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By David Staba and Mike Hudson

NORTH TONAWANDA -- The Buffalo Current, Greater Niagara Newspapers' widely ignored attempt to serve a nonexistent market, was put out of its misery Friday after barely six months in existence.

Executives of GNN's parent company, Community Newspaper Holdings Inc., ordered the shutdown following a surprise audit of the local franchise's books. GNN sources told the Reporter that the Current had lost upwards of $1 million during its brief existence.

At the time of its demise, the Current was listed as the "largest news title" in the CNHI chain, which includes more than 200 daily and weekly newspapers around the country.

The CNHI executives also ordered the death of the Amherst Record, a "community weekly" plagued by delivery problems and a lack of interest by readers and advertisers alike.

The brainchild of GNN Group Publisher Wayne Lowman, Tonawanda News Publisher Les Rogers and former News managing editor Tim Schmitt, the Buffalo Current represents the biggest publishing disaster on the Niagara Frontier in recent memory.

Referring to them as the "Three Stooges," one former GNN executive said the chances of Lowman, Rogers and Schmitt keeping their jobs are slim to none.

"No way they can leave them there," he said. "You can't retain the guys that cost your company a million dollars in less than a year."

Perhaps noting the success of the startup Niagara Falls Reporter, the trio concocted a business plan that turned out to be overly optimistic, to say the least.

"They felt so strongly about this that Lowman and Rogers were able to convince CNHI to commit $800,000 in seed money," the former executive said. "They spent it like kids in a candy store."

In addition to purchasing new state-of-the-art computer equipment, tens of thousands were wasted on radio advertising for the Current, promotional T-shirts and an undetermined but considerable number of hideous purple vending boxes that continue to clutter sidewalks from Youngstown to Orchard Park.

While the Current was meant to target Artvoice, he said, the Record was aimed at stealing readers and advertisers away from the Amherst Bee. Taking on long-established publications in a new market is a dicey business under the best of circumstances, but Lowman was so convinced of his vision he predicted putting Artvoice out of business and said the Record would likely become a paid daily newspaper at some point.

"They couldn't give ads away," said one GNN employee, speaking on the condition of anonymity. "Lowman and Rogers refused to hear that the products were failing because they were bad products. They kept insisting it was because the sales people didn't know what they were doing."

Potential Current advertisers were conned with a phony circulation figure of 100,000 -- it never even got close to that number -- and an alleged distribution zone that included eight New York counties stretching almost to Rochester and parts of Canada.

But nightclub and restaurant owners soon became accustomed to seeing piles of the pathetic weekly sitting untouched in their establishments even as copies of Artvoice and the Niagara Falls Reporter were snapped up. It didn't take a marketing genius to see where limited advertising dollars might most profitably be spent.

Most of the dozen staffers at the Current were cashiered in what one GNN employee called "another Black Friday," referring to the series of mass layoffs over the last five-plus years. A few non-Current GNNers were also pink-slipped, possibly to make room for a few castaways from the failed venture.

Tim Schmitt, who has now held roughly a half-dozen different management positions at various GNN entities over the past few years, will be given yet another opportunity to fail, this time as "group sports editor" for the troubled GNN quartet of the Niagara Gazette, Tonawanda News, Lockport Union-Sun and Journal and Medina Journal-Register. The move was announced in Friday's daily editions, though the article made no mention of the doomed Current.

Lowman arrived here from Kokomo, Ind., three years ago and has been in over his head ever since, while Rogers is often referred to by his GNN underlings as Lowman's "henchman."

Although the promotional materials before the Current's launch emptily promised cutting-edge journalism, Lowman, Rogers and Schmitt's idea of "cutting-edge" seemed to center on strippers, goofy "photo illustrations" on the cover teasing 300-word, one-source stories inside, enormous graphics containing little or no useful information, remarkably feeble attempts at humor and a sex columnist who somehow managed to make her subject matter painfully self-involved and more than a little creepy.

Speaking of "Sabrina," sources were unsure of her future at press time, though the consensus was that her next career move will involve the serving of belly and/or Jell-O shots.

The first issue smugly announced that the paper would target "18- to 34-year-old professionals," much to the delight of all those doctors, lawyers and CEOs recently graduated from high school. In what may have been an all-time low, one cover story chronicled a routine car accident on Chippewa Street in Buffalo in which no one was killed and that took place more than a month earlier.

While CNHI officials gave Lowman, Rogers and Schmitt a blank check to hire staffers and purchase equipment for the ill-fated project, the group's daily papers underwent further cuts in personnel and were denied the purchase of needed equipment.

The company also forced employees to drop existing health-care coverage and enroll with Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Alabama, a move that resulted in exorbitant co-pays and severe limitation of employees' ability to choose doctors and health-care providers, in some cases forcing them to drive an hour or more to receive certain treatments or diagnostic services.

The Current's timely demise leaves Western New York littered with hideous purple plastic distribution boxes, which will continue to pose safety and aesthetic concerns until GNN gets around to removing them.

David Staba is the sports editor of the Niagara Falls Reporter. He welcomes e-mail at dstaba13@aol.com.

Niagara Falls Reporter www.niagarafallsreporter.com March 14 2006