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Pushing big changes, in black and white

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Can a newspaper make a difference?

            To answer that question, we'll be watching our neighbors to the west.

            On January 2, The Buffalo News inaugurated a year-long focus on the future of the paper's city and region. They're calling the special report "Why not Buffalo?"

            That report --- which sports the sub-headline "Moving toward a smarter, cooler future" --- takes a hard look at greater Buffalo's problems through news articles, editorials, and special features. Even the local advice columnist gets in on the action, with a flippant proposal that the city play host to a new "Rust Belt Disney."

            Joking aside, the paper wades right into the thick of things, tackling the most serious issues its city faces, from population loss and economic doldrums to a stale political culture and a defeatist attitude.

            Editor Margaret Sullivan wrote this in an explanation for readers:

            "From the moment I became editor of The News, people have been asking me the same question: Why doesn't the paper do something about Buffalo's troubles?In fact, we feel we have done a great deal to address these difficult issues, but now it's time to focus it more. Today, we accept the challenge in earnest."

            Sullivan told City Newspaper that the decision to embark upon the project was the result of a series of observations that reached critical mass.

            "I guess we've been feeling for a while that in Western New York there's no other subject than the decline of the area," she says. Of course, there are other subjects, she clarifies, but they all fade in importance when compared to Buffalo's decay.

            Among the factors that made the project impossible for Sullivan to ignore was the hunger evident among her readers for a deeper exploration of the issues holding the city back.

            Last year, Buffalo natives and News staff writers Charity Vogel and Jay Rey wrote a handful of stories about the state of their "incredible shrinking city," as they dubbed it.

            "They got this incredible response: people emailing them saying 'What can we do?'" says Sullivan. "In a sense those stories were a catalyst."

But The Buffalo News also does something else --- something rarer in newspaper special sections: It proposes bold solutions.

            The very first article, penned by Vogel and Rey to launch the series, dishes up eight concrete suggestions for turning the city around, starting with a change in the New York State Constitution to allow Buffalo to incorporate its suburbs.

            "If the suburbs can't be stopped, Buffalo's boundaries should grow along with them," they wrote. Expanding the city just to include the inner-ring suburbs would instantly boost Buffalo's population from 292,000 to 646,000. And it would vault them into 19th on the list of the nation's largest cities --- a move that would put it on the map when businesses from around the country and around the world come calling, they argue. And they back their argument up, not only with the traditional litany of facts, figures, and quotes from experts, but also with prose that's crisp, readable, and even a bit edgy at times.

            Consider this example:

            "Why should you want to see this happen, if you're a suburban resident in ErieCounty? Because that nice $250,000 mock-Tudor with the half-acre lawn and attached garage won't be worth a plug nickel in 10 years if the population of the area continues to drop. Who will be around to buy it? When that happens -- which it will, if nothing is done --- it won't matter that your address label reads "Amherst" instead of "Buffalo." The boat will have sunk, with everybody aboard. It won't much matter what deck you were standing on when it went down."

            That same style also marks their arguments for changes like working harder to attract big business, taking advantage of their proximity to Toronto, and reforming local politics, among others.

            Another article calls for creative solutions to a specific segment of population loss that particularly hurts mid-sized metro areas like Buffalo (and Rochester) --- the loss of creative, smart, and talented 20-somethings to major cities.

            Two more pieces confronting Buffalo's negative self-image by an editorial writer follow the one on brain drain. On their heels comes an article about the city's blighted waterfront. These articles, which amount to a frontal assault on the problems plaguing Greater Buffalo, are also purposely --- relentlessly --- ambitious in their scope. As Rey and Vogel argue, they have to be if the city is to be saved.

            "It won't happen as a result of piecemeal regionalism, casinos, or silver bullets. Those ideas are too small in scope, and too fraught with the potential of failure," they write.

Where all this will lead, Sullivan can't say.

            "I hope we will provoke a lot of thought and conversation," she says. "Whatever else happens will have to come from the community; we're just a forum."

            The closing of her introduction to readers contains another hint at the full scale of the project's possibilities.

            "Can mere journalism really turn around a city's destiny?" writes Sullivan. "Maybe not, but we plan to give it our best shot. At the least, we will serve as a forum, a searchlight, maybe even a battering ram."

For more information and to read the stories already posted as part of this project visit www.buffalonews.com/cityregion/whynotbuffalo.asp.

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