Donio, Rullo speak about Gazette at HSH
HAMMONTON—The Historical Society of Hammonton held their monthly speaker presentation series at the Hammonton Canoe Club on Feb. 2. The speakers for the month of February was the founder and publisher of The Gazette Gabriel J. Donio and Gazette Editor-in-Chief Gina L. Rullo. With family members in attendance as well as Atlantic County Fifth District Commissioner James A. Bertino, Editor-in-Chief Gina Rullo and staff writer Joseph F. Berenato, Donio talked about the journey to how The Gazette started, the process of what goes into making a newspaper and how much it has grown.
The Gazette started in 1997 when Donio was 23 years old and has been Hammonton’s weekly news source since. When it first started, it was a 24-page newspaper and along with Rullo, Dan Russoman and Berenato, the first edition took 24 hours to complete as none of them all worked together on a production day (and night, and morning) before creating the first paper in 1997. Compared to the first edition, The Gazette has grown in size in the 25 years it has been publishing.
“It was a unique situation to start a newspaper from the ground up with a bunch of mostly 20-something year old people. I’m happy to say that this week’s edition is now 76 pages,” Donio said on February 2.
The Gazette provides excellent coverage of local news, sports, arts and entertainment and civic life. They provide informed opinions but the paper is extremely objective, which sets it apart from other media outlets as they believe opinions should be in opinion pages and not news coverage, which is a hallmark of their 25-year history according to Donio. Since its inception, The Gazette has produced more than 1,320-plus issues and comes out every Wednesday, with subscribers receiving it every Thursday in the mail and has been an integral part in the town’s news coverage and history.
Donio said 2021 saw an interesting two-year period in the newspaper’s history, as he described. In 2021, the Society of Professional Journalists of New Jersey Chapter honored Rullo for her investigative reporting and both Donio and Rullo were honored with the Courage Under Fire award. In 2022, The Gazette won two national awards from Editor and Publisher Magazine, an honorable mention on the magazine’s top ten publishers that do things right and Rullo was named one of 15 “Editor Extraordinaires” by the magazine.
“To give you a concept of what that means, these are some of the biggest newspapers in the country that are receiving these awards and Hammonton, N.J. is on the list with The New York Times and The Arizona Republic and a lot of major names you know, so it was quite an honor,” Donio said.
The Gazette’s coverage of various types of news coverage and the town’s history is indicative to how it doesn’t matter if Hammonton is a small town and that Donio believed you can do great things. The Gazette covered the Hammonton Little League team and the 1949 team that made it to the Little League World Series against Pensacola, Fla.. The paper’s determination to provide the best news coverage goes back to Donio’s childhood of reading books, with The Little Engine That Could and its famous saying “I think I can” being a inspiration to Donio and The Gazette’s work ethic that has made them successful.
“It’s indicative of the idea from that children’s book from many years ago that we talk about, which is ‘I think I can’ and the idea of ‘it doesn’t matter if it’s a small town. You can do great things and as the internet came on, it didn’t matter where you were. You can do great things anywhere and we’ve always believed that,” Donio said.
Donio then discussed The Gazette’s sale to J. Louie Mullen of Wyoming in September 2022, whose family owns 33 local newspapers. Donio and Rullo continued their positions as publisher and editor-in-chief, respectively.
The origin of The Gazette started as a baseball project by Donio as he wanted to bring a minor league baseball team to town called the Hammonton Blueberries, which wasn’t successful as they were told they didn’t have enough population. Donio began thinking the town needed better sports coverage and thought of starting its own newspaper. With current sports editor Russoman on board, The Gazette began. Rullo, who was working at the Villanova newspaper, The Villanovan, came down to Hammonton with Donio’s younger brother, Jim Donio, and what was supposed to be a summer internship turned into a 25-year position. Russoman wrote for the Trenton State College Signal, now The College of New Jersey (TCNJ), and Donio wrote for Boston University’s The Daily Free Press prior to The Gazette. Berenato, a lifelong Hammonton resident, was there at the paper’s inception at 19-years old and columnists such as Donna Brown have been writing for the paper.
“I figured they [The Daily Free Press] had 25 years under their belt so it only made sense that maybe we would take that and make that a part of The Gazette,” Donio said, holding up a copy of the college paper.
The Gazette tries to cover every event happening in Hammonton, whether it’s the annual Feast of Our Lady of Mt. Carmel, the building of the high school, early education center and town hall, the closing of William B. Kessler Memorial Hospital, Kellyanne Conway’s book signing and eventual First Lady Dr. Jill Biden’s visit to Hammonton.
Donio collaborated with Gazette readers to create the book Images of America: Hammonton, which was published in 2002 and captures the history of the town. Donio emphasized that the work is not vertically integrated and credited Rullo for saying it’s all about working together as a team.
Donio then opened the floor for questions and some of the questions ranged from how the printing process works and how the paper obtains news from all different sources that’s happening in town, which Rullo, who is considered the nucleus of the paper by Donio, answered.
“Some of it is we just have to listen really well, everyone talks, it’s just a matter of sifting through information and citing. Is it story worthy or is it just gossip? When it comes to crime or fires, there’s calls that go out and we used to have a scanner in my office back in the day, that got to be really annoying. Thankfully there’s online and you can find out stuff like that and you can also text us or text a fireman and then you can get the official report from the police or the fireman,” Rullo said.
Donio concluded the event by reminiscing about memories that The Gazette has had during its 25-year history, including going to the White House to cover Congressman Frank LoBiondo’s bill signing in the East Room in 1998, with then-President Bill Clinton and others in attendance, to staff writer Joseph F. Berenato interviewing Dr. Jill Biden, to covering Lindsey Giannini as the first Hammontonian to be crowned Miss New Jersey.
“It’s just wonderful that you get to meet these intriguing and interesting people and that’s the best part about our job and it’s meeting new people,” Rullo said.