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What really happened: The Buffalo News loses half their sports staff in the span of a month

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The BN Blitz, pulling columns, and a competitor lying in wait all led to a massive overhaul at The Buffalo News this month.

The Buffalo News had a dismal first quarter of 2018. According to an internal memo circulated to the entire News staff, it was their first quarterly loss in more than 40 years. Even still, their goal wasn’t to gut their sports department editorial staff - or any other department’s - says management.

The News’ sports department had been veteran-laden. Vic Carucci, Jay Skurski, and Mark Gaughan were on the Buffalo Bills beat, and John Vogl and Mike Harrington had the Buffalo Sabres beat covered. They were supplemented by columnists Jerry Sullivan and Bucky Gleason, along with sports enterprise reporter Tim Graham. Other reporters pitched in on a robust staff led by sports editor Josh Barnett and deputy sports editors Bob DiCesare and Keith McShea.

That was one month ago. Today, six of those staffers are no longer in the sports department. According to those former members of The Buffalo News, a snowball became an avalanche.

THE DEPARTURES

“I don’t know if it jarred them or shocked them or what, but they decided they were going to address this right away, and they were going to make some changes to the paper, which is fine,” Gleason told Buffalo Rumblings. “It’s important to know that they have their eye on the bottom line all the time. That didn’t change when they were making a million dollars a week, and I don’t think it changed when they started losing money.”

Editor Mike Connelly announced at a meeting in front of all the writers and editors at the paper that voluntary buyouts were available to all of them. Over the next couple of weeks, he and Executive Sports Editor Josh Barnett sat down with each of the writers and editors in private meetings. Some were reassigned. Of those who asked for a buyout, some were told yes, and some were told no.

Vogl had his meeting early in the process, and was the first to go when he announced on May 22 that he was leaving the News and taking a buyout.

“I walked away from the newsroom-wide meeting knowing that a buyout was in my best interests,” said Vogl. “I didn’t see any answers as to how to fix things, and I had good friends who cover [teams in other markets] where people just lost their jobs at the drop of a hat. If I had an opportunity to get paid to leave, I was going to take it. My one-on-one meeting sealed it.”

Also on May 22nd, DiCesare was reassigned to a hybrid role, splitting time between deputy sports editor duties and writing about high school and college sports, according to a memo sent to the sports department. McShea was reassigned to the news department as a reporter. Within the next week, Sullivan and Gleason were the final two to have meetings, where they were told their columns were being taken away and they were being reassigned.

Gleason was offered Vogl’s job on the Sabres beat, but ultimately decided to take a buyout on May 25. Sullivan was offered work writing features, but took the buyout on May 29.

“[My meeting] only took about 12 minutes,” Sullivan told Buffalo Rumblings. “It was pretty upsetting, and I started to leave. Mike Connelly led into the big news with a three-pronged discussion about what we needed in the sports department to be better. The message at the end was that my voice had become tired, and he didn’t use the words ‘bad for business,’ but that was clearly the message.”

“At one point, [Connelly] told me that even I seemed tired with my column, and I jumped on him for that,” Sullivan added. “Don’t ever put words in my mouth.”

“I don’t want people to think I’m leaving there and I’m bitter and I’m upset,” said Gleason. “It was really just a difference in philosophy to me. I didn’t like the direction they were going in, and I didn’t agree with it. The industry has been in trouble, and I think The News was doing things that were counterproductive to what they were trying to accomplish.”

Following the other departures, DiCesare asked for and received a buyout as well, ultimately leaving the paper on June 1.

Looking around a gutted sports room was depressing says Graham, who ultimately decided to leave on June 13. Graham left without a buyout and has since joined The Athletic, who also added Vogl.

“A week before, if you would have told me that this was going to happen and it would include me walking out the door, I would have laughed, because there was no feeling [this shakeup was coming],” said DiCesare.

In a sentiment shared by many of the departed members of The Buffalo News, there was a feeling of uncertainty about the plan. Where were these moves sending the paper? Why were they moving on so quickly?

“I was paying attention to what was going on there, and I certainly didn’t expect this,” said Gleason. “Then they started going in a direction that I didn’t particularly agree with, but that’s been going on for some time. I think in these situations, you start to worry about ‘where is this whole thing going?’ and the general approach. What’s the accomplishment? What’s the end game?”

