END OF AN ERA
After 88-year history, Kansas City Kansan stops the presses
By MATT KELSEY
Published January 10, 2009
In the first issue of the Kansas City Kansan, the newspaper’s founder, Arthur Capper, wrote that the publication would “devote its energies with whole heart and single mind to the folk and affairs of Kansas City, Kansas.”
From that first edition, published January 31, 1921, to this issue, published January 10, 2009, the Kansan has done just that.
Now, after nearly nine decades covering the “folk and affairs” of Wyandotte County, the Kansas City Kansan is ceasing its 88-year press run. Today’s issue will be the last printed edition.
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The Kansan will continue as an online news blog. But the print version of the Kansan will be greatly missed in Wyandotte County. Local leaders, community activists, and the thousands of subscribers who have made the print publication successful over the years, say they’ll miss holding an actual newspaper in their hands.
Readers with internet access are optimistic about the Kansan’s new web-only publication, but they agree that the print edition holds a special place in their hearts.
“The Kansan was the connection for the people in the community to each other,” said Helen Fotovich, a lifelong Kansan reader and a former columnist for the newspaper. “It was a unifying entity in Wyandotte County. The Kansan didn’t just cover the area east of I-435, or the area west of I-435. There were no boundaries to the Kansan.”
“The Kansas City Kansan has been the daily, and more recently twice-weekly, oracle or voice of KCK awareness,” said David Haley, a state senator with longtime connections to Wyandotte County. “As a legislator, and even just an informed citizen, if I have to be on top of something in Wyandotte County, the Kansan is the only source that I’ve had. I know personally hundreds of people in the community who feel the same way.”
“I’ve subscribed to the Kansan for more than half a century, and it’s probably been closer to 65 years,” said Julius Novak, 90, a lifelong Wyandotte County resident. “It’s been a newspaper that I’ve certainly enjoyed for many years, and it’s a big disappointment to see that it’s not going to be printed anymore. The Kansan got people involved in the community. It was a means of connecting people.”
“Everybody feels like it was their newspaper,” said Joy Mellenbruch, a 40-year Kansan employee. “The Kansan belonged to everybody in the community.”
‘BORN IN UNIQUE CIRCUMSTANCES’
Ninety-year-old Julius Novak was just a toddler when KCK residents banded together out of a desire to have a strong daily newspaper dedicated to Wyandotte County. A written history of the newspaper, published in conjunction with the paper’s 50th anniversary, summed up the situation in KCK during the early part of the century: “Here was a city of 100,000, endowed with powerful industrial muscle - the second largest in the state - yet without a modern daily newspaper. Before the Kansan came into being, nine tenths of the citizens knew not what the rest of the town was doing.”
According to the written history, “It came to pass that leading citizens, cognizant of their city’s needs, got together to try and land a daily newspaper.”
Two local ambassadors - W.A. Bailey and Raymond F. Gibbs - traveled to Washington, D.C., to meet with Arthur Capper, a newspaper tycoon from Topeka, a former Kansas governor, and a sitting U.S. Senator. Capper was less than overwhelmed by their proposal to start a newspaper, but he eventually promised that if a certain amount of subscribers and advertisers could be guaranteed beforehand, he’d entertain the idea of publishing in KCK.
The booster group exceeded Capper’s mandates, and the senator followed through with his promise. He purchased the building at 545 Minnesota Avenue for an office, and he also purchased a name - the Kansas City Kansan was the banner name of a small publication started in 1916 by Austin E Neal. Capper bought the name and gave Neal a job in the Kansan’s newsroom.
The first issue of the new Kansan rolled off the presses on January 31, 1921. Capper’s publisher’s note in that first issue claimed that the paper, “Born under unique circumstances, fathered by civic pride and aspirations, is hereby dedicated to the moral and material welfare of Kansas City, Kansas.”
‘A PECULIAR RESPONSIBILITY’
Before the days of mailed circulation, many young men who grew up in KCK at one time or another held jobs as delivery boys for the Kansan.
“I had probably the best Kansan route in the whole city,” says Floyd Diehl, 75, who delivered the paper for four years starting when he was 11.
“My route was on 7th Street, from Armstrong to Minnesota, and on Minnesota from 5th to 7th,” he said. “It was a pretty easy route.”
Diehl said the paper boys were required to buy the newspapers from the Kansan, then they would sell them to subscribers along their route for a higher price. The delivery boys kept the profits for themselves.
KCK resident Al James said two of his sons received an impromptu education during their time as Kansan deliverers.
“We were a real poor family, so they really learned how to save money,” James said, adding that he would help out on occasion. “On the snowy days, I’d have to hop in my car and drive the routes, and they’d throw the papers.”
But not everybody was able to get in on the act. Madelyn Fotovich said girls weren’t allowed to deliver the paper back in the early days. Still, Fotovich found a way to work with the system.
“I worked nights selling the Kansan paper to areas where they had a hard time getting a carrier,” Fotovich said. “And I really sold it.”
The Kansan also employed wave after wave of talented journalists, including Larry Whiteside, who was posthumously inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 2008. Whiteside began his journalism career at the Kansan and went on to make a name for himself as a baseball correspondent for the Boston Globe.
