By J. Hogan
In 1892, newspapers were the only media. No radio, no TV, no internet. That made newspapers essential and useful for a large segment of the populace. It was in that environment that the McKees Rocks Gazette (later the Suburban Gazette) was founded, and the Schramm family kept it going for 120 years or so.
Those 120 years were a time of accelerated transformation in America, and by the time the family’s run was over, newspapers were on their way out due to other media preferences outpacing their traditional ink and paper method.
It was in this environment that businessman Sonny Jani first tried to buy the closing newspaper, then decided to start a legacy paper, Gazette 2.0, to ensure that his American hometown did not go without a local paper.
The first thing he did was reach out to Sonja Reis, a newspaperwoman, formerly of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, and hire her to edit and guide the paper. He could not have done better.
Sonja has a true passion for newspapering, and the brain and skills to do it well. Of course, at one point there were amazing, artisanal wagon wheel manufacturers who did great work as Henry Ford started rolling Model T’s off the assembly line, and just as those folks saw their field evaporate in short order, so, sadly, are newspapers.
The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette now delivers my mother her paper sporadically, maybe one paper every 4-10 days. That’s no model for sustained success, but the dying industry requires cost cutting and cost cutting sends unions out on strike, desperate to get better pay and guarantees from a shrinking pool of money in an unguaranteeable, collapsing market.
In such an environment, Sonja has tried to keep the Gazette, which she acquired from Jani three years ago, going. Small, local papers are even harder to keep afloat.
A story about local government not honoring the spirit of PA’s sunshine laws can result in that community’s local Boss Hogg-type making advertisements dry up. An article trying to get a developer to live up to promises made when they used local resources to help them acquire and fund the cleanup of a brown field then price the land out of reach for quick development really rubbed said developer the wrong way. Then a story outlining where local political candidates acquire money to run their campaigns (it isn’t locally) showed that same developer was in charge of leading a new political faction.
The combination of these two stories not only gets that developer to quit advertising, it gets you stiffed on outstanding bills.
Yet, Sonja soldiered on, spending a new car’s worth of personal debt to make ends meet over the course of her run as owner in order to try to continue to provide a great paper for the region.
That battle is over now. The changing times and a dying populace of people who care about print news have made it impossible to continue the paper absent a passionate paper-loving benefactor, and none has magically appeared to save the paper.
I write this today to say this to you: If you see Sonja around town and have enjoyed having a paper, thank her. Pick up the tab for her beer or coffee, and know that she has suffered many slings and arrows fighting to keep the local paper open.
She has been heroic in the battle, but not all battles turn out as one wishes. I’ve been blessed to work with and for her, and I’m grateful she’s my friend. In my office hangs a Golden Quill award I won when Sonny owned the paper, but I couldn’t have won it without Sonja’s strong eye for editing. I never thought I’d win an award for my writing, but it makes me smile that I did.
Gains and Gleanings started with the Suburban Gazette and continued on with Gazette 2.0, and I’ve heard from many that they (thankfully for me) cherish it. As such, it will continue on a dedicated Facebook page called (how’s this for creative?) Gains and Gleanings. I will archive all the older columns and add new content there, so I hope you’ll come along for that.
Of course, Facebook is passé now. The kids have moved on to Instagram, Snapchat and other social media platform and mostly older users routinely use it, so eventually that wagon wheel will quit rolling as well. Thanks Reis for giving us all a shot at this. You deserved a better outcome.
Rev. James Hogan is a native of Stowe Township and serves as pastor of Faithbridge Community Church in McKees Rocks.