Public Editor

A new position, but the commitment stays the same

The Star’s Derek Donovan is leaving his position of public editor to join the paper’s editorial board.
The Star’s Derek Donovan is leaving his position of public editor to join the paper’s editorial board.

I can’t believe I’ve been talking to you, the readers, since 2004. That’s a lot longer than the average stint in an ombudsman’s role, and it’s been a genuine honor to represent you.

I am leaving the news side of the operation for the editorial board, where I will pursue similar goals: engaging with the community that The Kansas City Star serves.

That means I am going to work with editorial page editor and vice president Colleen McCain Nelson to bring you columns, letters and more on these pages. We’ll move beyond the simplistic left/right model of the cable TV screaming-heads and our deeply fractured alternative online echo chambers.

The media landscape of today is completely different from 2004, when Facebook was years away from accepting members of the public, and Twitter wasn’t even founded.

Today, a la carte internet info is the rule, not the exception. And boy, do we have a problem.

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An illustration: Today I picked up a bottled water flavored with an ingredient I’d never heard of — Neotame. My first Google hit was the webpage of the company that produces it, as expected. Second was Wikipedia. I’m not a fan, but especially on matters of science, it’s come to be reliable more often than not.

My third hit? A particularly notorious “alternative medicine” site from a man who’s run afoul of the Food And Drug Administration for making illegal claims. Several more anti-science sites also littered my results.

Google and Facebook algorithms aren’t the same as human editors, and they’re currently facilitating a golden age of online snake oil and hate speech. I have no doubt the tech will get better.

But if you’re reading these words, you aren’t the gullible kind. Those who look to journalism institutions that try to be fair are the most thoughtful and civic-minded people I know. The Star doesn’t always get it right. But it honestly tries.

Since writing my first column, I’ve done my best to listen to thousands of your critiques of how The Star has covered the news. I’ve always sought the best-reasoned arguments and given them the widest audience possible in the paper and on my blog, even when I may have disagreed with them personally.

But the years have changed me. I have become a far less opinionated person myself, especially on political matters. The wide range of points of view you’ve shown me has given me a deep sense of empathy, and I see nuances invisible to me before.

Most of all, I’ve come to understand that labels of “liberal” and “conservative” aren’t meaningless — but they’re a lot fuzzier than I used to think.

I’ve learned the Republican voting bloc is far from monolithic. A lot of devoted Fox News viewers will be the first to tell you that its commentators and Rush Limbaugh can be noxious gasbags. I have heard from way more conservatives saying they disapprove strongly of Donald Trump than I’ve heard from his devout fans.

And I understand that those who oppose Trump have a genuine sense of dread, even fear, about what his cruel, capricious temperament, arrogance and unrepentant lying will mean to the social fabric and world order. More conservatives than you might realize join them.

Though I won’t be public editor any longer, The Star’s commitment to accuracy and fairness won’t falter. Error catches can be sent to, or you can use the email addresses and phone numbers that run with stories. And of course you can always go to social media to get in touch. The modern newsroom is open like never before.

I can tell you honestly that during my tenure no publisher ever asked to review anything I wrote in advance. Neither of the two editors I reported to ever ordered me not to air a criticism. I believe I received a grand total of six notes on my columns — and none was to spike or soften a valid blow.

Both in the newsroom and on the editorial board, journalists have to earn your trust. I will continue to make that my top priority.

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