The Future of Local News in Youngstown

2019-08-15T11:59:26+00:00July 29th, 2019|

What the closing of the city’s only daily paper means for people in the community.

By Russell Brickey

On June 28, Mark Brown, general manager of the Youngstown Vindicator, announced the paper will cease production on August 31, after one hundred and fifty years of publication. Brown, along with his mother, Betty H. Brown Jagnow, the owner, are third and fourth-generation family employees, a lineage which goes back 132 years to a fire, in 1887, when a great-great-grand uncle purchased the flame-damaged paper and established the publishing lineage. The loss was expressed poignantly by Brown himself when he published his “Dear Vindicator Readers” letter: “April 1 marked my mother’s seventy-first year of working here while I will only have thirty-eight years in as of this June. As the saying goes, we have ink in our veins.”

The death of the Vindy was not entirely surprising. The paper lost money in twenty of the past twenty-two years. Sister newspapers made note of the challenges facing the Vindicator in recent years: a troubled pension fund; inadequate technology, particularly the website, and an expensive new printing press which failed to attract external printing business as was hoped; a querulous relationship with its union (workers went on strike in 2004-2005); a steep decline in readership (from a circulation of one hundred thousand at its height to twenty-five thousand currently); and a drop in advertising money in a post-industrial city.

For a relatively small market, the story has gained national attention. The Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post both jumped in with Vindy headlines. “‘Democracy…is about to die in Youngstown’ with closing of the local newspaper” reads a WaPo headline, ripped from a quote of the July rally in Youngstown. “Local Paper’s End Marks Turning Point in Industry’s Decline” reads the Wall Street Journal’s. The scenario raises questions about the viability of newspapers in the digital age, and the community necessity of the press. Nationally, around two thousand papers have folded since 2000, and their stories are frequently the same. The trend appears to signal the end of an era in local reporting, as community news is being outsourced to giant Internet news agencies, if it is being covered at all. When local news is no longer reported by local journalists, communities feel that they have lost a voice.

For the people of Youngstown, the loss of the Vindicator is more than the loss of local news…It’s the loss of a record.

Barely a week after the Vindy’s announcement, the Youngstown Press Club and the Rotary Club of Youngstown organized the first public forum in support of the failing publication. I went. Held in the Tyler Mahoning Valley History Center, the event drew 160 people, many of them Vindicator employees past and present, who enthusiastically rallied to the cause of saving the newspaper. “The Vindy affects the whole valley,” one business owner told the assemblage. Another community member, a nurse, said. “We just have to keep the Vindicator.”

One commenter, a seventy-two-year-old daughter of an attorney who once represented the Vindy, wept as she mumbled into the microphone. Her words were virtually impossible to discern. She was not alone in her reaction. A number in this small cross-section of Youngstown were moved to tears as the microphone was handed around the room, including the evening’s moderator, Adam Earnheardt, the Vindy columnist and chair of the Youngstown State University Communications Department. His wife, journalism professor Mary Beth Earnheardt, had to leave the room altogether to compose herself.

Vindicator employees and alums wore nametags (to “network,” the woman working the nametag desk told me) and stood at the beginning of the forum to the type of applause usually reserved for military veterans. In a manner of speaking, they are footsoldiers in a losing battle to retain a sense of Youngstown as a whole. “The Vindy connects us all,” Mary Beth Earnheardt told the Washington Post. “A community without a strong, central newspaper is missing leadership—and a big part of its identity.”

As the microphone made its rounds at the event, Earnheardt’s meaning became apparent. The loss of the Vindy is a personal blow. One woman taught her children to read from the newspaper.  More than one librarian spoke about the importance of having a paper for children, snowbirds, and the elderly. A local teacher had contacted Adam Earnheardt: who would run the grade-school spelling bee now that its sponsor, the Vindicator, would no longer be in business? At least two citizens worried about unexposed “corruption,” prompting Youngstown Mayor Tito Brown, who arrived in a blue polo shirt, to nervously assure all present that his administration was dedicated to “transparency.”

Several of the supporters had been carriers for the paper when they were children. One man in the first couple rows stood and reached for the microphone. He was very tall and very erect. He wore an alumni nametag. He said his first job was as a bicycle carrier for the paper, a job which he kept through adolescence. He joined the Army and, after being discharged, came back to his hometown, where he has worked and read the Vindicator his whole life. “The Vindicator gave me my foundation,” he said. His final comment summed up the feeling in the room: “We are going to be a community that communicates. That’s all I want to say.” People applauded.

For the people of Youngstown, the loss of the Vindicator is more than the loss of local news, though that component is clearly a major concern. It’s the loss of a record. The paper is an institution that represents the community—its past, present, and future. Without a daily paper, would history remember them? “The Vindicator is the place we read about our lives,” a local history librarian told the assembly, and then added: “Will our descendants be able to access our lives?”