“How does this make us any better?” asked DiCesare, who began his career interning at The Buffalo News 36 years ago. “Why would we let this guy walk out the door, when we have to fill the position, when we know he’s exceptionally good at what he does? There was no end game. There was no answer to that.”

“When you started asking those questions and you don’t really have an answer to that, then they are going in a different direction than I am, and I don’t think I can be a part of this,” said Gleason.

DiCesare said he came to a similar conclusion. Gleason and Sullivan ranked among the best-read writers for the paper’s website each week, based on metrics that DiCesare could access.

“This is insane. If these guys are all walking out the door, I can’t go back in there,” said DiCesare. “These are some of my best friends. We’ve been colleagues for a long time.”

“The only regret I have about the buyout is I wasn’t the first overall to get it,” said Vogl, noting another person from the newsroom requested it first.

But a mass exodus wasn’t the plan. Each individual member of the staff came to their position independently, they say. Feeling of sadness and irritation were prevalent. None believed in the new direction management was taking. Having worked together for two decades or more in some cases, the sentiment and connection among the group had to have played some role, even if it wasn’t the only role.

“I was surprised [so many sports section writers took buyouts],” said Connelly. “We made a voluntary buyout offer to every reporter and columnist in the newsroom - news, sports, and features. When you do voluntary buyouts, you never know who is going to raise their hand. I was surprised by both who in sports, and the number of people in sports.”

THE BN BLITZ

In February of 2017, sports editor Lisa Wilson left The Buffalo News to take a new job at ESPN’s The Undefeated. During her absence, deputy sports director Keith McShea was acting sports director until September, at which point Josh Barnett was hired. During the span between permanent sports editors, The News implemented a new venture called BN Blitz.

For $2.99 a month, BN Blitz subscribers had access to all Buffalo Bills content published by the full-time staff members at The Buffalo News, plus access to an assortment of online-only content from part-time, non-union writers. They developed a mobile app, too. It was a way to enhance their coverage to include analytics and advanced metrics, stories of fandom, and other things that the News had never covered before - but it was also supposed to generate revenue.

While some members of the sports department were brought in on the process quickly, several others were left in the dark, and didn’t know the new service was coming until an August 2, 2017 meeting and memo.

From the start, BN Blitz was a disaster, say the recently-departed writers. There were login problems, issues that needed to be addressed by the Newspaper Guild, and an incredibly low subscription base.

“There were some people trying to pump the brakes. They just went way too fast,” said Vogl.

“It was kind of sprung on us,” said Graham. “That’s what created my first bit of angst on the future of The Buffalo News. When they announced how the BN Blitz was how we were going to go, and that it was necessary and had to succeed. It had been in the works for a long time, but they wouldn’t tell us about it. It was just a gloom and doom meeting.”

While Connelly says that naturally some folks would be more involved and some less, management didn’t reach out to the members of their department for suggestions on people to hire — or even what types of coverage was going to be behind the paywall. In fact, some new writers were in place and creating content more than a month before they told the staff at large.

“They didn’t address it with the writers ahead of time,” according to Graham. “What they felt was good content, how much we were going to aggregate. It caught us all unawares. It upset a lot of people because they crammed it down our throats. I think if they had given us some input, we all would have taken some ownership and rode together. When they say ‘Here it is; we’re doing this,’ and they rolled it out with all the mistakes and the login issues, it was aggravating.”

“We’re running a Bills site now,” said Sullivan. “It’s not a newspaper we’re talking about. It’s an online product specifically geared toward the Bills, which by its very nature becomes a more of a fan site.”

With numerous local and national outlets covering the Buffalo Bills, as well as many more independent online-only endeavors, there was already so much free content available that consumers stayed away from the BN Blitz in droves. Despite lofty expectations, the BN Blitz pulled in between 3,000 and 4,000 monthly subscriptions, according to sources.

“If they were going to roll out a pay-to-read app, it should have been a Sabres app, basically because there is less coverage,” says Vogl. “ESPN doesn’t cover [hockey]. The only ones on the road are WGR 550 and The Buffalo News. People want better content.”

Traffic wasn’t the only problem. With non-union members writing online-only articles on their own, there were times when the Guild and management butted heads over what had to be done by Guild members, and what could be done by the online-only writers on spec. Graham says they doubled up on occasion — when a Guild member and a non-Guild member would write the same article — which violated contract terms.

