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Behind the Byline: Charlie Deitch

by The 100 Companies

It’s no secret that newsrooms are struggling, but when Charlie Deitch, publisher of the Pittsburgh Current said in our recent Behind the Byline interview, “there’s absolutely no reason we should be operating today,” I wasn’t quite sure what he meant.

Then I saw a number of articles pop up with headlines describing the “total annihilation” of his type of news outlet. As Nieman Lab reported, “COVID-19 is ‘a nearly perfect weapon against alternative weeklies.’ In dozens of cities, papers are asking for donations, laying off staff, or abandoning print as social distancing dries up their revenue streams.” Minneapolis is just one example of a city that lost its only alt-weekly outlet, when City Pages shut down in October 2020 after 41 years.

Many know Charlie’s story and how the Pittsburgh Current came to be (if you don’t, see the link below to learn more). Despite all that happened in the past, Charlie is proud of his team – Brittany Hailer, Mary Niederberger, Jake Mysliwczyk, Nick Eustis and Jody DiPerna – and their accomplishments. He is grateful for their dedication, even when they didn’t know when the next paycheck would come in.

Learn more about Charlie and the Pittsburgh Current in our full interview below.

And for students looking to explore a journalism career, be sure to read through to the bottom to learn about internship opportunities at Pittsburgh Current.

Where are you from?

I’m from Wellsville, Ohio. It’s a small town about 20 miles north of Steubenville. Because we’re so close to Pittsburgh, everyone in my hometown is a big Pittsburgh sports fan, including myself. I have fond memories of coming to Pittsburgh a lot as a kid.

What made you decide to become a reporter?

Growing up, I loved watching the show “Happy Days.” Everyone loved the Fonz, but I identified more with Ron Howard’s character, Richie Cunningham. In the show, he played the saxophone and wanted to be a journalist. I played the saxophone for about 10 minutes, but the idea of being a reporter always stuck with me. A few years later, my mom picked up a copy of “All of the President’s Men” by Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward at a yard sale, and I was sold.

Where did you go to school?

I have a unique story when it comes to my education – I always wanted to be a journalist, but I never wanted to be a student.

I started out at Kent State University, and while I loved my English classes, I was there to be a journalist and nothing else. Needless to say, I didn’t do so well in my other classes. When it came time to enroll in Kent State’s journalism program – a top-rated program in the country – I didn’t meet the GPA requirements. I enrolled in Youngstown State University, where many of the adjunct professors were reporters, so I loved being able to learn from real journalists. Still, I knew I always learned by doing, so I started to look for part-time job opportunities at papers.

Where was your first job?

While I was still a student at YSU, I started working at East Liverpool Review, my hometown newspaper. At the time, I wanted to be a sportswriter with a focus on sports photography. When I heard the paper had just hired a new sports editor – Bob Castello – I walked into their offices and asked to speak to him. Bob told me to come back Friday, and that’s when I started writing stories. I would drive home from Youngstown on Fridays and head straight to a football game to cover it. Soon, I was asked to cover Saturday games, and then eventually, my editor said, “Hey, do you want to cover the Steelers on Sunday?” and as a Pittsburgh sports fan, I said, “heck yes!” Not long after, I was asked to cover basketball games on Mondays. As I kept getting more assignments, it became more of my life than school. Before I graduated, I was offered a full-time position as a general assignment reporter, so I never finished my degree. I’m still grateful that my editor, Robin Webster, took a chance on me.

In other words, you can say if I was a basketball or baseball player, I turned pro early.

How did you make your way to Pittsburgh?

I had about a six- or seven-year odyssey. I believe there’s always something new you can learn and sometimes you have to seek out other opportunities to grow. I was always keeping my eye out for new job opportunities.

After Ohio, I moved to Wisconsin to be the regional editor at Marshfield News Herald. I interviewed, was offered and accepted the position all on one call. I was excited for the opportunity to cover government and learn more about the local agriculture scene. But, on my second day to work as I was driving through a blizzard, I realized I didn’t want to survive another winter. The job itself was great. I was learning from new editors, I had great mentors and I picked up a new skill – page design.

From there, I joined my former editor Bob Castello in Danville, Illinois. Over the years, my role changed from sports editor to assistant city editor to city editor, so I wasn’t writing much and I missed it. I accepted a special projects position with a paper in South Louisiana where I had a chance to cover big stories. Here is where I took an interest in social justice reporting.

When my dad started to get sick, I moved to Pittsburgh and was offered a reporter position with the city’s first true alt-weekly, In Pittsburgh. I started there at the end of the paper’s run. About two months before it was sold to Pittsburgh City Paper, I was offered and accepted the editor-in-chief position with East Liverpool Review, but I didn’t want to be an editor. I wanted to write. I started to do a lot of freelance work. Then, in the mid-2000s, when Rich Lord left the Pittsburgh City Paper to go to the Post-Gazette, I was offered a part-time position. Let’s just say that I took his seat, but I didn’t fill his role because I don’t think anyone could do his job. He’s definitely one of the guys I look up to in the business, no question. In 2014, Chris Potter left and I became editor of City Paper.

