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Channel 4 archives to be digitized, made accessible to the public

Before I signed off on WIVB-TV for the last time, as 2015 came to an end, I was given an hour of air time to revisit my 46 years as a broadcast journalist. The memoir, “One Reporter’s Journey,” was a labor of love, but posed a challenge to me and my longtime colleague and friend Mike Mombrea Jr. who co-produced the piece. We had only a month-and-half to navigate through terabytes of material that I had hoarded all those years.

In the newsroom, I was always the “go-to-guy” for fellow reporters who needed that one historic moment that would make their stories complete. Those moments lived inside my cassettes and I knew where to find them.

There was so much history stacked around my desk that on at least two occasions during my 37 years at Channel 4, the late General Manager Lou Verruto ordered that my cubicle be draped with yellow crime tape, warning staffers of potentially dangerous avalanches. Part of my collection of old scripts, tapes, and memorabilia once toppled into Jacquie Walker’s cubicle, smashing a glass candy jar with her name engraved on it. We’re still friends despite the incident, though she is apt to remind me that she no longer serves candy to our co-workers.

Thanks to Mike Mombrea’s brother John, who digitized my entire archive, Mike and I were able to scan through all the big stories that defined my life as a newsman, selecting the nuggets of extraordinary events and people who, I believe, cried out for a curtain call. The passage of time allowed me to reflect on the meaning of each and every story and its place in Buffalo history.

'Born reporter' Rich Newberg signing off

Buffalo takes its history seriously. In fact, in the 1960s the Buffalo and Erie County Historical Society began storing the daily news film from the three commercial TV stations, ending the practice of throwing out “yesterday’s news.” Walter Dunn, who ran the Society back then, was quoted as saying “It’s not up to us to decide what’s important. We just need to it and let those in the future figure that out.”

A half century later, we’re finally ready to figure it out.

WIVB-TV General Manager Dominic Mancuso and parent company Nexstar have reaffirmed an earlier agreement allowing the Buffalo Broadcasters Association to digitize the station’s news film and early videotapes, which are now rapidly deteriorating on the shelf.

“It will allow students, historians, and others to explore the rich history of Buffalo through the eyes of local television newscasts, just as residents viewed it when it happened,” Mancuso said. “Reading about it is one thing, but actually being able to see it is so much more comprehensive an experience. We thought it was a great idea and were happy to re-launch the project.”

WIVB-TV has been a leader in honoring Buffalo’s colorful past. Some of my most gratifying years as senior correspondent were spent exploring the city’s roots in the civil rights movement, our glory days as an industrial powerhouse, and the people whose actions exemplified “The City of Good Neighbors.”

When Channel 4 turned 50 in 1998, the staff treated viewers to a nostalgic journey back to the very first days of television in Buffalo. What a kick to see Ilio DiPaolo in the wrestling ring at the Aud, and Jack Kemp quarterbacking the Bills. Van Miller was a young kid from Dunkirk hoping he’d be accepted into living rooms across Western New York.

Bringing back Buffalo’s moving image history was meant to be. Thousands of reels of news film from Channels 2, 4, and 7 have been saved by rescuers on many occasions. Some broadcast industry veterans even sheltered the rare footage in their basements until warehouse space could be found. They understood that life, as captured through the lens of the photojournalist and the reporter, is the first draft of history.

Stories of rescues are legendary, says Steve Reszka, president of the Buffalo Broadcasters Association.

“My favorite is how a high-profile Buffalo broadcaster went dumpster diving to save film that a station threw out because they didn’t have space for it," he said. "Imagine the history that would have been lost.”

A decade ago, the Buffalo Broadcasters Association struck its first agreement with WIVB-TV and digitized all the news film aired in 1966, the first full year of reports that were saved in the archive. Chris Musial, who was the station’s general manager at the time said, “We are the video archive. We’re the video memory keepers. Nobody else has that, and if we don’t do something about it, it’s lost.”

Losing the moving images from the 1960s would have been a pity for documentary producers like Susan Stern. Her late husband, Spain Rodriguez, was a product of that era, and became a nationally renowned “underground” cartoonist.” He grew up in Buffalo, and, according to Stern, “was inspired by Buffalo’s multiracial bohemia of the 1950s and 1960s.”

When she began writing the story of his life for television, Stern reached out to the Buffalo Broadcasters Association in search of video.

“Many people told me I would never find television footage of these pieces of American history, so when I learned that the Buffalo Broadcasters Association had saved original film footage form the ’60s, I was hopeful.” She became “ecstatic” after the Association provided her with film footage of the Road Vultures Motorcycle Club, an outlaw group of bikers. Rodriguez once rode with that gang, although, according to Stern, he tried to steer members away from criminal activity. The Buffalo clips will appear in “The Provocations of Spain Rodriguez,” Stern’s work in progress.

I began my own video memoir by telling viewers I wanted them to get to know me a little bit better, what made me tick as a newsman, and the lessons I learned from covering just about every aspect of life in Western New York. In the process, I got to know myself a whole lot better.

My hope is that the same will be true for all the people of Buffalo, as our moving image history comes to life. The defining moments in our collective journey could very well help us chart our future, and, at the very least, help us understand how we arrived at where we are today.

A Buffalo comedian recently lamented the fact that he is “talking proud,” but doesn’t know why. Hang in there, buddy. With the “click of a mouse” you will be able to call up just about any chapter in Buffalo’s storied history on your computer.

Those exceptional Buffalo moments in time will be accessible using key words or names, just as you would conduct a Google search on any given topic.

The Buffalo story is about to be shared with the world, through the words and actions of its own citizens. That accomplishment alone will be a source of pride. Actually seeing how we weathered some of history’s greatest challenges should give us the knowledge and confidence that only comes with the gift of self-discovery.

Rich Newberg was a reporter and anchor at WIVB for more than 37 years until his retirement in 2015. He is a member of the Buffalo Broadcasters Hall of Fame.

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