• U.S.

The Press: Wichita Sunrise

4 minute read

Like most medium-sized American cities, Wichita has been served by news organizations heavy with broadcast outlets and light on print. The Wichita area (pop. 400,000) has four local TV stations and ten radio stations, but only two daily papers. The morning Eagle (circ. 129,000) and the evening Beacon (58,000) are both owned by the absentee Ridder chain and share a single editorial staff. Efforts to organize a quality paper to compete with the bland Eagle and Beacon have repeatedly failed.

Now Wichitans finally have an alternative, and one that arrived in unusual circumstances. First, the Sun is a weekly attempting to compensate with depth and flair for what it lacks in immediacy. Second, it is and will continue to be distributed free, an arrangement that normally signals bottom-of-the-barrel journalism. Most curious of all, the Sun was launched last month by KAKE-TV & Radio, Inc., Wichita’s prosperous ABC affiliate. That was a reversal of tradition; in the past, newspapers have organized or acquired broadcast properties.

The Sun first rose in the fertile imagination of Martin Umansky, 58, KAKE’s president and general manager. A New Yorker who has been a fixture in Wichita since he became a radio newsman there 34 years ago, Umansky has propelled KAKE to top ratings among Wichita’s TV stations. He enjoys exposes (unhygienic restaurants and price fixing by pharmacies have been among KAKE’s targets) and has long believed that Wichita’s papers lack zeal.

Maverick Streak. Despite Umansky’s muckraking instincts, the new venture is hardly antiEstablishment. An enrolled Republican, Umansky was Wichita’s Advertising Man of the Year in 1967 and professes “twinges of conservatism.” His solid reputation as an executive enabled him to land a $276,000 grubstake from KAKE’S board of directors, which represents some of Wichita’s first families. The Sun’s advertisers include many mainstays of the business community, who agree that the Eagle and Beacon have grown flabby.

If the new publisher’s sober side appealed to Wichita’s pillars, it was his maverick streak that helped attract a young and capable staff to the Sun. Editorial Consultant Richard Crocker, 36, who oversees a stable of seven reporters, is on leave from his editing job at the Washington Post. Investigative Reporter Randy Brown, 34, contributed to the Omaha Sun’s Pulitzer-prizewinning exposé of Boys’ Town. Former Beacon Copy Chief Les Anderson, 25, was lured away from the Ridder operation along with other talented but disgruntled writers. “I was turning into a vegetable,” he says. “There was always the feeling that you had to be careful not to offend an advertiser.”

The Sun’s first issues were as promising as its personnel. Free of the puffery that usually fills throwaways, the paper included well-reported pieces on campaign funding in Kansas’ Senate race and on the ways Wichitans are coping with inflation, as well as a frontpage article on the severe pollution of the Arkansas River. Along with the mandatory laundry list of community news, enlivened by creative layouts and graphics, the weekly carries syndicated columns by George Will and Jack Anderson.

But the Sun is not free of spots. It is printed at a plant 120 miles away from Wichita, which has led to snafus in transportation and distribution. Production schedules require that most of the paper’s news columns be filled by Monday morning, two days before the paper appears. The circulation is 107,000, but since customers do not have to pay, advertisers lack the usual guide to reader interest. Nonetheless, ad sales—the Sun’s sole source of revenue—have been brisk so far, and Umansky predicts that “we’ll be making a profit by the end of the year.” He also talks about making the paper a semiweekly.

The reigning Eagle and Beacon admit little concern over the upstart. “It will be the survival of the fittest economically,” says Publisher Britt Brown. Even so, he has issued his advertising salesmen rate cards proclaiming that Eagle and Beacon rates are lower than the. Sun’s. Staffers have reportedly been advised not to fraternize with their counterparts on the weekly. And a directive was handed down in the Eagle-Beacon newsroom: KAKE call letters are not to appear in headlines.

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