“Our issue as a union was if these people are going to do all this work, hire them. Don’t just use them half-assed,” says Graham, who adds there was no animosity toward the independent writers. “We butted heads during the season because they waited until the last minute to spring it on us, and we had things to work through as the season was going on, and as a new sports editor was trying to get some footing. It was chaos.”

Editing the new content was a problem, too. The digital content and the print content were on two different platforms, says DiCesare, who called it “an absolute failure”. If he was going to read or edit pieces for BN Blitz, he had to manually move them from one platform to another.

“BN Blitz was our first step taking a sub-segment of content and see if we can make it more special, and build a separate subscriber base,” says Connelly of the endeavor. “I think what we’re trying to figure out, in an age where the whole business has shifted from advertisers paying for the newsroom. Traditionally, advertising was 75 to 80 percent of the revenue for a newspaper company. We’re changing to a world where readers supply a much larger share of the revenue. In that world, one of the things we are learning is what was good enough to be the best coverage provider isn’t necessarily what it takes to get somebody to say, ‘This is so cool I’m going to pay for it.’ How do we build on our strengths so that we are so cool that tens of thousands of people say, ‘That’s valuable enough that I’ll pay for that’?”

“I remember looking at [Kimberley Martin, who was in her first meeting since joining the paper] and saying, ‘Welcome to The Buffalo News!’” says Graham. “This nervous laughter erupted in the room. Everybody was looking at each other sideways, saying ‘What is this?’ For the first time in my career at The Buffalo News I thought to myself, ‘I’m not going to retire from here.’ My decision to leave the paper probably dates back to that. It’s when I started thinking, ‘I’ve got to look for other options.’”

COLUMNISTS AND COMMENTARY

During the meetings last month, Sullivan and Gleason both had their columns pulled by management. It was a shock to them and the entire department.

“I didn’t know it was going to that extreme,” said DiCesare. “I thought it was going to be, ‘Let’s be more judicious in our commentary.’ The idea that they would just pull them away shocked me, and it obviously shocked both of them.”

“[My meeting] got heated, then they told me they were taking away my column, and I just sat there. Then I got up and left,” said Sullivan of that day. “It was a quick meeting. It was a bombshell. I had been warned that they were going to suggest that my voice was hurting the business. That we were driving subscribers away.”

“My big thing was they’re going to reassign me to that and take away my column. What’s the reason they’re taking away my column when I know it’s one of the things that people are reading?” asked Gleason, who noted that he loved covering the hockey beat but decided to leave anyway.

A consulting firm had taken a survey and determined a number of people - Sullivan claims 200 of the respondents - would never subscribe to The Buffalo News if he and Gleason stayed on as columnists.

“Mike Connelly promised 100,000 Blitzes, and they sold three to four thousand. There needs to be a reason. They got their reason,” says Sullivan. “This is their answer. This is their business model. Sounds pretty desperate to me.”

Connelly denies promising 100,000 subscriptions. The Buffalo News would need 83,000 total digital subscriptions to pay for their newsroom, according to a memo distributed to staff.

He says they didn’t go into the BN Blitz model with a plan for how many subscriptions they would sell because the business model could be changed relatively quickly.

“We would figure out very quickly what worked and what didn’t,” said Connelly, citing digital page view numbers as an example. “It didn’t feel very high stakes because you can ramp something up quickly, and you can ramp something down overnight.”

That type of short-term adjustment is commonplace in digital media, but not common in the newspaper industry. That may have been what rubbed some writers the wrong way.

“I thought they were starting to lose their way as a newspaper and becoming more of a business,” said Gleason of the motivation behind the moves.

No one had told Gleason or Sullivan (or anyone else we spoke with) to lighten up their criticism or take it easier on the two big local sports teams. Management and the writers were all clear on that.

“There were times I thought we could be more elevated in our criticism,” DiCesare said. “That we should take the high road. Which isn’t to say you can’t be critical - you certainly can be - and that’s the job as a columnist. But I think there are times that instead of just being gratuitous, we look at them and say, “Is that really necessary?” Is there an entire column here? Then let’s do the column, and if there’s not, then let’s eliminate the line.”

Connelly, who has worked in the industry for 35 years, says there is always pressure and conversations from the subjects they cover and that he and all journalists listen, but they don’t let it alter their coverage. Just because no one said anything doesn’t mean there wasn’t pressure — direct or indirect — from the company that owns both teams.

