By Elizabeth Perry
Staff writer’s note: Sonja Reis gave me a chance to work in journalism after I had to take a break from the industry for years. I’m incredibly grateful that she not only gave me a chance to do what I love again but gave me a chance to expand my skills.
When Sonja Reis was asked why she bought Gazette 2.0 when she is not independently wealthy, had never owned a business before and was trying to juggle raising children with a full-time job, she answered first with a joke.
“Because it was only a dollar–thank you, Sonny [Jani],” Reis said with a laugh.
Then she paused and gave a more serious answer.
“Because I believed in it,” Reis said. “I still believe in it.”
She thoroughly believes the stories important in the coverage area of Gazette 2.0, which includes Carnegie, Coraopolis, Crafton, Ingram, Kennedy, McKees Rocks, Moon, Neville, portions of Pittsburgh’s West End, Robinson and Stowe, are a microcosm of the Pittsburgh area and indeed the country. The paper was never at a loss for news.
“(The region) is a hotbed of craziness and wonderful people who care about each other,” Reis said.
Throughout the years, her life has continued to return to the area.
Reis grew up in Kennedy Township and later on a farm in Greene Township, near Hookstown, Beaver County. She attended through the fourth grade at Montour’s Forest Grove School, another elementary school that is no longer there. At South Side Area School she was head yearbook photographer and wrote for the school’s paper. At Penn State University, she majored in journalism. A gifted photographer, she initially wanted to go into photojournalism, until a class taught by her photography professor about community journalism lit a spark that’s never gone out.
“I’ve never wanted to be anything more than a community journalist,” Reis said. “It’s so sad to see where local news, let alone community journalism, stands in this current landscape.”
She got her start in agrarian reporting, dealing with the ups and downs in farming communities.
“I was writing for the Farm and Dairy in Salem, Ohio doing Ag journalism, I interned there my sophomore summer,” she said.
Around that same time, she freelanced for the Coraopolis and Moon Records and reviewed albums or profiled bands with upcoming Pittsburgh show dates for another defunct McKees Rocks treasure, The Rock & Roll Reporter.
Her ties with the Suburban Gazette (Gazette 2.0’s predecessor and the name some of you refuse to stop using) reached back as far.
“I actually interviewed at the Suburban Gazette in 1996 at their Locust Street office,” Reis said.
“I recall the dingy newsroom was littered with ashtrays and the smell of stale cigarette smoke hung in the air. Suffice it to say, they didn’t hire me. I don’t know if they were even hiring.”
By 1997, she’d become a general assignment reporter for the Carnegie Signal-Item. Eventually, she was promoted to lifestyle editor and chronicled marriages, births and deaths for the section published in six east suburban community newspapers. As part of the role, she also put together special sections and advertorial-driven product for the one-time Gateway Publications headquartered in Monroeville.
She’s been in the industry since she was a teen and with the exception of a 10-year stint as a stay-at-home mom, has been engaged in reporting the news for more than 20 years.
Reis re-entered the world of journalism in 2011 as a reporter for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
Though writing for the largest paper in the region was “good for her ego,” she was continuing her passion for community journalism by reporting on small local communities in the paper’s then-West edition.
All the while she was considering the rocky future of local news and looking for a way to use her skills and switch professions before age got in the way. She was also looking for something that would allow her to give back; corporate drudgery would not do.
She found that in late 2016 when she joined the team of the McKees Rocks Community Development Corporation. By early 2017, she’d stopped providing stories for the Post-Gazette and went all in for community development communications.
But there was a hitch in her plans, the McKees Rocks Suburban Gazette (that she once offered to buy years prior) folded in 2017.
Gazette 2.0 was created in its stead by local businessman Sonny Jani and she was invited to join the team as a mentor and contributing editor working with local citizen journalists to build a better product.
By March of 2021, she’d taken over as its owner/publisher.
Throughout that run, Reis has continued to work full-time for the MRCDC, used her own finances to patch holes caused by a lack of advertising revenue, and worked long nights with a microstaff to produce the kind of journalism she’s proud of, some of it award-winning.
Lately, pressures have made the whole tightrope impossible for her to walk. Now it’s “time to regroup.”
“I’m going to sit back for a while and see what turns up and where to go,” said Reis, who is considering writing a book in her “newfound free time.”
Possibly, the paper will return in a non-profit format, or just online.
“If and when we do that it has to be with all our ducks in the row. The money has to come first, not last. That’s the only way to make this work,” Reis said.