No news is bad news in information-starved Pittsburgh

THE BALTIMORE SUN

PITTSBURGH -- The way Bonnie Bandola figures it, Sunday is the worst.

It used to be that her steady customers at Northfield News would just grab a Pittsburgh Press, and leave a buck and a quarter on the counter.

Not anymore.

Five months into a strike that has left Pittsburgh a no-newspaper town, Ms. Bandola is now a self-appointed tour guide of the out-of-town papers.

To her, the Washington Post "is the paper that comes off in your hands," the Philadelphia Inquirer "is that nice newspaper . . . for Philadelphia," and the suburban dailies that are flooding the market "don't have a lot of news about Pittsburgh."

So Sunday isn't what it used to be.

"The people, they come in and stand around," she said. "They don't know what paper to get. They want coupons. They want the baseball box scores. They want the local news. They want the local sports. They make me crazy."

Welcome to a newspaper junkie's nightmare.

Since delivery drivers walked off the job in May, Pittsburgh has been without its two newspapers, the afternoon Press and morning Post-Gazette. And it could be weeks, if not months, before the presses roll again, following the Oct. 2 announcement by the E. W. Scripps Co. that it intends to sell the Press.

Imagine . . .

The presidential campaign has almost come and gone. A hot race in the state for the U.S. Senate, too.

The Penguins won the Stanley Cup -- and started a new hockey season. The Pirates won the National League East. The Steelers opened their season 3-0 under a new coach.

And then, there is the important stuff.

Like movie and television listings, classifieds, automobile and department store ads and obituaries.

Want to know how disorienting it is going through life without a daily local newspaper? Just ask Michael Pulte, chairman, president and CEO of the Jos. Horne Co., a local department store chain.

According to Mr. Pulte, since the papers stopped publishing, sales have dropped 10 percent at the downtown Horne's.

"You can put on more television and radio ads, but once they air, they're gone," he said. "There is no other form of media that does what newspapers do for us."

But there are other things that keep popping up, throwing Mr. Pulte off his daily routine.

Like the night he attended the Pittsburgh Symphony and "the conductor turned around to remind everyone to tell their friends that they start at 8 o'clock."

Or the afternoon when a friend told him some tragic news.

"My neighbor four doors up the street was buried and I didn't even hear about it until a day later," he said. "I almost fell over."

The Teamsters walkout

In Pittsburgh, news is still being made, it's just not being printed daily.

The strike began May 17 when the Pittsburgh Press Co., which runs the business operations of both local papers, sought to implement a streamlined distribution plan. To be cut: up to 450 of the 620 union jobs and all the papers' 4,300 youth carriers.

Teamsters local 211 walked out, and the papers shut down. In July, the Press sought to publish and distribute papers with replacement drivers.

But in a city with deep labor roots, the effort collapsed after only two days.

Even Mayor Sophie Masloff canceled her subscriptions.

Now, while everyone awaits the sale of the Press, there is still a need for a daily fix of local news.

Local TV stations fill a vacuum with extended newscasts, which include death notices scrolled on a darkened screen.

USA Today, the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal provide national news. Suburban dailies, including the Gannett-owned North Hills News Record, have beefed up their Pittsburgh coverage.

The Press editorial staff is producing a thrice-weekly Allegheny Bulletin, which is mailed to more than 300,000 homes.

The Post-Gazette is reaching some 800 subscribers with a five-times-a-week FAX report. The paper is even sending a town crier through the downtown area during lunch hour.

"At the beginning, the homeless people thought I was a street performer, and they tried to give me money," said Brian Boyd, the town crier dressed in colonial garb and carrying a megaphone. "But now, people are used to it. I've even got some regulars."

'Save The Press'

Over the air, in the mail, or in the street, there is simply not %J enough local news to go around.

In downtown Pittsburgh, business is off, and not just because of a recession.

The Pirates won their third straight divisional title but saw their attendance decline nearly a quarter of a million, a drop club officials attribute to the strike.

Retail stores are reporting declines in sales from 10 percent to 30 percent.

Again, strike-related.

And the merchants fear entering a Christmas season without a newspaper.

"If the big stores go sour, then center city will go sour," said Rich Ploesti, of Lubin & Smalley florists. "I would hate to see that happen, all because of a newspaper strike."

Last Friday, the city's civic and religious leaders joined the Press editorial staff in launching a "Save The Press" campaign.

Instead of reporting the news, 24 Press writers, photographers and editors sought to make the news, standing on a stage wearing white and green "Save the Press" T-shirts. They roared as the speakers, representing a cross section of Pittsburgh, passionately described their attachment to a local newspaper.

Pat Crawford, the public information officer for Pittsburgh public schools, said: "After five months, this has reached the point of absurdity. It's time to get the presses rolling."

Leon Haley, president of the local Urban League chapter, said, "We are simply not the same kind of community without a newspaper."

Dan Rooney, owner of the Steelers said, "We in sports need the papers to have everyone updated on the great teams of Pittsburgh."

And the Rev. Ronald Lengwin, director of public affairs of the Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh, said, "There are those in the Diocese who say, 'Aren't we lucky the paper isn't printing while we are going through a reorganization? We aren't hearing the dissent.' But I say, 'No. We need the papers to print the truth.' "

But no one knows when a newspaper, let alone "the truth," will be printed in Pittsburgh.

While Press spokesman Randy Notter calls the decision to sell the newspaper "irrevocable," few expect the major chains to line up to purchase a paper that one Knight-Ridder Inc. executive has said "is about as attractive as Kuwait the day the Iraqis moved in."

The future of the Post-Gazette, tied to a joint operation agreement with the Press through 1999, is also likely to be decided by a sale.

The Press editorial staff is considering mounting an effort to purchase the paper through an employee stock ownership plan. And so are the local Teamsters.

Waiting for the news

Meanwhile, everyone waits for the news.

For Press political reporter Dennis Roddy, the strike means he can't write timely stories on two of the greatest political races of his journalistic career -- for the presidency and the U.S. Senate.

"This is like being locked in the back of the car with mom and dad and they're passing Disneyland and they won't even slow down," he said.

For local Teamsters president Joe Molineri, the strike is not just a test of his union's resolve, it's now about combining union muscle and money to ensure the survival of the newspaper.

"What I miss more than anything is having the men working," he said. "We can see the major impact this strike is having on this city. I want this city back on its feet."

For Madelyn Ross, managing editor of the Press, the strike means she has to try to keep a staff intact, even while reporters and editors compose resumes at their computer terminals.

"We've been publishing for 108 years," she said. "I'm not ready to write the obituary for the Pittsburgh Press."

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