“As I understand it, The News lost $250,000 worth of business with the Pegulas at one point. I heard it was Sabres programs. It came to my attention at the time,” says Sullivan, referencing Kim and Terry Pegula, the owners of the Bills and Sabres. “I recall one specific major staff meeting, not just sports but the whole department, one of the advertising people joked in front of the whole room about Sully costing us that money. I think there was a general understanding that it as negative sports writing that caused the Pegulas to pull that.”

“When there are only two teams in town, and they’ve already pulled accounts for negative sports writing; when there are only two columnists, whether it’s overt or otherwise, there’s at least a subliminal desire on the part of the people running the sports department to lighten the touch,” added Sullivan. “It’s a business. The biggest business is right across the street.”

That business being Pegula Sports and Entertainment, which sits across the intersection from The Buffalo News.

“I try very hard to keep anything about anybody pressuring our coverage away from the writers and editors,” says Connelly, saying he didn’t remember the specific instance Sullivan cited. “What I would say definitively; nothing about the Pegulas or any other sports management had anything to do with the buyouts. It’s unfortunate that anyone might think that.”

Connelly says that The News has no current plans to hire new sports columnists at this time, but that doesn’t mean the paper is done with columnists.

“I think columnists are essential. We will unquestionably have columns in sports,” says Connelly.

“I can’t imagine sports without commentary. It is a vital, essential, expected part of sports coverage and sports writing,” says Connelly. “I think we have a reluctance to bring in someone from outside and anoint them as the new voice of Buffalo sports. We will continue to have plenty of commentary in what we do. Most of our reporters do columns in one way or another. My expectation is that over time, we will find people where commentary will be a bigger part of what they do.”

Kimberley Martin was hired as a columnist by The Buffalo News in August as they bolstered their coverage around the launch of BN Blitz. She says Gleason and Sullivan both helped her along in the process, as did every member of the sports department and management. As a recent hire from New York City, she took the paper’s changes as just part of her transition. When she left in October, it wasn’t for any reason other than because she received an offer from the Washington Post, which she says was her dream paper.

“As someone who was hired as a columnist by Mike not too long ago, that saddens me but it doesn’t necessarily surprise me,” Martin said via email of the shakeup. “Other outlets have done the same thing for years. Within a year of joining Newsday as a full-time high school reporter in 2007, the paper purged several general columnists (some damn good writers, I might add) in favor of only keeping a baseball and football columnist.

“In general, it’s devastating to see what has happened to the once-esteemed position of ‘columnist’ over the past decade. It’s the platform we all at one point strived to reach, and it was the pinnacle of sportswriting success.”

Sullivan echoed those comments, saying The News “absolutely” needs a dedicated sport columnist - ideally two, with different voices.

Martin expressed reservations about The News’ plan to find a new columnist organically: “Readers love great content, and that includes well-informed, well-reasoned, well-reported commentary. But not every beat writer is equipped to do that. There’s a certain level of reporting, aggressiveness, curiosity and relationship-building that is necessary to be one of the best on your beat. Columnists should also have those same skills — but they also need to be able to write well and provide insight and context in their commentary. To assume that *all* beat writers can provide a fresh perspective and are capable of articulating it well is a mistake. The two positions are very distinct and the skill sets required aren’t transferable between job descriptions.”

THE ATHLETIC STRIKES

With turmoil at The Buffalo News, the editorial staff members at The Athletic were waiting. Vogl was the first sports staffer to go when he made his announcement on May 22. Three days later, he had his conference call with management at The Athletic.

The Athletic was truly not on my radar when I took the buyout. I knew that they were probably coming, but I was planning on taking the summer off,” says Vogl.

Memorial Day weekend wasn’t only for negotiating with Vogl; it was during this timeframe that editors had conversations with multiple people who would eventually be hired by The Athletic, including Graham, who was still writing for The Buffalo News at the time. The launch date had been set before those conversations took place, says Graham, who told The News he was leaving on June 11.

