When a newspaper folds, we all lose

By Denise Dick

Guest columnist

The impending death of the Youngstown Vindicator, a newspaper where I worked for 19 years, has something to do with the dire finances that plague much of American journalism. But the pain of its demise is grounded in distinctly local recent history: Youngstown, Ohio, and the Mahoning Valley in which it lies, have struggled with deindustrialization, population loss, health declines and civic disengagement. The paper was wounded by those trends; its closing will help accelerate some of them, especially the widening gulf between citizens and the public institutions that we need to bind this region together.

The social fabric in Youngstown is under stress, and the loss of the newspaper is another part of the unraveling.

The owners of the Vindicator - still in the hands of a local family - announced in late June that they could no longer sustain its financial losses and would be calling it quits Aug. 31.

When I heard the news, it felt as if a lifelong friend had been given two months to live. As with any relationship, we had our ups and downs, but deep down, I always loved it.

I left the paper in November 2016 to become the communications director for the Youngstown City School District, which had recently become the first in Ohio to see the appointment of a chief executive by a state panel rather than the city school board.

That appointment was made under a controversial 2015 state law, dubbed the Youngstown Plan. It followed years of academic failure by Youngstown students, abetted by the dysfunction and ineptitude of the city school board - all of which was documented in the pages of the Vindicator.

Without the Vindicator, no one will report on the board's performance. No one will call the school board on it if the members try to go into executive session to talk about something they should discuss publicly. No one will ask for a copy of the contract with the new company that's providing teacher professional development for the district or of the latest hire. No one will dissect school taxes (called levies in Ohio), explaining how much they will cost a taxpayer, why they're necessary or how they will be used. There will be a void, and it will be the public that suffers.

Without the Vindicator, how can the community debate the progress of the city's schools - or lack thereof?

Last November, General Motors announced the closing of its plant in neighboring Lordstown. When production wrapped up in March, 1,500 people lost their jobs, on top of the 3,000 who had been laid off earlier. (GM announced at the same time that it will be building its new Chevrolet Blazer at its plant in Ramos, Mexico. Its stock price immediately jumped.)

That was the latest blow in a deindustrialization of Youngstown that has been going on for 40 years now, bringing with it a sharp population decline, abandoned housing and a rise in rates of addiction, suicide and domestic violence.

The Vindicator covered all that. It helped keep a community under intense strain connected. When the GM announcement came out, politicians and business leaders discussed prospects for the future (and denounced GM) in the pages of the newspaper. Now there will be no valley-wide public forum where this kind of debate can happen. The television stations can offer snippets - but not the full coverage of print.

The announcement of the Vindicator's impending closure came less than a week after it marked its 150th anniversary. It got its unusual name because its first editor said he found vindication in Youngstown after being run out of Pennsylvania for his Democratic Party ideals.

The ownership changed several times before the family who owns it now took over. It's among the nation's top newspapers for continuous family ownership. In its early days, the paper took on the Ku Klux Klan. Over the years, the Vindicator earned a reputation for rooting out corruption and not being afraid to demand more of public officeholders and to hold them accountable.

That feisty philosophy - not unlike the community it serves - continues to this day.

Fear of having to answer tough questions has until now kept some public officials from cutting corners or skirting the rules, but they won't have to worry about that once the paper closes. And what of the honest government employees who want to see colleagues follow the rules? Who will they call to report wrongdoing if they're too intimidated to call law enforcement?

The paper's absence will be felt in less dramatic ways, too. In my current position, it's been the paper upon which I relied most to chronicle the new programs and initiatives started under the CEO administration - to show Youngstown City School District students in a positive light. I'll have to develop a different way to get that information to the public without the Vindicator.

Seemingly mundane things like listings of trash pickup schedules, holiday closings, birth announcements, engagement photos, scholarship awards and church dinners won't be published anywhere. School sports will take a hit, too, limited to what local television stations are able to cover week to week. Anyone who wants to know more about last night's big game will have to track down someone who was there.

The paper is far from perfect and, like any other long-standing institution, has its flaws. The Vindicator I left in 2016 was not the Vindicator where I started in 1997. In the mid-2000s, it switched from an afternoon daily with four editions to a morning paper with only one. Its staff shrank and its coverage receded both in the depth and breadth of its reporting. The paper itself is smaller, too. And most of its staff was much less experienced. The paper has hired new college graduates almost exclusively since about 2006. Those young people stayed for a few years, learning the ropes and earning their chops and then left for jobs with better pay - mostly out of journalism.

My hometown newspaper suffered the same problems as others across the country economically and in terms of public appetite. The cost of its disappearance, though, will be borne by the people of the Mahoning Valley.

Denise Dick is the director of communications and public relations for the Youngstown City Schools. This column was distributed by The Washington Post syndicate.

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