By Jamie Wiggan
Gazette 2.0 distributed its first print run on Nov. 5, 2017 to fill the community news gap created when the 125-year-old Suburban Gazette unexpectedly shuttered the previous month.
Three years later, the revived newsroom is putting out close to 10,000 copies each month and continues to build support from readers and advertisers. Within that time, the team has grown to include nearly 15 staff and freelance contributors, and the paper’s content has twice been recognized at the Press Club of Western Pennsylvania’s annual Golden Quill Awards.
“I never thought it would be this successful,” said Sonny Jani, the paper’s founder and publisher. “I was surrounded by a great team that made this journey a lot easier… Without [Editor-in-Chief Caitlin Spitzer], this would not be where it is at.”
Before Jani recruited her to run the new newsroom, Spitzer handled graphic design and layout for the former Suburban Gazette. Columnist James Hogan, photographer Lynne Deliman and sportswriter Ken Hohman also stayed with the team following the new ownership.
“A lot of it was just trial and error to be honest,” Spitzer said of the paper’s success in spite of the broader losses facing print media.
In addition to printing a biweekly paper, Gazette 2.0 supplements advertising revenue by printing business cards, political campaign signs, and more recently, customized facemasks.
“I really wanted to help Sonny give back to the community and there was nothing out there at the time,” said marketing director Darrell Chestnutt.
Jani said he hopes to build upon three years of success by transitioning to weekly print issues sometime in the coming year.
“The growth in our paper has been amazing and the response from the public is awesome,” said Vice President Dave Rugh. “I’d like to see the paper grow some more going forward. Thank you for your continued support!”
Much has changed in McKees Rocks and the surrounding communities since the McKees Rocks Gazette first hit the press in 1892, and the fortunes of the paper have closely mirrored those of the town.
A former industrial powerhouse, McKees Rocks boomed in the early 20th century but slowly began losing inhabitants to the suburbs after the 1950s.
A 1968 issue of the McKees Rocks Gazette bemoans “the slow business death that is creeping upon us,” as family-owned storefronts began shuttering along the Chartiers Avenue business district.
At the time, the small Gazette staff packed a 30-page weekly newspaper with relevant political coverage, school news and tidbits celebrating the comings and goings of residents usually recognizable to a community of tight-knit readers.
“Back in the day when it was the McKees Rocks Gazette it had more personal things” like wedding announcements, photographs and birthday announcements, said Sandy Saban, a lifelong McKees Rocks resident and president of the local historical society.
In 1974, the paper rebranded as The Suburban Gazette, and readers began to see a shift in editorial focus and a slow decline in quality.
“It started to just be really general, there wasn’t that community feel,” Saban said. “Sometimes it almost felt like ‘The Rocks’ got lost in the shuffle there.”
Nevertheless, the paper continued to publish reports from local school and municipal meetings, and fed into a sense of community cohesion up till the presses stopped rolling in October 2017.
"Gazette 2.0 sets the standard on how local newspapers should operate in small communities by being both a source of news and by providing educational opportunities to aspiring journalists in the are," said writer Chadwick Dolgos.
Andrew Conte, who directs the Center for Media Innovation at Point Park University, has closely studied the impact on local communities when they lose a longstanding news source.
“Whenever the old Suburban Gazette closed, it had the potential to be devastating for the communities,” he said. “…Gazette 2.0 has the potential to fill that void and make sure people have access to what’s going on in the community.”
Conte said the shrinking coverage of regional print sources has created a market for hyper-local news, but the question of developing a sustainable business model for these new organizations still remains.
“It takes someone with a vision like Sonny Jani and these other investors to be willing to make that sacrifice to keep community news going,” Conte said. “…At this point three years in it’s on the community to keep that going.”
Saban, who said she lapsed into an occasional reader of the Suburban Gazette during its final years, said the new paper is beginning to remind her of the McKees Rocks Gazette in its heyday.
“Now it does seem like it’s coming back,” she said. “I read the articles mostly cover to cover.”
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