Josh Rawdin - Buffalo Rumblings

WHAT HAPPENS NEXT

At the time of publication, all of the vacated jobs remain open, but postings have been placed for the Sabres beat reporter job (vacated by Vogl and turned down by Gleason), the sports enterprise reporter job (which Graham walked away from), and the deputy sports editor job (left vacant when DiCesare departed). When those positions are filled, the department will still have lost two columnists and a deputy sports editor from where they stood a month ago. Connelly sided with Barnett, who wanted one deputy sports editor and one nighttime sports editor. The News also posted a job for a high school and college sports enterprise reporter on June 21st, the role DiCesare was scheduled to cover. Full-timers Miguel Rodriguez (high school/college) and Amy Moritz (Sabres, Bisons, and running) remain in place.

Barnett doesn’t think his Bills coverage will be greatly impacted, noting all three beat reporters will stay in place. With Mike Harrington staying on and a new Sabres reporter forthcoming, the amount of hockey coverage is expected to stay the same, as well.

“Vic Carucci, Jay Skurski and Mark Gaughan bring years of experience, knowledge and insight to the beat,” said Barnett via email. “Our new sports trending enterprise reporter will have a significant role in Bills coverage as well by digging deeper into the breaking news and identifying larger trends. We expect to use several other reporters and contributors in Bills coverage as well in different ways than in the past.”

Barnett mentioned the multi-part series Graham wrote on Josh Allen, as well as recent interviews with Tre’Davious White, Brian Daboll, and Jeremy Kerley, as examples of how The News team is drilling down this offseason.

Carucci made it clear that The News planned on keeping him around as a central part of its coverage plans, as well.

“As staffers left the sports department, management reiterated that it wanted me to stay and be a part of our efforts to improve BN Blitz and meet the challenges of facing a new competitor, which is something I truly welcome,” said Carucci in an email. “The News went above and beyond in offering an opportunity for me to return in 2014 after leaving to spend 16-plus years with NFL.com and the Cleveland Browns. I thoroughly enjoyed those professional opportunities. But what The News did was make it feasible for my wife and I to no longer have to do the Cleveland-Buffalo commuting that grew tiresome, and be able to be with our children and grandchildren on a more regular basis. That is a significant factor in my desire to want to remain a part of The News’ continued evolution in the digital space.”

“We’re in the middle of a great disruption,” notes Connelly. “The disruption is forcing us all to rethink the business model, but it doesn’t change our values, or our commitment to insightful, aggressive news coverage - but it does mean taking a hard look at what we stop doing, what we do differently, and what new things we do.”

“We have sent more staff to road games than any other outlet for years,” adds Barnett. “We are committed to unmatched coverage of the Bills and Sabres – at home and on the road.”

Does more necessarily mean better?

“Times are tough for newspapers, but they kept that band together for a long time,” said an anonymous Buffalo News contributor, who also noted that morale at the outlet has taken a hit. “Pound for pound, that was one of the best staffs in the country. But you’ve got to remember, many of the departures in the sports department weren’t forced. The News did not want to lose Bucky, Sully, Vogl and Tim. But they looked at how things were going, and decided it was an easy time to jump ship.”

And just how will this impact the culture at the paper?

“You can’t have this many people leave the newsroom floor and not have a morale problem, but if there is a silver lining here, it is that there are jobs posted and there are positions that are being filled here, in particular in sports,” said Buffalo Newspaper Guild President Sandra Tan. “The Guild’s point of view is we want the best people to be hired as quickly as possible.”

“Covering sports has always been a top priority in this newsroom, so it’s very troubling that we’ve had this many departures in such a short period of time,” added Tan. “The folks who are leaving are taking decades of experience. They are some of our best writers.”

With the changes to the industry, Connelly wants staff members who are willing to change with the times. It’s why he accepted so many buyouts.

“One of the things that people are really committed to is adapting to meet these challenges,” said Connelly. “One of the big tests for me was that everybody be all-in. This is hard ... If anything, there will be more reporting. I’m a strong believer in reporting. Reporting kills all ills.”

Left to right: Bob DiCesare, Jerry Sullivan, Bucky Gleason, John Vogl, and Tim Graham in 2006

[Editor’s note: We incorrectly identified the nighttime sports editor as a deputy editor in the initial publication of this piece. There were two deputy sports editors under previous sports editor Lisa Wilson plus the nighttime editor. Under Josh Barnett there is now one deputy sports editor plus one nighttime editor. Former deputy sports Keith McShea is a reporter in the news department.]

[Editor’s note: We added the names of the two full-time sports reporters not previously mentioned in the piece, Miguel Rodriguez and Amy Moritz. Neither accepted buyouts nor were contacted for this story.]