Turning the page The News' departing editor? reflects on ?her 32 years ?at The Paper - The Buffalo News

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Turning the page The News' departing editor? reflects on ?her 32 years ?at The Paper

Foster Spencer may have said it best. As I prepared, years ago, to cross over to the dark side – from reporter to editor – the former News managing editor warned me that my new role wouldn't be a constant party. ?

"Marge," he said, knowing full well that this was never my nickname, "it's not a popularity contest."

So I should have been prepared, as an editor, for the blasts from some readers, such as this one in November 2003, criticizing "the verities pronounced from on high by the self-anointed elites in your editorial offices." ?It concluded: "If you want to see a mindless sheep, look in the mirror."

Foster was right. My tenure as editor did ?not amount to winning a popularity contest, but it certainly has been eventful.

As I leave The Buffalo News after 32 years – nearly 13 years as chief editor – some of those events stand out:

* Sept. 11, 2001: "A plane hit the World Trade Center," the news-desk editor told me. We were standing in the newsroom. That's a big story, I thought, assuming the crash was an accident. When the second plane hit the second tower, we knew it was much more than that. It was (and God willing, always will be) the biggest story of my lifetime. The newsroom jumped into emergency mode – tearing up the afternoon paper, making plans to send staffers to Manhattan, and pulling together the resources for a special edition the next day. The reverberations from that day can be seen in almost every day's news coverage now, nearly 11 years later.

* The confession of James Kopp: The sniper who killed abortion provider Barnett Slepian made a jailhouse confession to News reporters Lou Michel and Dan Herbeck in November 2002. We had agreed to hold the story for a short but unspecified amount of time; when Kopp's lawyer began pushing to hold it for a week or more, while they attempted to manipulate the broadcast media, we carefully considered the legal implications – knowing they could be ugly. The decision came down to me.

I gave the nod to publish the confession the next day. With a group of editors, reporters and lawyers sitting around a boardroom table, the moment felt like a rite of passage.

The classic wisdom for an editor is "When in doubt, leave it out," but my tendency has been the opposite: Don't hold back. If we know it and it's true, let the public know it, too.

* Election night, 2000: Editors knew that the presidential contest between George W. Bush and Al Gore would be close, but we certainly expected to be able to tell our readers who had won the presidency in the morning paper. As the deadline approached, and several states – including Florida – remained in contention, the tension in the newsroom was palpable. Even our astute political reporter Bob McCarthy could only shrug.

But the front-page headline needed to say something. We sent out a few early papers with a headline that said, "Bush apparent winner," but ultimately pulled back to the more conservative "Down to the wire." And, as it turned out, many weeks would pass, filled with hanging chads and contentious court decisions, before the nation had an answer.

* The crash of Continental Connection Flight 3407: This tragedy on Feb. 12, 2009, claimed 51 lives and brought forth some of the strongest journalism The News has ever done.

From the moment the news broke on buffalonews.com to the passage of legislation to reform the airline industry, this newspaper and its journalists did precisely what they were supposed to do: told the news fast and accurately; explained what happened and why; paid attention to the human cost with sensitivity; and investigated and reported, to help prevent such tragedies in the future.

Led by Deputy Managing Editor Stan Evans, nearly the entire newsroom joined in the initial effort, highlighted by the skills of our best reporters and photographers. Photographers Bill Wippert, Derek Gee and Harry Scull, in particular, offered searing images in the first several days.

Later, Jerry Zremski and Tom Precious dug deep into a flawed industry to produce the four-part series "Who's Flying Your Plane?" and The News' editorial board insistently called for reform. The work won multiple awards – including The News' being named "Newspaper of Distinction" by the Associated Press in 2009. More important, the nation flies more safely now.

* The City Grill shootings: The bloodiest crime in Buffalo's recent history – a downtown shooting spree on Aug. 14, 2010, in which four died and four others were badly injured – was extraordinarily hard to cover. In the first news cycle, police apprehended a suspect and we photographed him; on deadline, just as we were about to publish that the suspect had been named, authorities changed their minds.

Later, our story about the police records of some of the victims set off protests in Buffalo's African-American community. Activist Darnell Jackson burned newspapers outside The News' building. I volunteered to meet with community members at True Bethel Baptist Church, and found an unhappy crowd of 700 awaiting me, ready to air their grievances for decades of perceived unfairness.

Two years later, The News has taken many steps to reinforce ties to the black community. I appreciated what True Bethel's pastor, the Rev. Darius Pridgen, said recently: "I was surprised and humbled to have the editor of The News not only respond to our concerns, but also show up and take the heat and make changes. … We're not all the way there yet, but I think we're much further in fairness of reporting than we have been for a long time."

* Confrontations with Mayor Griffin: Back in the 1980s, when I was a reporter covering the city schools and local government, Mayor James D. Griffin – an irascible, punch-throwing sort and never a fan of the Fourth Estate – once hung up on me, saying, "I'm only taking your phone call to tell you that I'm never speaking to you again."

On Oct. 21, 1986, he wrote a letter to the editor slamming a front-page piece I had written. He mocked its premise: "The main theme of Miss Sullivan's rambling article, if there is any, seems to be that Buffalo's growth has suffered because our political leaders don't get along and don't agree on what needs to be done." As we like to say in the newspaper business, we stand by our story.

* The quest for public information. This has been a constant effort during my time as editor, and one I care passionately about. It crops up at every level – including city government.

Mayor Byron Brown, a much more congenial man than Griffin, nonetheless ran into trouble with The News a few years ago when his police department stopped providing timely and complete information about arrests. It became impossible to write police news accurately. We complained, consulted lawyers (both our in-house counsel Larry Bayerl and our go-to First Amendment expert Joseph Finnerty), met with the police chief, and nothing seemed to help.

