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Stanford Lipsey, the longtime Buffalo News publisher widely credited with keeping the newspaper an influential and viable voice throughout a challenging era for daily newspapers, will step down effective Jan. 1, News Chairman Warren E. Buffett announced.

Lipsey, who moved to Buffalo in 1980, will become publisher emeritus and will be succeeded as publisher by News President Warren T. Colville, who came to The News as advertising director in December 1987 and has been president of the company since 2001.

In his 32 years at The News, Lipsey led the newspaper’s fight with the rival Buffalo Courier-Express, turned The Evening News into an all-day and then a morning newspaper, and oversaw The News’ transformation into a multimedia company with a growing commercial printing business.

Lipsey, 85, also was a fierce advocate for Buffalo, encouraging business leaders to be more active, leading architectural preservation efforts, starting popular community events such as the Jazz at the Albright-Knox Series and promoting the News Neediest Fund, which has raised an estimated $20 million for needy families in the community.

“I say it’s no exaggeration that The News might now be extinct, save for Stan,” said Buffett, the billionaire investor whose companies have owned The News since 1977.

“We were getting clobbered,” Buffett said, referring to The News’ competition with the Courier-Express. “If Stan hadn’t come there, I don’t think we would have made it.”

Others say Lipsey’s influence in the newspaper business extended beyond Western New York. Donald Graham, chairman and chief executive of the Washington Post Co., said Lipsey’s success in Buffalo was a factor in Buffett’s decision this year to buy 63 newspapers.

“It was Stan’s brilliant management of The Buffalo News that persuaded Warren that newspapers that focus on community and on the news that is most important to their readers could still be a good business,” Graham said.

Added Graham: “Stan is an amazing story. The best news in the newspaper industry is Berkshire’s acquisition of all those newspapers, and that wouldn’t have happened without Stan. I have no doubt about that.”

When Lipsey came to Buffalo, first part time in the late 1970s and then full time starting in 1980, the-then Buffalo Evening News was locked in a death match with the Courier-Express. The Courier was a morning newspaper with a strong Sunday edition, a big advertising edge and a favorable court ruling (later reversed) that made it difficult for The News to compete on Sundays.

Lipsey came to Buffalo because of his connection with Buffett, whose Berkshire Hathaway owns everything from GEICO auto insurance to Benjamin Moore Paints. Both Buffett and Lipsey are from Omaha, Neb., and in 1969, Lipsey sold a chain of weekly newspapers he owned to Buffett’s company. The two became friends, even collaborating with the weeklies’ news staffs on a 1972 series that won a Pulitzer Prize for an expose of Boys Town, the first Pulitzer won by a weekly newspaper.

Started in Omaha

“I came from a weekly group in Omaha that was competing against the daily, so I always was the underdog,” Lipsey said. “I always had to scrap to get the newspaper ahead.”

In Buffalo, Lipsey focused on winning over advertisers and readers. He imported one of his and Buffett’s favorite features from the Omaha Sun, a real estate section called Homefinder, complete with TV commercials to boost its popularity. That helped The News gradually become that marketplace for real estate advertisers.

“The key in winning a newspaper battle is, ‘Can you be the marketplace for advertising, including autos and real estate?’ ” Lipsey said. “That’s how you win.”

The Courier-Express closed in September 1982. Ten months later, Lipsey was named publisher of The Buffalo News.

In the three decades since, Lipsey earned a reputation as a hands-on publisher, a familiar figure on the editorial, circulation and advertising floors. He quipped that he could handle any supervisory job in the newspaper, other than on the production side.

“He’s a perfectionist. He wants to know every detail about everything,” Colville said of Lipsey. “He’s intense, extremely committed to succeed for Warren Buffett ­– that relationship should not be underestimated – and he’s a very smart guy. When he sets out to do something, I can’t remember him ever failing.”

