vehicle owner to be alive on the Kansas plains on a certain day. Despite the occasional corrections and the numerous times that the factual reports largely missed the point, none of it was “fake news,” except in a couple of cases the paper fully confessed while firing the offending reporters, and we still say it was well worth the two or four bits you’d have paid for it.
There was always a certain left-wing tilt to paper, and those out-of-town editors the corporate owners brought in never did get the hang of a place like Wichita, but it wasn’t “fake news,” and we mostly blame the internet and Craig’sList and those high-tech targeted advertising sites and the creative destruction of capitalism that has also wiped out coal-mining and the photographic film industry, as well as the growing indifference and illiteracy of the reading public. We can’t at all blame any of our three recently laid-off friends, and only wish them the best.
The three most recent lay-off victims are just the latest in a decades old decline, which has seen the defenestration of several dozen top-notch reporters and writers and photographers, and reduced our hometown paper to its current sorry state. The paper had already laid off several worthy staffers when we quite in disgust, and we’ve been astounded about who’s been laid off since, and we wonder how long the rest of the emaciated staff will stay on the job. We put in enough time in the corporate chain to be vested in a pension, which assured is not invested in media stocks, and we hope our erstwhile colleagues will eventually enjoy the same benefit, although we don’t know what kind of deal offered when they came on board, and we wish all of us the best.
Which is bad news for everyone who used to enjoy a middle class lifestyle by working in daily journalism, and bad news for the rest of our prairie hometown and everyone in your locality as well. Those public officials can now pad their expense accounts with less worry, the state legislature can more comfortably do something astoundingly stupid with less public notice, and voters will wander into voting booths less knowledgable about the scoundrels they’re voting for. It should go without saying, but these days we feel obliged to vouch that our three recently unemployed friends are by no means enemies of the people.

— Bud Norman

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Cherchez la Femme, For a Change

The latest sexual harassment scandal comes from right here in Kansas, so of course there’s a peculiar twist to it. This time the notable target of the allegations is a woman, Andrea Ramsey, who withdrew from the race for the third congressional district’s Democratic nomination after The Kansas City Star called to ask about a lawsuit her former employer had settled with a man who alleged she had subjected him to “unwelcome sexual comments and innuendos.”
Ramsey denies the charges, notes it was her employer who settled the suit with a cash payment but no admission of guilt, and insists that if she had been a party to the suit she would have endeavored to clear her name. In a brief statement announcing her withdrawal from the race, however, she added that “In the rush to claim the high ground in our roiling national conversation about harassment, the Democratic Party has implemented a zero tolerance policy. For me, that means a vindictive, terminated employee’s false allegations are enough for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee to decide not to support our promising campaign. We are in a national moment when rough justice stands in place of careful analysis, nuance, and due process.”
Indeed, the DCCC issued its own statement that “If anyone is guilty of sexual harassment or sexual assault, that person should not hold office,” and that it’s holding Democratic candidates to a very high standard. Ramsey had previously won the endorsement of Emily’s List, a well-heeled outfit that supports women candidates, but it also issued its own statement supporting the candidates withdrawal and wishing her well.”
We’re sure that both the DCCCers and the Emily’s Listers hated to do it, as Ramsey would have made a formidable nominee. Kansas is a reliably red state, but its third district is mostly comprised by the mostly affluent suburbs of Kansas City, which gave a slim majority of its votes to Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton in the last election, so Republican incumbent Rep. Kevin Yoder is considered vulnerable. Since Republican nominee Donald Trump became president those mostly affluent suburbs have proved a problem for his party in special and off-year elections almost everywhere, even here in the more rock-ribbed fourth district, where a gun-toting and outspokenly centrist Democrat gave the Republican a real scare and actually wounding up winning Sedgwick County with its big city of Wichita and surrounding suburbs, and the dramatic drop-off in Republican votes in the suburbs of such purplish states as Virginia and Pennsylvania suggest it’s a very scary trend for the GOP.
Which makes it hard for the Democrats to defenestrate a real contender in a state such as Kansas, but then again it must have also been hard for them to do the same to such a popular figure and potent fund-raiser as Minnesota Sen. Al Franken and such a longstanding civil rights icon as Michigan Rep. John Conyers, but they went right ahead and did that, despite the similarly disputed nature of the allegations. The Democrats are deadly serious about a zero-tolerance policy for sexual harassment, and Ramsey is right to note that they don’t care much about due process, even if she didn’t publicly object until her own head was on the chopping block, and sooner or later someone’s going to be vindicated and a backlash will ensue, but until then it might be well worth the cost.
If the backlash doesn’t develop by next November the Democrats can at least credibly claim a high ground in our roiling conversation on harassment until the crucial mid-terms. The Republicans have lately been defenestrating its misbehaving congressional members at a rapid rate, with almost as much moral outrage as they mustered for the accused and quickly defenestrated Democrats, but there’s as yet no window big enough to throw their grab-’em-by-the-wherevers President through it. The Republicans just lost a Senate seat in even deeper red Alabama, thanks in some part to defections from affluent suburban Alabamians, but there’s no so getting past the president’s full-throated endorsement of a nutcase credibly accused of having an unsavory interest in teenaged girls back when he as a 30-something prosecutor. Women are slightly more than half of the electorate in every election, and our guess is that much more than of women will have a problem with that.
Probably even more than that in those affluent suburbs where the women might otherwise be tempted to vote the upcoming Republican tax bill and the salutary effect Trump’s rapid de-regulating has had on their stock portfolios. In our white collar experience they’re almost as likely to tell “me too” stories as are the barmaids and factory women we’re more likely to chat with after hours, and college educated types are more likely to make a federal case of it. Most of our women friends, who range across the entire socio-economic scale, regard Trump as one of those creeps they’ve had to deal with too often in the past, and we can’t blame the Democrats for taking advantage of that.
We usually nod in agreement whenever our women friends tell their “me too” stories, because based on what we’ve seen after so many years in offices and bars we rarely doubt their accounts, and we more rarely raise our concerns about due process and the inevitable backlash. Even when the backlash comes we’ll still hold to our old-fashioned notions about respectful treatment of women, and be glad that our women friends will attest that at least we’re not one of the creeps they’ve to off had to deal with too often in the past. We trust that when the backlash comes they’ll be more open to arguments about due process, and we hope that it works out in the end.
In the meantime that won’t do any good for Andrea Ramsey, who has been offered by the feminist sisterhood as the first sacrifice of their own on the altar of the greater good. We have no idea if she actually did what that man alleged, and although we can remember several times when female co-workers mad sexual comments and innuendoes, and a few times when they were unwelcome, we didn’t make a federal case of it. None of those women were our boss, though, and empathy only gets you so far to the truth. As far as the politics of the moment go, though, it’s hers and some unlucky guy’s tough luck if their innocent. Still, like Emily’s List we wish her well in her future endeavors.

