Both cities were even large enough for two daily newspapers – even if only briefly. The dominant newspapers – the Akron Beacon Journal and the Youngstown Vindicator – could punch above their weight.

By Vince Guerrieri 

The early 20th century was a boom time for Northeast Ohio.

The region’s population swelled as immigrants came to America, looking for jobs in the area’s factories and mills. Ohio was the fourth most populous state in the nation, and the city of Cleveland, in the 1920 census, was the fifth biggest city in the country. (By comparison, Ohio’s now the seventh biggest state in the union, and Cleveland is no longer among the 50 biggest cities in the country).

Even cities like Youngstown and Akron swelled. Youngstown, thanks to the steel mills that dotted the banks of the Mahoning River, grew threefold from 1900 to 1920, and Akron, which had subsequently become a center for rubber production, grew fivefold in that same time.

Both cities were even large enough for two daily newspapers – even if only briefly. The dominant newspapers – the Akron Beacon Journal and the Youngstown Vindicator – could punch above their weight. And they both settled nicely into Art Moderne buildings, a variation on Art Deco, designed by the same architecture firm and built by the same company.

Today, both newspapers are shadows of their former selves, as the 21st century has been unkind to Akron, Youngstown and media in general. Neither building, designed by the architecture firm Howell & Thomas, is being used by a newspaper. And they appear to be headed in two different directions.

In 1878, Edward W. Scripps started a newspaper in Cleveland with the revolutionary idea that newspapers should be independent of party politics and readily available to the general public. The “Penny Press” – its price undercutting every other newspaper in town – soon became the most-read newspaper in the city – and the start of an empire.

Five years after founding the Cleveland Press, Scripps bought the Cincinnati Post off his brother. In 1898, an Akron edition of the Press was inaugurated. Scripps continued to grow his empire forming the Newspaper Enterprise Association, the first major newspaper syndicate, and five years later he founded the United Press, a wire service to compete with the Associated Press. Expansion was the company’s plan – it was even written into Scripps’ will, which mandated that 30 percent of the company’s revenue be used for just that purpose.

Among Scripps’ purchases was the Youngstown Telegram in 1922. It was started as a Republican alternative to the Vindicator, which itself was established by James Odell, who used the name because he felt his Democratic political beliefs were “vindicated” in the Mahoning Valley.

As the Scripps chain continued to grow, it sparked its own construction boom – and used one of the most prolific and prominent architecture firms in Ohio. Carl Howell and J. William Thomas met as architecture students at the University of Pennsylvania, and their firm, founded in Columbus but later having moved to Cleveland, received many high-profile commissions, including the Euclid Golf Neighborhood in Cleveland Heights and several homes for the Van Sweringen brothers in Shaker Heights, a planned community they built, served by the commuter trains emanating from their largest and most well-known project, the Terminal Tower in downtown Cleveland.

They also designed more than twenty newspaper buildings, many for Scripps-Howard. They designed the new building for the Pittsburgh Press on that city’s Boulevard of the Allies; the Baltimore Post building, the Houston Press building and a pair of buildings in Northeast Ohio that bear more than a passing resemblance to each other. The new homes for the Youngstown Telegram and the Akron Times-Press both had Art Moderne flourishes, each taking up almost an entire city block. The Times Press even had a small tower at the corner of East Exchange and High streets, to simulate a lighthouse, the emblem of the Scripps-Howard chain. (The company’s motto was “Give light and the people will find their own way.”)

The Telegram building opened in 1931, but the paper that built it was not long for this world. A year after the new building opened, managers at the newspaper were indicted by a grand jury for attempted bribery and falsifying circulation figures (the charges were dropped a month later). Ultimately, the larger Vindicator bought out the Telegram, and soon after moved into the newer building.

A similar fate befell the Akron Times-Press. “The Times-Press was convinced that the best interests of the community would be served by one strong newspaper, and therefore its owners had made an effort to buy the Beacon Journal from (owner John) Knight,” said Louis Seltzer, Cleveland Press editor and the executive editor of Scripps papers in Ohio, in an Associated Press story from Aug. 29, 1938. “When Mr. Knight declined to sell, the Times-Press accepted the alternative and the acquisition of the Times-Press by the Beacon Journal followed.”

The Beacon Journal and the Vindicator owned their respective regions for decades. The Beacon won Pulitzers in 1968 for Knight’s commentary and then again three years later for coverage of the Kent State shooting. The Vindicator, which had crusaded against the Ku Klux Klan as it gained a foothold in Youngstown in the 1920s, turned its attention toward the organized crime that had emerged in the region, inspiring former police chief Edward Allen to call it “one of the most militantly honest and fearless newspapers in the country.” Then it all came crashing down.

Akron and Youngstown were both one-industry towns. Youngstown’s steelmaking days came to an abrupt end, starting on Sept. 19, 1977, a day known in the Mahoning Valley as “Black Monday,” when Youngstown Sheet & Tube announced it was closing one of its mills at the end of the week. Instantly, thousands were out of work, and all the other mills in the area closed shortly after as the area became the poster child for what Walter Mondale called a “Rust Bowl,”  which later became modified into the “Rust Belt.” The end came in Akron as well, if more gradually, as rubber plants in the city closed, one by one. A 1982 AP story said that 8,600 jobs had been lost in the rubber industry in the preceding eight years.

The populations of both cities began to shift to suburbs after World War II, but following the decline of their industrial bases, the overall population began to drop. And yet each newspaper remained productive, if not accomplished. The Beacon, by then part of the Knight-Ridder chain, added Pulitzers in 1987 and 1994, and the Vindicator continued to publish four editions a day throughout Ohio and Pennsylvania. It had expanded across the street to a new printing facility in 1971, and even bought up some more adjoining buildings in the 1980s, to keep up their own property values as downtown started to decline due to deindustrialization and demographic changes.