Many of us know how your 13-year career at Pittsburgh City Paper ended. Let’s skip that part. Tell us about the Pittsburgh Current.

NOTE: if you’re curious about what happened and how it led to the creation of Pittsburgh Current, check out this Pittsburgh Magazine article: “Fired by City Paper — Charlie Deitch Won’t Be Silenced.”

After everything that happened with Pittsburgh City Paper, I had a desire to do something. At the time, creating the Pittsburgh Current may have come from a place of anger, because it really was hard to get over, but all of the bad feelings are gone and now I’m really proud of what the publication has become today.

I wanted to design a news-first publication run by journalists. It’s easy to cross the lines between editorial and advertorial, but at the Pittsburgh Current, we will never pull a story if an advertiser asks. Yes, we have lost some ad dollars in the past because of this policy, but it doesn’t happen often because we’re upfront with advertisers from the beginning. This is who we are, this is how we operate, and a lot of companies understand that.

What sorts of stories do you look to cover?

As a truly independent alt-weekly, we cover news, politics, arts and entertainment. What makes us different is that we’re telling stories that haven’t been told before. We want to know more about the inequities taking place in the community and in the education system. In the past year, a lot of our stories have shined a light on topics that aren’t being talked about. Pitch me something we haven’t heard before. For example, over the past year, we’ve focused our stories on in-depth coverage of the Allegheny County Jail’s handling of the COVID-19 crisis as well as documenting stories of racism happening in our neighborhoods. Our goal is to bring about real change.

How can people support the Pittsburgh Current and why is that so important?

When COVID-19 hit, I thought that was the end. There’s absolutely no reason we should be operating today, but it’s clear our staff, readers and supporters very much care about our product and the kind of journalism we’re doing. All of the staff continued to write even when pay was very low. At one point, I even delivered food for a delivery company to make ends meet. I can tell you, no one works at this paper to make money – I haven’t collected a paycheck since 2018 (my last day at Pittsburgh City Paper).

It’s important that we keep the Pittsburgh Current going at any cost. Thankfully, we’ve been able to secure grants and donations through our membership program. To learn more about Pittsburgh Current memberships that support independent news coverage, visit our website here.

You’ve kept busy during the pandemic working on a big project. Tell us more about it.

I’ve always wanted to start a nonprofit news agency staffed with diverse journalists from all backgrounds. News companies used to offer an apprentice program – you’d start in copy and work your way up. I want to offer aspiring young journalists the opportunity to learn about the industry through paid apprenticeships.

The idea of nonprofit journalism has been growing. It’s the idea that newsrooms operate as a nonprofit, where funds go toward creating content and paying writers a fair wage. After meeting DigBoston editor Chris Faraone at a conference for the Association of Alternative Newsmedia, he told me about how started the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism (BINJ) and I was hooked.

We need to reinvent the way we do things. So, for the past six months, I’ve been working on the launch of the Pittsburgh Institute of Nonprofit Journalism (PINJ). You can read all about this new initiative here.

What is one of your most memorable stories?

While in Louisiana, I covered more diverse stories than I ever covered in my life. I remember sleeping on a porch to cover a national story about hostages being held at St. Martin Parish Jail (check out The New York Times article about it here). The incarcerated individuals were Cuban Nationals who were being indefinitely detained by the federal government. They filed numerous lawsuits not just about their incarceration but about the abuse they received at the hands of the corrections officers. The media reports made a big impact because they resulted in the Cuban government making an agreement to take back Cuban nationals. In other words, it brought about real change.

That was the first time I learned about the severe inequity in our country’s immigration system and how I could help make a difference. When I started working at In Pittsburgh, I knew from my time down south that small county jails in Pennsylvania had similar incarceration contracts like the one in Louisiana. So, I started digging into county jails across the state and I found similar things going on.

I talked to a lot of county sheriffs and immigration attorneys to learn about these contracts between counties and the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS). I started hearing stories about people facing indefinite incarceration, people who were in this country legally. I heard about a guy in a Central Pa. jail named Thong Souvanthavong. He was a Laotian immigrant who was granted political asylum in the U.S. because he was a rebel soldier during the Laos Civil War trying to overthrow the country’s communist government. I remember calling the INS three to four times a week to learn about the case. I spent three months working on my first investigative story. That was the first time I was able to spend that amount of time on one article, and the end result produced real change. About a week after my story ran, INS released the man from custody.

I also have to mention covering the closing and sale of Iron City Beer. I spent two months working on it and turned in a 9,000-word story. Needless to say, it was cut down, but it was the first time I was able to do extensive historical research.

What do you like to do in your spare time?

I spend a lot of time with my nieces and nephews, and I’m able to combine two passions – gaming and photography. You’ll either find me playing video games online with my 15-year-old nephew or at their sporting events taking photos. I’ve become a big fan of WPIAL softball games.

The Pittsburgh Current releases a digital issue every Thursday. Be sure to subscribe on the website

If you’re a student looking for a summer internship, email Charlie directly at charlie@pittsburghcurrent.com to learn more.

– Robin Rectenwald, WordWrite

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