Back from Batavia

Howard Owens (left) and Dan Kennedy at Present Tense Books in Batavia
Howard Owens (left) and Dan Kennedy at Present Tense Books in Batavia

I had a great time meeting people in Batavia, N.Y., this past weekend to promote “The Wired City.” My thanks to bookstore owner Erica Caldwell of Present Tense Books for putting it together.

I enjoyed catching up with Howard Owens, the publisher of The Batavian, with whom I’m in regular touch but who I hadn’t actually seen since 2009. I also had a chance to meet Tom Rivers, a former reporter and columnist for The Daily News of Batavia who — inspired by Owens — started a local news site called the Orleans Hub earlier this year.

Tom, who’s written two books about life in Genesee County, also interviewed Owens and me for his site.

Photo by Tom Rivers.

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Local journalism and the perils of retail chains

IMG_1095One of the arguments I make in “The Wired City” is that the viability of local journalism depends on the vibrancy of the local communities it serves. Among the projects I look at is The Batavian, a for-profit online-only news site that serves Genesee County in western New York, about halfway between Buffalo and Rochester.

The Batavian is a free site, though publisher Howard Owens is experimenting with a membership model to provide extra benefits to readers who choose to pay. But what really makes The Batavian work, and has allowed it to prosper despite co-existing with a local daily newspaper, is the persistence of locally owned businesses. The site is packed with ads from car dealers, florists, pizza shops, hair salons, doctors’ offices, funeral homes and much more.

So I was intrigued when Owens posted a story on Friday reporting that a Dick’s Sporting Goods may be moving in to a former Lowe’s location — and that more than $1 million in tax incentives may be used to make it happen. Dick’s, of course, is a large corporate-owned chain, and it would compete directly with locally owned sporting-goods dealers.

One of those local business people, Mike Barrett of Batavia Marine, compared such tax incentives to “using your own tax money to put yourself out of business.”

There are, of course, other considerations. WBTA Radio, which has a content-sharing arrangement with The Batavian, reports that Dick’s would bring 120 much-needed jobs to the area. The Batavian’s competition, the Daily News (which, citing an anonymous source, reports that it’s a done deal), quotes a local official named Gregory Post as saying, “Anytime we can convert empty space and bring in a retailer of that magnitude is good. This will be fantastic for our town.”

In the long run, though, the spread of corporate chains and big-box stores leads to the demise of locally owned businesses. That’s bad for communities and for the news organizations that serve them. Owens, a dedicated localist, gets it.

Photo (cc) 2009 by Dan Kennedy. Some rights reserved.