As an editor leaves, a celebration of Buffalo

Buffalo News [Buffalo NY]

May 7, 2022

It has been an amazing decade in Buffalo.

We shed a half century of decline. Population rose. A startup scene bloomed. Billions in public investment bred a wave of private investment. A Buffalonian is governor of New York for the first time in 138 years. And the Bills and Sabres are on the rise and secured in Western New York for decades to come.

As I retire as editor of The Buffalo News, 45 years after writing my first newspaper story and after nine and a half years leading this newsroom, I feel lucky to have caught this decade.

Some of the stories we told were difficult, some exhilarating. We worked through a pandemic and a historic snowstorm. Always, our aim was simple: Tell Buffalo’s story, good or bad. Confront what weakens us and celebrate our successes.

Some memorable stories from an amazing decade:

Priest sex abuse. One February day in 2018, News reporter Jay Tokasz stood in the woods outside a small cabin 39 miles south of Buffalo. A man had accused the retired Catholic priest who lived there of abusing him when he was a boy. In a conversation at the priest’s front door, the priest admitted he had molested “probably dozens” of children during his career.

Over the months that followed, Tokasz and his colleagues chased dozens of tips on other priests accused of abusing children and of diocese decisions that kept those crimes covered up for decades. They documented retired priests who were sent for treatment and then put back into congregations. They uncovered painful details of abuse reported by children and overlooked by clerical leaders. Sixteen years after the Boston Globe cracked open an international clergy sex abuse scandal, the revelations in Buffalo led to the bishop’s resignation and the hope that no institution will again be able to hide crimes in its midst.

Chris Collins scandal. For a year and a half, News Washington Bureau Chief Jerry Zremski dug into U.S. Rep. Chris Collins and his investment in an Australian drug company. “Another day, another fake story,” a Collins campaign mailing said. On CNN, Collins referred to one Zremski story as “not an exaggeration, it was not a distortion, it was outright fabrication.” It ended very differently. Collins was indicted, resigned from Congress, pleaded guilty and went to prison. Zremski’s reporting was a master class in pursuing an important story in the face of withering criticism.

Covid pandemic. In our lifetimes, there has never been a story like Covid-19. The pandemic turned us into hostages, shuttered large segments of our economy, exhausted doctors and nurses, widened a cultural chasm and sickened millions. It killed and killed and killed, the old especially.

Buffalo News reporters, photographers and editors dug deep into federal documents to uncover why Covid spread like wildfire through nursing homes. Early in the pandemic, they took readers inside the scariest place in town: the Covid wards at big local hospitals. They crunched data to show how being Black and poor could be fatal with Covid. They let unemployed New Yorkers tell their story in their own words. In a moving photo project, they showed the physical toll Covid took on the faces of nurses and doctors. And because hope is important, photographer Mark Mulville traveled 2,008 miles in the middle of the pandemic to photograph seniors at every high school in Western New York.

Buffalo’s resurgence. It is the region’s biggest news story. The Buffalo Billion lit the resurgence, but it is fueled by private-sector investment, surprising out-of-town money, a growing entrepreneurship culture and a new generation of leaders. Much must still be done in a city that remains among the most impoverished in the nation, but News reporters covered the story aggressively from the start – when it was mostly about public spending – to today, with expanded Buffalo Next coverage of new companies, new buildings and new investment.

Buffalo Billion. It is fashionable to bad-mouth the Buffalo Billion. The problems are apparent: a bid-rigging scandal that sent people to prison and a so-far underwhelming billion-dollar bet on the solar power industry. But the criticism misses the big picture. The original version of the Buffalo Billion, engineered by Howard Zemsky and others, is changing our region. And for all his failings, former New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo accomplished what he wanted with the Buffalo Billion: He changed the psyche. He made Buffalo believe it could have a different future.

The Buffalo Bills. When Ralph Wilson was deciding where to locate a team, he met with Paul Neville, then the managing editor of The News. Wilson said years later that he told Neville that if The News wrote about the Bills every day for three years, he would put the team in Buffalo (the kind of deal that sometimes happened in the old days).

Sixty years later, I would love to hear the barroom argument about the biggest decade in Bills history: four Super Bowls in a row or a decade in which owner Ralph Wilson died, the team was sold amid fears it would leave, one stadium deal ensured the team would stay through the ownership change and a second – this spring – ensured the team would be in Western New York for decades to come. And on the side, a new coach and general manager put together a team that promises to contend for years.

I believe Buffalo’s future is bright. Geography has driven our region’s two great booms. The first was fueled by the opening of the Erie Canal, the second by harnessing Niagara Falls for power. In the coming decades, can the felicity of Buffalo’s geography – two Great Lakes and the absence of hurricanes, earthquakes, wildfires and the rarity of tornadoes – drive a third great boom as a climate refuge?

I believe Buffalo can make it happen.