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).