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By David Staba

The man who built a legacy as the publisher who gutted the staffs of all three daily newspapers in Niagara County met the same fate last week.

Steve Braver, who oversaw the elimination of dozens of jobs at the Niagara Gazette, Lockport Union-Sun and Journal and the Tonawanda News, as well as the Medina Journal-Register in Orleans County, was let go by the papers' parent company, Community Newspaper Holdings Inc., early Tuesday.

The remaining workers at the beleaguered Greater Niagara Newspapers were told Braver's contract was not renewed by CNHI. In a stroke of deception that mirrored the ex-publisher's tenure, though, a very short item in Wednesday's Gazette said Braver "resigned."

The party line evidently changed between Tuesday afternoon and the time the papers went to press.

"His contract wasn't renewed," said Terry Shaw, editor of all four dailies, during a telephone interview with the Niagara Falls Reporter late Tuesday afternoon.

Shaw denied rumors circulating around Niagara Falls that financial improprieties led to Braver's departure.

"Do you mean, was he stealing from the company or something?" Shaw said. "No, I haven't heard anything like that."

During Braver's four-year tenure, shrinking revenues forced the slashing of newsrooms, as well as the production, advertising and business departments at all of CNHI's local properties. In the most recent cost-cutting move, the editorial production of all four papers shifted from their home cities to a "universal desk" in North Tonawanda.

Braver joined GNN in 1999, replacing longtime Gazette Publisher Mark Francis. CNHI honchos, who newspaper industry insiders say drastically overpaid for their Niagara County holdings, jettisoned Francis when the Niagara Falls native refused to cut newsroom jobs.

Braver had no such reservations, steadily eliminating reporters and editors, along with just about every department head who predated his reign.

He also accelerated the consolidation of other departments begun under Francis, shifting virtually all production and advertising services to GNN's North Tonawanda facility.

While Braver ordered more scores of jobs sent out of Niagara Falls or eliminated altogether, his newspapers regularly editorialized on the dismal state of the Niagara County economy, often placing the blame on local unions.

At the same time, the former publisher cozied up to Mayor Irene Elia, serving on her "kitchen cabinet," as well as to monied interests from the Buffalo area. Braver penned a series of columns wholeheartedly endorsing the agenda of the predatory Buffalo-Niagara Partnership, while accepting a seat on that body's board of directors and the chairman's position with the Niagara USA Chamber.

Meanwhile, Braver's handpicked choice as Niagara USA's executive director, Bobby Newman, repeatedly referred businesses interested in relocating to Niagara County to the Partnership's "development" arm, the Buffalo Niagara Enterprise, rather than the Niagara County Industrial Development Agency.

Braver's multiple roles placed him squarely in an ethically compromising position, since the job of a newspaper is, or at least should be, scrutinizing the activities of the other organizations he directed.

"The ideal thing would be for publishers not to be in a position where they had to lobby for things outside their own businesses and put themselves in a position where people begin to wonder whether the things they're lobbying for will be translated into news coverage," said Aly Colon, head of the ethics faculty at the Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg, Fla. "Those kinds of relationships raise questions. It needs to be very clear to the newspaper, the publisher and the public how the three of them will deal with each other as a result of the experience and what steps are taken to maintain the veracity of the coverage."

Instead, Braver's newspapers ran a series of gushing news stories and editorials praising Newman, the Partnership and Niagara USA. Braver also afforded Newman a regular spot on the Gazette editorial page with which to advance the anti-union, pro-rich guy agenda favored by both "business advocacy" groups.

At the same time they were being used as the public-relations arms for Braver's outside interests, the newspapers he ran were regularly and soundly beaten by their competition on a range of truly important stories -- Cintra's proposed takeover of Niagara Falls International Airport, the federal investigation of Laborers Local 91, the Sweetwater Development swindle, the criminal record of former Niagara County Youth Bureau Director Teresa Holland and the theft of road-building materials belonging to the city, just to name five.

"Without Steve Braver's stewardship of the Niagara Gazette and the other GNN papers, the Niagara Falls Reporter would never have been born," said the Reporter's Bruce Battaglia, the lone executive holding the title of publisher on a permanent basis in Niagara County. "We've always believed that what happens on the street is more important to our readers than the goings-on at the country club, and they seem to agree."

Braver's departure from GNN leaves unanswered questions about the immediate future of Niagara USA, as well as about the Partnership's attempts to infiltrate Niagara County. With executive positions available at the newly formed Niagara Tourism and Convention Council and the IDA, several political and business leaders speculated Braver's connections might help him land softly in one of those six-figure gigs.

But with Democrats controlling the Niagara County Legislature, which in turn oversees the IDA, it's unlikely they'd turn to Braver, whose newspapers have embraced increasingly pro-Republican editorial positions, as John Simon's replacement. And a highly placed source close to the NTCC said Braver is not one of the two candidates under serious consideration to run the area's new tourism agency.

Then again, Newman wasn't on the short list of candidates presented to the Niagara USA Chamber's Braver-led board of directors by a selection committee last year, yet the former NOCO president somehow wound up with the job.

Braver didn't limit his willingness to share his self-proclaimed business acumen to Western New York. He was the presenter for a workshop called "Great Ideas" at the 2001 and 2002 Newspaper Association of America's annual conventions in Toronto and New Orleans, respectively. He was scheduled for an encore at this week's event in Seattle.

At press time, there was no word on whether, in light of last week's events, Braver would still share his "great ideas" with the nation's newspaper executives. Or, given the sad story of his reign at GNN, if anyone would listen.


Niagara Falls Reporter www.niagarafallsreporter.com April 29 2003