Encyclopedia of the Great Plains

David J. Wishart, Editor


The Kansas City Star was born September 18, 1880, founded by William Rockhill Nelson, who owned a construction business and the Fort Wayne (Indiana) Sentinel, and newspaperman Samuel Morss. The two left Fort Wayne's economic problems and moved to Kansas City, then a frontier boomtown with three newspapers that each sold for a nickel. Under "Colonel" Nelson's brash leadership and selling for two cents, the evening Star became a national newspaper and dominating political force that championed honest government and civic improvement. One of Nelson's many crusades led to a city park system that became a national model.

On October 19, 1901, Nelson bought a morning competitor, the Kansas City Times, and formed the "24-hour Star." Nelson died April 13, 1915, leaving one of the nation's best newspapers to heirs who ran it until it was sold in 1926 to thirty employees for $11 million. Roy A. Roberts, a Nelson disciple, became managing editor in 1928. Once a Star carrier and reporter, Roberts ultimately was president, editor, and general manager. His powerful influence on regional and national politics and his political acumen helped the Star retain its ranking among the nation's best through the 1950s.

The 1940s saw record expansion, but newsprint shortages that began during World War II hampered the Star's growth. In 1945 the company purchased a Park Falls, Wisconsin, paper mill to supply newsprint, but the cost of mitigating the mill's pollution ultimately contributed to the Star's sale. In 1955 the Star was found guilty of monopolistic advertising practices. It agreed to change practices and sell WDAF-TV, started in 1949, and WDAF radio, started in 1922. The controversy contributed to a sluggishness that infiltrated some areas, but the news-reporting operation thrived. In 1963 Roberts was succeeded by Richard B. Fowler, whose goal was diversification. But questionable purchases, other financial burdens, and changing national readership habits loomed. On February 15, 1977, Capital Cities Communications Inc. bought the Star for $125 million.

James H. Hale, named publisher the day sale papers were signed, made changes newspaper- wide, cutting costs while leading expansions and improvements that yielded record profits. Ultimately, however, declining circulation threatened afternoon newspapers nationwide. The Times and Star were combined, and the morning Star began on March 1, 1990.

On January 4, 1996, Capital Cities/ABC and Walt Disney Company agreed to merge. Ironically, Walt Disney had delivered the Star as a boy, but his applications as artist, office boy, and truck driver were rejected. Other celebrities also had ties to the Star. Ernest Hemingway worked there in 1917-18, and editor C. G. "Pete" Wellington helped develop Hemingway's writing style. On April 5, 1997, Knight- Ridder, the nation's second-largest newspaper company, bought the Star and three other newspapers for $1.65 billion.

The Kansas City Star, legendary for local coverage and attention to writing, has won seven Pulitzer Prizes and four George Polk Awards. Its daily circulation was at 275,535 in 2001, and the company's mission statement reflects Nelson's legacy: "Since 1880, The Star has been our area's preeminent communications company because of a commitment to one ideal: Building our community through knowledge."

See also CITIES AND TOWNS: Kansas City, Kansas and Missouri / FILM: Disney, Walt.

Bonnie Bressers Kansas State University

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