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Paper Trail Off

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The South Pittsburgh Reporter has been delivering community news to neighborhoods south of the Monongahela River for 70 years.

But Tom Smith is worried it won't be doing so much longer.

"I see a lot of the people who would normally pick up the paper are going online to read it," says Smith, whose family has owned the weekly paper for 30 years. "That does me no good."

The Reporter serves neighborhoods like the South Side, Allentown and Carrick, reporting everything from block-watch meetings to disputes in housing court. But like every other newspaper from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette to The New York Times, Smith is seeing readers skip the print edition for the Web ... even though advertisers aren't following suit. Typically, Smith says his print edition runs at 12 or 16 pages. But in the past six months, he says, they've been running at just eight.

"It's been a challenge," says Smith, 52, who started the paper's Web site roughly four years ago.

So in an online post on May 12, titled "Sopghreporter.com going through some changes," Smith notified readers that times for the small community newspaper are tough. "Many of you have let us know how much you appreciate being able to read The Reporter online," the post reads. "Unfortunately, that means [you're] not all picking up the paper and not all seeing the advertising which supports publishing both the online and hard copies."

Unlike the P-G and the Times, The Reporter can't stay afloat by furloughing employees. "I am the staff," Smith says.

In the 1980s, Smith says The Reporter had a handful of full-time staffers. But the business has been getting squeezed for years. Smith recently had to lay off his secretary, and the paper's Allentown office doesn't have regular hours anymore.

"I had heard a rumor" the paper was struggling, says Donna Stanton, part owner of the South Side's Schwartz Market, which has been advertising in The Reporter for more than 20 years. "That's tough."

While it's likely that the dwindling print readership is hurting Smith's paper, today's dismal economic climate isn't helping much, either. Stanton, for one, says she's struggling to pay for a quarter-page advertisement in The Reporter because business is slow. "Things aren't going well for a lot of people," she says.

Pittsburgh City Councilor Bruce Kraus, who represents the communities that the paper serves, says The Reporter is a valuable resource. And a popular one to boot.

"Go to the Market House on Tuesday. It's like they drop money at the door," says Kraus, who was endorsed by the paper during his run for city council in 2007. "People flock to grab the paper.

"Anything and everything that is relevant to south Pittsburgh is in that paper," he continues, citing everything from senior-citizen and political news to church functions and zoning hearings. "It's a staple."

Smith is considering a number of options, including discontinuing or restricting access to the Web site. For now, he says, he'll try drumming up circulation for the print edition by delaying the release of material online. Instead of publishing the Web site on Tuesdays, the same day the paper is delivered in print, he says he'll start updating the Web site on Thursdays. (City Paper follows a similar schedule.)

"It's going to be a wait-and-see thing," says Smith, 52.

Meanwhile, Smith says he's weighing his other options. He's considering hiring a sales representative, but if the new hire doesn't bring in enough revenue, Smith could end up in an even deeper hole.

As the managing editor of The Northside Chronicle, Andy Medici understands Smith's struggles. "We were worried about [going online], too," says Medici, whose paper launched its own site in January. "The print edition is the bread and butter."

Putting the newspaper online "is sort of a damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don't situation," says Medici. "But not changing with the times is probably not the best solution."

Medici, one of two staffers who write copy for the publication and sell advertising too, has a luxury Smith doesn't have. The monthly paper is supported by a local community group, the North Side Community Development Fund. "I wouldn't want to try" publishing without the Community Fund, says Medici.

For now, Smith refuses to wave a white flag and let the paper fold. He says it's the only job he's ever known. Last month, though, Smith says he filled out the first resume of his life. "I would have hoped to be able to retire from here," he says. "I don't want to give this up."

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