One of Gazette 2.0’s newest reporters studied public policy in college, started his own moving company with his brother, and now spends his free time covering community meetings for $50 per story.
“They move furniture among houses, and he also writes for us occasionally,” says Sonja Reis, who takes over as owner and publisher of the newspaper on Thursday, March 18.
Based in Stowe, Gazette 2.0 has just one full-time employee, and strives to cover 10 communities across Pittsburgh’s western suburbs. That sounds like an impossible task, but it works because the publication draws support from citizens within the places it covers.
Dozens of ordinary people have contributed to the newspaper over its three-year history, with some filing only a story or two and others turning into regular contributors.
Almost no one connected to the newspaper, other than Reis, has any sort of formal journalism training. She studied journalism at Penn State University and has worked in the industry for many years, collecting bylines with the Post-Gazette and Tribune-Review, as well as the Coraopolis Record, the Carnegie Signal Item and even the Farm and Dairy agricultural newspaper in Salem, Ohio.
Until now, Reis has been working as a part-time editor and journalism coach for basically everyone else at Gazette 2.0, including Sonny Jani, an entrepreneur and real estate owner, who has been the publication’s owner and publisher.
An Indian immigrant, Jani worked in his father’s Blue Eagle Market and grew up listening to his father read the Suburban Gazette as they both practiced English and learned about American culture. The Suburban Gazette marked the births of Jani’s two children, and it ran the obituary for his father after he died in 1994.
In 2010 and 2015, Jani tried to buy the newspaper from the family that founded it in 1892, but the owners told him it wasn’t for sale. In the fall of 2017, the paper went out of business.
Within days, Jani put up $50,000 as a tax write-off to start a new newspaper, Gazette 2.0. The newspaper has come out every two weeks on Thursdays ever since (with a brief hiatus during the start of the pandemic). A copy of every edition hangs on an office wall.
The newspaper, which typically consists of eight pages, prints about 4,400 copies each run, sending nearly 400 to subscribers and giving the rest away at local stores. It sells advertising, with a full-page ad costing $300. Local communities pay to run legal notices.
The formula has worked by keeping overhead costs low. Gazette 2.0 had $95,000 in revenue last year, and it would have turned a small profit except that Jani invested the additional income into creating more content.
As Jani shifts his attention to other personal projects — writing a memoir and working on a Netflix serial about his work with former Steelers center Mike Webster — he is gifting the newspaper to Reis.
It turns out that she too had tried without success to purchase the Suburban Gazette, and when Jani started Gazette 2.0, she started helping out. Reis plans to keep her full-time job as communications and marketing director for the McKees Rocks Community Development Corporation, where she has worked since 2016.
These two people — Jani, the dreamer, and Reis, the realist, as she describes them — have found a way to make community journalism sustainable. They believe their model can be replicated in other communities, and I agree.
Of course, it takes an initial investment and someone with business insight, like Jani. It also requires someone like Reis, who understands journalism to set standards and parameters.
Gazette 2.0 has been fortunate to have a dedicated staff, no matter how small: Full-time Editor-in-chief Caitlin Spitzer, who worked as a graphic designer for the Suburban Gazette, says journalism is not her first passion but she enjoys providing information to the community (just don’t tell her that’s journalism).
The other key ingredient has been the community. The newspaper not only provides journalism to the places it serves, but it allows the residents there to take an active role in telling their own story.
Has it been messy? Yes, Jani and Reis now laugh about their arguments in Saturday editorial meetings, and they all have many stories about people who tried to do journalism and failed (sometimes miserably and embarrassingly).
But in the end, the newspaper has turned out to be not only for the people — but also very much of them, too.
“Ultimately it is their community, and they need to let us know what they want us to be investigating and looking into,” Reis says. “They need to know that we’re here for them, too.”
This is where we come in.
I recently wrote about how we can blame the people who own newspapers for their downfall, but that ignores the role we all must play in supporting local journalism.
If you appreciate the news you receive — even if it’s “free” — do something to give back to the people creating it. If you pick up Gazette 2.0 every week, buy a subscription.
Newspapers have not always asked online readers for money but they are starting to do so. The Tribune-Review gives away most of its content online but has started running a logo with each story that asks readers to “support local journalism.” The link leads to a page where people can make a payment of their choosing.
NEXTpittsburgh does not charge for anyone to read its content, but a big blue button on its homepage asks readers for support. Pittsburgh City Paper is marking a year since it started asking readers during the pandemic to help cover costs.
Local businesses need to help out, too. If people come into your shop to pick up copies of a newspaper like Gazette 2.0, run an occasional advertisement that reaches your target audience. Jani started the newspaper, in part, so he could have a place to run ads for the Fox’s Pizza franchise he owns.
“At the end of the day, sadly, journalism has become about money,” Reis says. “It’s being able to print that paper, being able to pay your employees and pay for reporters, and having a website and all the expensive things that come along with being a media source.”
Newspapers have always been about money. But it usually flowed from the people to wealthy publishers such as the 20th-century publishing tycoon William Randolph Hearst, who built a lavish castle on the California coast.
Those halcyon days for newspaper owners have ended, save for the hedge fund investors trying to squeeze the last profits from a dying industry.
Instead, technology has democratized information so no one person can buy ink by the barrel in an attempt to control the flow of information. We all hold that power in the smartphones in our hands.
But as comic book journalist Peter Parker will tell you, with great power comes great responsibility. We, the people, have the power to determine the quality of our local journalism.
The founding director of the Center for Media Innovation at Point Park University, Andrew Conte writes the On Media column at NEXTpittsburgh with support from The Heinz Endowments. You can find all of his columns here, and you can email him.