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Rich Newberg, ‘a born reporter,’ gets ready to walk away

Rich Newberg walked into the FBI office a few years ago holding a camera like a young multimedia journalist.

FBI agents instantly greeted him with laughter.

The Channel 4 senior correspondent was getting an early lesson on how uncomfortable he might be in the years ahead in the changing media world.

“They were laughing at me, the old guy walking in with a camera,” recalled Newberg.

After holding a camera a few times, Newberg found a way to avoid being required to work like the young backpack journalists of today who think nothing of the cost-cutting practice of having reporters filming their own stories and editing them.

“I produced a full page doctor’s note because of three herniated discs, an arthritic knee, and two torn rotator cuffs, an arthritic toe,” said Newberg, who credits photographers Mike Mombrea Jr. and Tom Vetter for having significant roles in his career.

“There is no me without them,” said Newberg.

You don’t have to be an FBI agent to realize the new media way of doing things is one reason that the 68-year-old Newberg is retiring this week after he finishes his video memoir on his career at Channel 4. “One Reporter’s Journey” airs at 4 p.m. Monday.

When Newberg announced his Channel 4 retirement in November, it was popular to say that there will never be another Rich Newberg in Buffalo.

You could just as easily say not even Rich Newberg is Rich Newberg anymore. The changing industry meant the long-form work he did so well disappeared about five years ago.

“That’s true,” said Newberg. “I still feel I was able to report the way I report. But it has been a very stressful five years not to be able to pursue my passion. I will always stay true to who I am as a journalist, reporting on social issues and people. That is why Buffalo has been absolutely the best fit for me.”

In a wide-ranging interview, the native of Elmont, Long Island, discussed the industry changes, the upcoming changes in his life and the highs and lows of his career.

“It is almost surreal, the fact that after 46 years in business and 37 and a half (in Buffalo), on Jan. 1 it is going to be a different life,” said Newberg, whose immediate plans include having his film archives digitalized and retrieved for educational purposes.

Newberg, who in 2016 celebrates his 30th anniversary with his wife, Lori, said he pretty much saw the writing on the wall as the industry changed.

“For me, it wasn’t a good fit anymore,” said Newberg, who was named to the Buffalo Broadcasters Hall of Fame in 2006. “It also is getting a little tough. I’ll be 69 in March and chasing stories on a daily basis was getting stressful. I still love to tell stories, love the challenge to tell stories. I love this town with all my heart. That is what I’m going to miss. I’m going to miss the people and learning something new every day.”

“My passion has always been the long-form pieces, the documentaries. I need time to develop the subject. I am passionate about social issues. … The inability to do what I love is the main reason for leaving.”

Newberg added he isn’t comfortable with the industry changes that require tweeting, and posting on Facebook and Instagram. He appreciates that technology allows news organizations to go live at any time. But he adds the need to multitask doesn’t give reporters time to take notes or work a source in the field.

“What I find disconcerting is many times you have to put out information when you really haven’t locked down the story,” said Newberg. “I need time to reflect, to analyze, to observe and to think and also have the benefit of having a photojournalist to collaborate with and bounce things off of in the field.”

Clearly, the business is a galaxy far away from the way it was when Newberg was an Ithaca College student in the 1960s and started his career on a cable station that also employed Ithaca graduate and future Disney chief Bob Iger.

Newberg feels his style of journalism was inspired by the odd combination of broadcasting giant Edward R. Murrow, Geraldo Rivera in his earlier social conscience days and Rod Serling of “The Twilight Zone” fame.

“Serling’s ‘Twilight Zone’ registered with me because of the moral issues that he raised and he became a visiting professor at Ithaca,” he said. “He was really one of my idols. One day, I went to dinner with him. It was one of the greatest moments in my life to be sitting across from Rod Serling.”

Newberg had TV stops in Syracuse, Chicago and Rochester before landing at Channel 4 in 1978. Along the way, he developed his compassionate reporting style.

“I always had a feeling for the underdog,” said Newberg. “I think that came from the Holocaust, growing up in a Jewish home. Part of it was trying to understand the Holocaust at a young age.”

He also was influenced by being able to get a family living in a garage alongside their burned-out house in Syracuse a hot meal and medical attention after running a story about them. “I realized the immense power of television to draw attention and change lives and register a social conscience,” said Newberg.

When his three years at a Chicago station were done, Newberg was hired by Channel 4 as a weekend anchor.

He was in his Comfort Zone.

“The day I drove down Elmwood Avenue I said, ‘This is home. This is where I am basically going to settle. I am getting off the merry-go-round,’ ” he said. “This is my fifth city and it felt right from Day One. I realized in the Chicago experience that I needed a smaller market and needed more control over my reporting … to test myself and do my kind of reporting.”

The biggest story in his career was the 1996 Emmy-winning Holocaust documentary, “Lost Childhood: The Story of the Birkenau Boys,” in which he went back to the concentration camp in Poland where they were taken as children. He calls it “the most important story of my career.”

“It was a life-changing experience,” he said. “To go with these guys who knew that their parents and siblings went up in the chimneys. It was one of the most unique Holocaust documentaries every produced.”

Other career high points included his long-form reports to explore the plight of the mentally ill, the abortion debate, and Buffalo’s jazz history in “Buffalo Soul: The Legacy Plays On.” He made a trip to China with a cancer researcher, met Pope John Paul II and had the later Geraldo-like experience of having a murder suspect surrender to him on the air in 2010.

Incredibly, Newberg recalled that community activist Darnell Jackson almost brought City Grill murder suspect Riccardo M. McCray to the wrong station.

“Darnell Jackson said, ‘I have Riccardo McCray in my car. You are on Delaware Avenue (Channel 2’s location) right?’” recalled Newberg. “I said, ‘No, no. Channel 4 is on Elmwood Avenue.’ ”

The low point was when Newberg’s brief period as Channel 4’s main 5 and 11 p.m. anchor ended when Don Postles was named the station’s main male anchor.

“It was pretty rough for a few months,” said Newberg. “Don Postles was once described to me by a news director as a ‘born anchorman.’ I was not a born anchorman. If anything, I was a born reporter.”

And there will never be another one in Buffalo like Rich Newberg.