 

Recently, Youngstown has seen a lot of bad headlines. The city loses between three and seven percent of its population every year, in an ongoing exodus that began with “Black Monday” in 1977, when the Youngstown Sheet and Tube Company shut its doors. Entire streets lined with vacant houses have been disenfranchised by the city, which has lost sixty percent of its population since the 1950s. Even the good news tends to sound like a bandage: in 2018 there were 2,686 vacant houses in Youngstown, a decline from 2016, when the number was 3,910, and definitely better than 2008, when there were an estimated five thousand empty houses—but this may have something to do with the more than two thousand buildings demolished since 2010, and the city still hovers at a thirty percent vacancy rate.

Even Bruce Springsteen was moved to write a song about the city that once produced cannonballs for the Union Army but has now fallen on hard times:

Well my daddy come on the Ohio works
When he come home from world war two
Now the yards just scrap and rubble
He said, “Them big boys did what Hitler couldn’t do”
These mills they built the tanks and bombs
That won this country’s wars
We sent our sons to Korea and Vietnam
Now we’re wondering what they were dyin’ for

As if to confirm The Boss’s poetry, the ailing GM Lordstown factory, home of the poorly-marketed (and poorly-selling) Chevy Cruze, closed in 2018, accompanied by the loss of fifteen hundred jobs. Lordstown, which employed eight thousand people in 1972, had actually been laying off employees for years. The HomeGoods warehouse, a bit of good news (built within sight of the derelict Lordstown structure), imported construction workers from Georgia, leaving local construction companies out of the pool. Six area Perkins restaurants were ordered by a judge in Texas to drop the franchise name because they had not kept up with required upgrades, and, in some instances, had not paid corporate royalties.

On the other hand, the restoration of the twelve-story Stambaugh Building, in downtown Youngstown, which opened in May 2018, won an award from the Mahoning Valley Historical Society on June 18, ten days before the Vindy announcement. On July 5, legendary R&B/Disco/Funk band Earth, Wind, & Fire played the newly constructed amphitheater overlooking the Mahoning River. And at least three new restaurants have opened in the downtown area in the last couple of years.

The problem is obvious: Who will cover the stories national publications don’t? Who will be there when new shops and restaurants open in town? Who will be there if they fail? Will anybody profile day-to-day life in the valley? Headlines and Internet trolls favor bad news. This is particularly true of stories on the national stage. Local events are, understandably, not usually interesting to people outside the region. Such stories are important to the locals, however, particularly when times are hard.

The void left by the Vindicator cannot be placed entirely in the context of news, or even industry.

It is not strictly true that Youngstown will turn into a “news desert,” a dire term from the Wall Street Journal article. The Youngstown Business Journal, the neighboring Warren Tribune-Chronicle, and ProPublica all vowed to broaden coverage to include the Youngstown area. The city’s entertainment paper, Metro Monthly, and Youngstown State University’s The Jambar and YO Magazine are still in production, as well as the weekly Boardman Town Crier, which covers the city’s eastern bedroom communities. Youngstown, like most communities of its size, also hosts several local TV news outlets, including WFMJ, which is also owned by the Brown family.

But a daily, community paper of record represents something else to the community. Many at the June 28 rally reached for the microphone to spit-ball ideas: Could the city buy the paper? Could volunteer reporters fill in? One community member suggested that people could pay to “write their side of the story, like if they are in the police blotter,” bringing a moment of surprise levity to the otherwise solemn proceedings.

What is not apparent is that a handful of earnest supporters can save the failing publication. Mark Brown sought a buyer for several years to no avail, so a rescue from outside the community seems unlikely. There is talk of turning the Vindicator into a collective, winning a Knight Foundation grant, and going completely digital. Meanwhile, on June 18, Google announced that Youngstown would be the first city in its new partnership with the McClatchy news service, the “McClatchy-Google Compass Project.” It’s not yet clear yet exactly how the partnership will work, but the stated goal of the project is to provide “local news coverage to three mid-sized communities in the US that currently suffer from a dearth of sources of information.”

The void left by the Vindicator cannot be placed entirely in the context of news, or even industry. Despite the promise of several regional papers to step into the breach, the loss of a community voice hurts. And what’s next for local news in Youngstown remains to be seen; at the public forum on the closing of the Vindicator, its future was anybody’s guess. But there was a glimmer of optimism, too. “If anyone can make it happen,” Mayor Brown told us in good political fashion, “Youngstown can make it happen.” ■

 

 

Russell Brickey is originally from Oregon, and he misses his beaches and mountains. He studied creative writing at the University of Oregon and Purdue University, and he holds a PhD in literature from Purdue. His poetry includes collections from Spuyten Duyvil Press, Wild Leaf Press, and Kelsay Books. He lives with his wife and two dogs in Youngstown.

Cover image of downtown Youngstown via Wikimedia.

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