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As KC grew, so did The Star

The Star and the city.

It was the perfect match, made 125 years ago.

Two newspapermen from Indiana, despairing of their hometown’s prospects, scoured the country for a place to start over. Between them, they had just enough money, plenty of newspaper skills, ample ambition and immeasurable ego.

Kansas City — a cattle, grain and railroad town emerging from the recession of the 1870s — stood on the threshold of spectacular growth. Across the West, Eastern investors were searching for places to put their money, and some of that money found its way to Kansas City. The Indiana newspapermen came, too.

That’s how the match began — The Star and the city.

On Sept. 18, 1880, the first issue of The Kansas City Evening Star hit the streets. The newsy, four-page sheet was the brainchild of Samuel E. Morss and William Rockhill Nelson, late of Fort Wayne, Ind. It was a new kind of paper for Kansas City, following a formula hatched in Fort Wayne: Local news would be of utmost importance, and the price would undercut the competition.

On a Saturday afternoon 125 years ago today, Volume One Number One of The Kansas City Evening Star was printed at the paper’s offices on Delaware Street near the City Market. The new Star challenged the city’s three existing papers — The Times, the Journal and the Mail — and Nelson and Morss immediately set their paper apart, in tone, coverage and price. The Star cost 2 cents a copy, the other papers, a nickel.

A couple of days after The Star’s debut, Eugene Field, editor of The Kansas City Times, had this to say of his new rival:

Twinkle, twinkle, little Star

Bright and gossipy you are;

We can daily hear you speak

For a paltry dime a week.

Field’s greatest renown would come as a poet, and occasionally he wrote excellent verse in The Times. Most often, however, the front pages of The Times, as well as those of the Journal and the Mail, were dominated by national politics, news from Europe and advertising. None matched the new Star’s obsession with things going on in Kansas City, nor did they match its sprightliness. Eventually, all three papers would be vanquished or absorbed by The Star.

At the outset, Morss ran the newsroom and Nelson tended the business. Morss’ and Nelson’s Star was a robust proponent of civic reform. Right away it began blasting away at torn-up streets, sloppy streetcar service, political ineptitude and civic corruption.

Within a year, Morss abruptly left town. In later years, he would become a publisher in Indiana and the ambassador to France. Why he left Kansas City is still a mystery, but no matter. Nelson now was fully in charge.

Nelson was 39 when he founded The Star. The incorrigible son of a prominent Indiana family, he had been sent to Notre Dame for reforming. To no avail: The fathers sent Nelson home. As a young man, he ran a construction business and dabbled in politics, although never as a candidate.

Nelson was big in body, large in vision and grand in ego. His associates called him “Colonel.”

“Not that he was ever a colonel of anything,” said William Allen White, world-renown editor of the Emporia (Kan.) Gazette. “He was just coloneliferous.”

This colonel-in-the-making found a late 19th-century Kansas City with no sewers, no parks, few paved streets and few sidewalks. Thoroughfares were coated in mud in rainy times, dust in dry times and horse manure in most times. The Star demanded better.

In 1881 Nelson began promoting a system of city parks. He joined forces with August Meyer, a wealthy businessman, to hire landscape architect George E. Kessler, whose design for a boulevard and park system won city support and became a model for civic improvement.

As Kansas City grew, so did The Star. Commerce was moving south, up the hills atop the bluffs, then spilling over to the slope down to OK Creek, near what is now Union Station.

Not two years after its first issue, The Star had outgrown its home on Delaware. The newspaper would move three more times before 1894, when it moved to the northeast corner of 11th Street and Grand Avenue. Further increases in circulation and revenue, however, prompted Nelson in 1908 to lay plans for yet another home, this one at 18th and Grand. There, Chicago architect Jarvis Hunt, who also would design Union Station, planned an Italian Renaissance-style structure that opened in 1911. It has been The Star’s home ever since.

In this building, Nelson decided, there would be no private offices. Each floor would be an open expanse of desks, equipment and employees. Some said Nelson wanted to promote a democratic spirit; others said he wanted to watch his help, which he did from a desk in a corner of the second floor.

In 1901, Nelson bought The Kansas City Times. He continued publishing it in the mornings and The Star in the afternoons. To the nameplate of The Times, Nelson added a line declaring it The Morning Kansas City Star. He called his revamped operation “the 24-hour Star.” The two newspapers continued for almost 90 years.