The newspaper also gave employees opportunities for advancement. Joy Mellenbruch worked at the Kansan for over 40 years, literally working from the bottom to nearly the top of the organization.
“When I left, I was advertising director,” Mellenbruch said. “But I started off part time on the switchboard and worked my way up.”
Bob Friskel was on the Kansan’s editorial staff for 39 years.
“I think what impresses me is all the great reporters and editors that came through there,” Friskel said. “The people I worked with were very conscientious. It was a very close group, and everybody had a good time.”
“There was such a wide variety of interesting stories that went on in a city like Kansas City, Kansas,” said Mike Belt, a reporter at the Kansan from 1984 through 2000. “It was just a very interesting place to work.”
All Kansan staff members understood what Senator Capper wrote in that first issue: “A peculiar responsibility rests upon them. They will endeavor to meet that responsibility and live up to their opportunities.”
‘WITHOUT PREACHMENT OR CARPING’
The Kansan started strong and continued strong throughout much of its history, going head to head with the Kansas City Star and other news sources of the day.
In 1927, Capper Publications moved the Kansan from its original site at 545 Minnesota to a brand-new building in downtown KCK. That’s where the newspaper would remain for over 70 years.
After the senator’s death, the newspaper in 1957 was sold to Stauffer Communications. Publisher John Stauffer and his family ran the Kansan until the 1970s, when Lee Enterprises bought the property from Stauffer. Lee only kept the paper for a short time before selling to Inland Industries in 1980.
With each of the later sales, the Kansan took a step back in circulation and community favor - but a loyal group of core followers kept the newspaper viable.
“The Kansan kind of went downhill in its later years,” said Mike Belt, “but people who had read it for years were still loyal followers and big supporters.”
The biggest change came in 1998, when Inland sold the Kansan to Liberty Group Publishing. Within a short time, several long-time staff members left the newspaper, including Friskel, Mellenbruch, Belt, then-publisher WIlliam Epperheimer, and others.
Liberty Group moved the Kansan from its 8th and Armstrong location to the basement of a former bank building at 8200 State Avenue, in hopes of chasing some of the potential advertising potential in the newly-booming western portion of Wyandotte County.
Other changes were taking place as well. The Kansan was paired with the Leavenworth Times to form Kansas Media One, still under the umbrella of Liberty Group.
“I guess I was the last on-site publisher,” said Kim Sexton, who ran the Kansan starting in 2004. “I took the Kansan job to make it a success story. What always works is the Golden Rule, and I wanted the Kansan to prove that.” But Sexton departed after a year, and the Kansan and the Times shared a publisher, who worked out of the Leavenworth office.
Liberty Group became GateHouse Media, the Kansan’s current owner. In the past two years, the Kansan moved two more times; once, to a small office at 7815 Parallel Parkway, which housed only the newspaper’s editorial and advertising departments, and finally to 7735 Washington Avenue, the final home of the print version of the Kansan.
In mid-2008, the Kansan stopped printing a daily newspaper and instead began printing larger twice-weekly editions. The switch to Internet-only publication was announced in January 2009.
Even through the rough times, the Kansan has held on tight to the words of Arthur Capper from January 31, 1921: “(Our) aim will be to deal fairly with all men; to promote civic pride to encourage civic enterprise and to develop industry and business activities… without preachment or carping…”
‘THAT THIS GOOD CITY MAY GROW’
THe end of the Kansas City Kansan’s print edition will be mourned as a substantial loss in Wyandotte County. That much is clear just from speaking to any of the multitude of Kansan subscribers with decades-old connections to the newspaper.
“My folks to the Kansan when it first started,” Madelyn Fotovich said. “This is a big loss to those of us who have taken the paper for years. We’re gonna miss that Kansan paper.”
“For me, the Kansan was the local news all my life,” KCK native Jack Smith said. “It’s my hometown paper.”
“Most of the people I represent get their local news from a hard copy source, and that’s been the Kansan,” said David Haley, who represents Wyandotte County’s 4th District in the Kansas Senate. “I don’t know how that void will be filled in the cyber world. I’m very concerned about the people I represent knowing what’s going on in the world.”
“The Kansan was the local paper that we depended on,” Julius Novak said. “Real estate was my livelihood for most of my lifetime, and I got that message across by advertising in the Kansan.”
“The Kansan has been part of our family my entire life,” Helen Fotovich said. “Once the Kansan stops publishing, there are a lot of people who won’t be in touch with Wyandotte County.”
Despite the community loss, the Kansan is forging ahead into the 21st Century, leaving behind printed news for the Internet.
“It’s hard to imagine that after nearly 90 years in publication, the Kansas City Kansan will no longer be printed for distribution,” Kansas Governor Kathleen Sebelius said. “With advancements in technology and consumers turning to the quickness of the Web, newspapers across the country are making adjustments in their long-time practices. I’m sorry to see the Kansan ending its print run, but I am glad to hear the information will be accessible online.
“This marks the end of an era.”
Still, the Kansas City Kansan’s new blog format would benefit from sticking to the mission forged by Arthur Capper, as published in the first issue on Jan. 31, 1921. The purpose of the Kansan, Capper wrote, was to ensure “that this good city may grow in magnitude and worth and become richer in all things that make life worth living.”