As Youngstown’s paper prepares for final edition, its owner reflects on what went wrong

A newspaper box in front of The Vindicator headquarters in the early morning hours of Wednesday, Aug. 14, 2019, in Youngstown, Ohio. (Stephanie Strasburg/Post-Gazette)

“Being a family operation, you tend to get close to your people … you make decisions you know are contrary to the correct business decision.”

Mark Brown apologized for being late for an interview at his downtown office.

For weeks, the general manager of the Youngstown Vindicator had been working 12- to 14-hour days — typically starting in early afternoon and finishing at 3 or 4 the next morning.

“There have just been a lot of hours … and [this morning] I just crashed,” said Mr. Brown, 60, whose family has owned the Vindicator for generations.

Mark Brown, 60, of Boardman, Ohio, general manager of The Vindicator, looks up to the paper’s printing press on Friday, Aug. 2, 2019, in Youngstown, Ohio. (Stephanie Strasburg/Post-Gazette)

In late June, Mr. Brown had gathered the staff of the 150-year-old daily to deliver the grim news that the Vindicator would publish its last edition Saturday — both in print and online.

Since that announcement, Ogden Newspapers, which publishes the daily Tribune Chronicle in neighboring Trumbull County, struck a deal to buy the Vindicator name, subscriber list and website domain, vindy.com, for a new Mahoning County edition.

Ogden — whose chief executive Bob Nutting also owns the Pittsburgh Pirates — said it will add reporters to cover Youngstown news and sports and will carry the Vindicator’s comics and local obituaries.

For over 150 years The Vindicator served as the daily newspaper for the Youngstown, Mahoning, Trumbull and Columbiana regions. On Aug. 31st the paper will close. (Jessie Wardarski/Post-Gazette)

The Vindicator’s independent carriers will deliver the paper to current subscribers, who will have a chance to renew subscriptions when they expire.

Still, the existing Vindicator planned to publish a special final edition Saturday.

“We clearly still feel like we are dying,” said Mr. Brown.

Because the Vindicator’s 140-plus employees are being laid off and its plant is closing, he’s been negotiating severance agreements with the paper’s union employees, exploring the sale of its buildings and determining whether the printing presses will be sold for scrap.

A warning siren

More than a decade ago, Mr. Brown realized the Vindicator needed to make dramatic changes to survive.

As the Great Recession hit, the emergence of digital news sites was already ravaging newspaper advertising and circulation revenue.

To attract printing jobs from other publishers, he invested $12 million in refurbished presses. But there were delays in installing the equipment, and potential customers went elsewhere.

The paper also held the line on employee raises, cut payroll through attrition, reduced its page counts and raised its price. But nothing could stop the bleeding; the publication had lost money in 20 of the past 22 years.

After two prospective buyers backed out, Mr. Brown in March began meeting with department heads to consider last-ditch moves, such as reducing print days, going all-digital or slashing employment “to the bone” — a move, as a family operation, he wanted to avoid, he said.

Left:Top: The Vindicator headquarters on Friday, Aug. 2, 2019, in Youngstown, Ohio. The 150-year-old paper's last day is slated for Aug. 31. | Right:Bottom: The sunset lights up the buildings of downtown as cars pass on Mahoning Ave. on Tuesday, July 23, 2019, as seen from the West Side of Youngstown, Ohio. (Stephanie Strasburg/Post-Gazette)

Even with those cuts, the paper still was on track to lose money and the company already had depleted its so-called rainy day fund of $23 million that was keeping it afloat.

Following meetings with several longtime advisers, Mr. Brown and his mother, Betty Brown Jagnow, the Vindicator’s publisher, decided to shut it down.

“We didn’t have any choice,” said Mr. Brown. “We couldn’t sustain it, and we knew that.”

The Vindicator’s demise comes during turbulent times for the newspaper industry.

According to a study by the University of North Carolina, 1,800, or about 20% of the papers in the U.S., closed between 2004 and 2018. Most were weeklies; about 60 were dailies. Since the study, its authors estimate another 200 have closed or have said they plan to.

Andrea Wood, president and publisher of the Business Journal in Youngstown, said the original Vindicator’s closure has garnered national attention because the city for decades has symbolized every place that took a nosedive after the collapse of the steel industry.

“Youngstown is iconic as the Rust Belt,” she said. “We have been hollowed out.”

The ninth largest city in Ohio, Youngstown’s population is about 65,000. It peaked at 170,000 in 1930, and is down from about 82,000 in 2010.

Losing the original, independent Vindicator is the latest blow to the region. In March, General Motors idled its 1,400-employee plant in nearby Lordstown. A hospital that employed about 400 closed last year.