By 1910, the combined population of Kansas City, Mo., and Kansas City, Kan., was well on the way to 600,000, and The Star had grown in circulation to more than 200,000. That marked the apex of Nelson’s stewardship. On April 13, 1915, at the age of 74, Nelson died at his sprawling limestone mansion called Oak Hall. He left an estate estimated from $5 million to $10 million.

Nelson’s will left everything to his wife, Ida Nelson, and his daughter, Laura Nelson Kirkwood. After their deaths, the entire estate — The Star included — was to be sold, and the money used to buy art for a new museum. Eventually, the William Rockhill Nelson Gallery of Art was built on the site of Oak Hall, and it still stands as one of Nelson’s great legacies.

By the time of Nelson’s death, The Star was considered one of the best-written, best-reported and most elegant-looking papers in the United States. Even Theodore Roosevelt wrote essays that were published in The Star and syndicated to other newspapers.

The newspaper won renown as a place where reporters had freedom to test their writing skills. Drawn by The Star’s reputation — his way paved through family connections — a teenage Ernest Hemingway from suburban Chicago landed a reporting job at the paper in October 1917. Hemingway followed crimes and fires and worked on his descriptive prose. By April 1918 he was gone, off to Italy to drive an ambulance in the closing months of World War I. Yet he never forgot his brief time at The Star, eventually crediting a Star editor, C.G. Wellington, with channeling his verbose high school writing style into clearer, more economical English.

Hemingway used to refer to this admonition from The Star’s style sheet, written by Wellington:

“Use short sentences. Use short first paragraphs. Use vigorous English. Be positive, not negative.”

Star staffers of that era were deeply affected by the newspaper’s unwritten credo: Approach the news vigorously, and tell the story truly and well. Nelson had encouraged his staff to aim their efforts at the 30,000 “best people” in Kansas City — the educated and tasteful ones, the schoolteachers and preachers who loved the newspaper’s restrained appearance.

Clearly, no one at The Star minded that an extra 170,000 or so persons also bought the paper, and perhaps the editors and managers were influenced by something other than gentility. In fact, The Star’s dignified dress belied a newspaper full of human-interest stories: the country girl wronged by the city slicker; a failing Union Avenue druggist who wrote a note and stuck a revolver in his mouth; the Anti-Vice Society complaining about women loitering in cigar stores on 15th Street enticing male customers into the adjoining saloons.

The 1920s unleashed an age of advertising and marketing, which created a demand for new products, methods and technologies. By 1921 photographs began to appear in ads in The Star, and that year it published its first news photo, a group portrait of a basketball team. The newspaper also opened its pages to comic strips and created a Sunday magazine, the cover of which typically was a reproduction of a European masterwork.

Boldest of all the new advances was radio. In 1922, The Star joined the first wave of radio station owners in Kansas City, inaugurating WDAF. Radio studios were created on the third floor, and massive broadcast towers were built atop The Star building.

Beginning in 1921, with the death of Nelson’s widow, The Star’s ownership underwent a furious set of changes. Nelson’s only child, Laura Nelson Kirkwood, became the sole owner, but she only occasionally took an interest in the newspaper, and in 1924, her husband, bon vivant Irwin Kirkwood, was named editor.

Just two years later, in February 1926, Laura Nelson Kirkwood died in Baltimore. She was 43. There long had been rumors that she drank heavily, but the cause of her death was never established. This much was clear, though: Under the terms of Nelson’s will, The Star had to be sold and the proceeds used to acquire art. The 46-year Nelson era was about to end.

By the middle of 1926, bids were being received. They came from New York newspaperman Frank Gannett, from the Denver Post’s F.G. Bonfils and from five others outside the newspaper. The winning offer was made by an eighth bidder: a group of more than 30 Star employees who were encouraged and largely bankrolled by Kirkwood. The Star, for which they paid $11 million, would be owned by its employees, or at least some of them, for the next half century.

Barely a year after leading the purchase, Irwin Kirkwood died. The senior staffers who had run The Star in the Nelson family’s last years were now fully in charge.

Quickly, they folded the Sunday magazine, a money-loser, and replaced it with a gravure section containing well-reproduced photography. If anything, they demanded even better writing and reporting.

The editors had much to work with. The city was entering its most notorious era. On the southeast edge of downtown, nightclubs and houses of prostitution flourished, the entertainment provided by hot jazz bands. Police looked the other way as organized crime raked in profits. A series of kidnappings of prominent people and the deadly shootout known as the Union Station massacre put Kansas City on the country’s crime map. In March 1934, four persons were shot to death at or near polling places during an election.