Says Margaret M. Sullivan, who left The News last summer after 13 years as editor to become public editor of the New York Times: “Stan is very smart. We sometimes disagreed, but I often came around to seeing his point.

“He has a passion for the community, he expresses his beliefs very well, and he is persuasive.”

Buffett, a longtime close friend and confidant, was asked about the secret to Lipsey’s success.

“He’s passionate about the newspaper,” he replied. “He’s 85, and he’s always in motion – in a positive way. And he loves newspapers. You put that motion and passion together, and you have incredible results.”

Key business figure

As publisher, Lipsey has been a leader in the business community. One of the great things about Buffalo, said Sen. Charles E. Schumer, is the small handful of people who care about the region, who look out for Buffalo and who accomplish important things for the community.

Lipsey “was our guardian angel,” Schumer said. “You could see him hovering above Western New York and looking out for it every moment of the day.”

Said Howard Zemsky, managing partner of Larkin Development Group and a friend of Lipsey’s: “He’s been in a hurry to change the trajectory of Buffalo. That’s always been his highest priority. I don’t think there’s anything any person could give him that could make him happier than if Buffalo’s economy were firing on all cylinders.”

Lipsey has been a key figure in the restorations of both the Darwin Martin House and the Richardson complex near Buffalo State College. It’s part of Lipsey’s belief that a community builds on its strengths, and one of Buffalo’s strengths is its richness of 20th century architecture, Zemsky said. Lipsey was given the Spirit of Wright Award by the Frank Lloyd Wright Conservancy in 1997 and the New York State Governor’s Preservation Award by Gov. George E. Pataki in 1998.

Last year, Lipsey and his wife, Judi, were one of 10 philanthropic families, dubbed the “Circle of 10,” that pledged $1 million apiece to Roswell Park Cancer Institute. In 2004, the Lipseys donated $1.1 million to Roswell Park.

And in his three decades as News publisher, several large-scale community events have become almost synonymous with The Buffalo News, including the Junior League of Buffalo Decorators’ Show House, Kids Day, the Buffalo News Jazz at the Albright-Knox Series and the News Neediest Fund.

“We’ve fed every single hungry family in Western New York at Christmas,” Lipsey said.

As Lipsey turns over the publisher’s job to Colville, neither harbors any illusions about the challenges facing The Buffalo News.

“The technology has just turned everything upside down,” Lipsey said. “That’s number one. Number two, what can’t be ignored, is that 60 years ago, the paper came to the house, and the kids started reading the comics and then the sports, and then they read the whole paper.

“Now the attention and interests of young people just aren’t what they were back then.”

Colville, 68, has been at The News for 25 years. He cited The News’ ongoing transition toward a successful multimedia company.

“The Buffalo News is still in the process of redefining our business, and it is our goal to be nimble enough to respond to the needs of our readers and customers and to make certain that we remain relevant in these changing times,” he said.

Lipsey had nothing but praise for Colville.

“Warren is very capable,” he said. “He came up through advertising, and there’s no better advertising man in America than Warren Colville. I think he will do a splendid job as publisher.”

Future plans

As he looks ahead, Lipsey and his wife plan to travel more and spend more time in their Palm Springs, Calif., home. But Lipsey said he still plans to spend the bulk of his time in Buffalo. He will continue to have an office at The News and will continue to serve on The News editorial board.

“I won’t be on the payroll,” he said. “I won’t be in a position of authority, but I love writing editorials and sitting in on the editorial board.

“I love newspapers.”

As he prepares to step down, Lipsey traded tributes with his longtime close friend, Buffett.

“He’s the perfect boss,” Lipsey said. “He lets me run the paper. He’s a source when I have to bounce things off someone. There’s no one better or smarter than Warren Buffett. He has an infallible memory; he doesn’t forget anything. And he’s a darn good newsman.”

Buffett got the last word.

“He’s been a sensational friend – and a sensational newspaperman.”

email: gwarner@buffnews.com