Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Online Only in KCK

The move of the Kansas City Kansan to online-only in January is another example of a hail-Mary pass. The Kansan was founded in 1921 by Arthur Capper, the publisher and political leader. Capper was the Silvio Berlusconi of the Midlands; he used his newspapers (Capper's Weekly and the Topeka Daily Capital) to support his political interests, and vice versa. Kansas City, as a metropolis in two states, was blanketed by the Kansas City, Mo., Star and Times of William Rockhill Nelson; there was a second daily operation, the Journal Post, until World War II. I suspect the Kansan was to be Capper's voice in the Kansas City market, where his weekly, oriented to the rural population, would not circulate well. I suspect he also used the Kansan to tell politicians in KCK what he wanted done. But perhaps his aim was only to establish a Kansas identity for the Kansas side of the metropolis, as opposed to the then corrupt and wide-open Missouri side.

While the Kansan managed to punch its way up to around 25,000 daily circulation, that has to be put in the context of Wyandotte County, which is mostly Kansas City, Kan., having had a peak population of 185,000, and then there was Johnson County, Kan., to the south as well. The Star and Times each had around 350,000 circulation. As the suburbs of Johnson County grew to become the high-income district of metropolitan Kansas City, those people read the Star, not the Kansan. Wyandotte County and KCK began a decline that has brought the county population down to 155,000, and the city budget was only saved by a Cabela's store.

For its part, the Kansan became part of the Inland Newspapers chain, which, if an obscure memory serves, kept it alive in part as a test site for production machinery. Lately it has been printed at the Leavenworth Times as part of the GateHouse Media chain; there was probably some advertising overlap, as Leavenworth is becoming a northern suburb of Kansas City.

The Kansan was down to a daily circulation of about 8,000, and claims an online readership of 7,000. Perhaps they are the same people, in which case there is little risk here. It still covers Wyandotte County in the traditional manner, but apparently that will change as well. “This is not going to be a newspaper turned into an online product,” Kansan general manager Drew Savage was quoted as saying. “It’s going to have a completely different look.” The newspaper noted: "The format of the site will be more like a blog, making it easier for readers to scan through all the stories from a particular day and find the ones they wish to read more carefully." The estimable Howard Owens is in charge of this move, so I know it will be done creatively.

The story noted that "without the cumbersome tasks of page design and layout, and other duties associated with print, the online staff will be free to find more and varied stories to post online." The story also noted that "the Kansan staff is being reduced from eight people to four as a cost savings measure during the transition."

I wish no ill on any newspaper, but the Kansas City Kansan has been cooked for years. If they are eliminating their wire-service and paper and ink and fuel costs and still have to let go half the staff, their staff was probably going to be reduced to zero if they tried to run the presses. Online allows them a chance to reinvent themselves; but they long ago became a niche product, linked to a declining core city and a hold on the market that was marginal even in good times. Even the most diehard print believer would acknowledge that print is no longer the solution to all newspaper problems. And GateHouse is not putting any significant business at risk here.

As the always pointed Juan Giner recently said in a riposte to, who else, Jeff Jarvis:

"These are dead bodies in dead markets.
"Like the papers in Detroit.
"So, going online will not solve their problems.
"If you were not able to make money in print, how are you going to survive online?
"If you didn’t get enough readers and advertisers, how are you going to get them online?
"Only print newspapers making money, having readers and advertisers, and investing online will survive.
"If you were not innovative in print, how I can believe that you will be online?
"These newspapers are not casualties of the Internet, but print failures.
"These are not the papers of the future.
"They are the losers."

1 comment:

Melissa Bower said...

I worked for the Kansan a few years ago, and KCK was one of my favorite places to be. (As a disclaimer, I also continue to work for their publisher GateHouse Media)
I did a bit of research when I arrived at the paper around 04-05. It seems that some corporate corruption in the 80s-90s led to part of the newspaper's demise. My coworkers told me when they arrived in 01-02, the "newspaper was small, but not dying," but things changed quickly.
At the time I was there, circulation was around 3,000.