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GAZETTE INSTITUTION BILL WOLCOTT AMONG LATEST CASUALTIES FOLLOWING CNHI LAYOFFS

ANALYSIS by David Staba

At least they waited until after the holidays.

That's about the best that can be said for the most recent round of corporate bloodletting at Greater Niagara Newspapers, the "cluster" composed of the daily newspapers in Niagara Falls, Lockport, North Tonawanda and Medina.

More than a century's worth of newspaper experience was pushed out the door in what has become an endless downsizing process at the four papers.

The most stunning name on the list of the departing was veteran sports reporter and columnist Bill Wolcott, who worked at the Niagara Gazette for more than 37 years, including a lengthy stint as the paper's sports editor.

When Wolcott started covering the Buffalo Bills in 1967, Jack Kemp was the quarterback. When the Buffalo Sabres were born in 1970, he covered their first game, later writing about their runs to the Stanley Cup Finals in 1975 and 1999.

He traveled to Russia to cover the 1972 Canada Cup, the first meeting between the NHL's best and the U.S.S.R.'s Cold-War hockey powerhouse. Spurning offers from larger media outlets in bigger cities, Wolcott -- a Buffalo native -- chose to raise his family and spend his career in Niagara Falls.

Wolcott wrote about Niagara University men's basketball through the coaching tenures of Jim Maloney, Frank Layden, Dan Raskin, Pete Lonergan, Andy Walker, Jack Armstrong and Joe Mihalich.

Wolcott befriended Sal Maglie when the legendary pitcher returned to Niagara Falls to run the city's New York-Penn League team in the 1970s, later visiting him regularly during his final days in a nursing home.

As a regular columnist, he also became one of the Gazette's most identifiable personalities. While not hesitant to offer strong opinions, he delivered them thoughtfully and fairly, bringing the perspective of the philosophy student he was at the University of Buffalo to the world of sports.

His impact on the generations of young journalists he mentored may be even greater.

Ernie Green IV, former sports editor of the Tonawanda News, said Wolcott's influence began when the two were working for competing papers, before Community Newspaper Holdings Inc. bought both.

"I was a stringer for Tonawanda, and Bill would be covering a lot of the same games for the Gazette," Green said. "I'd always get the Gazette the next day and compare what I wrote to his story to try to get better.

"You learn how to write from the people who have done it. Bill showed me that you don't need big words to tell a story. Just tell the story and don't overdo it."

Wolcott also took a personal interest in his colleagues, treating each departing member of the sports department to a mammoth bacon cheeseburger, known as the Pittsburger, at the late, lamented Press Box on Niagara Street.

"He's one of the nicest and most generous people you'll ever meet in your life," Green said. "I don't know one person who has a bad word to say about him."

Wolcott also filled the role of living, breathing encyclopedia when it came to the recent history of Niagara Falls, helping young reporters and editors new to the area find their way around and learn about the place they were covering.

GNN clearly doesn't put much stock in such elements as institutional memory, or loyalty, anymore. Instead, the parent company ships in mediocrities from Nevada, Maine and Kokomo to run things, with the only criteria for upper management being a willingness to slash staffing far below any commonly accepted level.

Current publisher Wayne "Willie" Lowman, the third person to hold that job in five years, brought one of his flunkies from Indiana, Steve Kozarovich, to oversee the editorial content of the four papers.

So far, Kozarovich's main "accomplishment" -- aside from reserving a sizable chunk of The Other Paper's front page once a week for Niagara Falls Mayor Vincenzo V. Anello's self-serving, ghost-written ramblings and eliminating jobs at a rate of more than one a month -- has been keeping his wife busy with make-work assignments, even as longtime reporters covering important beats are sent packing.

GNN also recently began circulating its execrable weekend-preview insert in Buffalo. Not that many people have noticed. Towering, seemingly untouched stacks of Night and Day remain in most distribution outlets each Tuesday, when the Niagara Falls Reporter is distributed in the Queen City, well after the completion of the weekend the tabloid purports to preview.

An employee at one popular Buffalo nightspot said that the only time she sees anyone pick up a copy of Night and Day is after the Reporter and other weekly newspapers are gone.

"Even then, we only read it to mark up the mistakes, it's so lousy," she said. "We call it The Weekly Reader."

Such disdain should be particularly troubling to advertisers who are told about the thousands of copies that go to Buffalo every week. Then again, misleading advertisers with spurious circulation claims and defrauding readers by charging full price for a continually shrinking product are standard operating procedure at GNN.

Last week's cuts left the runt of the chain, the Medina Journal-Register, with but one reporter to cover the Orleans County village and surrounding towns.

Management angrily denies reports that the cluster swims in red ink, waiting for a buyer to rescue it from the ledger of debt-ridden CNHI. The parent company went so far as to send a threatening letter to the Reporter late last year, denying that the papers are for sale and vowing to sue for something or other. But last week's moves belie the claims of prosperity.

The only conceivable reason to eliminate the jobs of the likes of Bill Wolcott, longtime reporter and editor Sue Campbell, and former publisher's secretary Janet Slipko -- who was honored recently in the company's newsletter for her outstanding service -- is that they make more money than the recent college graduates who increasingly perform every duty at GNN's papers. And the healthier the bottom line -- or the smaller the payroll, at least -- the more attractive the badly leveraged chain becomes. Or so they hope.

In reality, the consolidation of production of the four papers at the Tonawanda location makes the individual entities impossible to sell except as a complete entity, scaring off any potential buyer who wants only one.

In the meantime, Lowman continues running a two-bit operation that gouges readers for four bits six days a week (14 bits on Sunday).

Readers in Niagara Falls and throughout Niagara County deserve better.

Bill Wolcott certainly did.


David Staba is the sports editor of the Niagara Falls Reporter. He welcomes e-mail at dstaba13@aol.com.

Niagara Falls Reporter www.niagarafallsreporter.com Jan. 18 2005