PITTSFIELD — By the time he graduated from Brown University, Jonathan Levine’s journalism resume was pretty deep: reviving his high school paper, contributing as a teen to a local publication and then running the show at The Brown Daily Herald.
Opportunity beckoned in 1991, with newspapers not yet pinched by the digital era. Despite that, Levine decided to practice his craft at home, in Pittsfield. Using a modest inheritance from a grandparent, he founded, championed and sustained The Pittsfield Gazette almost single-handedly for decades.
Until he died June 11 of lymphoma, at age 54, Levine was The Pittsfield Gazette, and vice versa, producing about 1,500 weekly issues.
“He was a one-man wrecking crew,” Ian Levine, a brother, said Tuesday. Though illness slowed his brother this spring, a kidney transplant in 2016 wasn’t enough to force his journalism to the sidelines.
“Even in his hospital bed, he was putting out issues,” Ian Levine said.
With Jonathan Levine’s death, The Pittsfield Gazette officially will cease publication of its print and online editions, his family announced this week.
The public is invited to a celebration of Levine’s life and work, from 1 to 3 p.m. Tuesday at Mazzeo’s Ristorante, at 1015 South St. in Pittsfield. Ian Levine said his brother wasn’t religious.
“We felt the celebration of life made more sense than a mourning of death — and felt the people of Pittsfield should be part of it.”
In a statement about Levine’s work, his family said a sense of public good always topped his agenda.
“For nearly thirty years, the Gazette covered the people and happenings of his hometown with reviews of regional theater sprinkled in when the seasons permitted. Jonathan was driven by a strong sense of right and wrong and used his forum to praise city officials when he felt that was deserved and to call out those whose actions he felt were not in the best interests of Pittsfield’s citizens,” it said.
Levine did not marry or have children. In addition to his brother, Ian, he is survived by siblings David and Cathy, and by three nephews and a niece.
On the beat
For years, Levine was one of Pittsfield’s closest observers of government, reporting not only on the City Council, but on its subcommittees, immersing himself in the workings of government, fellow reporters recall.
“The smallest kind of meeting you could think of, he would be there,” said Tony Dobrowolski, a reporter for The Berkshire Eagle who once covered City Hall. “He was the ultimate citizen journalist before there were citizen journalists.”
Levine started The Pittsfield Gazette months after graduating from Brown University, building on work as editor at his college paper and on earlier journalism at Taconic High School in Pittsfield.
When Ruth Bass went looking for youthful perspectives for a publication called Berkshire Sampler, she recruited Levine.
“He was very serious about journalism and always ready to argue any point with a member of the staff,” Bass said with affection.
Dan Valenti, publisher, writer and editor of the Planet Valenti website, once contributed columns to The Pittsfield Gazette. He said that the weekly’s name sent an important message to readers.
“Jonathan believed his paper should reflect the tastes and sentiments of Pittsfield. That’s why he called it the ‘Pittsfield,’ not the ‘Berkshire,’ Gazette. His death is a personal loss as well as a setback for the state of local media,” Valenti said.
“For 30 years, Jonathan provided an alternative to local ‘mainstream’ journalism,” he said. “His contributions can’t be measured objectively, but anyone who knew him or read his paper knows it anecdotally to be of the highest order.”
Ian Levine says his brother could have expanded his weekly’s reach, but did not.
“He chose to make the publication Pittsfield-centric,” he said. “The Gazette was never a major financial windfall for him, but he was committed to it like a parent to a child.”
Work to close out commercial aspects of the paper continue, the family says.
“Subscribers and advertisers will be contacted regarding the disposition of funds on deposit with the paper. … The family asks for patience as it unwinds the business affairs.”
In addition to decades of news coverage, Levine regularly reviewed local theater productions, one of his abiding passions.
Jeff Borak, The Eagle’s longtime theater critic, says Levine’s reviews looked most favorably on performances that showed honesty and integrity.
“That there would be a naturalness, rather than artifice,” Borak said, when asked what struck him about Levine’s local theater criticism. “He really appreciated honesty and talent. He was very, very principled. Jonathan would not even accept the ‘comp’ tickets that theaters give to critics. He felt that that way, he wouldn’t be beholden.”
On vacations, Levine traveled to see regional theater performances around the U.S.
“It’s ironic he should pass just as the summer theater season opens,” Valenti said. “His love of theater was rivaled only by his commitment to journalism.”
Ian Levine says his brother started to feel sick in early May. The cancer that killed him proved to be aggressive. It might have been triggered by mandatory use of immunosuppressant drugs, after renal failure and a kidney transplant five years ago.
By that time, The Pittsfield Gazette had suffered the coronavirus pandemic’s impact — as well as a long, slow slide in circulation. Ian Levine said the weekly had a peak circulation of more than 6,000 copies.
“Like everything else, times changed and subscriptions kept going down,” he said. Though Levine had begun publishing with a partner, he had assumed full control of the paper within years, soldiering on with help from a small part-time staff, his brother said.
“He was fully committed … and that was probably an understatement,” Ian Levine said, reflecting on countless hours of municipal meetings his brother witnessed. “I don’t know how he sat through it.”
“Nobody, I mean nobody, attended more meetings than Jonathan,” Valenti said.
Bass, who family members identify as Levine’s first mentor, recalls how much Levine enjoyed breaking stories, particularly when, due to his immersion in civic governance and willingness to log long hours, he learned of developments ahead of beat writers for The Eagle.
“He just loved doing that — and he did it,” she said. “People got used to him, and they sometimes talked about stuff in front of him that they probably shouldn’t have.”
Levine’s accounts didn’t always please elected officials.
“He was brilliant, and prickly,” Bass said. “He could be brutally honest.”
“I think he could have worked for any paper, anywhere,” she said. “But, he liked his independence and doing what he pleased.”
On Monday, John Townes, of Pittsfield, wrote: “I knew Jonathan both as a friend and on the Gazette. Aside from being an entertaining companion, he had the strongest sense of integrity of almost anyone I’ve known. Will miss him greatly.”