The Last Byline

I gotta admit, even though I have less than a decade of regular contributions to The Kansas City Star, I get a little … itchy … when I don’t have a byline in Monday’s paper from a weekend review.

As a freelance contributor, my office is my home, more specifically my couch. I’ve never set foot beyond the security doors of The Star building at 18th and Grand. My boss and I communicate through email and facebook. Still, I feel a debt and connection with the paper and admire the good, hardworking and intelligent people who make it happen day after day.


Even though the newspaper industry has been imploding for a decade (though I can’t pretend to have any insider knowledge, I found this blog interesting) or whether you prefer to think of it as necessary evolution in a changing media landscape, it’s still a sad shock when there is news of lay offs and buyouts. This time around two long time commentators on the Kansas City arts’ scene have taken early retirement, after decades of following the scene(s) as it has grown, shrunk, evolved, and renewed: Steve Paul and Robert Trussell.

Steve Paul, of the editorial board and former arts writer and editor, brought me onto the paper and gave me my first dose of sink or swim writing. His example and style guides me, his enthusiasm and curiosity encourages me and his dedication as an audience member and devotion to the artists of all genres in this city astounds me. I am forever grateful for the chance he gave me, for his contributions to this city and the written word, and look forward to reading the book(s) this opportunity will hopefully give him the time to write.

I used to review theater, and often, when I was starting out, would “check my work” against Trussell’s pronouncements, reading his review after I’d written my own. I have long admired his ability as theater critic to write a negative review, invariably written with a considerable amount of respect for the performers. I don’t know Bob very well at all, since our paths rarely crossed, but his presence within the community as an all-around arts reporter will be difficult to fill, if an acceptable filler can be found. (There’s no official word that I’m privy to on whether these positions will be retained or if the funds will be disbursed for other jobs or taken on by already overworked staffers or farmed out to freelancers or none of the above.)

Their knowledge and perspective and connections are something that can’t be valued highly enough and can’t be transferred to those left to fill in the gaps, though those left are fewer than before. When the position of classical music and dance critic was pulled, putting the astute Paul Horsley out of a job, there was a void that no amount of freelancers could fill, though a rotation of four or five (now down to two, sometimes three) tried. There was a similar situation with visual art critic Alice Thorson and movie critic Robert Butler, among others.  Thankfully, they’ve remained in Kansas City, continuing to be passionate and well connected and continuing to make a difference in the artistic and journalistic community, their institutional knowledge in place and at the ready. Maybe implosion is just another step in the evolutionary process, part of the whole “when one door closes” phenomenon: Horsley writes Arts Corner for The Independent and taught at Park University’s International Center for Music, Thorson has her 1 year anniversary as editor at KC Studio coming up (where, additionally, she’s taken me on board as a contributor), and Butler became involved with the Kansas City Public Library, started a blog, and is now back at The Star as a freelancer.

I’ve learned (still learning…) how to be a writer and critical thinker/viewer from these individuals. Thanks to internet access to archived articles, I can tap into a portion of this institutional knowledge (along with reading The Star’s former classical music and dance critic Scott Cantrell, who moved to The Dallas Morning News before taking a buyout there last year). Thanks to their on going contributions, I can continue to learn, evaluate, grow and contribute myself.

But I’m a freelancer, with a separate full time job and young kids. Even though I try, even though I consider it a personal responsibility to the artists and readers in Kansas City, quite frankly, it often feels like an insurmountable task to know everything, to know everyone, to stay abreast of the latest thing happening while simultaneously considering the long arc of history within a certain field, locally, regionally, nationally and internationally.  “Give me 10 more years,” I joke, not joking, “and then I’ll be a real critic.”

My ongoing education is very practical and stimulating and, sometimes, exhausting, since it’s nearly impossible to know every type of music (and dance) and gauge the appropriate performance style, yet leave situations open to interpretation. Then there is the completely separate task of keeping tabs on the business side of artistic endeavors, to shake out all the corners of bureaucracy and state and national legislature and funding sources and the gossip and dirt and all the messy things that contribute to a finished (or unfinished) product. Sometimes, some weeks, it’s all I can do to learn the rep, to familiarize myself with the artists, to glean an ounce of institutional knowledge and present my experience as an audience member with fairness to the performers and authority to the readers. As much as I value a holistic, historical approach and attempt to make the time to achieve that, I’m paid to write a succinct review and get it in that night.  Developing a holistic, historical viewpoint is an around the clock, life long job.

Because even though I’ve been writing for The Star for a few years now, it’s only within the last two that I’ve regularly commented on the symphony, ballet, and opera (before that I was more of a utility player, covering everything from plain chant to avant garde chamber music to jazz to contemporary dance … genres I still try to cover as the opportunity presents). It’s only within this time frame of devoted attendance that I’ve started to really have a handle on these institutions (though they themselves have gone through some major changes these last few years) and started to develop my own institutional knowledge that encompasses just a portion of the artistic goings on in the city and surrounding area.

Institutional knowledge cannot be replaced; it can only be cultivated. Many thanks to the critics and editors who have written for The Kansas City Star for decades, many thanks to those who remain at the helm and cheers to the next opportunity for these guys, with hope that they’ll also find ways to continue writing bylines in Kansas City.





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