On September 17, 1982, the newspaper guild of the Buffalo Courier-Express voted to do something no other media outlet in the U.S. had done or would do: It voted to turn down an offer from Rupert Murdoch’s News America Publishing Company to buy the failing Buffalo morning daily. The vote meant that Buffalo would be left with one newspaper, The Buffalo News. And it meant that the Courier-Express’s 1,100 employees would be out of a job.
To the guild, being bought by Murdoch was about more than saving their livelihoods. It was about the future of journalism. I was the reporter assigned to cover that vote and the end of my own newspaper. I will never forget the emotionally charged night meeting, or the words of Richard Roth, a Courier-Express reporter and guild international vice president.
Roth was a legend at the Courier. Big and tough—he’d once threatened a meek city editor with physical violence if he ever changed his copy again—Roth had been one of the few journalists in the country to have visited the sprawling Attica prison complex in upstate New York. When the prison erupted in 1972, Roth was one of the few reporters the prisoners trusted, and he was allowed inside the gates. At twenty-two, Roth found himself nominated for a Pulitzer for his work covering the riot and its bloody aftermath.
Murdoch demanded substantial staff cuts in the newsroom, and wanted the power to decide who would go and who would stay. Giving Murdoch that kind of leverage seemed wrong to the vast majority of the 250 guild members who crowded into the Statler Hotel that night to vote on Murdoch’s final offer. The guild wanted the rule of “last hired, first fired” to prevail.
It seems almost quaint now, but Courier reporters believed that experience should count for something in a newsroom, that there was a value and a dignity to working for a newspaper and learning a beat and a community. They also believed that reporters should have the freedom to write the truth, without fear of reprisal.
Journalists, Roth said, needed “to be protected from ruthless publishers who may not want unfavorable things written about them or their friends.”
But there was something more leading up to the vote. Courier journalists, myself included, had researched Murdoch’s US papers at the time and were not impressed. This was 1982, and his US properties were the San Antonio Express-News, the New York Post, and the National Star, found at your local supermarket. They did not want the Courier-Express, whose past editors had included Mark Twain, to be transformed into a sleazy tabloid. My colleagues and I wanted the 137-year-old daily to be remembered with dignity.
When I interviewed Roth last year for a book I’m writing about former and transitioning journalists, he had qualms about that vote. Roth, now senior associate dean for journalism at Northwestern University’s Qatar campus, has very mixed feelings about its aftermath. “I lost a lot of sleep about that over the years, in part because a lot of people who were my friends there never did find other job,” Roth said. He also regretted that with the Courier’s closing, Buffalo was reduced to one daily newspaper.
But I continue to think of that vote as one of journalism’s finest hours. After the Guild cast their ballots, I was the reporter who called News Corporation and gave them the bad news, that our paper would not become another Murdoch acquisition. I still have the clip from my story, “Tomorrow is Courier’s Last Day.” News America Publishing Co. vice president Robert Page responded tersely, “I guess that means the end of it. That was our last and final offer.”
History will write the final chapter on Rupert Murdoch, and will weigh his impact on journalism. But as his empire is shaken by this scandal, I can’t help but continue to believe that nearly thirty years ago, all of us that September night in Buffalo, New York did the right thing.