— Bud Norman

Taking the World Series-ly

The World Series commences today, and folks around these parts are enthused because the locally beloved Kansas City Royals have ridden an improbable hot streak into the fall classic, and almost every sports fan outside the rooting area of the opposing San Francisco Giants seems favorably inclined toward the plucky under-paid underdogs from the relatively small midwestern market, but it’s not like the old days. Perhaps it’s just the difference in perspective of a wide-eyed youth and a wizened old man, but nothing in sports or aught else seems like the old days.
For a long period of time that began many decades before our birth and stretched into our childhood, the World Series was by far the most important event on the American sports calendar. One of the rare advantages of attending a mediocre elementary school in the ’60s was getting an autumn afternoon off to watch the daylight games on a fuzzy black-and-white television that had been wheeled into the classroom to placate the boys, whose boyish tendencies were still indulged by the country’s public education systems. An eerily similar example of the World Series’ former cultural significance can be found in Ken Kesey’s novel “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” in which the denizens of a snake pit mental hospital were willing to endure all the drugged indignities of a cruel nurse but finally rebelled when she forbade them to watch the games. There was a time, you youngsters should know, when any man or boy who wasn’t enrapt by the World Series would have his red-blooded Americanness questioned.
Since then there have been labor strikes and steroids and assorted other scandals, and the salaries have skyrocketed and the ratings for the night games lasting well past a boy’s bedtime have plummeted, and the World Series is now just the biggest event of the week on a calendar that constantly offers up some heavily hyped sports event or another. The National Football League’s single-game Super Bowl is now the biggest deal of the year, to the point that even the gazillion dollar commercials are scrutinized to a greater extent than Democratic presidential nominees, and only the old-timers can recall when it was a little-watched exhibition game against an upstart league in the aftermath of the all important NFL championship game, and the half-time entertainment was a college marching band and a guy flying around the stadium in one of those James Bond jet packs. Even when the locally beloved Kansas City Chiefs won it all in one of the Super Bowls that was so early you could understand the Roman numerals the kids on our block all left at half-time to have our own contest in a nearby cow pasture.
Those neighborhood football games were rough and tumble affairs, conducted without pads or helmets or agents, and particularly rough on such undersized but game sorts as ourselves. The basketball games that took place on the driveway, whether one-on-one or two-on-two or three-on-three or the free-for-all variation we called “21,” were just as bruising and as likely to knock to the wind out of you. Baseball usually involved some adult supervision, but the gloriously free sandlot contests also involved a violent degree of contact. The most popular pastimes of our boyhoods would probably get an entire neighborhood of parents arrested for child endangerment these days, yet another reason for nostalgia, but even such exhilaratingly dangerous physicality would have never kept a neighborhood kid from watching the very best of the big kids duke it out in a World Series.
The constant saturation of sports on cable television and the networks and the social media and your local tavern and the average guy’s casual clothing have somehow diminished its significance, a development that some part of our culturally conservative nature welcomes, but we can’t help lamenting that in sports our aught else in our culture there’s no longer the same society-wide appreciation of how well the best of the big kids are playing the games. This year’s Kansas City Royals only won 89 games and snuck into the play-offs via that one-game system we have derided as sports socialism, which provided the nail-biting local interest in the last days of the season which the cynical ploy intended, but since then they’ve been playing with an undefeated and record-setting and Hollywood-scripted extra-innings excellence which commands respect in any human endeavor.
Our favorite baseball team is the Wichita Wingnuts, which has already wrapped up a double-A American Association championship after compiling a remarkable-at-any-level .730 winning percentage in the regular season, and our second favorite is the New York Yankees, which finished out of the socialistically expanded plays-offs despite its usual heavy payroll, but we’ve always had a certain fondness for the Royals. We’re old enough to remember that long ago time when George Brett and Frank White and Bret Saberhagen and Willie Willson and Hal McCrae and Dan Quisenberry gave our beloved Yankees heck in the reasonably two-tiered playoffs of the late ’70s and early ’80s, and the town was kind enough to us during our stint as obituary writers for the Kansas City Star that we wish it well, so we’ll be tuned in and hoping for a Royals victory. They’re playing the 89-win but suddenly hot San Francisco Giants, too, so any sort of conservative’s choice should be clear.

— Bud Norman