A Black woman is taking the helm of Buffalo’s daily newspaper as the city still grieves the racist supermarket massacre that shocked the city this year just as its economy and population showed signs of recovering from decades of economic decline.
An executive with Gannett Newspapers, Sheila Rayam, 55, was named the executive editor of The Buffalo News, the newspaper announced on Tuesday. She is the first Black journalist and the second woman to hold the position in the paper’s 142-year history. The News was purchased in 2020 by Lee Enterprises from its longtime owner, Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway.
“I went to college in Buffalo, and I’ve always considered the city sort of my second home,” Ms. Rayam said of the city in Western New York, perhaps best known to the rest of the country for its division-winning N.F.L. team, its headline-grabbing snowfall records and, of course, its wings.
Ms. Rayam said that she was excited to work in a newsroom of veterans with a “strong reputation for great journalism.” Her appointment, effective Aug. 22, followed the retirement of Mike Connelly, a veteran journalist who was editor of The News for a decade.
It also came months after the May 14 mass shooting at the Tops Friendly Market in a predominantly Black neighborhood of East Buffalo. An 18-year-old white gunman espousing a white supremacist ideology was charged in the shooting, which left 10 dead and three injured, almost all of them Black, in one of the deadliest racist massacres in recent American history.
The attack has left the city reeling.
“Looking from afar, I was heartbroken,” Ms. Rayam said, adding that the city was still healing. “But I’m hopeful that we will be part of a discussion that helps the community to grow together, and grow stronger.”
In her new role as executive editor, Ms. Rayam said, she planned to continue leading the paper to cover the city in its entirety. “We’re going to look at everything from food insecurity, to public safety, to how residents are supporting each other.”
The News, with a print circulation of about 56,000, is among the largest in the state outside of the New York City area, but like many other medium-sized regional papers, it was ravaged by the pandemic, and had to impose pay cuts and furlough staff.
Margaret Sullivan, the media columnist for The Washington Post, who was also The News’s first top female editor before a stint as public editor of The New York Times, described The News as a “dominant force” that continued to do essential public service and watchdog journalism.
“I was certainly thrilled to see that Sheila’s appointment would make history,” Ms. Sullivan said in an interview. “It’s good to see.”
In the announcement, Tom Wiley, the president and publisher of The Buffalo News, said he was proud that Ms. Rayam would serve as its eighth editor, and that she would help lead the organization “into an exciting future.” Currently, Ms. Rayam, who is from Rochester, about 70 miles northeast of Buffalo, is Gannett’s executive editor of Mohawk Valley news operations, which includes The Utica Observer-Dispatch and The Times Telegram in Herkimer.
She has also worked at The Democrat and Chronicle in Rochester, and is a graduate of The State University of New York in Buffalo.
Ms. Rayam said she was most looking forward to working with journalists who were “passionate about serving their community; about telling great stories.”
And, she said, she was excited to be nearer to the Buffalo Bills. “I’m a big Bills fan.”