Rising From the Ashes in the Valley

Nov. 12, 2019

I spent some time last week in the offices of the Mon Valley Independent, a six-day-a-week newspaper in southwestern Pennsylvania.

The Mon Valley Independent is an interesting story. It’s only been around since May 2016, but emerged from the ashes of the Valley Independent, which served this area for an impressive 113 years before finally closing at the end of 2015.

Four local businessmen — entrepreneurs, if you will — created the new publishing venture. (Entrepreneurs are one of four target groups for our NewStart media ownership program, along with current journalism students and current and former journalists looking to take over their own publications.) The Mon Valley Independent owners had no real newspaper background, but knew that if this former thriving steel town lost its newspaper, “no one would care about this area any more,” according to co-owner Naz Victoria.

They’ve gone through some difficult times, especially in the first two years of existence. You can read about some of those issues on the NewStart website here.  

But it appears they’ve turned the corner.  They were profitable in 2018. They expanded their coverage area in 2019. And they’re looking to the future with an eye on events, a digital subscription push and even a possible nonprofit model.

Oh, and you’ll see them on their own float in the upcoming McKeesport Holiday Parade in these red “Make Newspapers Great Again” hats.

The MVI’s ownership group is unique, to say the least. One owner is currently incarcerated. As mentioned before, they don't have previous newspaper ownership experience (Victoria was once a stringer, however). And they also span the political spectrum.

Co-owner Joseph Dalfonso was a Westmoreland County magisterial district judge for 25 years and was once the chairman of the Monessen, Pa., Democratic Party.

The first time I met co-owner Moe Galis this past summer, he was wearing a “Make America Great Again” hat. Last week he had swapped it out for a MNGA version, complete with an ‘I Voted” sticker. He’s a Republican, obviously.

Victoria says he is an independent.

Despite their political differences, they say that hasn’t had an impact on how they run the MVI.  In fact, they said they were unanimous in their last round of political endorsements.

They say their goal of owning this paper is to help the Mon Valley improve. They’ve changed their editorial and advertising philosophies to match that. Without the paper, Galis said, the area would be left in the dark on some of the most important things a community needs. He said that includes who died (i.e. obits), how the local youth sports teams are doing, and what's happening at council meetings.

Galis pointed to that “dark” period between when the former Valley Independent closed and when the MVI opened as an example.  One of the local high school basketball teams had an incredible season, but no local paper was there to provide in-depth coverage. It just felt wrong.

That, in part, is why the MVI exists. To fill in the crucial community coverage gaps that would exist otherwise. 

“They believe in their community, and they believe there is a role for newspapers,” said Andrew Conte, founding director of the Center for Media Innovation at Point Park University in Pittsburgh. “They put their money where their mouth is.”

The owners of the MVI are making a good run at it, and believe they can be sustainable for years to come.

“The newspaper is going to be here a long time,” Galis said. “It’s not going extinct.”