One of Gazette 2.0’s newest reporters went to college to study politics, started his own moving company with his brother, and spends his free time hosting community meetings for $ 50 a story.
“They move furniture between houses and he occasionally writes for us too,” says Sonja Reis, who will take over the newspaper’s owner and editor on Thursday, March 18.
Stowe-based Gazette 2.0 has only one full-time employee and aims to cover 10 communities in the western suburbs of Pittsburgh. It sounds like an impossible task, but it works because the publication is supported by the citizens in the locations it covers.
Dozens of ordinary people have contributed to the newspaper in its three year history, with some submitting just a story or two and others contributing regularly.
Almost no one associated with the newspaper except Reis has any formal journalistic training. She studied journalism at Penn State University and worked in the industry for many years. She has collected bylines with the Post-Gazette and Tribune-Review as well as the Coraopolis Record, Carnegie Signal Item and even the agricultural newspaper Farm and Dairy in Salem, Ohio.
So far, Reis has served as a part-time editor and journalism coach for virtually everyone else at Gazette 2.0, including Sonny Jani, an entrepreneur and real estate owner who owned and edited the publication.
An Indian immigrant, Jani worked at his father’s Blue Eagle Market and listened to his father read the Suburban Gazette while they both practiced English and learned about American culture. The Suburban Gazette marked the birth of Janis two children and performed the obituary for his father after his death in 1994.
In 2010 and 2015, Jani tried to buy the newspaper from the family who started it in 1892, but the owners told him it was not for sale. In autumn 2017 the paper went out of business.
In a matter of days, Jani made a $ 50,000 tax write-off available to start a new newspaper, Gazette 2.0. Since then, the newspaper has appeared every two weeks on Thursdays (with a short break at the beginning of the pandemic). A copy of each issue hangs on an office wall.
The newspaper prints approximately 4,400 copies per edition, sends nearly 400 to subscribers, and gives away the rest in local stores. It sells a full-page ad for $ 300. Local communities pay for legal notices.
The formula worked by keeping overhead costs down. Gazette 2.0 had sales of $ 95,000 last year, and it would have made a small profit if Jani hadn’t invested the extra income into creating more content.
While Jani turns his attention to other personal projects – writing a memoir and working on a Netflix series about his work with former Steelers center Mike Webster – he gives the paper to Reis.
It turned out that she too had tried unsuccessfully to buy the Suburban Gazette, and when Jani Gazette 2.0 launched, she started helping. Reis plans to keep her full-time job as communications and marketing director for 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 takes 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 they are: 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 ask (just don’t tell her it’s journalism).
The other important ingredient was the community. In addition to providing journalism for the places where it operates, the newspaper allows residents to take an active role in telling their own story.
Was it messy? Yes, Jani and Reis are now laughing at their arguments in the editorial meetings on Saturday, and they all have many stories about people who have tried journalism and failed (sometimes miserable and embarrassing).
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