By Jamie Wiggan
I don’t suppose my expectations were high when I saw that ad for a part time staff writer at a strange newspaper I’d never heard of in McKees Rocks.
But I gave it a shot anyway.
I was 25, recently graduated, and had just received my authorization to work in the U.S. Apart from a few clumsy dispatches for the college newspaper, I’d done none of the right things to land a job in journalism so I didn’t waste time applying to the regional dailies. I figured – rightly, it turned out – I at least had a chance with this ramshackle start-up.
For my first assignment, I was sent to chase down rumors that two beloved institutions – Pat Catan’s and Eat’n Park – were pulling out, striking another blow to a beaten down town. But the closures were wrapped up in sensitive negotiations and I couldn’t get anyone to speak out. (I was probably too timid and guileless, honestly, but no fear! a few years in the Rocks would toughen me up, and I did later break those stories.)
Instead, I came away with a sappy feature about three new businesses that had set up shop that year in the community. A few benign errors slipped through the copy desk but it was nonetheless satisfying seeing the headline fronting the cover on the newsstands at Giant Eagle. I knew I wanted to keep doing this.
Within a few months, I talked the owner at the time – Sonny Jani – into boosting my hours so I could credibly claim this as my full-time job. I spent the next two years writing about sewage projects, road closures and school budgets, and occasionally upsetting the apple cart. My skirmishes with the insular crowd on McKees Rocks Council earned me the moniker “Red Coat” on account of my vestigial British accent, and I’m told my inquiries into the tightly run political machine in Kennedy secured me prayers and a candle (the I’m-worried-about-your-soul kind) from the Godfather himself.
I do in any case feel heartily blessed for being apprenticed among the decent folk of Pittsburgh’s western flanks. Holed up in that crusty Broadway Avenue storefront, I got a taste of authentic community journalism that will inform my work for as long as I make a living writing.
In the spring of 2021, I was preparing to accept an offer at a regional daily in a neighboring county, a sure step up from McKees Rocks’ hyperlocal bi-weekly. I can recall a throb of sadness sitting in the kitchen of historical society president, Sandy Saban, who insisted on feeding me perogies while helping me with sourcing for what I suspected was my final story.
But my escape route was blocked the next day when Publisher Sonja Reis showed up on my porch with a proposal scribbled indecipherably on a reporter’s pad. The money was still woeful, but she offered to make me editor, and I opted to stay.
On paper, this was a poor choice, if my goal was to make professional headway against the heaving currents of a crumbling news industry. But chances are, had I taken it, I’d still be stagnating at a faltering legacy outlet waiting for the bottom to fall out.
As it happened, an errant City Paper headline about a gas station opening in McKees Rocks that emerged in the months after set up my next break. Seeing the new GetGo opening hailed by CP as a boon for neighboring Kennedy (endowed as it was already with a GetGo and Giant Eagle combo), I sent a delicate note to former editor Lisa Cunningham (who played no role in that article) suggesting a correction. We went through several rounds before uncovering the root of the error: Giant Eagle had given the address of the existing Kennedy GetGo with a McKees Rocks ZIP in its press release announcing the new location. (Oh, and did I mention this is on the site of the former Pat Catan’s?)
Some time later, I finally left G2 to take a position as CP’s news editor. Lisa told me after I got the gig my polite stubbornness over the GetGo saga helped clinch the deal. (I suppose four years in the Rocks teaches you tact as well as guile.)
I’ve since moved on again to PublicSource and from here I look forward to as many years in the satisfying work of local journalism as the shaky industry will give me. However long that may be, I’ll forever be grateful to Sonny for taking a chance on me, Sonja for mentoring me and keeping this thing going long after any sane person would have folded, and the rest of the team – Caitlin, Lynne, Hogan and others – who’ve poured their time, passion and talent into this beautiful, miraculous project. Farewell Gazette 2.0.