History of Newspapers: The Kansas City Star

About the history of the United States newspaper The Kansas City Star, information and some of their scoops.


The Past. As a young man, William Rockhill Nelson was that great American cliche--a wild scion of a highly respectable family. His father sent him away to Notre Dame to be tamed; after 2 years, Notre Dame sent him back. Following the Civil War, however, the harnessed his energy, passed the bar exam, and became a lawyer. He tried to build a cotton-growing empire in the South, but this project was a dismal failure; then he became a road builder and amassed a dazzling $200,000 worth of success. After a brief fling at politics, managing Samuel Tilden's campaign for President, he went into newspaper work. In September, 1880, he founded The Kansas City Star.

Kansas City was then violent, lawless, unpaved, and shoddy. Nelson set out to improve it. He ordered his reporters to dig up Scandal adn corruption in the city government. The Star attacked rigged elections, gambling and vice rings, a corrupt streetcar franchise, loan sharks, corrupt government contracting, quack doctors, and other assorted evils. Nelson considered the number of libel suits brought against the paper a positive indication that it was "doing its duty."

Standing on the line between prairie and plains, the city was hardly a garden spot. Under the Star's influence it began to improve. The Star campaigned for parks, paved streets, tree plantings, zoning ordinances, and well-planned residential districts. These campaigns succeeded. Later when some people criticized the Star for its crusading, the paper sarcastically listed the streets, playgrounds, reduced carfares, "and all the other things that have..... pretty nearly ruined the town."

Above all, Nelson wanted to build a respected newspaper that would serve the public. Like many other newspapermen of the time, he used his military title; the staff called him "Colonel." William Allen White, later the best-known country editor in the U.S., took a job with the Star because it was "one of the dozen best and most influential newspapers in the country." He described Nelson as "a great, hulking, 260-pounder, 6' tall, smooth-shaven, with a hard, dominating mouth.....a mean jaw," and eyes that sometimes "squinted like the lightning of Job." He felt that Nelson had only one flaw: "His clay foot was Grover Cleveland, who could do no wrong."

Nelson refused to publish a sensational paper and would not print comics, big headlines, or "Gee whiz" stories, as his colleague Pulitzer did.

The Star was responsible for the arrest of notorious Frederick Bonfils, later owner of The Denver Post, for the operation of the Little Louisiana Lottery. Bonfils was annoyed and vengefully bought The Kansas City Post to fight the Star in 1908. By then, Kansas City saw itself as a somewhat highbrow community and would have nothing to do with Bonfils's low-down journalism. (Later, The Kansas City Star was one of the papers which exposed the Teapot Dome scandal, in which Bonfils was implicated for accepting a bribe.)

For a long time, the Star was considered a fine training ground for reporters, editors, novelists, and other writers. Druing the Depression, the Star prospered. After Nelson's heir died in the late 1920s, the paper's employees got together and bought it. By 1939, the staff was able to burn its $85 million mortgate, 2 years before it came due.

The Present. An elite paper, the Star is highly respected for its fairness, accuracy, and thorough coverage of the news. It is an evening paper with a daily circulation of over 315,000 and a Sunday circulation of over 400,000. It maintains its political stance--"independent but never neutral."

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