- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 27, 2003

In an age of 500-channel cable systems, in a time of 24-hour news networks and handheld wireless e-mail devices, Lancaster is a newspaper town. But where other, larger cities have just one newspaper, Lancaster's 55,500 residents have three vestiges of a long-lost era when newspapers were identified by their politics: a conservative, Republican-leaning journal in the afternoon, a morning paper that sees itself as moderate and often endorses Democrats, and a nonpartisan Sunday paper.
Two years ago, for the first time, the morning Intelligencer Journal's circulation surpassed the afternoon New Era's (44,000 vs. 43,000; the Sunday News is at 103,000).
These three fiercely competitive and contradictory papers are owned by a single family the Steinmans, who have operated newspapers in Lancaster since 1866.
All three papers share the same offices; in some cases, the same desks.
"It's a little weird, but we call it home," says Pete Mekeel, managing editor of the New Era, who is nearly blind and lays out the front page and edits the entire paper in his head. But that's another story.
Every morning, the New Era's staff filters in first, police reporter John Hoober at 5 a.m., then the editors, then other reporters, filling the 28 desks in the third-floor newsroom. By 11 a.m., the press starts printing that day's edition of the afternoon paper; news staffers turn to the next day's stories.
At 2:45 p.m., they leave.
After 3 p.m., the Intelligencer Journal's troops arrive. They sit in chairs and work at terminals warmed by their competitors. Each desk has two sets of drawers New Era and Intelligencer Journal. They're carefully locked at shift change.
The Sunday News, which uses a separate office during the week, moves its sports staff into the newsroom desks on Saturday night.
This kind of cohabitation has its ups and downs. Friction between the staffs has moderated over the years, says Ernie Schreiber, the New Era's editor. "It's a kinder, gentler newsroom."
There were times, in years past, when New Era staffers would carelessly leave notes from interviews on their desks, to be read by the Intelligencer Journal reporters. Except that the interviews were bogus, concocted to throw them on the wrong track, Mr. Schreiber says.
John Spidaliere, a city reporter for the New Era, says a veteran reporter once gave him some advice: When you're planning to cover a meeting, leave a copy of the agenda for a different meeting on your desk, to confuse the competition.
"We don't talk to those guys," says David Hennigan, editor of the Sunday News since 1984. "In fact, we don't socialize."
That's an exaggeration. Some are friends, and some are even relatives.
But the papers do fight over the timing of news conferences hold them at 9 a.m., says the New Era; hold them at noon, says the Intelligencer Journal. They battle for comics the Intelligencer Journal has "Get Fuzzy" and "Dilbert," but the New Era has "Zits" and "Peanuts."
Until last year, staffers shared phone numbers as well as desks, and New Era reporters lived in fear that sources would return their calls after 3 p.m. and give stories to the Intelligencer Journal. Now each phone has a toggle switch and two different numbers.
Always despite their common, local ownership, and perhaps because of their cheek-by-jowl proximity the papers compete.
"I'd almost rather lose a finger than have the morning paper beat me on a story," says Dennis Fisher, the New Era's sports editor.
The papers' differences extend way back, to the 19th-century's partisan press. The Lancaster Intelligencer & Weekly Advertiser, first published in 1799, was stoutly Democratic a staunch supporter of Thomas Jefferson, and later a leading opponent of Abraham Lincoln (and, it was sometimes whispered, a "copperhead" sympathizer with the Confederacy.)
Andrew Jackson Steinman was Democrat to the bone, as his name would indicate. Son of a family that owned Lancaster's leading hardware store, Steinman came to the rescue of the struggling Intelligencer Journal (it had combined with another paper in 1834) in 1866.
Under Steinman and his sons, John Frederick and James Hale, the Intelligencer Journal thrived. In 1923, they started the apolitical Sunday News. And then, in 1928, they purchased the New Era, a Republican newspaper in what was (and remains) a predominantly Republican community.
The papers' divergent politics never changed. "You have to have divergent views," says Beverly Steinman, one of three daughters of Hale Steinman who now own Lancaster Newspapers.
John H. Brubaker III, the New Era's editorial-page editor and author of a book on the Steinmans, says, "They don't exert any overt influence. They do set a tone."
The Steinmans and their papers have a strong connection to Lancaster, a small city deep in Pennsylvania Dutch country that nonetheless has urban problems like drugs and crime.
Nearly a quarter-century ago, the company decided to stay rather than build a new complex in the suburbs, redeveloping its historic home on King Street. Included was the site of Steinman Hardware now a restaurant called the Pressroom, where sandwiches are named after comic strips.
If the newspapers are something of a throwback to a time when publishers were typically involved in just about everything that was going on in town, there are other ways, too, in which this company seems caught in a time warp.
Every staffer still gets a week's bonus each December. The company still holds a big picnic each summer at Hershey Park. Staffers tend to stay forever the three editors have a total of 95 years' service and the company has never laid anyone off, even in the Depression.
Yesterday and today coexist comfortably. An old, brass pneumatic tube whisks copy back to the composing room. At the same time, a new and improved computer system is on the way, and all three papers were recently redesigned.
Some at the Intelligencer Journal think the New Era's demise would not be a bad thing.
But Mr. Buckwalter, the CEO, says nothing will change. The New Era remains the largest afternoon newspaper in Pennsylvania, and it still serves a distinct, Republican readership, he says. To mess with the arrangement, he says, "wouldn't be prudent."

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