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For an event as significant as Ralph Wilson’s death, nothing can compare to print media

Jeff Simon

The photo was of a trench-coated, middle-aged Ralph Wilson with a football in his right hand. It filled two-thirds of Wednesday’s Buffalo News front page.

Lost to time is whether it’s a game ball given to him by players (it seems likely) and exactly how he’s gesturing with it in his right hand. It looks as if he’d been flipping it in the air with all the insouciance you might expect from a man who owned an NFL team.

Accompanying the picture of that universally known local figure on that front page were just five words: “He gave Buffalo the Bills.”

It was an invitation to stop, sit down, clear your head for a minute and contemplate the man and the full meaning of those five words.

Exactly. He gave Buffalo the Bills.

Ralph Wilson chose the city over Miami (and other cities), thereby changing the very nature of the city we live in. And now, with the event people have been thinking about and dreading for decades, he was dead at the age of 95.

When a 95-year-old man of Wilson’s stature in this city dies, news organizations are prepared. When a man has been a decisive influence on a city’s quality of life the way Wilson was, no one is going to get caught flat-footed reporting it.

And so no one in Buffalo was. Everywhere I turned in Buffalo media, it seemed everyone was doing as well as possible with a story whose implications we’ve long known and we’ll continue to search out far into the future.

I must confess in retrospect a tiny bit of mild perplexity at Channel 2’s decision to go wall-to-wall with Wilson’s death on its 11 p.m. Tuesday news broadcast but I certainly understood it. That’s the sort of thing that TV stations do on their news broadcasts when they’re making a huge and serious charge at ratings dominance. The reality of TV news at 11 p.m. is that you’ve only got about 20 minutes to use. And with the life of a man whose football team had reached so deep into the psyches of Buffalo homes since 1959, you might not even bother with other stories.

It was a canny decision from the ratings winner in the new order of things in Buffalo TV news, even if it left the rest of the world (the Ukraine, the downed Malaysian airliner) and the rest of the city (turmoil in the city’s Board of Education) completely untended.

However clever it was as a ratings decision, it also seemed a foredoomed gesture from Channel 2 to try to equalize the natural superiority of a daily newspaper’s ability to allocate space to a story at such a moment.

I must confess, too, a certain consternation at hearing twice (from different news broadcasts) the flat and uncontested statement that Wilson and the Bills brought the “big leagues” to Buffalo – a bit of an absurdity for a city that, before the Bills ever got here, had the Albright Art Gallery (Seymour Knox’s name was added to its name in 1962), the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra, the former Studio Arena Theatre and Harry Altman’s Town Casino – not to mention the virulent native jazz life of the city in the ’30s and ’40s.

It’s a historic irony about Buffalo and Toronto, for instance, that before the Bills era, Torontonians would flee from the blue laws in their hometown and flock to Buffalo for the city’s nightlife.

(Long before Wilson’s Buffalo Bills existed I heard Glenn Gould play a Beethoven Piano Concerto with the Buffalo Philharmonic, an extreme rarity in the history of classical music in the 20th century, considering that very shortly thereafter Gould – a legendary virtuoso – chose to forsake forever public performances everywhere in favor of making records. It was an era in which the Budapest String Quartet was the resident chamber ensemble at the University of Buffalo. In that one arena alone, you don’t get much more “big league” than that – something the Bills’ ur-newspaper correspondent here, the late Larry Felser, always understood.)

What no other Buffalo news organization can begin to match at such a moment is the size of the Buffalo News’ editorial staff and its capacity in a special section (“Extra! Extra! Read All About It!” as newsboys used to explain it in old movies) to present what’s what the next morning in a definitive way.

As I watched as much Wilson coverage as I could, it seemed to me, yet again, that different media can’t help but OWN certain kinds of stories at certain times.

During an actual Bills game – or, say, an Oscar telecast – all the tweets in the world can only supplement live television’s way of bringing it to you, not replace it. There’s nothing like sitting in your living room and watching a major event unfold in “real time” (as we now call it with much bravado, in a media world that can now slice and dice and preserve time itself any old way it chooses to).

TV, though, is always parceled out in time, at first. Locally, it can’t begin to compete with an extra section the next morning. And TV’s staffs can’t compete with the full coverage of a local newspaper.

While it’s true that each major local TV news outlet had genuinely venerable sports anchors to trot out at such a historic moment – men whose histories with the Bills go back decades, if not unanimously to the very beginning – some of the inevitable frailties of age were, of course, going to be visible at such moments, however beloved all those TV sports figures remain. (Just out, by the way, is hale and hearty Rick Azar’s highly readable book “Tales from Azar’s Attic: A Look Inside a Broadcasting Career,” published by Buffalo Heritage Unlimited, 218 pages, $19.95 paperback.)

Most of the News’ original people covering the Buffalo Bills from the very beginning – most notably Larry Felser – are no longer with us, but Felser, in the great News tradition, was close enough to the next generation here to fill Jerry Sullivan and Mark Gaughan with stories and ideas about Wilson they’ll probably be able to use for the rest of their lives.

What seemed to happen with the death of Wilson was that if you wanted the definitive view of “what’s what” (including “what used to be”) right from the moment it happened, you couldn’t do better than to find the News’ website and, especially, the next day’s newspaper.

It was, let me admit bluntly, an occasion for considerable pride for many of us who had absolutely nothing to do with what our colleagues did.

I remember the same thing occurring to me when Continental Flight 3407 crashed in Clarence – if you were looking for “what’s what” in a moment of community trauma, you weren’t going to find anything better than a daily newspaper. Which is why, I can’t help wondering what could happen if the lightning-fast miniaturization of information that Steve Jobs began in modern media ever triumphed completely over print journalism rather than supplemented it as wonderfully as it does now.

To miss out on that irreplaceable full reportage of “what’s what” in such matters, is to make possible a world where – to take a worst case Buffalo scenario – you could have a Western New York without the Bills and a whole generation of bereft Western New Yorkers who have no real idea what happened and why.


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