As opinion slowly began to turn against the excesses of the wide-open era, The Star pitched in with a detailed look at how the Democratic Party’s political machine, headed by Boss Tom Pendergast, had rigged votes. Investigating the local election rolls in 1936, reporters found scores of “ghosts” and “sleepers” signing in to vote. Some listed vacant buildings as their residences. Others signed up at multiple polling places. Twenty-one persons either went to jail or paid large fines.

In 1939, Pendergast went to prison for trying to siphon state money to pay debts he accumulated betting on horse races. The Star backed reform candidates who swept into city hall in 1940.

As it did every other walk of American life, World War II fundamentally changed Kansas City and The Star. Young men working at the newspaper went off to war and, for the first time, women began covering news beats. Newsprint shortages severely restricted the amount of paper available for printing, and The Star trimmed the number of news columns and reduced advertising, thus cutting revenue. By war’s end, the paper shortage was even forcing the paper to turn down new subscribers.

After peace arrived in 1945, The Star’s hometown literally leaped out of its restraints. Fueled by the GI bill, returning servicemen went back to college, started families and bought homes in new suburbs such as Prairie Village and Leawood. Postwar newspaper delivery routes sprawled ever farther from The Star’s plant, complicating delivery of two newspapers a day. The Star’s last daily competitor, the Journal, had folded during the war, but now new weekly newspapers sprang up in the suburbs, aiming to nibble away at The Star’s dominance.

The great American economic recovery opened an era when The Star made huge profits and achieved record circulation, well over 300,000. Wanting to guarantee a reliable stream of paper for its large readership, The Star bought a paper mill in Wisconsin.

Labor unions felt emboldened, too, and the paper’s pressmen struck in January 1947. For the first time in its history, The Star was unable to publish. The strike lasted two weeks, and in the end the union won a pay raise.

Shortly thereafter, Earl McCollum, The Star’s president, died of a heart attack and Roy Roberts was named to replace him. A self-described “big, fat boy from Kansas,” Roberts began his career at the paper under Nelson. Like Nelson, Roberts was a big, rumpled man. Like Nelson, he was domineering in and out of the office. And like Nelson, Roberts was robust, opinionated and quite willing to be one of the country’s politically influential publishers and editors.

In the postwar era, no national magazine’s article about Kansas City was complete without mention of Roberts. Time magazine declared him “the man to see in Kansas City to get elected, to build a hospital, to get things into the paper and to keep them out.”

In his first years as president of the newspaper, Roberts oversaw an $8 million rebuilding of the plant, and fought and won battles with the government over taxes and labor relations. In 1949 he presided over the beginning of WDAF television, the city’s first TV station. He led The Star’s coverage of the 1951 flood, which won a special citation from the Pulitzer Prize committee.

Politics was Roberts’ chief joy, and unlike Nelson, he displayed no reluctance to be partisan. A rock-ribbed Republican, Roberts more often than not opposed that most famous Kansas City Democrat, Harry S. Truman — even before Truman became famous. Truman never forgave The Star for challenging his integrity when he held county offices. Once president, Truman found himself consistently under fire from what was, for all intents and purposes, his hometown newspaper.

In early 1953, in the waning days of Truman’s presidency, The Star was indicted by a federal grand jury for monopolistic advertising practices. The government sought to have The Star divest itself of WDAF radio and television. Roberts blasted the indictment as part of a government “inquisition” in retaliation for his opposition to the president, and there is a hint that it was. The move was pushed by publishers of small suburban newspapers who chafed at The Star’s attempts to subjugate them, and one of the publishers’ descendants in 1980 recalled his father having visited Truman to encourage the government action.

The trial of the newspaper began in early 1955 and ended a little more than a month later. Advertisers and other Kansas City businessmen testified that The Star had coerced them into doing business with the paper on The Star’s terms. They quoted Star staffers as having told them that if they advertised in another paper, they would have to buy equal space in The Star if they wanted any Star space at all. If they bought space in the morning Times, they had to buy it in the evening Star, too. These practices were not new in the 1950s; several dated to Nelson’s time. Nor were they peculiar to The Star. Yet Roberts was defiant, convinced that The Star would win.

It lost. The Star was found guilty, lost all its appeals and in 1957 signed a consent decree abandoning combination advertising and subscription rates and agreeing to sell WDAF radio and television. It would live under the decree until 1999.

Although The Star continued to be the dominant news and advertising medium in Kansas City, it was clear to its management that it no longer could do as it pleased. There were other games in town.

