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By Matthew Peaslee

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, roughly one-third of new businesses fail within their first two years.  And half of new businesses close their doors for good within the first five years.   So, it is no small feat that a local community newspaper that printed their first issue back in June 2004 – at a time when newspapers were considered a dying breed, a dinosaur – has reached a milestone, celebrating their 20-year anniversary.  The June 2024 issue of the South Hills – Mon Valley Messenger signifies the beginning of the company’s 21st year of publishing.

The very first issue of the Union-Finley Messenger – published June, 2004.
The first copy of the Mon Valley Messenger – published in August 2011.

Launched as the Union-Finley Messenger in June 2004 by Haniford Enterprises, LLC, owner and publisher Doug Haniford had hoped to just operate a tiny community publication that kept residents informed about local events, municipal news and gave small businesses a voice to advertise.

“Our very first issue was 24 pages I believe, and our circulation was much smaller,” says Haniford.   “We printed in mostly black and white, with just 1 added color blue on the front and back covers.”  The paper was quarter-folded so that it was easier to mail, as the Messenger was bulk mailed to all addresses in Union Township, Finleyville and New Eagle.   “Looking back, our premiere issue was very bland looking, no full color, and pretty small.   But, boy was it beautiful!” Haniford said with a smile.   “So much planning and hard work went in to getting that first issue done.   To see it finally come to fruition was such a satisfying feeling.” 

In the 20 years since that premiere issue, the Messenger newspaper has grown significantly, and underwent a few makeovers, including some strategic changes in distribution, editorial content, and staffing.   The coverage area also expanded as well starting with the introduction of Haniford’s second newspaper, the Mon Valley Messenger in August 2011.   Eventually, due to some duplication of coverage, and cost efficiencies, Haniford chose to merge the Union-Finley Messenger and Mon Valley Messenger into one larger reaching newspaper.  So in June 2014, the two newspapers were combined and re-branded as the South Hills – Mon Valley Messenger.

“We’ve definitely evolved over the last 20 years with some rebranding, and re-designs, and the launch of our website,” said Haniford.   “Like anything else, you need to adapt to the changing needs of readers and the marketplace.”


Despite all positive feedback, loyal readers and even some national awards and recognition from newspaper trade associations, there were some tough times when Haniford wasn’t sure if he would be able to continue.   

“Readership has never been a problem.   But advertisers started going away from newspapers,” said Haniford.   “Businesses felt they could get the same results by posting on their social media page – to people who already knew about them, or by just relying on word of mouth.”    Haniford added,  “Some of the larger local businesses had their hands tied, with their advertising being determined by a corporate marketing department in a different state that didn’t understand or recognize the strength of community newspapers, or the Messenger in particular.  So, ironically, at the same time we were growing, with larger circulation and larger page count, and reaching more readers for advertisers to speak to, our ad sales revenue was declining.   And since advertising is our only source of revenue, it was difficult to make ends meet.” 

There were times that advertising revenue was so bad, that Haniford was concerned that he would have to cease operations and file bankruptcy.   

“During the COVID pandemic of 2020 and 2021, we lost about 60% of our income.  Businesses either closed their doors for good, or stopped advertising altogether, because they were not permitted to operate, or didn’t have the budget to invest in advertising because their sales were impacted as well.”   

While the economy has slowly been climbing back from COVID, Haniford says the lasting impact on his newspaper remains.   Page count had to be trimmed in half from an average of 80 pages per monthly issue, to 40 pages.   He also cut back on circulation, trimming about 7,000 copies a month.  

“We had to make some tough decisions in order to continue operating.   When revenue is not coming in, expenses need to be cut.   We had numerous advertisers who just went out of business during COVID, or could no longer afford to advertise.   We’ve not been able to replace that revenue, and therefore we’re stagnant right now at our page count of 40 pages, and 20,000 circulation.”    

Haniford firmly believes that there is enough community news and information to share every month that he could easily publish an 80 page newspaper if the advertising revenue was coming in.   “I still need to reject news stories and article submissions every month, because we can’t afford to print the extra pages to include them,” he says.   “I could easily double our circulation to 40,000 copies or more, as there are plenty of locations that would carry our newspaper and fill in some circulation gaps.   But I can’t afford to print that many papers when the advertising revenue just isn’t there right now.”

Lack of advertising sales revenue has also impacted staffing levels at the Messenger.  “I used to have a regular group of writers, and a handful of advertising sales reps, but it’s difficult to pay people when the revenue is not coming in.  I’ve been without an Admin Assistant for almost two years, so there’s nobody to answer the phones or reply to incoming e-mails in a timely fashion.  Eventually these tasks fall back into my lap, and there’s only so many hours in the day for me to tackle everything.   And how do we grow our advertising sales revenue, without any sales reps?  Even so, we’ve found a way to push through and survive.”


Haniford still believes there will be a place for newspapers and other print publications long into the future.

