Buffalo News downsizing comes quick

Loss of advertising spurs cuts; TV news operations holding steady; Poloncarz stonewalling reporters on COVID-19
Reporting, analysis and commentary
by Jim Heaney, editor of Investigative Post

Well, that didn’t take long.

Lee Enterprises took ownership of The Buffalo News just a couple of weeks ago and wham — the paper on Tuesday announced furloughs and layoffs. To be fair, the loss of advertising due to fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic was no doubt the driving force behind the decision, which I’m told was made at corporate headquarters in Davenport, Iowa, rather than here in Buffalo.

But let’s face it, The News was going to have to act sooner rather than later due to the loss of advertising revenue, which is just one of many challenges the paper is facing. They’re problems the entire newspaper industry is struggling with.

The News was vague in announcing the details of the cutbacks. I’ve learned from my reporting that management and employees who are not represented by unions — roughly one-third of a workforce of up to 600 — are subject to a layoff or mandatory two-week, unpaid furlough through the end of June.  

The paper’s unions, including the Buffalo Newspaper Guild, CWA Local 31026, which represents some 85 reporters and other journalists, have been approached about agreeing to further economies.

‘We’re at the very, very beginning of conversations,” said Guild President Sandra Tan. “We’re talking with management to see what can be done to help The News while also safeguarding and protecting our members.”


Heaney discusses his column on WBFO


Tan, a reporter who covers Erie County government, noted that “Guild journalists are doing some of the best and most important work they have ever done.”

That can also be said of journalists at local television and radio stations, and here at Investigative Post.

Everyone is working remotely, with newsrooms manned by skeletal staffs. Unlike The News, there’s no talk at WGRZ, WIVB or WKBW of furloughs, layoffs or pay cuts. That’s probably due in large part to the stations being more profitable than The News. 

Everyone is enjoying a larger audience — people are hungry for news about the local impact of the pandemic — so website traffic has soared, as have ratings for broadcast news programs. At the same time, revenues are down as many advertisers, forced to shutter their businesses, have no need to market themselves for the time being.

Unlike the for-profit television stations, Investigative Post is a nonprofit and not reliant on advertising. As editor and executive director, I’m not contemplating layoffs or pay cuts, but our cash reserves are not bottomless and we’re reliant on continued financial support from donors big and small to enable us to soldier on. (Hint, hint.) 

The pandemic has prompted us to shift gears. Instead of investigations on a wide range of topics that can take weeks, if not months, to complete, we’re producing stories about COVID’s impact on Western New York on a daily basis. Our reporters — Geoff Kelly, Ali Ingersoll and Phil Gambini — are working long hours and producing top-shelf pieces for our website and partners at WGRZ. 

Sometimes we’re scooping the competition, such as our story Monday on the 34 Kaleida employees who tested positive for the virus. And sometimes our work produces stories on topics you typically don’t find reported in other local outlets, such as the plight of inmates being held in the close quarters of the Erie County Holding Center. That “hit ’em where they ain’t” approach has long been our MO, and continues to be.

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What’s unfolding at The News is hastening the day of reckoning for media outlets across the nation, daily newspapers in particular. The other day I interviewed Margaret Sullivan, media columnist for The Washington Post and former editor of The News, for an upcoming column in Buffalo Spree

“The coming of the coronavirus and its effect on the economy only serves to exacerbate the problems we’ve been seeing for years across the nation in the business model for local journalism,” she said.

Ken Doctor, another prominent media analyst, expanded on that point today in a piece for NiemanLab.

Ask an American newspaper exec a few weeks ago what they thought 2025 would look like, and they’d tell you it would be much more digital, far less print, and more dependent on reader revenue than advertising. Some of them would have told you they think they had a plan to get there. Others, if they were being candid, would have said they didn’t see the route yet, but they hoped to find one in time.

The COVID-19 crisis has clearly accelerated that timeline — and may have ripped it to shreds altogether, depending on how long the shutdown lasts and how deep the resulting recession gets.

Make no mistake, though: Many of the decisions being made right now and in the next few weeks will be permanent ones. No newspaper that drops print days of publication will ever add them back. Humpty Dumpty won’t put the 20th-century newspaper back together again. There can be no return to status quo ante; the ante was already vanishing.

Lee isn’t the first to order cutbacks. On Monday, Gannett, the nation’s largest newspaper chain with 261 dailies, announced employees who make more than $38,000 annually must take one week of unpaid leave through the end of June.  

Sports Illustrated’s ownership group, Maven Media Brands, cited revenue losses in  making job cuts in all departments

One of the first media companies to make reductions was Buzzfeed, a digital pioneer of sorts. It announced last week graduated pay reductions for most employees.

In the meantime, reporters in this market, and across the nation, are digging deep to report on the crisis. Tan, the Newspaper Guild president, sees a sad irony in what’s playing out across the industry.

“There has never been a more critical time for news organizations to be fully staffed,” she said. “We need more reporters, we need more news.”

There’s also never been a greater need for transparency from our government leaders. But, on a local level, we’re getting less, not more, from Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz.

Any number of reporters and their news organizations are furious with Poloncarz and his press secretary, Peter Anderson, for stonewalling reporters. They’re dodging questions and withholding data, going so far as prohibiting reporters from attending Poloncarz’s daily press conferences so as to control the questions put to the county executive.

By contrast, President Trump and Governor Cuomo field questions from real, live reporters. (But then again, they don’t serenade their constituents by strumming on their guitars in YouTube videos.)

I can’t speak to the specific unhappy experiences of other news outlets, but Poloncarz’s press secretary has refused to respond to inquiries from myself and Ali Ingersoll, and the county executive refused to call on Ali during a press conference last week. He presumably didn’t like the questions he knew she was going to ask.

I described the county executive this way in the January issue of Buffalo Spree: “Poloncarz can be an arrogant, thin-skinned, know-it-all. But he’s also competent.”

At this point, I’m starting to question his competency. And a fear of being subjected to tough questions may be the reason he’s become so reluctant to deal with reporters.

I mean, I’m sure he’s working hard at dealing with the crisis. But there are legitimate questions as to whether the county had the required plans in place to deal with emergency situations like the ongoing pandemic. 

Also at issue: why have other upstate urban counties gotten so many more COVID-19 testing kits than Erie County?

And finally, why hasn’t he used his powers and influence to reduce the inmate population at the Erie County Holding Center, an unsafe place in the best of times and potentially downright dangerous at the present. Even Erie County Sheriff Tim Howard, no friend of prisoner rights, is urging authorities to trim the prison’s population.

I’m sorry, but strumming a guitar and incessantly telling people to stay at home and wash their hands does not pass for effective leadership. Not under these circumstances. Poloncarz needs to man up and meet the press.