Margaret Sullivan: ‘Democracy ... is about to die in Youngstown’ with closing of local newspaper

(Jeff Swensen for The Washington Post) The Vindicator newspaper is sold at Vindicator Square in Youngstown, Ohio, in July 2019.

Youngstown, Ohio • Mere moments after the start of the hastily called community forum, the tears started to flow.

"Gobsmacked" was how one Youngtown reader described her horrified reaction to the surprise announcement, just days before, that the city's 150-year-old daily newspaper, The Vindicator, would publish its last edition on Aug. 31.

And Mary Beth Earnheardt, who teaches journalism at Youngstown State University, briefly left the meeting room at the local history center to pull herself together.

Like many others, she feels the impending loss deeply.

“The Vindy connects us all. A community without a strong, central newspaper is missing leadership — and a big part of its identity.”

The paper's demise is another blow for a region hit hard earlier this year by the shutdown of the sprawling General Motors plant in Lordstown, a 20-minute drive from downtown, which once employed 14,000. The plant, which made the Chevrolet Cruze, is part of the auto and steel industry that President Donald Trump vowed he would bring back.

With The Vindicator’s closing, Youngstown will become an unfortunate first: a good-size city with no daily newspaper of its own. (The metro area has more than 500,000 residents; the city about 65,000.) Many other newspapers have folded in recent years, but they were mostly weeklies; the dailies were in cities with a competing newspaper — that was not the case in Youngstown.

Given the dire state of the industry, it certainly will not be the last. More likely, this will look like the tumbling of the first domino, with the situation repeating across the country - especially when the next economic downturn wipes out what's left of the print advertising that once was the lifeblood of local newspapers.

For Mark Brown, The Vindicator’s general manager, the loss is personal, devastating — and, he told me, unavoidable.

His family has owned and run the paper for 132 years. His mother, Betty Brown Jagnow, the publisher who is well into her 80s, still comes into the office regularly and has called the decision "gut-wrenching."

"It's all we've ever known and all we ever wanted to do," Brown said as we talked last week in his bare-bones office, a converted storage room filled with filing cabinets and blazing with bright lights.

Brown realized five years ago that he probably should put The Vindicator up for sale but hesitated because he knew that a chain buyer would slash the staff and harm the paper's quality.

"I didn't have the stomach for that, so we decided to ride it out," he said.

The Vindicator's 44-member newsroom staff digs deep into local issues, and it has won plenty of state awards for general excellence, for reporting and commentary, and for its website, which has no paywall.

Still, The Vindicator has lost money for 20 of the past 22 years. Even at its richest in 1989, the profit margin was 17%, Brown said.

That’s about half of what many American newspapers were pulling in during their pre-internet heyday when advertisers had little choice about how to reach customers. And circulation has plummeted: from more than 100,000 daily and 160,000 on Sunday in the late 1970s, to now about 25,000 daily and 32,000 on Sunday.

One Vindicator journalist told me it would be telling to have a show of hands at the mournful community meeting: How many of the bereft were actual subscribers?

When Brown finally got serious about selling, hiring a broker in 2017 to explore the market, there were no takers — at any cost.

Two potential buyers took a serious look, but both dropped out. For most, the picture was simply unappealing: endless losses, a weak advertising market, an underfunded pension plan and a unionized staff that had not been cut to the bone.

So, after spending $23 million to cover losses — and to buy a new press in 2010 (with the unrealized hope of bringing in new revenue through outside printing) — Brown found himself out of options.

He worries about the staff — and even more about the loss of the journalistic watchdog: “I’m scared for the community.”

What this means, said Joel Kaplan, associate dean of Syracuse University's Newhouse School, "is that no one in that community will be covering, on a regular basis, school board meetings, City Council meetings, the cops and the courts. Democracy, as we know it, is about to die in Youngstown."

The city and its surrounding Mahoning Valley have an ugly history of corruption. “Crimetown, USA — the city that fell in love with the mob” was how the New Republic magazine described Youngstown in a 2000 retrospective piece.

And it's the hometown, after all, of the late James Traficant, expelled as a member of Congress and sent to prison after being convicted of taking bribes, filing false tax returns, racketeering and causing his staff to do chores at his Ohio farm and Washington houseboat.

"Public corruption here is deeply rooted," said Bertram de Souza, whose 40-year Vindicator career spans revealing corruption as a reporter and his role now of columnist and editorial-page editor.

The paper, he told me, gets consistent complaints for being “too negative” — especially about Trump, who has many fervent local fans. The county surrounding Youngstown was a narrow loss for Trump after going big for Obama; and Trump, of course, took Ohio overall.

Trump's Youngstown rally in 2017 drew 7,000 people. They cheered as he vowed to resuscitate the local factories: "They're all coming back. They're coming back. Don't move. Don't sell your house."

De Souza predicted that Trump will win Mahoning County next year, despite the empty promises — and despite the raft of for-sale signs on neatly maintained Lordstown houses.

But chances are that The Vindicator won't be there to cover the election results. The ideas that surfaced at last week's meeting were heartfelt but probably unrealistic: community donations, citizen-generated stories, converting the paper to a nonprofit, or finding a deep-pocketed savior. (The nearby Warren newspaper may expand into Youngstown, and the local Business Journal has pledged to fill some of the void.)

Vindicator Managing Editor Mark Sweetwood, who attended the meeting along with Editor Todd Franko, later shared his reaction to the outpouring:

"There was a lot of passion for The Vindicator, and that was humbling. But good intentions aside, all that talk about a nonprofit model or a wealthy benefactor swooping in" seemed pointless.

After all, there's been no profit for a long time. And The Vindicator has had a generous local benefactor: Mark Brown.

"We've tried that model," Sweetwood told me, "and last Friday, he decided that model was not sustainable."

It’s a sad story. And, as local newspapers enter an inevitable new phase of their decline, one that will become far too familiar.

Margaret Sullivan | The Washington Post

Margaret Sullivan is The Washington Post’s media columnist. Previously, she was the New York Times public editor, and the chief editor of the Buffalo News, her hometown paper. Follow her on Twitter at @sulliview