Over the past month or so things have been changing so fast at the Buffalo News that it’s hard to keep up. Amid the flurry of arrivals and departures (mostly departures) and the arrival of The Athletic in town, it’s hard to see the big picture.
But when the latest change happened—art and drama critic Colin Dabkowski being moved to a “digital editor” position—it occurred to me what that big picture may be. It aligns itself along the Old Buffalo/New Buffalo lines.
For most of the last 40 years, and in some ways long before that, the News has essentially served as the voice of Buffalo.
When you think about a city, you often think about its columnists and critics, its editors and editorial cartoonists. It’s not that the reporters aren’t important, but the others are the ones charged with figuring out what it all means. When it works at its best, they become the voice of the city.
In the old days, it was Ray Hill writing his tear-jerking tales of woe during the News’s Christmas drive, each story of misfortune befalling a working class or impoverished family sadder than the one before it or Dale Anderson’s tales of pub crawls before the craft beer revolution and Jeff Simon flaunting his vocabulary and knowledge of foreign cinema in entertaining fashion.
Later, it was Jerry Sullivan teeing off on the Bills making boneheaded plays or the Sabres phoning it in. Jeff Miers became the voice of the Buffalo rock fan (especially the Buffalo Rush fan), Dabkowski explained the city’s art and drama scenes in ways regular people could understand, Andrew Galarneau helped food culture explode in Buffalo, Bucky Gleason gave another working man’s look at sports and Jeff Simon—well, Jeff was still Jeff.
But gradually the voices have been silenced.
Galarneau lost his column, although he has continued writing entertainingly about food. The same thing had happened with Dabkowski on the art/theater beat. Simon moved to a part-time role late last year. Then Sullivan and Gleason were both pushed out of their columns last month and left the paper.
There apparently will be no designated columnist in sports. In the arts, classical music critic Mary Kunz Goldman took a buyout, so—at this point—the only critics left on the paper are Miers and Galarneau, and they have to be a bit nervous.
The voices that built the News’s voice have been devalued and pushed aside.
It’s a little like what has happened to so much of Buffalo. There is a whole lot to be happy about with the Buffalo renaissance. I like craft beers, too.
But part of the charm of Buffalo for those of us who have been here over the past couple of generations is its gritty, rough edges. Part of the reason Buffalo is a great arts town is that rents have been cheap here compared to other arts meccas. But they’re not as cheap, comparatively, as they had been.
The West Side has been undergoing a real estate boom that is keeping many people out. The Elmwood Strip has been losing its funky edge as development erupts there.
Losing voices like Simon’s, Sullivan’s, and Dabkowski’s (due to the new position) is not unlike seeing the signature corner of Elmwood and Forest (yes, I know it was allowed to fall into a state of dilapidation, but that’s another story) being knocked down and rebuilt as an imposing condominium project.
The News’s direction is a curious one because of its avowed goal of moving in a digital-first direction. The voices they’ve given up are the kind that papers usually seek—both online and in print.
In fact, since his arrival, news columnist Sean Kirst has shown just that. According to a column by News editor-in-chief Mike Connelly, three of Kirst’s pieces were among the top 10 most read News stories online last year. Kirst has a very personal voice and tone in his writing, just as the others did. Thankfully, he’s recognized as an asset.
But even with Kirst writing from the heart (the only way he knows how to do it), the new News will have a lot less character in its voices than the old, just as the new Buffalo will miss the character of its old neighborhoods.
(For the sake of transparency, it should be noted that the writers mentioned above are former co-workers and/or people I consider friends. The point remains the same.)
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. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.