When Sonny Jani told his wife two years ago that he wanted to start a community newspaper in McKees Rocks, she suggested that he open a Blockbuster video rental shop, too.

That seemed to make about as much sense.

“I said, ‘Honey, everyone has a DVD and a Blu-ray now.’ She said, ‘Exactly. Everybody has a Twitter, Instagram and Facebook now.” No one, she told him, reads newspapers.

But it turns out that community news does still remain popular, even if it doesn’t make money (yet).

The first issue of Gazette 2.0, from Nov. 7, 2017, hangs on the wall inside the newspaper’s offices. Photo by Andrew Conte.

Jani, 51, started Gazette 2.0 in November 2017 when the family-owned Suburban Gazette, which had been in operation for 125 years, went under.

Now the startup newspaper serves as a model for how citizen journalists can take over local reporting when their community suddenly turns into a news desert. That change can feel empowering.

“I think it opens the door for more people,” Linda Bailey, 46, of Moon, told me.

She moves every few years because of her husband’s job as an active Army reservist, and it has been difficult in the past to get involved in local reporting because editors rarely wanted her outside perspective. They moved to the Pittsburgh area about a year ago.

“Before it was a lot harder,” she said. “If you wanted to get into highlighting your community or telling a story, somebody had control of what info was out there. Now they don’t have as much control because of the digital aspects and social media aspects, and anybody can be a journalist. If they want to, they can just put their stuff out there. I think that can be a good thing, and it’s exciting.”

I recently led Gazette 2.0 readers, including Bailey, in a workshop about how they can help not only consume local news but report it, too. The fact that 19 people turned out on a beautiful spring Saturday morning for a two-hour training session proves how committed these citizens feel about serving as journalists for little or no pay.

Given the grim statistics about the collapse of traditional journalism, the effort of these citizen journalists seems like a local experiment worthy of a national audience.

The newspaper has more than 200 subscribers, including people as far away as California, Arizona, Colorado and Las Vegas — as well as two inmates at the county jail — and it circulates 4,500 newsstand copies every two weeks, Jani said. It attempts to serve 10 western communities: Moon, Robinson, Stowe, Kennedy, Coraopolis, McKees Rocks, Thornburg, Crafton, Ingram and Neville Island.

That has become an ambitious coverage area for a staff of one full-time editor-in-chief, Caitlin Spitzer, two part-time writers, a part-time photographer and a team of freelancers.

The newspaper has come to rely on citizen volunteers as well. They attend all sorts of meetings for local townships and school board meetings, and they alert the newspaper when something interesting happens.

“It’s great especially because we are such a small newspaper and we’re very community-oriented,” said Cindy Alexander, 53, one of the part-time writers. She studied journalism but has a full-time job working for a payroll company.

“We want input and ideas from the community on what they want to see.”

A Steelers connection

How does the newspaper work financially? Well, it takes having a wealthy backer willing to lose money, at least for now.

At age 14, Jani moved to Pittsburgh’s western suburbs from India with his family. His father ran the Blue Eagle Market, a local grocery store. Now Jani and his siblings own the store, along with a Fox’s Pizza Den in McKees Rocks and other local real estate. Jani also manages a growing portfolio of hotels.

For a time, he also traded sports memorabilia and worked as an agent for athletes. Jani befriended former Steelers Pro Footbale Hall-of-Fame center Mike Webster, who struggled with mental health and homelessness, and Jani ended up administering Webster’s estate before he died. Jani sued the National Football League on Webster’s behalf and they reportedly won a $2 million lawsuit in the first successful case involving football-related brain injury.

Now Jani uses his personal wealth to prop up the newspaper. He has committed up to $50,000 of his own money each year, saying it serves as a tax write-off.

The first year, Jani lost the full amount. This year, he’s on pace to lose only $34,000, but he said he wants to use the extra money to pay for more writers. Jani said he also puts in about 30 hours per week at the newspaper’s offices.

What makes this story special is that Jani does not act like he alone owns the newspaper. Sure, he has put up the money, but he realizes that a lot of other people are putting in their time and effort for meager wages — or simply for the love of journalism. Jani recently applied for tax-exempt status to make Gazette 2.0 a nonprofit.

“Every time when they say, ‘I love your paper,’ I say, ‘No, I love your paper.’ I always tell them, or I say, ‘Our paper,’” Jani said.

“I’m blessed that God gave me money, so I’m okay. So this is just my giving back to the community where I started with my father. We read the paper together.”

For more than free pizza

Nineteen people attended a workshop inside Fox’s Pizza Den to learn about writing journalistic stories and to talk about local issues. Photo by Andrew Conte.

For several weeks this spring, Gazette 2.0 invited readers to come out on a Saturday afternoon for a journalism workshop. Nineteen people turned up on April 13 to learn about writing newspaper ledes and for free pizza.

We met in the back room of Fox’s Pizza Den, where NFL helmets hang mounted to the walls next to photos of Steelers players, and arcade games play an electronic serenade in the background.

First, we talked about how the media — yes, Gazette 2.0, but also Pittsburgh news outlets — cover their communities. These residents said they know a lot of stories go unreported, and that when journalists do show up, they may focus only on the bad news or fail to tell the full story.

Then we talked about the kinds of topics that go unreported or untold. Some are positive — like local academic successes and business developments — while others represent challenges like abandoned properties and crime.

For people like Bailey, Gazette 2.0 represents a way for them to not only consume the news, but also to contribute to it. She has not yet written anything for the newspaper, but after the workshop she said she plans to talk with Spitzer about getting involved. As a new resident, she brings a fresh perspective on a place that can get bogged down in traditional politics and rivalries.

Because of its community component, the Gazette 2.0 experiment stands out for the way that residents feel ownership for these stories and for their newspaper.

Andrew Conte writes the On Media column with support from The Heinz Endowments. You may find all of his columns here, and you may reach him at [email protected]