Finally, I had a mock front page made up with a photo of Brown and a large headline that said something like, "Brown stonewalls public information on arrests," and made an appointment to see the mayor in City Hall. We had a civil conversation, I showed him the page, and the situation improved, though problems continue with open records from city government, police and the public schools.

We never ran the page I showed Mayor Brown, but we have written many stories and editorials pushing for open information. I'm confident this will continue while Managing Editor Brian Connolly serves as interim editor – and beyond. Given the importance of public government records to so many news stories, this is too important a fight to give up on.

> Industry changes

When I started at The Buffalo Evening News as a summer intern in 1980, fresh out of school, I wrote my stories on a manual Royal typewriter and used carbon paper to produce them in triplicate. Glue pots sat on editors' desks so that they could paste the individual sheets together and send them to be typeset.

The paper published only in the afternoon and had morning competition in the Courier-Express, edited by Douglas Turner, who later became The News' Washington bureau chief. (In 1999, Turner helped me formulate the question I asked President Bill Clinton at an editors' gathering in Washington, about whether he would ask Al Gore to pardon him if he became president; the question annoyed Clinton so much that his reaction made front-page news all over the country.)

The News' formidable city editor in those days was Ed Cuddihy, who later helped me so much as managing editor until he retired in 2006.

Three decades later, we're a morning paper that has also made a major shift into the digital world, with the region's leading media website. In a few weeks, The News will begin offering digital subscriptions and will unveil a host of new mobile platforms.

Personally, I regularly have done live online chats with readers and I started my Sulliview blog last January. Through the help of some of the tech-savvy reporters on the staff, I've even learned to shoot video on my iPhone and post it to YouTube and onto my blog. I will carry these skills with me to my new position at the New York Times, where the public editor role will include blogging as well as writing a traditional print column.

The goal I set when I became editor 13 years ago was simple: That we would come together as a staff to make The News the best regional newspaper in America. What I didn't know was that the newspaper industry would be in a tailspin as we moved in that direction.

At many papers, circulation and print advertising have plummeted, and digital revenue has not nearly made up the difference. Still, The News remains profitable and stable under the ownership of its chairman, Warren Buffett, and the direction of Publisher Stan Lipsey and President Warren Colville.

The company has fewer employees than when I started, but we have avoided layoffs in the newsroom. I spent some sleepless nights trying to figure out how to prevent those layoffs, which have plagued newspapers in almost every other city. I dreaded dismissing the talented young journalists who are our future, putting even more pressure on the veteran staff members who continue to prove themselves so worthy.

> Where we shine

The Buffalo News' arts coverage, always a strong suit, remains so. It includes the estimable Jeff Simon – well-established when I arrived and still powering on – joined by such talents as critics Mary Kunz Goldman, Jeff Miers and Colin Dabkowski, all of whom I'm thrilled to have brought here. The Spotlight section, edited by Melinda Miller, in which this piece appears, debuted last year as a showcase for arts, books and feature writers, including the likes of Charity Vogel and Tim Graham.

Our newsroom is significantly more diverse now, with more women and people of color in leadership and reporting positions, including Lisa Wilson as executive editor of The News' award-winning Sports section and Dawn Bracely as editorial writer.

The paper's outward appearance has vastly improved, too. With the purchase of new presses in 2004, and a major redesign led by former design director John Davis, The News surely is one of the nation's most attractive and best-organized newspapers. Our visual team, particularly artist Dan Zakroczemski and designer Vincent Chiaramonte, has won innumerable awards at the national and international level.

Deputy Editorial Page Editor Kevin Walter has written many a powerful series in Sunday Viewpoints and on the Opinion pages. And, since The News has won two Pulitzer Prizes for political cartooning, I'm glad to have hired Adam Zyglis, who I believe will snag our third someday. (In an era of extreme cost-cutting, many papers have eliminated political cartoonists, along with investigative teams and Washington and statehouse bureaus. The News still has them all.)

> Reporting on Buffalo's thorniest issues

Buffalo is one of the poorest cities in the nation, and much of our most important reporting has focused on issues related to that – and to the region's often dysfunctional governmental bodies. A 2006 series called "The High Cost of Being Poor," by Rod Watson and Jonathan Epstein, revealed systemic unfairness. A broader series by Mark Sommer and others examined every aspect of lives spent in poverty. Mary Pasciak's probing reports on the troubled city schools helped push an ineffective schools superintendent out of office and created the potential for a turnaround that will benefit 34,000 children.

When I established The News' first investigative team in 2000, I was confident that it would flourish under the guidance of Susan Schulman, and it has. Its has had a rotating staff, but it now comprises Dan Herbeck, Matt Spina and Schulman.

I'm awed by the enterprising journalism this talented staff has produced year after year. The investigative team's work – and that of other reporters on the staff – has resulted in a remarkable run of meaningful journalism: eight consecutive years in which The News has won the Distinguished Community Service Award from the New York State Newspaper Publishers Association.

We earned these awards for work done from 2003 to 2011, competing against the largest downstate newspapers, for stories on inequities in education, poverty and reforms in airline safety after the crash of Flight 3407. Last year's award was for a series on prescription drug abuse that has changed laws and, undoubtedly, saved lives.

I am heading out while the streak is still going strong. And, as I go to my next chapter – it begins a mere nine days from today – I am deeply grateful to have had this chance: to be the editor of my hometown daily, to foster the kind of journalism I value so highly, to hire and promote and nurture a magnificent newsroom staff – a staff that is in many ways like a family to me.

I can't imagine a higher honor.

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