There used to be a saying at the Buffalo News: People only left to go to the New York Times, the Washington Post, or the cemetery. Otherwise they stayed there until retirement.
Times sure have changed.
The News has seen upheaval in the past month unlike anything that has happened there in a majority of its readers’ lifetimes.
So here are some notes and observations (and in some cases clarifications to my piece published here on May 30):
I’d like to start by noting some of the people the News is losing as part of the upheaval—the ground troops that make the paper come out every day and fill in the gaping news hole—in print and online—with their stories and artwork (“the daily miracle” is how some of the people putting it together describe it).
While some have made their situations public via social media, others I checked with, in case they wanted to preserve their privacy.
Among those leaving:
- Copy editor Barbara Branning, the last editor of the NeXt youth section, has been a mainstay in the Life & Arts section, where she has also been a writer and reviewer.
- Copy editor Trey Bankhead, who has taken on everything with aplomb, from finance copy editor to page layout to web editor.
- Graphic designer Christina Wilemski, one of the people taking the News’s look to new levels (check out this note about her work at https://www.snd.org/2012/07/olympics-roundup-day-3). The designers are the ones that give the paper a look that’s a level beyond anything else in local daily media.
- Reporter Nancy Fischer, whose longtime beats have included Niagara County, police, and then the Northtowns.
- Reporter Karen Robinson, known for her thorough coverage in the suburbs, spending over 10 years in East Aurora (where she covered the Beth Hoskins case) and another four in Lancaster/Depew. She also wrote Newspower.
- Reporter Melinda Miller, who most recently was the courts reporter but who also had been features, web, and Buffalo Magazine (when it was run out of the newsroom) editor.
- Reporter Henry Davis, whose longtime specialty was healthcare. He was also a two-term Buffalo Newspaper Guild president.
- Gusto clerk Susan Kelley. People like Susan are the ones who make sure things get done. She has worked 48 years at the News; between her and her late husband, hockey writer Jim Kelley, they spent over 81 years at the paper.
- Deputy sports editor Bob DiCesare, who started out covering high schools and local colleges and worked his way up to Sabres and University at Buffalo coverage before moving inside to the editing job. He spent 36 years at the News.
- Buffalo Sabres beat reporter John Vogl.
- Sports columnist Jerry Sullivan.
- Sports columnist Bucky Gleason.
- Also apparently leaving are two other news reporters, another copy editor, and another graphic designer. They either declined to be identified or haven’t responded to requests at the time of this writing. The numbers may change; some of the people taking buyouts have yet to sign their papers, so their situations aren’t finalized.
Add all of that experience up and you have centuries worth of accumulated skill leaving. They’ll be missed.
It should be noted that not everybody is taking a buyout against their will. Some are targeted buyouts (the entire copy desk except for the chief copy editors, for example). Others are voluntary.
The timing was right for some, and many have gone on social media imploring their circle of contacts not to give up on the News or journalism. They still believe in the mission of journalism, to uncover the truth and inform their audience.
But at the same time, that sense of the News as one of the best places to work for journalists is dissipating.
Current or recent employees have told me countless times over the past 10 years that I was fortunate to leave the paper when I did, that the atmosphere had changed—especially in the last few years. The targeted buyouts can’t exactly force somebody out. The union can still try to get the paper to find another spot that uses your skills. But the uncertainty of what they would end up doing—and the feeling they’re being pushed out the door—doesn’t seem to be convincing people it’s worth staying.
In fact, it seems that management was caught off guard that so many people were interested in taking voluntary buyouts—more people than were expected.
There were even some employees who applied for the buyout, but were refused.
The sports department was reduced to the point where it is expected to be hiring new people. There are a lot of drawbacks to the paper’s changes, but there may also be some benefits: With new hires, the staff may get younger and the paper has a chance to become a bit more diverse.
Regarding the sports department, it appears there is more to the story than appeared at first glance. The obvious question was why the paper would encourage two of its most prominent personalities—Gleason and Sullivan (or simply Bucky and Sully, as they are known to many readers)—to leave?
According to one newsroom veteran, at least part of the decision was spurred by the failure of the paper’s BN Blitz mobile app—a subscription-based app covering the Buffalo Bills—to take off to the levels the paper hoped it would reach.
Management had tweets and emails from people saying they would never subscribe as long as Sullivan was writing for it and that he was too negative. The News caved. Under this reading, the logic is that, if Sullivan wasn’t blamed, that would leave management responsible for the app’s shortcomings.
But as newspeople, they know that for every person complaining about Sully, there were probably five more waiting to hear what he had to say after every Bills game and to either agree or disagree with it.
But there also seems to be a shortage of common sense at 1 News Plaza. Management was apparently caught off guard when Gleason also asked for a buyout after both columnists were told their columns were being done away with and they could move to enterprise/depth reporting.
Even though the jobs that the two were apparently being offered were ones many journalists would love to have, it flies in the face of human nature to expect them to see it as anything but a demotion—especially given that they had been encouraged to be strong voices for the paper for decades.
In the previous column about the News, I brought up the possibility of outside pressure having an effect on the sports decisions.
Sources from inside the paper have told me that isn’t the case; the News had the printing contract for Sabres programs and lost it (and the hundreds of thousands of dollars of income it brought each year) in the past few years. That isn’t expected to be coming back.
What does it all mean?
Well, the News probably isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. (Unless, of course, it decides to follow the pattern of many other metropolitan newspapers and sell its downtown headquarters—which would present as many problems as the cash infusion would solve—like where it would print and what would happen to its printing income?)
As an entity, it will be around for awhile, but it will be in changing forms.
The traditional approach to covering local government at the News was to send people to the meetings and out to local agencies. The expectation was that they would file their meeting stories, but they would find the bigger “enterprise” stories by being out there.
Now the newsroom has to figure out how to cover those communities with fewer bodies. The old approach probably isn’t going to work anymore.
I reached out to Sandy Tan, the president of the Buffalo Newspaper Guild. She said she couldn’t offer many details on the buyouts because some are still being finalized. However, she said about a dozen people had taken the buyouts so far.
The size of the newsroom before the buyouts was about 100, with a total Guild membership of about 180 (the union represents other departments as well). So the newsroom is obviously shrinking.
Tan said there is going to be a “diminished presence” for the Guild as the newsroom thins, but said the union’s membership “is still committed to producing the best journalism we can.”
As somebody who worked beside many of the people in the newsroom for a long time, I take them at their word.
Elmer Ploetz is an associate professor at SUNY Fredonia, where he has taught journalism since 2008. He worked as a reporter and copy editor in sports and news at the Buffalo News from 1985 to 2008.