By Cindy Skrzycki and David Shribman
He told us that if we didn’t have our jobs, someone with a family full of kids would be able to take our spots and pay the mortgage. He told us that if our stories weren’t finished by the end of our appointed work day we should go home, imploring us: “Your shift ends at 3. Why are you still here?”
Some mentor this guy was.
But in truth Paul H. MacClennan, the venerable Buffalo News reporter who died Monday, was some mentor. He was gruff, sarcastic and could spot our weaknesses like a scientist pulling apart a bug – but he was sentimental. He was a relentless reporter, but had a gift for leisure, particularly if it involved long walks along the shore, naturalist guidebook at hand. He was traditional – but knew how, and when, to break the rules, particularly if it involved foiling the well-laid plans of an editor.
Long before mentorship became a social imperative, celebrated in lifestyle magazines and the human resources office, Paul understood its merits and, we like to think some 40 years later, its delight. We were the youngest reporters at The News, he was our fathers’ age. We thought we knew everything, he knew we didn’t. Most of all: We had the eagerness and idealism of youth, he had the eagerness and idealism of a veteran reporter fired with commitment, if not always respect for his direct supervisors.
Paul was The News environmental reporter at a time when most papers didn’t have an environmental reporter – a good thing, it turned out, when, in 1977, there came reports of a chemical disaster at a corner of Niagara Falls known as the Love Canal. He was the engine of The News’ coverage, which he prosecuted with a steely determination that was one of our most unforgettable memories in our own half-century of journalism.
Cindy’s reminiscence: Eager to learn a new beat and please my bosses, I said I couldn’t leave that day at 3 in the afternoon, because my story wasn’t finished. In the end I got up, left the story and went home. Later in my career in Washington, I remembered that encounter and thought about how I had worked many, many hours past my shift for a story. There was no whiff of overtime and asking for comp days was something slackers did. In fact if you left “early,” you would have to walk the walk of shame out the door. Unions were either very weak and didn’t exist at all. It was every woman for herself. But Paul was determined to see that workers got their due in pay, promotion and an equal playing field for men and women. He was ahead of his time in the news business.
David’s reminiscence: I was paired with Paul on the Love Canal story, and soon the two of us were heading to the Falls every day, he teaching me how to report a story that the authorities would prefer not to emerge, showing me how to cultivate sources, assuring me that it was OK to call Lois Gibbs, the president of the Love Canal Homeowner Association, at 7 a.m. Plus, he made sure we always charged the company every mile we drove and put in for the 15-cent tolls on the Grand Island Bridge. “Let the bastards know how much it costs to run a newspaper,” he would say. The lesson stuck. So did the respect he had for the Newspaper Guild, the journalists’ union, a respect I carried with me when I became a newspaper editor myself and sat across the table from the Guild.
Later we would move from Buffalo, but we never abandoned the friendship with Paul and he never abandoned his loyalty to us. Together – the older couple, the young newlyweds – we would take long weekends at Chincoteague, Virginia, always staying at the Refuge Motor Inn, where Paul ensured we had rooms overlooking the marshes, not the McDonald’s. We would take the night wildlife safari, and gorge ourselves on oysters, and learn, from Paul, how the tides affected shore life and which birds came out at which hour.
On all of these expeditions we shared lunches of sometimes-moldy cheese. We had to grow up and have kids of our own to know that fast food was not really food and that taking your lunch and eating it at a rest stop picnic table was the way to go. We still do that – and always think of Paul.
This was a friendship across the generations. When one of us moved to the New York Times, or the other to the Washington Post, the first words of encouragement – the first professional applause – would reliably come from Paul. He worshiped those papers even as he served, stoically but passionately, The News. He believed in journalism and taught us its totems and taboos. He also taught us the joy of breaking the rules, even as he worked to rule.
But Paul’s legacy to us, and to Buffalo, was his role as an archive of the environment in Western New York. He shamed government officials who did not do their duty to clean up the industrial pollution and black ooze that ran through Buffalo’s environs. He was a leader of a proud cadre of true investigative, advocacy journalists who lived to protect the public – and who never sought credit for doing it. We miss him already.
Cindy Skrzycki, a former Washington Post reporter and columnist, is senior lecturer in the English Department of the University of Pittsburgh. David Shribman is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette whose syndicated column appears in The News.