Public Editor

How does The Star’s editorial board work?

Derek Donovan
Derek Donovan rsugg@kcstar.com

It’s been quite a while since I addressed one of the most common topics I hear about The Kansas City Star: the mystery of the editorial board.

Readers often want to know who writes the editorials. And how can they trust The Star to cover the news fairly when those editorials show clear opinions about politics and policy?

The Star, like most newspapers, doesn’t make this clear enough to readers, in my opinion. It’s an arrangement that doesn’t exist in most other media organizations, and the recent redesign of the print edition might make its structure and purpose even more difficult to discern.

The editorial board consists of five people: editorial page editor Steve Paul, Yael T. Abouhalkah, Barbara Shelly, Lewis W. Diuguid, and The Star’s publisher (an unfilled position at the time of this writing). Its current members all have long resumes as journalists. Traditionally, publishers are aware of the topics the board writes about but don’t participate regularly in crafting the editorials.

One member of the board usually pens the editorials on behalf of the other members, expressing their joint consensus. They are meant to represent the institutional voice of The Star.

Editorials have their roots deep in the history of the newspaper industry. When William Rockhill Nelson founded The Star in 1880, Kansas City already had three other papers: The Kansas City Times, The Kansas City Daily Journal, and The Kansas City Mail. The Times was clearly a Democratic Party paper; The Journal supported the GOP; and The Mail was “mild mannered and rather uninformative,” according to Star historian Monroe Dodd.

Nelson and partner Samuel E. Morss intended their “paper for the people” to be beholden to no political party — but it still made its point of view clearly known in how it reported news.

In many ways, newspapers of the day were like the partisan news websites of today. Visitors to The Daily Caller know they’re getting reporting with a conservative bent, just as The Nation’s readers expect a journalistic approach from the left.

There’s nothing wrong with that model. But most American companies that started out as 19th century newspapers today strive to report the news in as fair and unbiased a way as possible. (Obviously, they don’t always do that, and I rely on readers to catch examples.)

The Star’s editorial board operates independently from the news side. Board members do not assign, edit or approve news stories. And while they certainly aren’t forbidden to consort with reporters and editors, the entire culture of the newsroom has long observed the divide — even in those times when the editorial board breaks news.

In the new design, the editorials, now bylined “The Editorial Board,” appear most days in the 4-page In Depth section, which sometimes features commentary on its cover, and sometimes explanatory news reporting.

That has confused several readers. I’ve spoken to more than one who assumed the editorials’ new location meant that the board is now commingling with news reporters in a new way.

That’s a perfectly understandable conclusion, but it isn’t correct. Opinion is still opinion, and the two inside pages of In Depth still function as a traditional editorial-letters/op-ed page split.

I’m not sure that a daily reminder of how the editorial board works is necessary, but it’s still worth at least semi-regular explanations.

Derek Donovan: 816-234-4487 weekday mornings, @KCStarPublic, publiceditor@kcstar.com

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