Vindicator Staff Reflection: From Their First Publish to Final Print

Photo by Bill Lewis

By Alyssa Weston

When The Vindicator published its last edition on Aug. 31, 2019, the city lost its voice and 140 employees lost their jobs.

“I hid from the world. I went into a bunker. I didn’t want to talk to anybody,” Mark Sweetwood, former managing editor of The Vindicator, said about the initial news of the newspaper’s closing.

But while this Youngstown staple is concluding, The Vindicator’s staff will hold on to their fondest memories. 

For Sweetwood, who worked for newspapers in New York, Illinois and Florida before landing at The Vindicator, there were many satisfactory moments in the newsroom.

Sweetwood recalled his favorite memory in his years of working at Vindy was when Joe Gorman, former Vindicator crime reporter, called Sweetwood to tell him that Robert Seman, a man accused of triple murder in Mahoning County, jumped to his death from the fourth floor of the Mahoning County Courthouse.

“We’ve had a few crazy news days, but that one was special because it falls under the category of you never know what’s coming next,” he said.

According to Sweetwood, Gorman was the reporter to break the story.

“There was only one reporter in the courthouse on his beat when Robert Seman jumped,” he said. “Will that mean next week that no one will be in the courthouse on a beat when that happens? Could be.”

Julie Zuckla, former newsroom and society clerk at The Vindicator, spent her days at the newspaper doing many tasks, including answering phones, writing daily announcements and entering data into the Vindy website.

But within her six years at The Vindicator, some of Zuckla’s favorite memories were meet-and-greets with radio personality Louie B. Free’s guests. 

“I have a lot of selfies with the movers and shakers of this area,” she said.

When former general manager Mark Brown informed the staff of the newspaper’s closing, Zuckla said they knew they’d receive bad news, but the employees didn’t think it was going to be a “worst case scenario.”

“It was terrible, and I hope I never have to go through something like that again,” she said. “A Youngstown without The Vindicator is inconceivable.”

The pain resurfaced for Vindy employees when there was mass confusion in the community after The Tribune Chronicle bought The Vindicator name, website and subscriber list. 

“[People] congratulated me on getting to keep my job, and they were relieved that the Vindy was saved. Neither of those things were true. It was like yet another punch to the gut,” Zuckla said. “But I do wish the Mahoning County edition of The Trib the best.”

In Zuckla’s opinion, Brown and The Vindicator’s former publisher Betty Brown Jagnow handled “one of the most gut-wrenching decisions of their lives” with dignity and grace. 

“Not only did Mark deliver the news of The Vindicator closing to his staff personally in meeting after meeting that June day, but then he faced television interviews that night. It was a lot. It was painful to watch, so I can only imagine how he felt,” she said.

Alex Migletz, former information systems specialist at The Vindicator, served as the first point of contact from a technological standpoint during his time at the newspaper.

Migletz said he knew The Vindicator’s chapter was closing last summer when Brown entertained potential buyers. In his opinion, the newspaper failed to “keep up” with advancements in technology, which he believes could’ve factored into its downfall.

Migletz said during the last workday, the staff felt like a family and reminded him of the last night before high school ended. For him, the most memorable moment was on the last print day as he watched the press machine run for the last time. 

“When I was there I knew [the newspaper] would shut down, but I never thought I would be there to experience it,” he said.

In Sweetwood’s opinion, The Vindicator is part of a chain reaction of newspapers closing, and he is unsure of what journalism will look like in the future.

“We all want everything in bite-sized pieces and doses, and really good journalism is not often available in that format,” he said.

Sweetwood also believes many people think news is a brand, which he believes contributes to the shift in the journalism industry.

“[Consumers] treat [news] not like information but like comfort food,” he said.

For former Vindicator editor Todd Franko, his start in journalism was an unlikely coincidence, but ultimately landing at Vindy was no fluke.

“I loved the set up, loved the university town, loved the family-owned operation. It was a good-sized paper, product and newsroom,” he said.

Throughout his 12 fruitful years at The Vindicator, Franko had an indication that the end was near.

“If you’re trained to always look for the ‘next’ in our industry and especially in our product,

you can see that ‘next’ was not going to be good because the advertising just wasn’t there,” he said.

According to Franko, there were a series of conversations on how to cut costs, including cutting print days and staff, before the ultimate decision to close the paper entirely.

“We’d seen [other newspapers] cutting back on two or three days a week. Nobody was closing. So that was never on my horizon,” he said.

What Franko thought would be a funeral for the 15 or so employees he predicted would lose their jobs soon became a funeral for the entire community. 

“We’re all in this together. It’s not just [Vindicator employees] it’s 220,000 to 300,000 people who digest The Vindicator over the course of the week,” he said.

Photo by Bill Lewis

On the last day, Franko described the atmosphere as a typical active newsroom during any big story, but it was their story.

“Nobody expected to be covering our funeral,” he said. 

Franko is unsure of what the future of journalism will be in the Valley. But, he applauds the other local media who has stepped in to “spackle some of the cracks.”

“I’ve told everyone to subscribe to the [Tribune Chronicle’s Vindicator edition],” he said. “I plan to subscribe.”

Franko is saddened by the idea that a child in Youngstown may never know what it’s like to be on the front page for an accomplishment; he said the recognition is important in a young person’s career. 

Although The Vindicator’s printing press had its final run, the employees’ memories from their days in the newsroom will last forever, as will the impact of the stories they told.

“At this point, I’m still working through my sadness of it being over, but I am so thankful that it happened,” Zuckla said.