Alumni Profile: James Heaney ‘77

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Medaille Alum Summer Gemmati Handzlik
September 14, 2006

Being a reporter requires the ability to communicate well with the subjects of your story. Being an investigative reporter, however, often means digging into areas that people don’t want to discuss.
During his career as a journalist, including the last 20 years as a reporter at The Buffalo News, James Heaney ‘77 MC has uncovered significant amounts of information that government, civic, and business leaders were interested in keeping behind closed doors, and shared it with the entire Western New York Community.
Heaney grew up in the Town of Tonawanda and graduated from Kenmore East High School in 1973. He went on to study journalism at St. Bonaventure for two years before transferring to Medaille as a junior in 1975.
"Medaille was starting a very good Media/Communications program. It was very hands on, especially with the internship program," he said.
While at Medaille, Heaney had an opportunity to learn from legendary Western New York broadcasters such as Irv Weinstein, who taught at Medaille. Heaney worked as an intern at WKBW Radio News and WKBW-TV, and remembers those days fondly. "It was a great experience," he said.
Heaney was part of the team that launched the Medaille Perspective student newspaper, and he served as both a reporter and editor. In 1977, he graduated from Medaille with a Bachelor’s Degree in Media/Communications.
"I feel I got a good education," Heaney says. "I had some great professors like Ross Runfola, Roger Bonenfant, which is a legendary name, and Kevin Ransom. Ransom was the most influential -- he taught me how to think for myself."
Following college, Heaney worked as a landscaper for a little while as it was difficult to find a full-time job in the print media. He worked for several weekly newspapers. In 1979, while working for a small weekly paper, and doing everything from journalism to advertising sales, he decided to go into business for himself.
"I started a weekly newspaper in the Bailey/Kensington area called The First Amendment," Heaney says. "I put an ad in The Buffalo News classifieds looking for investors. I found someone to give me $20,000 in exchange for a piece of the company.
"It was a lot of work, but I loved it, there’s nothing like running your own newspaper and being your own boss. But after six months the well ran dry. If I had $40,000, rather than $20,000, I would have made it. I folded the paper on Christmas Eve, 1979. Talk about a depressing holiday."
The following spring Heaney took a job at The Orlando Sentinel in 1980, working first as a copy and layout editor, then suburban reporter, before moving on to cover transportation, which was a major beat because of Florida’s explosive growth.
"The Sentinel was a growing paper working hard to get better and had a great group of journalists. We were young, we were hungry, and we worked really hard." Heaney and his wife, also a Buffalo native, were eager to return to their hometown, and in 1986, The Buffalo News offered him a reporting job. Among his initial assignments was the Buffalo Municipal Housing Authority, which was, at the time, a journalistic backwater.
"The housing authority had horrible patronage, waste, and racism. You name it, it was there," Heaney says.
"I spent five years covering the Authority, and in time, Senator Moynihan got involved, the mayor forced out the executive director, a suit was brought to end the discriminatory practices, and the place finally started to clean up. For a while, anyway."
Heaney then launched an investigation into slum housing that was published in 1992. It led to a number of reforms and most of the dozen slumlords identified as the worst in the city eventually got out of the business, many because of bankruptcy or prison sentences.
"Frank Sedita was the Housing Judge and he threw the book at a lot of slumlords. He really made a difference," Heaney said. The series was one of three finalists for the Pulitzer Prize for Investigative Reporting in 1993. Over the years he has won numerous reporting awards, including those issued by the New York State Associated Press and the New York State Publishers Association.
Heaney covered the Buffalo school system in the mid to late ‘90s, producing a number of investigations in addition to beat coverage.
In 1999, he earned a promotion to Computer Assisted Reporting Editor. He put together a training program to teach the newsroom staff how to use spread sheets, databases, and online search techniques and helped reporters develop stories.
After three years, he went back to reporting and focused on economic development. He was appointed to the paper’s first investigative reporting team in 2003 and a year later wrote a series detailing waste in the city’s Community Development Block Grant program. The series recently won a national reporting award from Governing Magazine and
Heaney is pleased with the career path he chose. "I really like investigative reporting because you get to tackle a subject and master it," Heaney says.
"You get to really sink your teeth into subjects of importance and tell readers in-depth stories, and if you do it well, there is a pretty good chance you are going to be able to change things. The world is full of injustice and journalists are in a position to expose that and hopefully change it.
"Holding the bad guys accountable is a good thing. And there are plenty of bad guys out there."
During his years as a reporter, Heaney has seen firsthand the issues that have hampered the region. "I love Buffalo because it’s home," Heaney says. "But I also consider the region dysfunctional in many ways. "We’ve got some things working against us that are out of our control, but much of what ails us is the result of self-inflicted wounds caused by poor leadership and a terrible self-image. "We have a fear of the unknown at a time when the known is killing us. "Buffalo is a good place to live if you have a good job. But it’s a tough place to live if you don’t have a good job and want to get one. And it’s very tough for young people trying to start their careers. But I do think the potential is there."
In Heaney’s opinion, colleges like Medaille can play a key role in revitalizing Western New York. "I view Medaille today as much larger, with much more diverse academic offerings than when I went there," Heaney remarks. "The primary job of any higher ed institution is to prepare students to go out into the community and the workforce and make a difference. Colleges that can find ways to partner with business and industry in order to utilize their collective intelligence will be the ones to succeed and make a difference here."
Heaney is active with the Buffalo Newspaper Guild, the largest union at The News. He has served on the Guild’s bargaining team for the last two contract negotiations. When he is not writing for The Buffalo News, Heaney runs a successful hockey business, HockeyBuff Inc. The company operates adult hockey leagues, youth hockey schools, and a Web site, His leagues include 32 teams and about 500 players and his hockey school features instructors with pro and college coaching experience. "I enjoy running a business. It can get hectic at times, on top of a full-time job, but I’ve learned how the other half lives, so to speak."
Heaney has been married to the former Sandy Mardino for 25 years and the couple lives in North Buffalo. They have three children, Erin (19), Jimmy (16), and Lauren (13). Erin attends Swarthmore College, and Jimmy and Lauren attend City Honors school. In addition to spending time with family and hockey, Heaney enjoys listening to music and reading, especially about the American Civil War.

I'm grateful for the education I've received.

The instructors were knowledgeable and welcomed class discussions, with
respect for each student's contribution. I've learned how to be a more
effective leader. My capstone class gave insight on how to combine all
the education learned to operate a business. That's when I realized how
much I had sharpened my knowledge.

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