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The Sky is Not Falling

The Sky is not Falling
Tongue-wagging aside, free newspapers are the key to a free press

There is a gossip storm blowing across social media about Artvoice merging with the Niagara Falls Reporter. On Tuesday I received a call from Dave Adams the owner of Comtel, our VoIP phone provider, asking if it was true Artvoice merged with the Niagara Gazette. Minutes later I received another call congratulating me on selling Artvoice to the Buffalo News.

Artvoice has not merged with anyone or been bought by anyone. Our paper has entered into a partnership agreement with Frank Parlato, the deep-pocketed owner of the Niagara Falls Reporter.

Why would Artvoice do that? The two papers are complete opposites. Artvoice spent 25 years slowly building a reputation for quality writing and elegant design. It’s always been a trusted champion of the arts and a voice for preservationists, urban planners and green advocates. Artvoice is unabashedly on the side of progressives and the political left and believes we need arts and cultural institutions if we want to have a great city. Everyone who works at Artvoice shares these principles. Artvoice has also developed the best events calendar in all of Western New York.

By contrast the Niagara Falls Reporter is designed like a trashy supermarket tabloid, or rather the New York Post with attention grabbing—some would say—“in your face” headlines. It has a reputation for going after hard news.

There has rarely been any coverage of the arts in the Reporter. There is no events calendar and never has been. They’ve been known to have—from our perspectives—some wild, unsubstantiated and what we might even call “whacky” positions on a variety of topics. And Frank Parlato and the Reporter are decidedly to the political right, fighting to repeal the SAFE Act that restricts gun owners, promoting Libertarian views of government interference and giving inordinate space to oppose “big government” ideas such as the DREAM Act—that grants subsidies to illegal immigrants, lifetime welfare and a host of other topics.

In short, the Reporter, politically speaking, is so far to the right that generally they label any government run social program as socialism or even communism.

How could these two papers possibly be partners?

A little bit of history:

25 years ago Artvoice printed 10,000 papers and offered them to readers for free. Free was bad. If people didn’t pay money for your paper then it must be worthless. The Buffalo News cost 25 cents and printed 325,000 papers every day and 440,000 on Sunday. You paid for the Buffalo News. Paid was good.

Fast forward 25 years to a world with online information and paid is not good. Everyone expects information for free. Around the nation daily and weekly paid publications are struggling.

The Buffalo News has fallen by more than half to only 138,000 daily and a little over 200,000 on Sunday. Meantime, the free paper Artvoice has grown fivefold.

About two months ago I began a conversation with Frank Parlato and some interesting ideas emerged. The combined circulation of Artvoice, the Niagara Falls Reporter and Frank’s two smaller papers (the South Buffalo News and Lackawanna’s Front Page) is about 100,000.

That means the combined circulation of the Parlato/Artvoice papers is almost equal to the daily circulation of the Buffalo News within our market on any given weekday, with the advantage it can be picked up all week long.

In terms of selling advertising that is a quantum leap in what we have to offer advertisers and our cost is a tiny fraction of the cost to advertise in most major media.

We also looked at economies of scale. What if Artvoice printed all four papers? The savings were immediately evident. The Parlato papers could add twelve pages with full color on every page and it would cost less than they’d been paying. What if Artvoice redesigned and did the weekly layout for the Parlato papers? What if Artvoice handled all the distribution and handled payroll? And so on and so forth.

Artvoice needed funds to hire new people, update equipment, and pay off debt. Parlato could help with that and the advantages gained in the partnership could enable Artvoice to pay back his funding more easily. All of the pieces came together of how advantageous a partnership could be, but there still loomed the vastly different editorial content of the two papers. Could anything be shared?

Agents of Change

The most obvious change Artvoice could bring to the Reporter is stories of relevance and importance on the local arts and culture scene in Western New York. We could share our events calendar and any arts coverage that might work for both Niagara and Erie County. But there was something far more important that could be shared.

News. Not arts news about who is doing what and why you should go see them, but news that effects change in the community, exposes corruption or stops a really bad idea from being carried out. Corruption doesn’t belong to a political party; corruption is not left or right.

Artvoice used to be much stronger in this area. Once we realized we had developed an audience of a couple hundred thousand readers we realized we could be an agent for change. The Artvoice foray in this direction began in the late 1990s when Bruce Jackson wrote at least 50 articles in Artvoice and led the fight against the PBA building a twin-span, a replica of the Peace Bridge alongside the existing bridge. As Jackson describes it:

“They came up with a design that was ugly, anachronistic, expensive to build and expensive to maintain, and an environmental disaster. It was a design and plan guaranteed to make a few people rich, a lot of people sick, and a lot more people unhappy.”

The twin-span was a bad idea that didn’t happen, thanks in large part to Bruce Jackson and Artvoice.

