Former City Paper Editor-in-chief Lisa Cunningham and Director of Advertising Jasmine Hughes literally make buttons to sell for Valentine's Day. Photo by Zack Durkin

They don’t teach button-making in journalism school but perhaps they should.

Among local news outlets driven to the brink last year by the Covid pandemic, Pittsburgh City Paper has fought back by, in part, expanding its merchandise collection to include T-shirts, masks and coloring books.

Just in time for Valentine’s Day, the alt-weekly has also designed a series of not safe for work buttons designed to make your favorite yinzer smile and probably blush. Most of the buttons are too racy to mention here, while the most family-friendly button tells a special friend that “you’re worth crossing a river.”

City Paper has sold more than 500 buttons so far, along with a few T-shirts, tank tops and bumper stickers with similar designs. Editor-in-chief Lisa Cunningham and her staff have been making the buttons in-house, and she tells me they’re all a little light on sleep.

The payoff for all the extra effort is that the newspaper plans to hire two new reporters — a replacement for Jordan Snowden, who left the newspaper late last year, plus another — and a newly created digital marketing coordinator.

Cunningham told me the new reporters are:

  • Kim Rooney, a graduate of the University of Pittsburgh, where they were copy chief of The Pitt News (before working a short time as content coordinator at Pittsburgh Magazine); and,
  • Dani Janae, a graduate of Allegheny College, who has been published locally by PublicSource, and is also a poet, freelance editor and a contributing writer at Autostraddle.

Button sales alone obviously do not raise enough money to cover the cost of an extra reporter, but every bit helps both pay for the position and to raise the profile of the publication, Cunningham said. The merchandise efforts, along with a membership campaign to solicit donations, have made up about 12 percent of the news outlet’s revenue over the past year.

“Things like our membership campaign and our efforts to think outside of the box, like selling merch in our new store and having our advertising team come up with new sales initiatives, are really the main things that have helped us keep our print product going,” Cunningham said by email.

City Paper is not the only local publication to get creative at raising money during the pandemic. Pittsburgh Current also has a merchandise section and has been soliciting donations, while many print publications such as Pittsburgh Magazine have been creating more online content in between print editions (see Sean Collier’s piece on fake commuting).

Three local publications — The Incline, The Mon Valley Independent and Gazette 2.0 — combined forces to publish a lengthy story about how students in each of their coverage areas, from Monessen to McKees Rocks, have been struggling with online learning. The publications collaborated as part of the Pittsburgh Media Partnership, a group of 22 local news outlets that operates out of Point Park University’s Center for Media Innovation.

City Paper, too, has tried to expand its reach during the pandemic: It has sought to transition from doing arts and entertainment to providing more online community news about politics, Black Lives Matter, fracking and more. Cunningham did not provide overall page view totals but said they saw a 37.5 percent increase in traffic last year. She wants to position the newspaper to pick up the A&E coverage as cultural life resumes after the pandemic.

“We’re still struggling financially like everyone else, but we don’t want to let our community down, and we’re continuing to do everything we can to set ourselves up for growth,” Cunningham told me. “City Paper made it through last year with a minimal staff after we lost multiple roles due to furlough, and we still have furloughed members of our team we want to bring back.”

The two remaining furloughed employees are graphic designers, and Cunningham said she wants to bring them back as soon as they can afford to do so. The decisions about who to bring back so far have been based on “setting our company up for long-term stability and growth, so when we do bring them back, we’re able to do so permanently,” Cunningham added.

In the meantime, if you need a Valentine’s Day gift that references the Squirrel Hill Tunnel, the inclines or the Point State Park Fountain from a new perspective, City Paper has you covered. And just wait to see what they have in store for St. Patrick’s Day.

Comings & Goings

Andrew Conte, founding director of the Center for Media Innovation at Point Park University, writes the On Media column at NEXTpittsburgh with support from The Heinz Endowments.