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Scaife, Trib defy skeptics

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Saturday, July 5, 2014, 9:00 p.m.
 

I can't claim to have known Dick Scaife well, but his love of newspapers enabled me to travel a remarkable journey.

During an era in which most newspapers dramatically downsized or even folded, Scaife essentially built one from scratch. I've been around the entire time, watching a fledgling operation with a shaky future evolve into what recently was judged to be Pennsylvania's finest newspaper.

In January 1993, I began working as one of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review's first reporters. The upstart operation, which began as a response to the strike that triggered the demise of The Pittsburgh Press, had an initial staff of about eight.

Our task was formidable. Out of a small office building in Station Square, we competed against the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, which had perhaps 200 reporters and editors and a veteran presence in the city.

No one knew how long this journalism experiment would last. The late John G. Craig Jr., the P-G editor at the time, ran into our city editor shortly after our start-up and predicted we would be out of business in six months. Craig considered himself an astute fellow, but he made the one unforgiveable error in battle: Never underestimate your opponent.

We worked long hours practicing what we called “guerrilla journalism.” The scoops started to come, readership gradually increased and so did our staff size. With the arrival of reinforcements, our Station Square office began to seem cramped.

Any doubts about Scaife's commitment to making the Trib a permanent Pittsburgh presence were erased in 1997. He wouldn't have dropped $42 million on a new printing plant if he had any plans to pull the plug.

The day Newsworks opened in Warrendale, I couldn't help wonder what Craig was thinking.

Most of us had little personal contact with Scaife, but he did send us birthday cards and occasional personalized notes when he particularly liked a story.

Having outgrown our modest Station Square accommodations, the Trib moved to the. D.L. Clark Building on the North Shore in 1999. Shortly thereafter, I became a columnist. In the nearly 15 years since then, I have on many occasions expressed views contrary to the paper's editorial position. Not once did I hear Scaife was upset with anything I wrote.

I reflected on this remarkable journey in April, when the Trib was named the best daily newspaper in Pennsylvania by the state chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. Three weeks later, Scaife announced he was terminally ill.

Hours after his death on Friday, I was in a store in my neighborhood that I frequent often.

“You work for the Trib, don't you?” the cashier said as she rang up my purchase.

I nodded.

“I'm sorry about your publisher,” she said.

So am I.

Eric Heyl is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach him at 412-320-7857 or eheyl@tribweb.com.

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