Uncertainty about whether GM will sell the Lordstown facility to another vehicle manufacturer may have been a factor in why two newspaper companies dropped their bids for the Vindicator, said Ms. Wood.

“The one thing we had going in this valley was that we still had GM,” she said.


Advertisement


Advertisement


A crippling recession

Mrs. Brown Jagnow, 88, worked at the paper for more than 70 years and still came to the office three days a week.

She started as an advertising clerk and became an executive secretary after she married William J. Brown, a great-nephew of William F. Maag Sr., who bought the Vindicator in 1887.

After her husband died in 1981, she and her son stepped up to run the company, which also includes Youngstown station WFMJ-TV and an internet business. Mark Brown had just graduated from Kenyon College and was planning to pursue law and business degrees, but that all changed.

After several years of losses, the paper was poised to turn a profit in 2004 before a strike by the Newspaper Guild-Communications Workers of America. About 145 workers walked off the job for eight months.

Mark Brown, Owner and Publisher of the Youngstown Vindicator. (Jessie Wardarski/Post-Gazette)

“That threw us into the red and we couldn’t get back our subscriptions and advertising,” he said.

The Great Recession then pushed the paper into a decline from which it never recovered, including losing a third of the value of its pension funds.

Circulation, which had peaked at 102,000 on weekdays and 160,000 on Sundays in the mid-1970s, was 25,000 daily and 32,000 on Sundays at the end.

Employment — about 450 in 1981 — had shrunk to 144, including about 38 in the newsroom.

Mr. Brown said he worried about the void in news coverage without the Vindicator — although other papers, broadcast stations and digital initiatives are expanding their coverage in the region.

Before the deal was finalized with Ogden to publish an edition in Youngstown, he noted that obituaries and local sports “are the bread and butter issues I think people have good cause to be concerned about.”

Left:Top: From left, regional editor Ernie Brown, 67, working at The Vindicator for 43 years; managing editor Mark Sweetwood, there for 11.5 years; and regional editor Tom Wills, 57, there for 34 years, run a meeting on the next day's paper on Tuesday, Aug. 6, 2019, in the newsroom in Youngstown, Ohio. | Right:Bottom: Press operator John Frazee, 46, of Sherrodsville, Ohio, pulls a copy of The Vindicator from the presses to check the printing in the early morning hours of Wednesday, Aug. 14, 2019, in Youngstown, Ohio. (Stephanie Strasburg/Post-Gazette)

But what readers will miss most about the original Vindicator, said Mr. Brown, “is our holding people accountable.”

The Vindicator had a history of tackling political and government corruption, including scandals involving the late Jim Traficant, a Mahoning County sheriff and local congressman who was kicked out of the U.S. House of Representatives in 2002 following convictions for racketeering, bribery and tax evasion.

“It’s a rough and tumble town, and we had to be rough and tumble,” said Mr. Brown.

Besides the Tribune Chronicle’s new Youngstown edition, several media companies have vowed to fill some of the gaps.


Advertisement


Advertisement


The replacements

The Business Journal, which prints biweekly and updates its website daily, has hired the Vindicator’s entertainment editor to oversee a new arts and culture section. It also plans to expand government coverage with a focus on economic development, and will expand legal news including civil case filings, local entertainment, real estate news, state government news, and more state and regional business, but will not pick up legal ads.

In addition, ProPublica, a nonprofit, digital news site, will fund a Business Journal reporter to work full time on an investigative project for the next year as part of its Local Reporting Network.

The Compass Experiment, a digital initiative of Google and media giant McClatchy, plans to launch a Youngstown site staffed by an editor, two reporters, a content manager and a sales person. It has been holding community meetings to get public input.

“We’re figuring out what will be falling through the cracks,” said its general manager, Mandy Jenkins.

Ms. Wood wasn’t sure where wedding news, church sales and other community events previously published in the Vindicator would appear. “It’s fair to say other news organizations won’t know everything that’s going on,” she said. “It’s not good and people are depressed.”

Bill Lewis, longtime photojournalist with the Youngstown Vindicator. (Jessie Wardarski/Post-Gazette)

Vindicator employees weren’t totally surprised by the decision to close.

Bertram de Souza, editorial page editor and a columnist who has worked at the paper for 40 years, recalled decades ago going to a restaurant on Sunday mornings “and at every table, there was a Vindicator and people were reading and sharing and talking.”

“I go there now and people look at their phones,” said Mr. de Souza, 69. “They don’t even carry the paper.”

On Friday night, Mr. Brown planned to start the presses early so employees’ families could watch the last run. He and his mother gave their formal farewells in a letter published June 28:

“Our decision to close The Vindicator is gut-wrenching … It is with broken hearts that we say goodbye and a final thank you.”

Joyce Gannon: jgannon@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1580.


Advertisement


Advertisement



Comments