The future of the news business in Western New York just got a lot brighter.
Last week, in a historic vote, the members of the Buffalo Newspaper Guild voted unanimously to approve a deal with their employer, The Buffalo News, that allows News journalists to play an active (though not exclusive) role on buffalonews.com, this paper's Web site.
What does that mean?
It means, I believe, the long-term survival of newspaper-style journalism in this region. (I use the term "newspaper-style" because no one can guarantee how that journalism will be delivered 10 or 20 years from now: ink on paper or strictly digits on a screen, or in some other presently unimaginable way.)
Until now, The News' Web site -- because of a long-standing labor dispute -- has been prevented from using the great advantages of the Internet for disseminating news. Frustratingly, for every journalist here, union and management alike, we've been unable even to put breaking local news on the site.
Now, happily, that era is over and a new one will soon begin. In a few weeks, a redesigned Buffalo News Web site will begin offering not only local news in "real time," but also much more interactivity with readers, and a number of staff-written blogs on subjects from the Buffalo Sabres to "American Idol." Eventually, we'll do even more: video, podcasts, audio files, photographic slide shows and innovations we haven't even thought of yet.
In short, we'll go from static to dynamic practically overnight.
With newspapers' economic fortunes in free fall -- newspaper circulation has plunged across the country and profits have followed -- and with young people far more attuned to the Internet than to print, the viability of newspaper journalism is at risk.
And, while I'm hardly an unbiased party, I am convinced that newspapers provide something critically important that other media often do not: depth, thoughtfulness, investigative skills and an enterprising (rather than reactive) approach to news.
It may sound melodramatic but I believe it's true: If newspapers crumble, so does a cornerstone of American democracy.
Warren Buffett, the legendary investor and business prognosticator (nicknamed "the Oracle of Omaha") who has owned this newspaper since 1977, responded enthusiastically to the news about the unanimous Guild vote.
"It's not only good news, it's vital news," he said by phone Wednesday morning as he learned about the previous night's vote.
He confirmed what many suspect, and what he's been warning since 1991: "The economics of newspapers are crumbling. We've been seeing it coming for 15 years but now it's happening at a rate that no one can miss."
As Buffett sees it, "the only solution will come if newspapers have a viable combination of online and print."
That's exactly what we have in mind, and exactly what we are now able to do with this historic Guild vote.
Will it save the day? Buffett, for one, is what a newspaper story would undoubtedly call "cautiously optimistic."
He offers this caveat (taken from his analysis for Berkshire's annual report to be published in March): "The economic potential of a newspaper Internet site -- given the many alternative sources of information and entertainment that are free and only a click away -- is at best a small fraction of that existing in the past for a print newspaper facing no competition."
While he states emphatically that the days of lush profits for newspapers are over, he offers this upbeat note: "We hope that the combination of print and online will ward off economic doomsday, and we will work hard to develop a sustainable business model. I think we're likely to be successful."
Journalists in Buffalo can now take that and run with it. And that's the plan.