The Kansas City Star began life as the Evening Star way back in September 1880. After eliminating all of its competition, it became the sole provider of print news in the Kansas City area, as well as one of the largest newspapers in the Midwest. Here we look back at the history of a paper that counts a Nobel Prize-winning novelist and a President of the United States amongst its former employees.

 

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Founding and Early History

The first chapter in Kansas City Star history begins all the way back in the nineteenth century. In 1880, William Rockhill Nelson and Samuel E. Morss were co-owners of the Sentinel in Fort Wayne, Indiana, a newspaper previously owned by Nelson’s father. However, at that time, Indiana was still largely an agricultural state, six years away from the beginning of the Indiana gas boom that would revolutionize industry in the state and lead to the expansion of cities such as Indianapolis and Fort Wayne.

By contrast, Kansas City, Missouri was already growing rapidly. In 1869, after defeating the town of Leavenworth, Kansas for the privilege, Kansas City celebrated the opening of the Hannibal Bridge, the first permanent rail crossing over the Missouri River. In the decade that followed, the population of Kansas City, newly recognized as a major rail centre, exploded.

Nelson and Morss identified Kansas City as the perfect location to set up a new publication, a booming, populous town ripe for commentary on the social and economic advancements of the country heading into the 20th century. Their new newspaper, the Kansas City Evening Star, published its first issue on Saturday, September 18, 1880. The paper entered into a market that consisted of three already established competitors: the Kansas City Times; the Kansas City Journal and the Kansas City Evening Mail.

Within a year and a half, Morss retired due to health reasons, leaving Nelson the sole captain of the ship. Nelson went full throttle with the Star’s editorial, attempting to use his influence to help build the city as a whole. The Star fought local saloons, advocated for infrastructure and successfully campaigned for the city’s Parks and Boulevards system, as well as calling on “Kansas City Spirit” to build Convention Hall in a timespan of just ninety days, allowing it to host the 1900 Democratic National Convention.

Nelson’s political influence was so substantial that Theodore Roosevelt once stayed with him at his home, supposedly to get advice. On another occasion, Kansas City Mayor Joseph J. Davenport visited the Star to settle a dispute with Nelson, and was allegedly thrown down a flight of stairs by several staff members before he could reach their boss. Of the encounter, Nelson reportedly quipped: “The Star never loses!”

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Expansion

The Kansas City Evening Star absorbed the Kansas City Evening Mail in 1882, before changing its name in 1885, dropping the “evening” to become the Kansas City Star of today. In 1890, Nelson started the Weekly Kansas City Star, tailored mainly to farmers, followed by the Sunday Kansas City Star in 1894. In 1901, he bought out another of his main rivals, the Kansas City Times, strengthening his stronghold on print media in the city. The Times, with a new sub-heading declaring it the Morning Kansas City Star, would run alongside the afternoon edition of the Star, ushering in the era of, as Nelson called it, “The 24 Hour Star”.

In 1911, after several relocations across the city, the Star settled at a new home at 18th and Grand, in a building designed by renowned Chicago architect Jarvis Hunt. It would remain the Star’s headquarters for almost a century.

Around this time, the Kansas City Star welcomed a reporter who would go on to become its most famous alumnus: Nobel Prize-winning author Ernest Hemingway, who worked at the Star from October 1917 to April 1918 before leaving to join the Red Cross in Italy during the First World War. Hemingway would later credit the Kansas City Star stylebook as “the best rules I ever learned for the business of writing”, namely:

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

KC Star HQ

Star Headquarters 1911-2006
Image: Wikimedia Commons

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For Whom the Bell Tolls

William Rockhill Nelson died at his Oak Hall mansion, part of the Rockhill neighborhood he had developed himself, on April 13, 1915, aged 74. In his Will, he left his estate, including his newspapers, to his wife, Ida. Ida herself died in 1921, leaving the Star to their daughter, Laura Kirkwood.

In 1926, Laura died suddenly of apoplexy, two weeks after her 43rd birthday. As per the terms of William Nelson’s Will, the Kansas City Star was to be sold by trust within two years, with the profit being used to furnish Kansas City with fine art, sculptures and rare books. Virtually all of Nelson’s $6 million fortune was used to create the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, which was built over his old home Oak Hall.

Laura’s husband, Irwin Kirkwood, who was also the editor of the Star, led the purchase of the newspaper by its own employees. Among them was Roy A. Roberts, who would become managing editor of the publication in 1928, following the departure of Kirkwood. Roberts had previously worked as the paper’s Washington correspondent, and was identified as a driving force in the city’s Republican politics. Coincidentally (or perhaps not), in the same year that Roberts was promoted to editor Herbert Hoover was selected as the official Presidential nomination at the Republican National Convention, held in the Kansas City Convention Hall. Roberts would also be instrumental in helping Kansas Governor Alf Landon become the party’s nominee for the 1936 election.

In 1931, the Star won its first Pulitzer Prize, awarded to reporter A.B. MacDonald, who “solved a murder mystery… and brought a guilty man to justice” in Amarillo, Texas. The Star would go on to win a further four Pulitzers under Roberts’ stewardship.

