Published December 23rd, 2020 at 6:00 AM
Kathy Feist was frustrated. She and her neighbors in south Kansas City were about to vote in a special election to send a representative to the Missouri legislature — and Feist couldn’t locate much helpful information about the candidates.
“The only way to find out anything was to look at the signs in people’s yards,” she said. “I felt people deserved better.”
Other things troubled Feist about the part of Kansas City where she lived. The Red Bridge Shopping Center, which should have been an anchor for south Kansas City, was plagued with vacant storefronts. The commercial strip known as Martin City was languishing. Residents felt ignored by the city and the daily newspaper and TV news stations.
“I felt like we really needed a sense of community out here,” Feist said.
So she took a step that comes naturally to her. She started a newspaper.
The first edition of the Martin City Telegraph rolled off of a printing press in Warrensburg, Missouri, on Oct. 27, 2015. It contained information about the four candidates running for the area’s state legislative seat, plus some stories about local businesses. Feist wrote most of the stories and personally dropped off 5,000 copies of the fledgling paper around the community.
She later retrieved many of those copies, unread. But people who did take a look told her they liked what she’d done, so Feist decided to keep going.
“I’ll give it three months,” she told herself.
Five years later, with a full-time art director and a core of contract sales, production and delivery workers and freelance journalists, the bi-weekly Telegraph has become a fixture in south Kansas City.
Feist has always turned to publications to meet needs. Growing up in western Kansas, she watched her parents produce telephone directories and she read her local small-town weekly. (She still has the Spearville News mailed to her home.)
After majoring in journalism at the University of Kansas, Feist worked briefly at a history magazine in southwest Kansas. When she moved to Kansas City, she volunteered to produce a magazine for the Kansas City Jazz Ambassadors. In the 1990s, when she was dating a single dad who needed ideas for things to do with his kids, she put out a publication about family-friendly activities around town. Later, she published a quarterly magazine for parents with children on the autism spectrum.
Feist had always wanted to publish a small-town newspaper, and the Martin City Telegraph seemed like her best shot. Still, she was starting at a time when larger newspapers were casting off staff, even selling their buildings. The future of the industry was assumed to be on the internet, not the printed page.
Vickie Wolgast, president of the South Kansas City Chamber of Commerce, remembers the day Feist drifted into her office and casually said she was starting a newspaper and would be joining the chamber.
“I thought she was insane,” Wolgast said. “I’d never met her before. And it’s not the day and age when you start a newspaper.”
Now, Wolgast says she can’t imagine south Kansas City without the Telegraph.
“It’s amazing how attached people are to reading the paper,” she said.
Stories such as Feist’s are the exception, not the rule, these days.
Fans of print news were dealt a shock recently when the Kansas City Star announced it was shutting down its presses in the green glass “pavilion” that opened in a two-block downtown space about 15 years ago. The paper will now be printed 230 miles away, in Des Moines, Iowa. The news broke soon after the Star’s parent, McClatchy Co., emerged from bankruptcy under the control of a privately held hedge fund.
More than 250,000 subscribers were signed up for the daily paper when the Star began construction of the $200 million building in 2002. But print circulation has plummeted since then. A recent story in Poynter, which reports on the newspaper industry, put the current number of daily print subscribers at 46,000.
Mike Fannin, the Star’s editor and president, did not respond to an email for this story. But the move to Des Moines for the press run is widely expected to accelerate the decline in print circulation. Notably, the Star stopped printing a Saturday paper earlier this year. And deadlines for newspaper stories will be much earlier to allow for overnight deliveries from Des Moines.
While the area’s largest daily paper appears to be phasing out print in favor of digital news, smaller operations around the region continue to distribute content via newsprint.
The Independence Examiner publishes five editions a week. The News-Press & Gazette Company in St. Joseph, Missouri, publishes 13 daily and weekly papers, some of them serving Northland cities like Gladstone, Liberty, Kearney and Smithville. (The Martin City Telegraph is now printed at the News-Press & Gazette press.) Meanwhile, The Call serves the Black community, while Dos Mundos focuses on the Hispanic community. Even the Star continues to print local newspapers that are delivered once or twice a week to subscribers in Cass County, Lee’s Summit and Olathe.
Northeast News, another small independent newspaper with an approach similar to the Telegraph, has served the northeast section of Kansas City since 1932 and distributes about 10,000 copies weekly.
Its publisher, Michael Bushnell, said he constantly reevaluates the decision to continue in print. “It is, bar none, our biggest cost,” he said.
But many readers seem to want a newspaper to hold in their hands. “We’ve got a pretty loyal print audience that looks for our paper every week,” Bushnell said.
Feist quickly discovered the same kind of audience in south Kansas City. Readers appreciate her mix of business comings and goings, useful articles about accessing city services, a regular column by prominent south Kansas Citian John Sharp, and a popular history column penned by blogger Diane Euston.
A recent edition of the Telegraph, which also offers news digitally, features a cover story about work wrapping up on the new Kenneth Road bridge at Holmes Road and 151st Street. “It only took 12 years to complete!” the headline notes.
Also in the 20-page edition: a report about Kansas City Councilwoman Ryana Parks-Shaw introducing an ordinance to restrict the sale of flavored tobacco products; news about Duck Donuts reopening in a new location; Christmas cookie recipes from the Classic Cookie restaurant in Waldo; features on three local authors who have published books; and Euston’s column on how the lighting of the mayor’s Christmas tree got started in Kansas City.
And ads. This particular edition of the Telegraph is loaded with them. Churches, hospitals, hair salons, dentists, coffee shops, a liquor store and even a pet cremation service have purchased space.
“I’m happy to be here doing exciting things,” said Dwight Barrett, the Telegraph’s sales director. He is 82 and was retired from a long career in advertising when he spotted Feist’s “help wanted” notice. He sent her his resume and she hired him sight unseen.
Barrett approaches prospective advertisers on the phone or through email, targeting his contacts based on the mix of stories planned for the next edition. It’s not a tough sell, he said.
Sheryl White owns the Fiddly Fig, a flower and gift shop that earlier this year relocated from Brookside to 9716 Holmes Road. “I have advertised in different magazines,” she said. “I have never had the response that I’ve had from the Martin City paper.”
People mention her ads when they call to order flowers or ask about other merchandise, White said. She’s become a fan of the paper along with her customers.
“It’s just news about stuff that’s going on,” she said. “I think once you pick it up you keep picking it up.”
Feist now leases office space in a shopping center in Martin City, nestled between a vape shop and a Mexican restaurant. It’s been a tough year for advertisers and newspapers, but the paper is holding its own, she said.
Its banner now reads The Martin City & South KC Telegraph. Expanded news coverage includes goings on in parts of Leawood in Kansas and Belton and Grandview in Missouri. The Telegraph has also begun moving north into neighborhoods such as Marlborough and Waldo in Kansas City.
Feist has long since stopped delivering copies of the paper herself. Contract deliverers distribute about 12,500 copies to businesses and some residences. True to her roots, Feist orders extra copies for her election issue, and throws them for free to residences where voters might need some information on local races.
The successful arc of the Telegraph coincides with a revival in Martin City and south Kansas City. The Red Bridge Shopping Center has been redeveloped by new owners and is now home to popular restaurants, stops, a grocery store and the Wonderscope Children’s Museum. Buoyed by a community improvement district, Martin City is seeing road improvements, new businesses and plans for housing.
“It’s so exciting and hopeful in this area,” Feist said. “The south Kansas City story is a Cinderella story and I get to tell it every time we talk about a business or put out a paper.”
Flatland contributor Barbara Shelly is a freelance writer based in Kansas City.