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Front-Page Pittsburgh: Two hundred years of the Post-Gazette 

By Clarke Thomas
University of Pittsburgh Press, 332 pp, $34.95 (hardback)

 

 

Newspapers, it's said, are the rough draft of history -- but no one holds onto rough drafts, and few bother to write histories of the newspapers themselves. That's true even for the venerable Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, whose 1786 origins make it the oldest newspaper west of the Allegheny Mountains.

 

 

The last history of the P-G was written in 1936, and as Clarke Thomas says, "Its final chapter was titled 'The Last Merger.'" That 1927 merger, between the Pittsburgh Post and the Gazette, created the newspaper familiar to us all, but it was far from the last. The P-G only cemented its leadership position here by later acquiring the Sun-Telegraph and the Press. And it's likely that the P-G and Pittsburgh's other daily, the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, have at least one more merger in store ... one way or the other.

 

As Thomas documents in his lively and readable Front-Page Pittsburgh, such a merger would be in keeping with history. Almost since the day founder John Scull brought a printing press to the frontier town of Pittsburgh, his paper has melded with rivals in both business and ideology.

 

Thomas worked for the P-G for three decades starting in 1971, and he still contributes regularly to its editorial page. His book reflects that resumé, focusing on the paper's business growth, and the evolution of its editorial page.

 

This is ground worth covering, and Clarke keeps a general-interest audience in mind throughout. Readers of the P-G, or at least those who write letters to it, may be surprised to learn that the paper began as a conservative house organ, so much so that the Gazette's editorial page helped establish the Republican Party. Its current rivalry with Richard Mellon Scaife's Tribune-Review, Thomas notes, was foreshadowed 50 years ago, when Scaife's father publicly accused the paper of betraying the conservative faith.

 

Sometimes, however, Clarke's front-office focus comes at the expense of covering front-page foibles and heroics. (In a notable exception, he discusses how P-G reporter Ray Sprigle was able to win a Pulitzer by bonding with a key source over ... a shared interest in chicken farming.) Other papers, meanwhile, receive ample treatment only if they are fated to later become part of the P-G. (City Paper is not mentioned at all, which I'm choosing to see as proof the P-G won't be buying us anytime soon.)

 

In fact, Thomas told me in an interview, the work was originally commissioned by the paper's owners, the Block family. Once he pitched it to the University of Pittsburgh Press, though, the book "had to be netural. It couldn't be a company puff-piece kind of thing." While the Blocks reveiewed portions of the material, Thomas says, "They didn't suggest any changes."

 

Thomas treads lightly on sensitive issues from the recent past, however. For example, he says nothing about the tragic death of restaurant reviewer Mike Kalina, whose journalistic ethics were under a cloud at the time of his demise. Thomas makes only the most cursory mention of the paper's former investment in the Pittsburgh Pirates (he doesn't even cite the actual dollar figure -- $2 million). And while he asserts that the paper "went full-throttle in support" of a 1997 referendum to levy a new tax to pay for stadium construction, he arguably understates its efforts. He never mentions that the paper ran a front-page editorial urging a "yes" vote two days before the vote was held. Such advocacy might have been suitable for the rough-and-tumble days of John Scull, but not since then.

 

Thomas' scant treatment is all the more notable because he details at length how his former boss, editor John Craig, dealt with a lesser ethical infraction: sportswriters acting as official scorers for Pirates games.

 

But Thomas deals forthrightly with the fact that the Gazette's founder, John Scull, accepted ads related to the slave trade -- but wouldn't accept ads from Catholics. (Later, the Gazette crusaded for abolition, as befitted its 19th-century Republican allegiances.) He's also candid about the almost incestuous acquisition of the Post ... a deal in which the Blocks practically operated as a front for newspaper baron William Randolph Hearst. (I use the word "incestuous" advisedly; patriarch Paul Block and Hearst were romantically involved with the same mistress.)

 

The biggest surprise of all, though, may be the secret to the P-G's success: dumb luck. Its circulation often lagged rivals, and yet it outlived them all, partly because the P-G found a way to profit from its own seeming setbacks. The best example is the 1992 Teamster strike that silenced the P-G's longest-lived rival, the storied Pittsburgh Press. Thomas' account of the strike is nuanced and thorough; Teamsters officials, he says, gave him unprecedented access to union records from that period. And he concludes that the very thing that makes the P-G an oddity -- family ownership in an era of increasing corporate media dominance -- is what allowed it to survive. 

 

It will be interesting to see the next chapter of Pittsburgh's newspaper history unfold. With luck, we'll have a chronicler as able as Thomas to write the final draft.

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