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Kansas City Star, June 21, 1911

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The Truman Show

At the start of the new century, the mailroom of the Kansas City Star gained a new set of newspaper-wrapping hands, courtesy of an 18-year-old college dropout by the name of Harry S. Truman. Truman would leave the Star mailroom after two weeks, having earned a total of twelve dollars and forty cents, to become a timekeeper for construction crews on the Santa Fe Railway.

This was not the end of Truman’s connection with the Kansas City Star, however. During his time serving in World War I, Truman had befriended a young man by the name of Jim Pendergast. His uncle, T.J. Pendergast, was chairman of the Jackson County Democratic Club, and had a reputation for being able to place his associates in positions of authority, as well as influencing the Democratic candidate selection state-wide. With Pendergast’s help, Harry Truman was elected Judge of Jackson County’s Eastern District in 1922, Judge of the entire county four years later, and then as United States Senator from Missouri in 1934. Truman was thereby derisively nicknamed “the Senator from Pendergast”.

By the end of the 1930s, Pendergast was under investigation for Election Day violence and corruption, suspected of bribery and voter fraud, amongst other things. He was ultimately sent to prison for failed tax payments in 1939, effectively signaling the end of the Pendergast Organization.

Since 1901, the Kansas City Star’s sole competitor had been the Kansas City Journal. However, the Journal had shown strong support to the Pendergast Organization, and when it collapsed, the paper suffered, eventually going out of business in 1942.

In 1945, Truman was chosen as Vice President to Franklin D. Roosevelt. He had served less than three months in the role when Franklin D. Roosevelt died, leaving him his position in the Oval Office by default. The Kansas City Star, now peerless in its city, rose to national prominence as their former employee and hometown hero became the 33rd President of the United States.

The culmination of this increased visibility came in 1948, when Roberts, himself now holding the position of President (albeit of a newspaper) was featured on the front cover of Time magazine, along with the caption “I’m just a big, fat country boy.” Roberts, though, was Republican, and thus not supportive of the Democrat Truman, despite his heritage and employment history. In 1950, Truman would snidely say in an unmailed letter to Roberts:

“If the Star is at all mentioned in history it will be because the President of the U.S. worked there for a few weeks in 1901.”

In 1953, in the very final days of his presidency, Truman filed antitrust charges against the Star relating to its ownership of the WDAF, under which it had launched radio and television stations in 1922 and 1949 respectively. It was argued that, since the termination of the Kansas City Journal, the Star had been able to monopolize and disseminate news and advertising across the Kansas City area. The legal research conducted for the trial determined that the Times and the Star were delivered to 96% of houses in the Kansas City area. Consequently, the Star was forced to sell its broadcasting stations five years later.

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Harry S. Truman and T.J. Pendergast at the 1936 Democratic National Convention
Image: Wikimedia Commons

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Corporate Ownership

Having been owned locally since 1926, the Star, along with its sister paper the Times, was purchased by New York-based Capital Cities Communications in 1977. By this point, the Star had been without print opposition for 35 years, and Capital Cities attempted to make its two publications compete. Interestingly enough, under the ownership of Capital Cities the Times had a higher circulation than the Star. Together, the papers won two Pulitzer Prizes in the same year in 1982. In March 1990, the papers merged, circulating in the morning, but under the Kansas City Star name.

In 1985, Capital Cities shook the media landscape by purchasing ABC, a company four times bigger than itself, for $3.5 billion. In 1996, the company merged with Disney to form a new subsidiary, ABC, Inc., which sold the Kansas City Star to publishing powerhouse Knight Ridder in 1997.

2006 was a major year in redevelopment for the Star. The paper moved to a new $199 million glass structure just a stone’s throw away from its home of 95 years on Grand Street. On June 4, the first edition of the Star on its new printing presses rolled out, featuring a new logo, redesigned sections and a smaller size (reducing its width from 15 inches to 12, as many other broadsheets have done). In the very same month, Knight Ridder was bought by the McClatchy Company for $6.5 billion.

In February 2020, McClatchy filed for bankruptcy and was purchased five months later by a hedge fund, Chatham Asset Management.

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“The Truth in Black and White”

In December 2020, after Star reporters dug into their paper’s historical reporting on racial issues and were “frequently sickened by what they found”, editor Mike Fannin published a six-part series apologizing on behalf of the newspaper’s past. He wrote:

Today we are telling the story of a powerful local business that has done wrong. For 140 years, it has been one of the most influential forces in shaping Kansas City and the region. And yet for much of its early history — through sins of both commission and omission — it disenfranchised, ignored and scorned generations of Black Kansas Citians. It reinforced Jim Crow laws and redlining. Decade after early decade it robbed an entire community of opportunity, dignity, justice and recognition. That business is The Kansas City Star.

The articles were also made free for all to read on the Star’s usually subscription-only website.

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Circulation Figures

Below is a brief summary of Kansas City Star circulation history (print only):

Date Circulation
1951 360,143; 711,269 when combined with the Times
1957 361,000; 714,000 with the Times
2002 266,000 (380,000)
2010 (314,449)
2018 76,853 (118,203)
2020 89,175 (109,438)

Despite a gradual 21st century decline in Kansas City Star circulation (typical of every major newspaper in the country), its website, kansascity.com, is thriving, averaging 4,862,000 unique visitors every month and 29 million page views a month as of 2020.

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