Brian Conway admits it’s a gutsy move to venture into print media in 2023 — especially in a withered local market such as Pittsburgh.
The day after the June 11 launch party celebrating the first Pittsburgh Independent print issue, a close digital competitor, The Incline, laid off its one remaining Pittsburgh staffer. Two years before, the Pittsburgh Current’s short-lived attempt to introduce a second alt-weekly into Pittsburgh’s fragmented media landscape quietly concluded. Meanwhile, the city’s legacy outlets are marked by layoffs and labor strife.
Somewhere within all this, though, Conway sees opportunity. People still want to know what’s going on in the city, he says, and they want to read about it from independent sources they can trust.
“There’s a lot of stuff in Pittsburgh that just isn’t getting covered,” Conway tells Pittsburgh City Paper. “Not because it’s the journalists’ fault or anything like that. There’s just only so much time.”
Conway launched the Independent last spring as a digital-only publication centered around a weekly roundup of top news stories for the casual consumer, and supplemented with occasional deep dives and original reporting. The print edition rolled off the press this month to commemorate the one-year anniversary. There may or may not be more forthcoming.
Embracing the tagline “Pittsburgh’s above-ground underground newspaper,” Conway says his goal is to expose the ills of the powerful while highlighting overlooked artists and small businesses.
“I think that if we're able to do independent reporting and shine more of a spotlight on, you know, these authentic, independent places, I think that that could resonate with readers,” he tells City Paper.
In an opening note introducing the issue, Conway points to a 2021 report by the American Journalism Project, which concluded, “Pittsburghers feel the absence of strong local news media and want basic watchdog journalism.”
He says his inaugural print product is already asking those hard questions with a piece exposing the emptiness of the Pittsburgh Penguins’ recent sustainability pledge and another questioning the Warhol Museum’s ethics for participating in an arts festival sponsored by Saudi Arabia’s “brutal regime,” which presumably paid a handsome loan fee.
It also has an entire two-page spread dedicated to many of the hidden wonders of Pittsburgh’s Mexican culinary scene, written both in Spanish and English. Meanwhile, the back two pages reveal a litany of DIY music listings presented in a suitably minimalist DIY aesthetic.
Emma Diehl, a contributor to the Independent who won a Golden Quill for her profile of a South Side boudoir photographer, says the publication is creating opportunities for freelancers like her to tell stories that other outlets might shun.
“I was really excited to give her an opportunity locally for coverage when it was not getting touched by other outlets,” Diehl says of the piece’s subject, Kelsa Blaine.
Having successfully rolled out one press run, the Independent remains a primarily digital operation. Conway says he hopes to establish a quarterly printing schedule, but he’s taking things one day at a time.
“Now the challenge for me — and this is like the biggest challenge — is how do we make this thing sustainable?” he says.
Conway says he essentially broke even on the 4,000-issue print run even without the suggested $5 donation, from where his only profit was gained. But the road ahead, where he can sustain his own living costs and build up a team of contributors, remains unclear.
Rather than attempting to drive up traffic to a scale that can squeeze meaningful sums from pay-per-click advertising platforms, Conway hopes to seek out targeted ad placements that match his product. But, he acknowledges, investing there — whether of his own time or through someone he hires — will draw resources from his content production. So his approach is to “scale up” slowly.
Conway says the Pittsburgh Media Partnership — an initiative of Point Park University working to unite the city’s varied news outlets around common goals — has sustained some of his more involving reporting through its collaborative grant fund.
“Everybody in Pittsburgh media has been super supportive,” he notes.
Not all share Conway’s optimism, though. Nick Keppler, author of the scathing “Penguins Pledge” takedown published by the Independent, lacks much hope at all for the future of local news.
“Over the last five years, there has been such a consistent flow of bad news about Pittsburgh media,” he says. “Naturally, people see a lot of hope in these smaller projects that are new, that are ambitious, that are optimistic. It’s very hard to sustain those kinds of things though.”
Keppler says smaller novel newsrooms like Conway’s, PublicSource, and the Pittsburgh Institute for Nonprofit News, form an “exciting” constellation, but he’s unconvinced it can fill the void left by hollowing legacy outlets.
Diehl remains more optimistic.
“You see that in-depth coverage and curiosity, and I just hope to continue to see that as the publication grows.”