Not the same as the old boss

The Buffalo News finally turns to an outsider to lead its newsroom. Change could be in the offing.
Reporting, analysis and commentary
by Jim Heaney, editor of Investigative Post

These are about to be interesting times at the Buffalo News.

I say this because for the first time in decades—maybe forever—the paper has gone outside to hire an editor.

Margaret Sullivan, who started at the News as an intern, held the editor’s job for 13 years before leaving in August for the New York Times, where she works as the public editor. Her predecessor, Murray B. Light, held the top job for 20 years, plus a lengthy stretch when he split a shared editorship. The legendary Alfred Kirchhofer ran the newsroom for 39 years.

Put another way, factoring out the three-year tenure of Paul Neville, who died while editor in 1969, the News has had a grand total of three editors since 1927. As in the year Babe Ruth hit 60 homers and Charles Lindbergh crossed the Atlantic in The Spirit of St. Louis.

Moreover, Sullivan, Light and Kirchhofer were all virtual News lifers, between them working 132 years at the paper.

Suffice to say, the News has been an insular newspaper as a result. I can say this with authority, as I worked there for 25 years before leaving a year ago August to launch Investigative Post.

There has been change, of course, especially in recent years as the internet began wreaking havoc on the newspaper industry. But the saying that trends come late to Buffalo is especially true when it comes to its daily newspaper.

Consider that the News was perhaps the last major daily newspaper in the country to switch from typewriters to computers back in the early 1980s, and the last to transition from a static to a live website in 2007.

It also went a long time between new printing presses. The News has a tradition of having its new presses turned on by the president—as in, of the United States— remotely from the White House. Dwight Eisenhower did the honors in the 1950s. The next chief of state flip the switch wasn’t Kennedy or Johnson or Nixon or Ford or Carter or Reagan or Bush or Clinton, but Dubya, some 50 years later.

Into this culture enters Mike Connelly, by way of the Sarasota Herald-Tribune. His 31-year career has included stints at the Wall Street Journal, Baltimore Sun, St. Paul Pioneer Press, and Congressional Quarterly.

No News lifer, he.

Connelly appears to have some serious journalistic chops. The Herald-Tribune won a Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting last year and has been a finalist for journalism’s top prize two other times during Connelly’s eight-year tenure as editor. That suggests the Herald-Tribune, with a daily circulation of 80,000, is, pound for pound, a pretty good newspaper.

That, and his apparent affinity for in-depth journalism rather than the fluff and junk that increasingly makes its way into the pages of most daily newspapers, suggests the News has made a sound hire.

Connelly takes over a newspaper with about double the daily and Sunday circulation than the one he left behind. Unlike a fair number of dailies, the News is not burdened by crippling debt payments. In fact, Warren Buffett has recouped his purchase price many times over. And partly because it has no debt, the News still makes money, unlike many other major metro dailies.

But the News isn’t nearly as profitable as it once was, the result of declining circulation and advertising revenue and sluggish online revenue growth. A decade or so ago, the paper was clearing a million dollars a week. Of late, it’s averaging less than a million a month.

The paper’s declining financial fortunes have had a major impact on the newsroom that Connelly inherits. The staff has shrunk by 35 to 40 jobs over the past five years, to about 140 reporters, editors, photographers, and other journalists.

The drain began 10 years ago when Tom Toles left for The Washington Post and has continued through several rounds of buyouts that have thinned the newsroom of many experienced, talented reporters and editors. With a virtual hiring freeze in place, that talent is not being replaced, although the paper still has a core of top-flight reporters.

Connelly walks into a newsroom that is hungry for a change agent who will inspire. The rank and file realize their newspaper is in a fight for its survival and recognize “that’s the way we’ve always done it” is not going to cut it. His pending arrival—Connelly starts next Monday—has generated a sense of excitement and hopefulness that has long been missing from the newsroom.

As I often told Margaret Sullivan during my tenure at the News, going from 20 to 40 miles an hour isn’t sufficient when industry changes demand 80 mph. Let’s see if Connelly puts his pedal to the metal. His newspaper’s survival may very well depend on it.