When the NFTA was going to sell the still underdeveloped Niagara Falls airport to Cintra, a road building company from Spain, Richard Taylor wrote a series in Artvoice and personally went to Washington DC to speak out against the deal with the FAA and congressional representatives. The sale did not go through.

When Mark Hamister was emerging as the prospective new owner of the Buffalo Sabres, Artvoice wrote a series exposing the Hamister bid as just short of fraudulent and suggesting Golisano would be the best choice. Golisano got the team once Hamister finally revealed he didn’t have the money.

When Brian Higgins ran against Nancy Naples for congress he won by a margin so thin Naples refused to concede for two months. Days before the election Artvoice wrote a story so damning about Naples and her brand of politics that the Higgins team personally went door to door in the most contested areas and hand delivered Artvoice. Many on the Higgins team believe that was the little push they needed to get over the top.

The New York Power Authority offered Buffalo a measely $2 million dollars a year as its share in relicensing NYPA to run the Niagara Power plant. Mayor Masiello and county executive Giamra were fine with that, but Artvoice working with congressman Higgins ran an extended series of cover stories demanding more money. NYPA coughed up $300 million, money that is now funding our waterfront redevelopment.

These are the types of stories that when added to our arts coverage made Artvoice exciting and a must read newspaper. That formula disappeared for the past eight or nine years and after fully taking back the reins of Artvoice a little over a year ago I knew I wanted to bring Artvoice back to that place. Unfortunately, managing editor Buck Quigley and I are too busy to write. The very capable Quigley hasn’t had time to write a single investigative story. I was only able to write one story in January about the unaccounted $400 million dollars paid to LP Ciminelli from the construction of Buffalo Public Schools. Where that $400 million dollar budget overrun went LP Ciminelli says is private information. We disagree.

We want to continue that story and more. But Artvoice doesn’t have the resources to do what I want it to do. We don’t have enough writers or enough pages or enough money. It’s that simple. I looked at the news reporting of the Niagara Falls Reporter and when you separate the solid, investigative news stories from the editorials—the results have been surprisingly good. A lot of their trophy stories effected and continue to effect real change in Niagara County.

Here some samples storiesof stories new and old:

The Reporter’s stories on a condominium manager inflating bills so she could lead a lavish lifestyle led to her firing and conviction. Same with a DPW worker who stole $20,000. The Reporter relentlessly revealed and attacked the no bid secret lease deal and the resulting monopoly the Maid of the Mist enjoyed. That deal ended and there is a new competing operator with improved service.

In terms of economic impact, by the way, it resulted in more than $300 million in higher rent payments to the Province of Ontario and an additional $30 million in higher payments to New York State- that’s $330 million into the public coffers—not a small feat for a free weekly tabloid.

Their story on the cover up of the theft of town gas by two Lewiston policemen for their personal use led to the firing of one and the suspension of the other.

The Reporter uncovered town employees who helped themselves to diesel fuel and engineers who put false work duties on their billing.

The Reporter wrote scores of stories on Local 91 union members’ acts and threats of violence, sabotage and destruction of property on construction projects within Niagara County where their union was not employed. Those stories led directly to the arrests of longtime Local 91 Business Manager Michael “Butch” Quarcini and 13 other union members on charges of racketeering, extortion, conspiracy and destruction of property, and effectively gutted the leadership of a union that prosecutors said evolved into a criminal organization.

The Reporter broke the story of Mayor Vince Anello’s hidden $40,000 loan from Smokin’ Joe Anderson that led to a conviction and jail time and they’ve written several stories on questionable financial maneuvers by Niagara Falls Mayor Paul Dyster—which, among others, was the Reporter uncovering that Dyster’s city engineer didn’t have an engineering license—which led to his firing.

Artvoice floated an editorial trial balloon a couple of weeks ago. We ran an investigative story by Frank Parlato on another situation where developer Mark Hamister won a bid for a high profile project where he doesn’t seem to have the money. It appears he needs public money and the Parlato story reveals the controversial politics involved and how Hamister keeps moving the goal post to get the public money. The conclusion is Hamister kept reducing the scope of his project while simultaneously raising the cost. He is claiming he needs $35 million dollars to build a hotel identical to one just built in Amherst for $18 million...with no real explanation of why his hotel would cost $17 million more or why he is no longer meeting the requirements in the RFP. The response to the article was very positive:

“ARTVOICE gets the story straight”

“This article states some simple facts and very cut and dry financial analysis. Anyone putting two plus two together can see the City is getting shortchanged.”

“This is an outrage. Is it too late for NF to pull out?”

This is the kind of editorial that I’m interested in returning to the pages of Artvoice. We’re not getting it from the Buffalo News. Corruption has no politics so does it really make a difference if Frank Parlato or Buck Quigley writes a story of someone’s corruption? If partnering with the Niagara Falls Reporter helps Artvoice bring back the bite it once had I’d be happy with that.

One thing I’m already happy about is that no one is talking about Artvoice closing any longer.

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