In the middle 1960s, when the world and newspapers in general were undergoing enormous changes, Roberts turned over the reins to his management team, all longtime Star employees. They sought to keep The Star up with the times. They ordered the newsroom to begin hiring minorities and to begin printing more positive stories about black people. Previously, the newspaper had printed few stories about minorities at all. The Star sent a reporter to the South for 14 weeks to examine emerging changes there. Another reporter was dispatched to Vietnam.

Yet the newspaper market was changing. The metropolitan area continued to sprawl far from downtown, and readers were getting new habits. In 1965, circulation of the morning Times reached 347,742, exceeding for the first time The Star’s. More and more, subscribers wanted their paper in the morning, representing the stirrings of a lifestyle change.

The Star’s leaders tried corporate diversification, all the rage in the middle 1960s. They bought a suburban Chicago printing company, but failed to look closely at its books. The company wound up gouging its new owner. Other purchases consumed the time and attention of the paper’s leaders into the 1970s. The Wisconsin paper mill bought in the late 1940s was a heavy polluter, and it ran afoul of environmental laws enacted in the early 1970s. Cleanup costs were daunting.

In addition, The Star was paying for new printing technology, and sales of company stock to employees were slow. Cash flow was becoming a problem.

In 1976, as the Republican Party held its national convention in Kansas City, representatives of a New York-based broadcasting and publishing company began showing interest in buying The Star.

The company, Capital Cities Communications, knew of The Star’s economic woes, among them the prospect of repurchasing millions of dollars in shares from retired employees. Yet the New Yorkers saw possibilities, and in February 1977, Capital Cities bought the newspaper for $125 million. For Star staffers and for Kansas City, the change was wrenching. For the first time, the biggest newspaper in town was going to be owned and run by out-of-towners.

Big changes did come for the staff. Under the leadership of James H. Hale, whom Capital Cities made publisher shortly after the sale, every department of the newspaper was overhauled. Hale cut costs drastically but also plowed money into improvements in staff and equipment. With The Star on sound economic footing, the city got a better newspaper than it had before the sale.

The Star and The Times no longer shared staffs but became two separate newspapers and competed for stories. The papers expanded their zoned suburban operations, created separate sections for local, regional and business news, boosted their use of color photography and made record profits. In Hale’s 15 years at the helm, The Star and The Times won three Pulitzer prizes.

Like Nelson, Hale was reticent in public settings. Like Nelson, he was direct and decisive in private, and a consummate newspaper businessman. He promptly made Capital Cities’ investment pay off.

Waning readership of the afternoon edition, common throughout the country, threatened that payoff. In late 1989, The Star’s executives began preparing to kill the afternoon newspaper. On March 1, 1990, a new morning newspaper combining features of the afternoon Star and the morning Times appeared. It was named The Kansas City Star. For the first time since 1901, The Star company was back to once-a-day delivery.

During the early 1990s, under publisher Robert Woodworth and his editor (and later publisher) Arthur S. Brisbane, The Star occasionally sallied forth in the spirit of Nelson, waging campaigns that raised questions about suburban sprawl, pushed for re-establishing values for children and opposed laws allowing concealed weapons.

Changes in technology and readership kept The Star on the lookout for new ways to deliver information. The pages of the newspaper took on more color, graphics and special sections. Outside the traditional newspaper, The Star took its first steps since selling its radio and television properties. First came StarTouch, an interactive telephone service. In the mid-1990s, the newspaper launched a short-lived on-line network, StarNET, which operated as a proprietary system with individual accounts. With changing technology came the World Wide Web and Now a decade old, has become a timely, wide-reaching source of breaking news and advertising content.

In the wave of corporate mergers of the booming ’90s, The Star’s ownership changed twice more. Capital Cities, which had acquired the ABC television network, was bought by the Walt Disney Co. Disney held The Star and other Cap Cities newspapers briefly, then in mid-1997 sold them to Knight Ridder Inc., the second-largest newspaper company in the country. In the early 2000s, Knight Ridder did what no owner of The Star had done since the middle 1960s, approving the purchase of new presses and a new building to house them.

Today marks 125 years since The Star, in the words of a competing paper of the day, was “launched on the sea of Kansas City journalism.” The paper is preparing to move into a new printing and distribution plant that covers two city blocks. The glass-walled, state-of-the-art structure sits catercorner from The Star’s main building, the one Nelson built in 1911.

Before settling on the nearby site, Star management considered various locations, including land on the suburban fringes. They decided The Star would stay put. Linked by proximity and use to the original building on its south, the plant also looks north to the reviving downtown core of Kansas City.

As always, The Star and the city are a match.