For the past dozen years, I've had a pat answer whenever someone asked me what I did for a living: I got to tell people what to do and they got to ignore me, which is something I practiced at home with the kids for decades.
After a too-slow recovery from a major illness, I have retired as editorial page editor, ending a 41-year career in journalism with The Buffalo News.
It was one helluva ride.
There were major news stories: the Blizzard of '77 and other big storms, a lead role in coverage of the .22-caliber killer, dispatches from Poland during the Solidarity uprising and during martial law, years of waterfront redevelopment reporting, gangland murders and trials, stories from military bases in the Persian Gulf, recovery of the Fort Niagara War of 1812 flag from a Scottish castle, five-alarm fires, the removal of a wrecked barge threatening the Peace Bridge, travel with the pope, examination of all the toxic hot spots throughout the Great Lakes and so many more.
And there were the feature stories, even more of a chance for writing style -- and for rich experiences: Flying with the Blue Angels, sailing on square-riggers on the lakes and the open sea, training with the U.S. Olympic luge team, taking the controls of a B-17 bomber and the helm of a Great Lakes freighter, living with a Cree family in Canada's far north, writing a series of World War II 50th anniversary stories including dispatches from Normandy, a five-year run of ethnic heritage columns, a modern-reporting recasting of the War of 1812 on the Niagara Frontier, working with a lobsterman off the Massachusetts coast and wing-walking atop a vintage biplane a couple thousand feet over Niagara Falls.
I gave that up a dozen years ago to join The News' editorial board.
There's a huge difference; reporters write objective stories, opinion writers are expected to be, well, opinionated.
And, like most reporters, while I once had to work hard to get to the governor, the day after I became an editorial writer the governor's office called me to make sure I had his cell phone number.
Editorial writers, laboring to produce opinion pieces that reflect the consensus views of the editorial board, are anonymous wretches until they get to be the head wretch with a name on the newspaper's masthead, where mine landed in 2006. It's one of the toughest jobs on the newspaper -- it's difficult trying to be the soul of the paper and the conscience of a community. And there was no shortage of difficult issues during those dozen years: 9/1 1 and the wars that followed, historic elections, a recession, local control boards, Flight 3407, school problems, casinos, UB 2020, the canal harbor and the Peace Bridge -- that sort of thing.
More than anything else, that seat of power -- it's actually just a normal office chair -- gave me both a chance to be a conservative voice in the editorial debates and an even closer look than reporting provides at the ways Buffalo and Western New York work. Or don't.
And it led me to one bedrock conclusion: This region will never reach its full potential until the layers of government and bureaucracies coordinate instead of compete, until policies become more important than politics, until patronage and power take a back seat to good governance for the overall good of the community.
I'm not a pessimist; I see progress. Top state and federal officials, from Power Authority leadership to the governor and Sen. Charles Schumer, have paid more attention to the needs of upstate in general and Western New York in particular. County and city leaders have bet the future on a first-rate medical campus, on cultural and heritage tourism and on the growth of the University at Buffalo, and despite some glitches those efforts are well under way. Private enterprise is creating housing and bringing neighborhoods back to downtown.
There's also this: Buffalo has been blessed by geography, the driving force in its past greatness and a key to its future. It's a Great Lakes city with abundant fresh water on its doorstep, and it's central to the "Golden Horseshoe" from Toronto to Rochester -- a key reason for an expanded bridge crossing and for the Continental One north-south highway, provided those projects are coupled with efforts to capture what could otherwise be pass-through commercial traffic.
But Buffalo hasn't had a resident U.S. senator, a key factor in urban-area turnarounds nationwide, since the late 1940s. State power still concentrates inevitably around population-dense New York City, often to the detriment of upstate. Local politicians still bicker, continuously, and still concentrate far too much on putting the best-connected, instead of the best-qualified, on the public payroll. The community itself has raised project delay to an art form.
There is much still to be done. Some of it is at the federal level, where monetary policies and legislation are needed to resuscitate the economy and health care reforms must be revisited to make sure services are both better and affordable. The current partisan bickering in Washington offers scant hope.
