Pressing Issues: Troubled times Hit my old hometown

By: Greg Mitchell You never forget your first newspaper job, especially when it's the only one you've ever had ?and in my case that's the Niagara Falls (N.Y.) Gazette, at the tail end of the 1960s when it was still owned by Gannett. It's now known simply as the Niagara Gazette, but it's lost more than just part of its logo.

One of my old editors there, Don Glynn, recently interviewed me for a "Where Are They Now?" column. Until then, I didn't know that anyone in "The Falls" wondered what happened to me. The last time I'd written much about my hometown was in my first book, almost

25 years ago, which was partly devoted to the Love Canal disaster. When I was growing up, the city was booming. The population reached beyond 100,000, and the circulation of the paper hit 60,000. Both numbers started plummeting in the 1970s as businesses moved out, tourism faded, and the city botched urban renewal. Population is now about 50,000 and circ at the Gazette, now owned by Community Newspaper Holdings Inc. (CNHI) has fallen to 22,386.

Still, there's an old-fashioned newspaper war going on, between the Gazette and an upstart tabloid weekly called the Niagara Falls Reporter. I've kept my eye on it, because stories from the Reporter keep popping up at far-flung Web sites and a couple of my old friends freelance for the paper: Bill Gallagher, a former city councilman who now covers Detroit for Fox2 News, and John Hanchette, my mentor at the Gazette, later its managing editor and a Pulitzer Prize winner for Gannett News Service (and occasional contributor to E&P).

The Reporter, it turns out, is edited by Mike Hudson, frontman for the legendary Cleveland rock 'n' roll band The Pagans, founded in 1977. One Web site describes Hudson back then as "a local journalist who had been looking for a musical vehicle for his confrontational writing style."

Hudson hasn't changed. On March 1, he called Gazette Publisher Wayne Lowman "a minor-league piece of garbage," an "idiot," and challenged him to "meet me in the alleyway outside your office." Last November, Hudson alleged that financial problems and incompetence tainted the paper's coverage and management. "The once-proud Niagara Gazette now finds itself lost in a miasma of corporate greed, editorial mediocrity, and a loser mentality," he wrote.

After that ran, Hudson told my E&P colleague Brian Orloff that he got a letter from a CNHI lawyer saying he needed "to retract everything that was in the column." Gazette publisher Lowman declined to say much to E&P beyond this statement: "In a column Mr. Hudson made some fabrications about the Gazette and CNHI, our parent company. They simply weren't true. We sent Mr. Hudson a very strongly worded letter asking for clarification .... There has been no clarification."

Hudson attributed it all to competition. "We started up five years ago, and we do 23,000 copies a week," he said. "This is a depressed economy here. We're competing for the advertising dollars for sure." But Hudson's feelings about the Gazette transcend business. He left his position at the Gazette as city hall reporter and columnist under what he terms "bad" circumstances, and says some ex-colleagues and friends have lately lost their jobs due to downsizing.

"We won't be intimidated," he said. "Three years ago, we were doing a story about a corrupt local labor union here, and I got worked over by three union thugs who are now under federal indictment. But they broke my nose and messed me up pretty well. So to get a letter from some attorney in North Carolina to me is comical. Maybe in their world that's a scary thing." Still, he admitted the column in question "wasn't one of my best moments. I was angry."

For an informed, if not completely objective view, I called my old friend Hanchette, now teaching journalism at St. Bonaventure University. Always quick with a quip, he called it "ironic" that CNHI has "community" in its name, adding that he "always figured that a company with 'holdings' in its title might not be interested in real news." He called the Gazette, which now has only a handful of Niagara Falls-based reporters, "a shadow of its former self," and this "shows what damage corporate ownership can do to a community paper." CHNI owns three other papers in the area, with much shared work.

"There used to be people at the Gazette telling me I was disloyal for knocking my old paper," he recalled. "Now some of them have been laid off."

Hanchette said he gets more feedback on his stories for the Reporter "than I even got at USA Today. I'll go up there and people will say, 'I don't agree with what you wrote, but thanks to the Reporter I can find out what's really going on in town.'"


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