By Rachel Gobep, Alyssa Weston and Amanda Joerndt
The sun set on The Vindicator for the last time.
The once bustling newsroom at The Vindicator now has an eerie feeling. Reporters are no longer on their daily beats, and editors aren’t reviewing copy — The Vindicator is closed.
Although employees had two months to revise their resumes for new job applications or prepare for retirement, there was no way to sufficiently brace themselves for the end of their careers and the end of a Youngstown legacy.
“It’s like watching your ship sink while attending your own funeral,” was one way William Lewis, former photojournalist at The Vindicator, described the last two months working in the newsroom.
Lewis said the final days inside the newsroom were challenging. Staff spent time reminiscing on some of the big stories they’d worked on during the last night of publication for The Vindicator.
According to Mark Sweetwood, former managing editor of The Vindicator, emotions in the newsroom were varied in the couple of months leading to the last printing day on Aug. 30.
“The emotions ran from disbelief, to panic, to people who were crying,” he said. “When I told Mark Brown, our general manager, what my new job was going to be, I suddenly got emotional. It was the first time in seven or eight weeks of this that my guard went down a little bit.”
To Mark Brown, whose family owned The Vindicator for 137 years, the closing was personal.
“It’s like when someone is dying when you know they’re going to die, and they hang on for six months, and you say at least you’re prepared. But when they die, it doesn’t matter. You still fall apart,” Brown said to The Plain Dealer.
Graig Graziosi, a former news reporter at The Vindicator, said the fear he had wasn’t for his job.
“I’m still relatively young; I can bounce back. I could even retrain if I want. The thing that started eating away at me, even on the first day, was seeing the response from my older colleagues who don’t have the luxury of 20 or 30 more professional years before they have to retire,” he said.
Samantha Phillips, also a former news reporter at The Vindicator, said she hopes people realize the importance of good journalism.
“They’re going to feel the loss of a good, in-depth watchdog that covers every meeting that citizens can’t go to and that is the eye of the community,” Phillips said. “I think people are going to realize how much they should have just paid the subscription and supported local journalism.”
Although the last edition of the newspaper was picked up from newsstands on Aug. 31, The Vindicator’s history will forever be etched in stone.
A 150-Year History
The Vindicator launched in 1869 with the first issue of the weekly Mahoning County Vindicator. It was renamed the Youngstown Vindicator in 1876.
William F. Maag Sr. purchased the paper’s nameplate and remnants of the North Phelps Street print shop in 1887 after a fire destroyed it earlier in the year.
The family remained in the newsroom for four generations and closed under Publisher Betty Brown Jagnow and General Manager Mark Brown.
The Vindicator later shifted to a daily paper in 1889. It became the first paper in the United States to publish a colored photo in 1901, according to The Vindicator’s last print edition.
Historically, the newspaper is known for its reporting on Valley corrupt officials, the mafia and the Ku Klux Klan.
Its final edition states The Vindicator bought The Telegram after public disapproval of its KKK favoring, which was a “key date in The Vindicator’s decadelong battle against the Ku Klux Klan.”
This battle included KKK members protesting outside of William F. Maag Jr.’s house.
According to a Guardian article, about 70 politicians, businessmen and mafia members were convicted of criminal acts in the late 1980s as a result of the paper’s reporting.
How Did We Get Here?
When The Vindicator made the public announcement that the newspaper would cease publication on Aug. 31, many news readers around the nation posed this question: how could this happen?
With digital advertising coming from sites such as Facebook and Google taking over the news realm, a lack of advertising was the main culprit.
According to Brown, former Vindicator general manager, the newspaper’s most profitable year was in 1989, with a 17% to 18% profit margin.
Fast-forward to the early 2000s, popular internet domains started booming with advertisement sales, along with creating a successful location for citizens to obtain daily news.
The Vindicator released their first website domain in January 2000 and soon after started using social media platforms to distribute local news to the community.
In 2004, Vindicator employees went on strike for unfair wages, health care, sick leave and bidding rights, according to an article in People’s World.
The strike was held with the hope that The Vindicator would lose out on profiting from advertisements during its prime time of the holiday season. That turned into a reality. Subscribers and advertising revenues fell after the nine-month strike ceased, financially hurting the publication.
A database system by the University of North Carolina Center for Innovation and Sustainability in Local Media shows there has been a 50% decrease in daily newspaper circulation from 2004 to 2019.
The Vindicator falls in line with thousands of newspaper publications across the nation closing their doors due to the online advertising empire growing with new, innovative strategies that can’t compare to print journalism.
In 2010, The Vindicator took one final swing at building their online advertising and news domain by installing a $10 million press system with advanced technology and a restructured newspaper that formats the original masthead.
With no luck coming from the renovated press system, it was only a matter of time before Brown knew he had to make the “toughest decision he’s ever had to make,” according to a Vindicator article.
On June 28, Brown made the announcement to The Vindicator staff that the end was near for the 150-year-old newspaper.
Richard Logan, former news editor for the newspaper, said he has heard the phrase, “When a newspaper dies, a little bit of democracy dies,” several times throughout his career and believes it to be true.
“One thing you don’t get from all of those other sources is the strict watchdog rule over local government, in-depth coverage, enterprise and investigative reporting that keeps our government on their toes,” he said.
Adam Earnheardt, chair of the Department of Communication at Youngstown State University, said he was shocked but not surprised about the closing.
“Some of us knew that day was coming. I just don’t think that any of us realized it would be that fast, that soon,” Earnheardt said. “I think that there was writing on the wall about how long The Vindicator had left, but many of us thought it would be years, not months.”
He said the journalism industry in Youngstown will be forever affected and the closing will change the perspective of how news is gathered and delivered for years to come.
“News is forever changed; journalism is forever changed,” Earnheardt said. “We are part of something that could be much bigger, and we could be a staging area for what journalism should look like in this century.”
Other local and national news outlets are stepping up to the challenge of being the voice of the Valley.
The Tribune Chronicle of Warren, Ohio, purchased the newspaper’s masthead, web domain address and subscription list, with plans to expand its coverage throughout Mahoning County.
In hopes to fill the void, ProPublica, a nonprofit investigative news platform, selected the Business Journal, a multimedia publication that is published twice a month, to be a partner of their Local Reporting Network.
Other recognizable digital news mediums, such as The Compass Experiment founded by McClatchy and Google, will be launching their first digital-only news operation and will hire local reporters and editors to cover news across the region.
Although the sun set on The Vindicator, those attempting to fill the news gap are hoping coverage for the Mahoning Valley does not go dark.