Steinman Park sculpture of newspaper reader

The J. Seward Johnson Jr. sculpture, "Newspaper Reader," at the entrance of Steinman Park in Lancaster city, is an emblem of the Steinman family's long commitment to journalism in Lancaster County. 

THE ISSUE

The Steinman Foundation is seeding a new initiative, the Lancaster County Local Journalism Fund, with a $500,000 contribution. The Steinman Foundation is a local, independent family foundation funded by the companies that make up Steinman Communications; those companies include LNP Media Group. The local journalism fund is being established as a limited liability company under the umbrella of the nonprofit Lancaster County Community Foundation. It plans to award grants to local organizations engaged in investigative and public interest journalism and in media literacy. It will seek additional support from donors during Friday’s Extraordinary Give; donations will be tax-deductible.

These are just a few things we wouldn’t know without local investigative journalism.

— That a website billing itself as offering “unbiased, conservative news with a Christian viewpoint” to Lancaster County readers actually was edited by a white nationalist who hosts a racist podcast on a neo-Nazi and white supremacist website.

— That a district attorney, now county judge, leased an SUV using funds intended for the county’s drug task force.

— That some Plain-sect individuals charged with sexual offenses are sent to an unlicensed residential counseling facility that is located in a bucolic setting and staffed by ministers, not trained therapists.

— That Pennsylvania lawmakers frequently obscured their campaign spending by listing expenses as credit card payments without detailing the actual expenditures. And so the most powerful Republican in the state Senate was able to charge a $246 meal at a fancy restaurant in Austria and $1,295 for lodging in Germany to his campaign credit card. The campaign committee of that lawmaker, Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati, now is seeking to revive its lawsuit against the journalists who led that reporting: Brad Bumsted, bureau chief of The Caucus, and Angela Couloumbis, a reporter with Spotlight PA.

The Caucus is a watchdog publication of LNP Media Group.

Spotlight PA is a nonpartisan newsroom, powered by The Philadelphia Inquirer; its partners include LNP Media Group.

The Inquirer has been owned since 2016 by the nonprofit Lenfest Institute for Journalism, established by the late philanthropist H.F. “Gerry” Lenfest. As that institute’s website explains, “The Inquirer is now the largest newspaper in the United States operated as a public-benefit corporation.” Its mission is to preserve local journalism.

The Lancaster County Local Journalism Fund is modeled after the Lenfest Institute.

The Steinman Foundation’s role in its establishment should surprise no one: The Steinman family has been committed to this local newspaper’s production since 1866, when Andrew Jackson Steinman became co-publisher and editor of the Lancaster Intelligencer & Journal, a forerunner of LNP | LancasterOnline.

In an industry that has seen local newspapers devoured and stripped of their assets by hedge funds, turning local communities into news deserts, Lancaster County is fortunate to have newspapers owned by a family committed to journalism.

The Lancaster County Local Journalism Fund is the latest expression of that commitment.

Kudos to the Lancaster County Community Foundation, too, for embracing the essential cause of local journalism.

As LNP | LancasterOnline’s Jeff Hawkes reported Monday, the fund’s mission will be to “ensure the people of Lancaster County continue to be informed, engaged and empowered by independent local journalism.”

“Local journalism shines a light on important topics and knits the community together,” said Shane Zimmerman, president of The Steinman Foundation. “Without it, we grow farther apart and are less aware of what’s going on with friends, neighbors, schools and municipalities. As we lose touch, we become less effective overall as a community.”

And without local journalism, citizens are left in the dark about how municipal leaders or school boards raise taxes, or how local leaders mount a pandemic response. School board meetings and municipal meetings go uncovered, and so elected officials have less incentive to be transparent and to heed open-records and open-meetings laws.

According to research from the University of Illinois and the University of Notre Dame, municipal borrowing costs increase after a local newspaper’s demise — and government wages and spending increase, too. When the watchdogs go away, elected officials have more license to play.

A report from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s Center for Innovation and Sustainability in Local Media put it plainly: “In an age of fake news and divisive national politics, the fate of communities across the country, and of grassroots democracy itself, is linked — more than ever — to the vitality of local journalism.”

The Lancaster County Local Journalism Fund will seek to add to that vitality.

An independent, seven-member board of managers that includes prominent journalists — among them Manheim Township High School graduate and Washington Post reporter Colby Itkowitz — and community leaders will evaluate grant applications and award those they judge worthy of funding, said Lauren Frick, The Steinman Foundation’s corporate secretary and senior grant administrator.

This is such an important effort.

Initiatives to enhance media literacy — the ability to discern between reliable news sources and spurious ones — are more necessary than ever in our current political environment, in which people cannot seem to agree on an established set of facts.

And local journalism becomes ever more important as we face a pandemic and other complex problems.

Unfortunately, according to a 2020 University of North Carolina report, “the pandemic and the ensuing recession have greatly accelerated the loss of local news that has been occurring over the past two decades.”

The Lancaster County Local Journalism Fund will seek to counter this loss and strengthen investigative and public interest journalism.

Please support it — for the good of our community.