My main experience with the old Vindicator building was accompanying my father there when he had to pay for a classified ad in the 1980s, which in reality were the good old days for newspapers, not the “Sweetheart, get me rewrite” days of “The Front Page” era. Most newspapers at the time were monopolies, making money hand over fist – and it was thanks in no small part to classifieds, the most lucrative part of the newspaper (the customer essentially writes them and pays the newspaper for the space to run them – and the audience).

In 1995, Tony Ridder, then the CEO of Knight-Ridder, the Beacon’s parent company, warned of an oncoming threat – the internet, specifically online classifieds. His prediction came true, as websites like eBay, Craigslist, and Zillow stole away the key components of newspaper classifieds.

Knight-Ridder was further buffeted by angry stockholders, demanding more profits from the publicly-owned company, and finally, Private Capital Management forced the chain’s sale to McClatchy in 2006. The Great Recession further hammered newspapers, taking its toll on two of their largest advertisers –  car dealers and real estate sales.

The Vindicator, family-owned, didn’t have to report profits of 15 or 20 percent, as was expected from companies like Knight-Ridder or Gannett. It appeared to be better poised to weather a changing industry. But was it? In 2004, the Guild representing Vindicator newsroom employees went on strike, and people in Youngstown said that was the beginning of the end.

One of the reasons the 1980s were a golden era for newspapers was because it had become far less labor-intensive – and thus, less expensive – to produce a newspaper. Typesetters had given way to composing rooms. Reporters were starting to use computers instead of banging out stories on typewriters. That trend continued into the 21st century, as designers could use pagination software to prepare pages – and then send them to the plate room with a press of a button.

That meant the paper could be printed anywhere – and in fact, some chains started to consolidate printing for multiple newspapers, as presses for each newspaper became less of an asset and more of a liability. And as newspaper staffs shrunk, no longer were those large monuments to journalism necessary downtown.

In 2015, the Vindicator sold the old Telegram building for $654,000 to the Youngstown Business Incubator, known for its additive manufacturing and 3-D printing (for several years in a row, America Makes, part of YBI’s campus, was name-checked in Barack Obama’s State of the Union address). It was the fifth building to be added to YBI’s downtown campus – and the first that wasn’t donated or gifted to the incubator.

The sale to the incubator seemed like the shedding of excess space. It turned out to be the de facto start of a going-out-of-business sale. In the summer of 2019, the Vindicator celebrated its 150th anniversary. Then it announced its closure. “I had always expected that of all the newspapers, they’d be well-positioned to stay alive,” says Barb Ewing, CEO of the incubator.

The family that had owned the paper for nearly its entire existence said that it had been losing money since the late 1990s. The paper’s name, subscriber list and web domain were sold to Ogden, which owns a rival newspaper, the Tribune-Chronicle, in nearby Warren.

Owner Mark Brown said that several companies at least kicked the tires on the Vindicator in 2018, a year before its closing, but one pulled out after “a large property came on the market that they wanted for a long time.”

That was also the year that Gatehouse bought the Beacon Journal. A year later, Gatehouse merged with Gannett to create the largest newspaper chain, and they’re running the same regionalization playbook Gannett did a decade earlier. Staff moved out of the Beacon Journal building, and in 2020, it was sold with an eye toward development.

Today, the building in Youngstown – which has outlived not one, but two newspapers – is thriving. The former home of the Beacon Journal faces a potentially grimmer fate.

Newspaper buildings are a strange mixture of office space and light industrial space – and the incubator has put that to good use. The basement, once home to printing presses, is now doing printing of a different kind.

Of course, some renovations were needed. Heidi Ruby, director of operations for the incubator, took me on a tour. The 65,000-square-foot building’s already undergone a $5 million renovation (paid for by various local, state and federal sources). “Structurally, we didn’t have to do much,” she says. The next phase would include a new roof and more office space on the building’s top floor – which once had a marvelous wood-block floor. However, Ruby said, linotype machines sat on that floor (one is on the building’s main floor, a heavy memento of its prior purpose), and over the years, the floor became saturated with lead, unable to be reused.

In 2020, the Beacon building was sold to Capstone Real Estate Investments. The company made pitches to make it the new home for the Akron Police Department and for a FedEx subsidiary, but neither panned out. In September, Capstone Chairman Michael Mouron wrote to the city “with a heavy heart and a deep sense of frustration,” asking for permission to sell the building to his sons, who own the nearby Standard, an apartment complex. They would raze most of the building – preserving a small part at the intersection of High and Exchange, including the iconic tower – and turn it into surface parking.

“The City is not in favor of the proposed demolition of the Akron Beacon Journal building,” says Stephanie Marsh, chief communications officer for the city. “It is an officially designated local historic landmark with a lot of significance to our community.  We would like to see this important structure preserved and reused, rather than torn down for surface parking.”

The matter has come before the city’s Urban Design & Historic Preservation Commission, which tabled the issue until at least February (they’re scheduled to meet Feb. 7). In the meantime, Capstone will continue to look for a potential owner that will value the building’s unique characteristics.

“As we lose our newspapers, we don’t have to lose the physical memory of them,” Ewing says. “They’re a tribute to our past and we should do everything we can to preserve our legacy.”

Vince Guerrieri was born in Youngstown three weeks before Black Monday, and left there without ever really escaping it. He’s an award-winning journalist and author now living in the Cleveland area.