Given the fiscal state of the news industry, the changes underway at The Buffalo News are not unique. To offset revenue losses, newspapers across the nation have bid farewell to longtime reporters, eliminated once-popular sections and removed jobs that involved covering important beats, such as education, the environment and transportation.
What makes the situation at The Buffalo News different is timing. Many major newspapers experienced these issues 10 or more years ago – and already have addressed them. To be clear, Western New York has not been immune to conditions affecting the industry. News organizations have been scaling back for years – but not at the level of the recent cutbacks at The Buffalo News.
To understand the timing of what is occurring at the paper, start with population.
I spent most of my professional life in New Jersey, the state with the highest population density in the nation – more than 1,200 residents per square mile according to U.S. Census figures. Aside from creating massive traffic jams, this distinction means that public policy issues often emerge first in New Jersey – and the Garden State must address those issues before the rest of the nation.
In my research, I found this pattern with environmental, health care and transportation issues, as well as with the news media. Ten years ago, The Star-Ledger, the state’s largest newspaper, made significant reductions in its reporting staff. As is the case with The Buffalo News, veteran reporters with irreplaceable institutional knowledge took buyouts. Those who remained were given more work and had to learn new tasks. Similar actions took place at other New Jersey newspapers.
Compared with New Jersey, population in Western New York is less dense. In Erie County, where Buffalo is located, population density is about 900 people per square mile. In neighboring Niagara County, the figure is just over 400. As a result, it takes longer for public policy issues to affect business and industry in Western New York.
Like other news organizations, The Buffalo News has faced challenges in recent years, but it managed to survive with a business model not too different from the one that served the paper well for decades. That model also survived because of the region’s limited broadband access, which curtailed internet penetration rates. According to statistics from Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s office, as recently as 2015, 71 percent of Western New York residents — more than 464,000 households — lacked access to broadband.
Those numbers have changed significantly over the past three years. The state has been awarding funds to increase broadband access across New York under the New NY Broadband Program. In March, Cuomo’s office announced the third and final round of funding and said it will result in connecting all New Yorkers to high-speed internet for the first time in state history.
With the increase in broadband access, use of the internet has grown in Western New York. At the same time, social media has radically altered the manner in which news is gathered, consumed and shared. The proliferation of smartphones, which put the internet at one’s fingertips, further fueled the change in the media landscape. According to Pew Research Center, 77 percent of Americans own smartphones, more than double the 35 percent who owned the devices in 2011.
Add up all of these factors, and it explains why The Buffalo News finds itself in trouble in 2018.
Buffalo News editor Mike Connelly has set forth a plan to address the challenges confronting the paper. It calls for actions that are painful and unpopular, but the changes reflect an understanding of what news organization must do in the 21st Century – not merely to survive, but to flourish and thrive at a time when journalism is arguably more important than ever.
As Connelly wrote in an email to The Buffalo News staff: “In print’s heyday, newspapers bundled a host of features – weather and comics and puzzles and advice and want ads – that attracted readers even if they didn’t care about news. In the digital world, people don’t go to BuffaloNews.com for any of those.”
Connelly also said the advanced metrics that show which types of articles are engaging readers should be used when deciding which stories to cover. He told the staff they need to be aware that the paper’s digital audience is largest from early morning through lunchtime. He also said reporters need to build their own social media followings because less than a quarter of the paper’s digital readers access the paper through its home page.
These steps, along with other changes at the paper, are just the start of what needs to be done. Today’s media landscape changes constantly and quickly. There is no one-size-fits-all handbook to guide news organizations through the process.
But Connelly and The Buffalo News have an advantage that others did not have. Because so many other news organizations already have experienced and addressed the issues they are confronting, they have an opportunity to explore and learn from what others have done and to then use the experiences of other news organizations to craft a model that can succeed in Western New York’s media market.
— Richard Lee