But other actions are local. Chief among them, I think, are these:
*Consolidate. It's not the money we spend on extra town board seats that's the problem, it's the waste inherent in an overly balkanized political system that fractionalizes and duplicates services. Some consolidation has begun; there needs to be much more. We need to rethink our school districts, regionalize more services and limit intramural competition by equalizing tax assessments and rates. We need to be more efficient.
Metro government is still too far a reach, but there may be a larger role for county government in a better future.
*Speak with one voice. One of the best moves in recent years was the effort to make sure that the local -- and largely pauper -- levels of government and the community, business and otherwise, sets a unified agenda and makes a coordinated "ask" for specifically targeted assistance from state and federal government. That's a step toward ending the infighting and offers a far better chance of success, especially in tough times. There can't be any backsliding on this; instead, it should grow stronger.
*Build the tools for prosperity. It's simply too tough to do business in New York. State-level changes are desperately needed to ease tax and fee burdens on businesses -- especially small businesses, arguably far more important to the economy than luring in new mega-company sites. Jobs are linked directly to population, and this region has lost too many of both.
What can be done? Some recent discount-power policies and last year's victory on historic rehabilitation tax credits, especially important to places like Buffalo, are good examples. Find more, at both the state and local levels.
*Know the competition. We compete among ourselves. That's wasteful. We need to realize that the real competition is with other regions of the country, and with other parts of the world. We need to make ourselves much more competitive in that arena, by ending the bickering and taking the steps outlined above as well as by marketing our very real regional assets.
Monitoring the region's progress or failures, of course, remains the job of the media -- and especially of newspapers. Newsrooms in all forms of media chronicle events and hold up a mirror to the community; newspaper editorial pages weigh in, as the Pulitzer Prize criteria note, with a moral purpose and with persuasive writing to push the community in the direction the editorial board thinks it should move.
Local newspapers remain a key to that, because they still can put far more resources into that effort than any of the local television or radio stations, and they bring far more years of credibility to the task than anything else on the Web.
But they're caught now in a recession that's affecting the advertising budgets that pay for the news operation, and in a paradigm shift in how Americans, especially younger Americans, get their information. Newspapers now are on the Web as well, shifting the way they deliver news, and some even have figured out how to make money on that side -- although, generally, not yet enough to replace declining print revenues.
For the moment, though, the printed newspaper remains king. It offers, in better and more tactile ways than the Internet can, news and features you didn't know you were looking for. It's a medium that, with talented reporters, offers a much better venue than TV or radio for the kinds of in-depth, number-crunching analysis that provides a window into the workings, and often the corruption, of public and taxpayer-funded practices.
If newspapers fade, more people will get away with more malfeasance. And the river of information will be a mile wide but only an inch deep. That would be dismayingly bad for the community, and for the republic.
Journalism remains as much a calling as it does a job. It can, and should, be a powerful force for good. It can, in the words of an old adage, comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. Like any human operation, it's not infallible -- but the best of us never stop trying.
For me, it has been a rewarding career, at least in experiences. I come from a News family -- my dad, Ralph, worked as a printer for almost as long as I worked here, and my daughter Charity is now one of the paper's top writers. I was lucky enough to start near the end of newspapering's golden era, and I learned from reporters and editors who had lived much of that era.
When I began as a cub reporter, after a summer as an office boy and part-time chauffeur for then-News owner Kate Butler, only a few star reporters had telephones on their desks -- the rest of us were pointed by a news telephone operator to one of a bank of open phone booths lining a newsroom wall in the paper's old Main Street building. We used aged Royal typewriters, and "sandwiches" of copy paper and carbon paper.
As time passed and things changed, I even logged a few "firsts" of my own -- the first story written for The News on a computer, the first story filed by computer from a remote site (it crashed, but we recovered), the first double truck with a bleed across the gutter.
OK, you had to be a golden-era typesetter to understand that last one. But it was pretty exciting at the time.
Mike Vogel is the recently retired editorial page editor of The Buffalo News. He has taught writing at the University at Buffalo for nine years, and is the author or co-author of five books on local and maritime history.