Media Watch: Hate him if you want
James Heaney will still tell the stories that need to be told
It wasn’t easy for veteran investigative reporter James Heaney to leave the Buffalo News last summer to start a new venture called Investigative Post, but it also wasn’t easy for him to be hired in the first place. A few years after he finally got a job at the paper, Heaney cornered editor Ed Cuddihy to ask why executive editor Murray Light and managing editor Foster Spencer didn’t hire him when he first applied. “Ed said, ‘They were sold on your talent, but they were concerned that you were a little too brash,’” recalls Heaney. “Well, they had that one right.”
Brash, blunt, aggressive, argumentative, direct, principled. Those words are often used to describe Heaney, a fifty-six-year-old Tonawanda native who, with his new venture, continues to examine—and often irk—Western New York decision makers; his name is on the Carl Paladino enemy list visible from Route 190. “It’s just Carl being Carl,” responds Heaney. “Carl used to like my work when I was writing about other people. I have the right to be a reporter and he has a right to be unhappy about what I’ve written. Over the course of my Buffalo News career, I have upset a lot of people in this town. As an investigative reporter, I should have. My job is to write the stories that need to be told. I’m the kind of reporter who is more than happy to write those stories. A lot of reporters don’t like being disliked; I’m not one of them.”
He’s been that way at least since the seventies, when he was a student at Medaille College, where he transferred after two years at St. Bonaventure. (“I did the kind of thing that if my kid ever did, I’d crush him,” he says. “I left for a girl.” That girl is now his wife of thirty-one years; they have three children.) At Medaille, Heaney created a stir by writing an investigative story for the student newspaper that questioned the actions of the college and its president in the firing Frederick Keller, then head of the communications department. “There was a big brouhaha and the chairman of the board [Tom Bennett] came to my defense,” Heaney says.
After graduation in 1977, Heaney worked first for Suburban Woman, a weekly paper that Bennett helped start. “It was kind of issues-oriented and it was distributed through Tops supermarkets,” he says. “It was a pretty good idea, but it didn’t pan out.” Later, he was hired and fired in the same week by a local weekly editor who admonished him for wanting to include African American stories in the paper. And he started his own weekly, The First Amendment, which for six months covered the Kensington-Bailey neighborhood. “It was my artistic success and a financial failure,” says Heaney. Finally, he landed at the Orlando Sentinel, where he spent six years before joining the News staff in 1986.
While at the News, Heaney won awards, upset power brokers, and garnered a 1993 Pulitzer Prize nomination for a series on slum housing in Buffalo. He also validated Murray Light’s first impression of him: Heaney was one of the few reporters who debated and argued with management, including current editor Margaret Sullivan. “I certainly was not shy in expressing myself to both Murray and Margaret,” agrees Heaney. “I tend to be a pretty outspoken person, not just with management, but with everybody.”
Heaney also was a strong union negotiator during eight contract talks with management in twenty years’ time. The last negotiation led to the buyout offer that prompted his departure from the paper. “I did not anticipate I was going to leave,” he says. “I was kicking around a lot of different options. I felt I had kind of done what I could at the News.”
For years, Heaney had been interested in starting a non-profit reporting center, and often discussed the idea over lunch with Putlitzer Prize winner and former News cartoonist Tom Toles.
“It kind of boiled down to ‘I’m fifty-six, and there is a buyout offer,’” says Heaney. “Keep in mind I was a news entrepreneur at twenty-three, so it has kind of been in the blood. ‘Do I go for it and grow the news organization that I’ve always wanted to or sit back and count down the days until I retire?’ ”
For the past twenty-two years, Heaney had had success with HockeyBuff, an organization that runs senior hockey leagues, so he felt he could swing it financially. He spent the next five months organizing the startup of Investigative Post, a nonprofit reporting center with its own website, investigativepost.org. He has distribution agreements with the Buffalo News, Artvoice, WBFO, and expects a local TV station to come aboard.
There are about fifty such nonprofit reporting centers nationally and, in five to seven years, Heaney hopes to be the biggest investigative reporting operation between New York City and Chicago. In a few years, he’d like to have six full-time investigative reporters; with staffing levels at newspapers and TV stations in decline, Heaney sees an opening.
“One reason to start the center is to fill what is becoming a growing void,” he says. “Everybody’s newsroom is smaller. Look at people who have taken buyouts from the News: I’m gone, Mike Beebe [who took an earlier buyout] is gone. We were two of the primary investigative reporters at the News. When you lose bodies and experience and you’re not replacing those bodies, it’s tough. There is still good investigative reporting being done in Buffalo and elsewhere; I’m trying to add to that inventory.”
On his site, Heaney has revived his former popular and award-winning News blog, “Outrages & Insights,” which had been a source of contention between him and Sullivan. “Margaret didn’t want me to blog anymore,” Heaney says. “She wanted me to focus on print only. I wasn’t happy about it, but she’s the boss. Margaret was never completely comfortable with my blogging to begin with. There is less self-restraint in blogging, and when you put a blog in the hands of somebody as outspoken as I am, sometimes it’s tough to know where to draw the line. There were times when I was kind of out there.”
It probably will take some time for Heaney to accomplish his goals for Investigative Post. Currently, he is operating from a five-by-five-feet office space just off the kitchen of his North Buffalo home. He does plan to get his own office, and use seventeen student volunteers who want to learn how to do honest, investigative reporting that will benefit the community and perhaps get them on the enemy lists of future Carl Paladinos.
“God, the long list of people who don’t like me,” he laughs. “There are so many. [Reporter Gene] Warner used to say, ‘If they ever find you dead, Heaney, there will be a long line of suspects.’ ”
Former Buffalo News TV critic Alan Pergament writes stilltalkintv.com, and teaches journalism at Buffalo State.