by Jim Heaney, editor of Investigative Post
There’s more news to report regarding The Buffalo News – none of it encouraging.
The Poynter Institute, a major news media think tank and training center, published a story last week that chronicled the decline of The News. The story is aptly headlined The Buffalo News was the crown jewel of Warren Buffett’s news empire. Now it’s just another Lee paper.
Reporter Angela Fu did a good job of detailing all that’s gone wrong since Lee Enterprises bought the paper in 2020, starting with its loss of corporate independence. However, I think the story portrayed the paper in a better light than it deserves under its previous owner, Warren Buffett. I want to add some additional perspective, based on the 25 years I worked there.
But first, there’s some other news to report.
Last week, the Buffalo Newspaper Guild, whose membership includes newsroom employees, issued a vote of no confidence in Lee’s corporate management.
“Lee continues to disinvest in Buffalo and weaken one of its strongest operations. This cannot, and should not, continue,” the union declared.
Its full statement is worth a read.
Newsroom employees are reeling from a seemingly non-stop series of cuts, which culminated in management’s announcement in February that it would no longer print the paper in Buffalo come October. Cleveland – and early deadlines and 160 layoffs – here we come!
The bloodletting might not be over. Lee continues to struggle financially and has begun another round of layoffs elsewhere in the chain, starting with five papers it owns in Montana. That’s a signal that more journalists will be cut loose elsewhere in the 77 paper chain, including Buffalo. Stay tuned.
Perhaps looking for a lifeline, Lee has cut a deal with Catena Media, which produces content to promote casinos and online sports betting. The Buffalo News is the first Lee property that Catena mentions in its press release, which quotes a vice president as saying “we are excited to work with [Lee] to bring high-quality editorial and advertorial betting content to their readers.”
Which is to say The News, which already publishes gambling promotions posing as news stories that’s produced by another purveyor, is going full throttle.
Let me be clear: this is unethical. It breaks a very basic journalistic tenet: you don’t pass advertising or propaganda off as legitimate news. But that is what’s happening at The News and other Lee papers. At some other chains, as well. Shameful.
More bad news. Brian Connolly is leaving The News. The significance of him leaving the paper is lost to an outsider. Brian Who? But Connolly was the most digital-savvy, future-looking executive at The News as vice president of business development.
He rose up the ranks in the newsroom, elevated to online editor and then managing editor under Margaret Sullivan, before moving to the business side. He was a finalist for the job of editor in chief that last year went to Sheila Rayam. If there was anyone in the management ranks The News couldn’t afford to lose, it was probably Connolly. And now he’s leaving.
Now, back to the Poynter story. As it stated, Buffett didn’t cut as deeply or as quickly as other newspaper owners when the bottom started falling out of the industry. And he didn’t interfere in newsroom operations. In those regards, he was a relatively benevolent owner.
But The News under his ownership was never more than a middling paper. Solid, yes, and better, for sure, than the likes of peer newspapers such as the Plain Dealer in Cleveland and Post-Gazette in Pittsburgh. But nowhere as good as it could – and should – have been given the paper’s profitability – $1 million a week during its peak years in the ‘90s.
Rather, Buffett’s interest seemed to begin and end with the bottom line. So long as fat checks kept coming to Berkshire Hathaway offices in Omaha, he was satisfied. I wish he had aspired to be a great newspaper publisher like his friend Katherine Graham of The Washington Post
The News under Buffett’s ownership was notoriously slow to change with the times or make major investments:
- It was the last major daily newspaper in the country to switch from typewriters to computers, not until the early 1980s.
- The desks installed in the newsroom when the News building opened in 1973 were still there when it closed earlier this year.
- The phone that sat on my desk when I joined the paper in 1986 was still there when I left in 2011.
- The paper has a history of having the president of the United States hit the on-switch when it launched new printing presses. Dwight D. Eisenhower did the honors in 1958; George W. Bush did likewise in 2004. Nothing in between.
- The News didn’t start to publish a dynamic website until 2005, long after most other papers. I can remember writing a weather story that led the paper’s static website Sept. 11, 2001. You know what happened that morning. My story continued to lead the homepage until the following morning. No mention of the terror attacks. Embarrassing.
Like I said, The News under Buffett was slow to change and reluctant to reinvest profits into improving the paper or upgrading the physical plant.
And make no mistake, The News made significant cuts to its news operation well before Lee Enterprises bought the paper three years ago. A staff that topped 200 when I joined the paper in 1986 stood at about 145 when I left in 2011. And it continued to shrink under Buffett. The paper’s investigative reporting team was shuttered shortly after I left. Suburban bureaus were closed. Journalists were bought out, vacant jobs went unfilled.
The News followed a playbook honed elsewhere: cut its editorial offerings and charge readers more for it. It’s been a predictable formula for failure. It’s a big reason why I left the paper to start Investigative Post: I had no interest in being a passenger on a sinking ship. Excellence was not in the company’s vocabulary. The operative words were “cut” and “survive.”
People ask if The News will survive. Probably, but in a yet-more diminished capacity. The Democrat and Chronicle in Rochester, for example, is operating with a lot fewer journalists than The News.
The situation here is playing out across the country. The newspaper industry’s business model is broken – beyond repair – and reader habits have changed. Weep not for stockholders, but for readers, their communities and our democracy. More pain lies ahead.
The question is not whether most newspapers can rebound – only those with deep-pocketed owners who are committed to quality journalism have a fighting chance of being more than a shell of their former selves. Rather, the question is, what comes next? And there will be a next.