“Nothing will ever replace the power of newspapers,” says Haniford.  “We’ll never be a dinosaur in my opinion.  Being able to read the news without needing a Wi-Fi connection, or a battery, or waiting for an article to load, or being interrupted by pop-up ads or on-line surveys!”   He added, “People can flip through a newspaper at their own pace, cut out an article, or a recipe, or a coupon or a picture of their kids and hang it on the refrigerator.   The entire reading experience is just better with newspapers.   You can feel the paper, and the pages make a distinctive sound when turned. ​ Readers can underline or highlight a sentence with ink, scribble in the margin, stick a post-it note or use a bookmark.​”

Haniford says that it’s newspapers that provided the very first “mobile” news source.  “What’s more mobile that rolling up or folding a newspaper to take it with you?    You can always come back to read it later, and pick-up right where you left off – without having to log back in again, or scroll to find your article, and hope it didn’t disappear.”

Even so, Haniford recognizes that people are getting their information from a variety of different sources these days, so he needs to make sure that we provide different platforms and options so that everyone can consume their community news in the manner they prefer.

“We have a nice website where people can read the very same news and information that is in our print edition, and we have a Facebook page with almost 8,000 followers.   We’ll continue to adapt and change with the times, but our heart and soul will always be printed newspapers.”


Haniford wanted to make sure he thanked all of the people and business that helped his business reach the 20 year mark.   “There are just so many people who have contributed to this newspaper,” said Haniford.  “From local residents who just wanted to be involved in the community and write for their hometown newspaper, to seasoned and professional writers, and graphic artists who create the newspaper ever single month.”   He added, “We have had some very loyal, long-time advertisers – some who have remained with us in every issue since we started!   They have been the backbone of support that allows us to keep going.”

Haniford wanted to send a special acknowledgement to some very key contributors over the years who have been instrumental to his success.  “There have been numerous people who have helped get us to where we are today – so I can’t name everyone without missing somebody or forgetting someone.  But I wanted to pay tribute to a few people in particular who deserve a special mention.  Paul Chasko was one of my first staff writers who was very involved with the paper and contributed immensely to our local coverage.  Paul passed away a few years ago, but he was a part of the original team that got us going.”   

Haniford made sure that he acknowledged several others as well. “Ken Askew our long-time circulation manager who just retired.  Lisa Tomosky, my first Advertising Sales rep who really drove the revenue that helped our newspaper take off.  John Mollenauer and Judi Robbins who helped pave the way for the launch of the Mon Valley Messenger, and Jerry Zahand a local business owner who always helped with advice, encouragement and ideas on how to succeed in business.   Krista Ramsey and Christen Stroh, two of my first Editors, Kelly Frost and Heather Latorre, who wore numerous hats, as well as J.R. Brower, Jim Caldwell, Alice Harris, Colette Dell, Miranda Startare, Samantha Milton, Mandy Withers-Kozlowski and Charlotte Hopkins –  freelance writers who contributed so much of their time.   Julianne Eisel and Joan Buck who handle the bulk of our graphic design, and Kara Prentice who has done everything from being a writer, delivery driver and promotions manager.  And Judy Gramm who makes sure that our billing is accurate and on time, and Charmaine Nebash who has helped service our advertising accounts almost since we started, and the husband and wife duo of Roger and Tina Patterson who helped the paper in numerous capacities over the years.”   

Haniford wanted to save his best for last – and thank his long-time Art Director Nancy Lammie of JMC Graphics.  “Nancy has been such a Godsend for me,” said Haniford.   “She has stuck with me through thick and thin, and her patience is unbelievable.  I don’t give her nearly enough time to do her job every month – unloading lots of late articles and last minute ads for her to lay out, but she always pulls through, and builds a beautiful newspaper that makes me proud every month.  We would not be where we are today without Nancy.  I can honestly say that!”

Haniford said he would be remiss if he didn’t mention members of his current team, who will continue to help the newspaper grow and continue serving the community into the future.   “I believe we have a good group with us now, mixing in some long-time team members with some new ones like Matthew Peaslee, Jill Runfola, and Lois Thompson.”

There have been numerous other contributors to the Messenger over the last 20 years, and Haniford apologized for not naming everyone.   “There have just been so many people who have helped, I couldn’t possibly list them all. Sometimes people stopped by for just for a few months, or sometimes just for a few years.  So many people wanted to get involved and be a part of this.   I’ve met so many great people.”     

He closed our interview by adding that they are always looking for advertising sales representatives to help drive sales revenue, so that the newspaper can continue its mission to provide news and information to residents.   “If you like talking with people, and have a bit of sales experience and drive, give me a call!   We can always use more friendly salespeople!   And if you enjoy reading the newspaper and want to keep it going – please encourage your local business to advertise, or if you are a business, give us a call, and let us show you how we can generate exposure for you.   We hope to be celebrating a 30 year and 40 year anniversary in the future – but only local advertising support will determine how long we are around.”


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