The Kansas City Star has hired Colleen McCain Nelson, a Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial writer, to lead its editorial page — just as soon as she finishes covering the U.S. presidential race for The Wall Street Journal.
The Star also has hired Eric Nelson, her husband, to lead its digital news operations. He currently is head of digital content for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in Washington.
For each, the move to Kansas City marks a return to roots. Both graduated from the University of Kansas and have family in the area. He grew up in Omaha, Neb., and she in Salina, Kan.
Tony Berg, president and publisher of The Star, said Colleen will bring leadership and a willingness to shake things up as vice president of the editorial board. In addition to a proven track record as a writer, Berg said, she has strong ties to the community that The Star serves.
“She really has a vision. She grasps the importance of an editorial board to a community,” Berg said.
Colleen said she wants to provide readers with a constructive editorial voice that is “intellectually consistent but not partisan” and that still can be unpredictable. She also looks forward to working for a specific audience she can meet and engage with rather than a national one.
“I’ve missed having a connection to a community,” she added.
Eric will start next month as The Star’s assistant managing editor-digital. He said he is focused on new ideas and approaches to telling stories.
Berg said Eric’s grasp on the role of social media in journalism will make him valuable not only to The Star but also to other McClatchy newspapers.
“It’s exciting when you hire two amazing journalists and then learn in the process that you’ve also hired two really wonderful people,” said Mike Fannin, editor and vice president. “They have passion not only for the news but for Kansas City, as well.”
In their careers, Colleen McCain and Eric Nelson followed similar paths that brought them together as a couple.
Colleen, 42, was born in North Dakota but was raised in Salina, Kan., which she calls her home town and where her parents still live. She pronounces her first name with a long O sound, and her husband calls her “Co” for short.
Eric, 46, is a Nebraska native who grew up in Ralston in the Omaha area, and his mother now lives in the Kansas City area.
Both were educated in journalism at KU, though not at the same time. Both also have worked at The Wichita Eagle, again not at the same time. Colleen also has worked at The Fort Worth Star-Telegram, which like The Star and Eagle is a McClatchy newspaper.
Both ended up at The Dallas Morning News and married in November 2000. Though far from Kansas, they remained close to Kansas in thought. They got a dog and named it Phog.
Colleen’s journalism career started in high school when she wrote some stories for the Salina Journal. As a KU freshman, she wrote stories for the Miami County Republic in Paola, Kan.
She already has a collection of “Colleen McCain” bylines from The Star, where she worked as a summer intern in 1995.
In 2010, Colleen received a Pulitzer Prize for her work in editorial writing with two others at The Dallas Morning News.
She spent many days and hours in southern Dallas during 2009, talking with residents about what needed to happen, what needed to change. Part of the project identified “drops in the bucket” that could be changed — crack houses, dumping sites and other community sores. Part of the project sent Colleen on drives to check up on those sites that remained on the project’s monthly “drops” list until they were fixed and replaced by another.
The award praised “their relentless editorials depicting the stark social and economic disparity between the city’s better-off northern half and distressed southern half.”
Sometimes, Eric went with Colleen on those drives, even when he was still in a wheelchair from an accident in November 2008 that changed their lives by nearly ending his. They said the accident also led them to their current posts in Washington, D.C., and ultimately to take the jobs at The Star.
Colleen and Eric had just finished running a half marathon race in Dallas. They were standing in a crosswalk when a car careened into Eric and two other runners. All three suffered two broken legs. Eric also sustained head injuries and fractures to vertebrae in his neck. His survival was uncertain, his recovery slow.
“We had a lovely life that all of a sudden was turned upside down. Very quickly all of your priorities change,” Colleen said. “The focus became, ‘Eric needs to live.’ Then the focus became, ‘Eric needs to walk again.’ Then, ‘Eric needs to do his job again.’ ”
Eric not only returned to work, but the couple also returned to their love of running with the New York Marathon about two years later.
“He’s the toughest guy I know,” she said.
Colleen and both of their parents cared for Eric in recovery. At the same time, she was doing the work that earned a Pulitzer. She recalled writing one editorial sitting beside his hospital bed.
“There was not a lot of sleep involved,” she said of the work and Eric’s recovery.
The incident had involved an uninsured driver whose license had been suspended. She received two misdemeanor citations, ultimately because Eric had lived. Otherwise, manslaughter charges might have been considered. In 2009, with the couple’s involvement, Texas enacted “Eric’s Law” that heightened penalties for drivers in such situations that cause serious bodily harm.
Eric said the incident also taught them that life is too short to let opportunities pass.
So when The Wall Street Journal offered Colleen a job covering the 2012 presidential campaign — and later a chance to cover the White House — Eric said, “Let’s go,” and they left Dallas even though they had settled in thoroughly. Colleen now also covers Hillary Clinton’s campaign for the presidency.
Eric took a job at Politico, where he was editor of technology and transportation teams, before joining the U.S. chamber in early 2015.
Then came a call from Kansas City and a chance to move back to their roots. Again, she said, they decided life is too short and you have to seize opportunities when they come.
“This is where we started. This is where we want to finish,” Eric said.