PITTSBURGH—Just over 50 years ago, Richard Mellon Scaife did something both his friends and critics thought was just a vanity project to promote his conservative ideals when he bought the Greensburg Tribune-Review, a small Westmoreland County, Pennsylvania, newspaper with a circulation of 35,000—at a time when the industry was in its early years of decline.

In 1974, just four years after Scaife bought the paper, he once again did the opposite of what his friends and critics thought possible and called for then-President Richard M. Nixon to be impeached with an above-the-fold editorial that read: “Stand aside immediately as President.”

Just two years earlier, Scaife—the principal heir to the vast Mellon family banking fortune—had contributed more than $1 million to Nixon’s reelection campaign.

The Tribune-Review editorial went on to opine: “We are sickened with Mr. Nixon’s twisted loyalty to those shadowy figures who have been close to him: this at the expense of a much higher form of loyalty we feel he owes to the good of this country.” 

That same year, Scaife would do something else impactful and become one of the early and most important supporters of the newly formed Heritage Foundation, the scrappy think tank with very little money outside of the $250,000 grant given to it by Joseph Coors. By 1976, he had given Heritage nearly $500,000, and it was a relationship that continued throughout his lifetime. The Sarah Scaife Foundation still supports Heritage today.

With the approaching 10th anniversary of the passing of Scaife—who died on July 4, 2014, one day after turning 82—it’s fitting that one of his two great passions, The Heritage Foundation, is spinning off his other deep passion, journalism, as Heritage’s Daily Signal moves on to become an independent news organization that will do original investigative reporting, along with commentary. 

Scaife had started a Pittsburgh version of his paper in the 1990s, and in short order, it became a robust competitor to its city rival, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, for more than a decade. I worked for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, and Scaife told me his love of newspapers began as a young child when he was in a disfiguring equestrian accident that severely damaged his spine. 

While Scaife was laid up in bed for more than a year and unable to move in order to preserve the healing of his spine, his father, Alan Scaife—who joined the Office of Strategic Services as an Army major during World War II—brought him newspapers from around the country and the world to entertain him.

Scaife said at the time his lifelong dream was one day to publish a newspaper in his hometown, which was exactly what he set out to do when he bought the Greensburg Tribune-Review at the age of 38, then spent the next few decades expanding it to dozens of daily and weekly Pennsylvania newspapers with a strong focus on independent journalism. 

Richard Mellon Scaife reads a hot-off-the-presses copy of the first edition of the Sunday Greesnburg, Pa., News-Review on May 19, 1974. (Photo courtesy of Selena Zito)

Andrew Conte, founding director of the Center for Media Innovation at Point Park University in Pittsburgh, said people had very strident opinions of who they thought Richard Scaife was, but that much of it was misguided because of his politics, overlooking the number of people he once employed in journalism in the western Pennsylvania region.

“People lose sight of the contributions that Scaife made to local journalism because they focus on him being a conservative,” Conte said, adding: “That misses the point of all the good, objective reporting he funded and the many, many great journalists he employed.”

Conte, a Columbia School of Journalism graduate, had his start as one of those young journalists when he took the job at the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review in 2001. It was a career that would span nearly two decades, including his time as a city hall reporter covering local government and groundbreaking deep investigative pieces that exposed doctors who were performing unnecessary liver transplant surgeries.

“Scaife was dedicated to good journalism—deep, investigative, independent pieces—both here locally, as well as sending journalists to cover criminal activity at the border, to national security issues on our railways after 9/11, to embedding our journalists in both Iraq and Afghanistan during the war,” he said. 

Scaife had often lamented the decline in newspapers across the county in our weekly conversations over the years. He told me he worried that it would undermine the public’s ability to do exactly what Conte did as a reporter—which was to hold governments, from city and borough councils to the bureaucracies in Washington, accountable to the people.

After his stunning “Nixon needs to resign” front-page editorial in 1974, Scaife became more involved with the importance of news, as well as with the growth of The Heritage Foundation as a policy think tank for the Right.

He would be the first to celebrate the launch of The Daily Signal as an independent news organization, and I suspect the first to support it.

Scaife wrote in an editorial: “Newspapers are unique and invaluable. They provide the most substantive, trustworthy reporting from the most experienced and reliable writers and editors. They consistently break more of the important stories, investigate more of the critical issues, and expose more of the secrets that we need to know.”

For Scaife, the decline of newspapers had been both profound and surprising. He was optimistic, however, that other news outlets, such as The Daily Signal, would carry the torch forward and remain the crucial source of critical information they had always been.

“Because the health, security, freedom, and well-being of our communities, our nation, and all of us individually depend on them,” Scaife opined in the final editorial he would write, 10 years ago before his passing.

Scaife remained curious about the men and women in power or sought power. In his final years, I watched Hillary Rodham Clinton, Bob Casey Jr., Jeb Bush, Donald Rumsfeld, Mitt Romney, then-Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto, and Defense Secretary-to-be Gen. Lloyd Austin, and hundreds of others of all political stripes walk through the doors of the Pittsburgh newsroom.

They all took tough questions and answered them without aides running interference.

It is a legacy and tradition I suspect The Daily Signal will take note of and continue, no matter what party holds power. 

We publish a variety of perspectives. Nothing written here is to be construed as representing the views of The Daily Signal.