Bertram de Souza was alone in The Vindicator’s newsroom early Saturday afternoon in downtown Youngstown.
“The newsroom is empty, and I’m sitting here contemplating the next 60 days,” de Souza, a 40-year veteran of the paper who works as editorial page editor and columnist, told the Tribune-Review. “It’s a certain commentary — sitting in a quiet, empty newsroom.”
On Friday, the newspaper itself became the region’s top story as Publisher Betty H. Brown Jagnow and her son, General Manager Mark A. Brown, announced The Vindicator will cease publication Aug. 31.
“Our decision to close The Vindicator is gut-wrenching. Our family’s lives have revolved around and been defined by this newspaper for 132 years,” they wrote in a letter to readers that was posted Friday night on the newspaper’s website and in Saturday’s print edition of the newspaper.
“It is with broken hearts that we say goodbye and a final thank you,” they ended the letter.
Making the decision to close the newspaper was the worst thing his family has weathered, Brown told the Trib.
“You feel like you’re killing one of your family members,” Brown said.
The paper hadn’t been profitable for a while, and making cuts or other changes weren’t viable options, Brown said.
“We tried for years to correct the financial ship and were unable to,” he said.
They tried to sell the paper, but a buyer could not be found, Brown said.
The news was shocking to the staff, who were officially informed after the news was first reported by WFMJ, the Youngstown NBC affiliate that’s also owned by the family. The television station won’t be affected by the decision, Brown said.
The newspaper’s top editor, Todd Franko, declined to comment to the Trib, saying his statement to The Plain Dealer, Cleveland’s newspaper, will suffice for now. He said he’ll address the news in a column in Sunday’s newspaper.
“We’re as vintage a brand as GM, and it’s tough for all of us,” Franko told The Plain Dealer. “Obviously my first concerns are for my coworkers and the people who have spent decades here, but I’m also sad for the Valley and what they’re going to lose. It’s a loss for thousands.”
The newspaper’s closure is the latest blow in the Mahoning Valley, which has been battered for decades with bad news that most recently included General Motors’ decision in March to close its Lordstown, Ohio, plant. It once employed more than 10,000 people and was the last mainstay of a good-paying job in the Mahoning Valley, according to de Souza.
One reader put the news about The Vindicator into perspective: “The closing of GM was devastating. The end of The Vindicator is life-changing,” the reader wrote to de Souza.
He came to town 40 years ago when Youngstown was still reeling from Black Monday — Sept. 19, 1977, the day Youngstown Sheet and Tube Co. shut down, leaving more than 4,000 people without a job.
Since, de Souza’s been given free rein by the newspaper to delve into the issues that made the Mahoning Valley a hotbed for organized crime, public corruption, murders and mayhem.
That included the rise and fall of the late Jim Traficant, a former Mahoning County sheriff and congressman who became an infamous national news figure, beating a racketeering charge when he was sheriff but being expelled from Congress after a 2002 conviction on federal corruption charges sent him to prison.
De Souza’s reporting detailed Traficant’s exploits for two decades.
The Vindicator isn’t the only media outlet in the Mahoning Valley, but it was the loudest, de Souza said.
No newspaper in the town that brought us Jim Traficant. A huge victory for forces of darkness, and depressing news for a region where there’s already plenty to go around.
— Mike Hixenbaugh (@Mike_Hixenbaugh) June 28, 2019
Without it, “I don’t know what’s going to happen,” he said.
“You’re going to find a void that I don’t know how it will be filled,” de Souza said.
This was written with tears in my eyes. My heart is with my friends in the @vindicator newsroom. This is an incalculable loss for the Youngstown community and local journalism. https://t.co/pvPRf5S7Ef
— Jordyn Grzelewski (@JGrzelewski) June 28, 2019
The retired editor of The Herald in nearby Sharon, Pa., agreed.
“It doesn’t matter whether you liked it, disliked it or never read it — the closing will leave a huge void in the social fabric of the area, especially in the city of Youngstown,” James A. Raykie Jr. wrote in a tribute to the newspaper on Facebook. “I believe that the demise of community journalism throughout the country will turn out to be one of the dark parts of our history and democracy.”
Raykie retired from The Herald in 2016 after a 42-year career where he and his staff competed each day with The Vindicator to cover the news in the region.
“None of us ever wanted to get scooped by the other when it came to local news reporting, but we did,” Raykie wrote. “As a result of that heated competition, it was impossible for any mistake or ambiguity in reporting to remain uncorrected.”
With the paper’s closure, Youngstown will join a growing number of cities and towns dubbed “news deserts” for the lack of local coverage. Newsroom employment has fallen by nearly half over the past 15 years across the U.S.
The Vindicator is the last daily paper in both Youngstown and northeast Ohio’s Mahoning County, the state’s 12th most populous county. Vindicator journalists won six first-place APME journalism awards this year and 18 in 2018.
The Times-Picayune in New Orleans laid off its staff in May after its sale to its rival, the New Orleans Advocate, was completed, ending a 182-year-old institution there.
Last year the Post-Gazette stopped publishing on Tuesday and Saturdays.
In 2017, Calkins Media, the parent of the Beaver County Times, sold it to GateHouse Media, and staff cuts have ensued there.
Tony Paglia, a retired Vindicator news editor who lives in Hermitage, Pa., lamented the decline.
“I’m hoping somebody will figure it out,” he said of turning around the industry.
Without newspapers, there are no watchdogs to keep officials and others in check, Paglia said.
“Anybody will take advantage if they think nobody’s looking,” he said.
Beyond that, “who is going to write about people who are doing really cool things?” he said.
In Youngstown, that had been The Vindy’s mission. It proclaimed itself “The People’s Paper” on its nameplate.
“Nobody can really cover it the way The Vindicator did,” Paglia said. “It was always a great news town and it still is.”
The newspaper had 144 employees plus about 50 temporary workers and 250 newspaper carriers, Brown said. That’s down from more than 500 employees when Brown started at the newspaper in 1981.
Nonunion workers will receive a severance, and the newspaper will be negotiating severance packages with its unions in the coming weeks, Brown said.
Dealing this blow to the staff is “the thing that upsets us the most,” he said.
They’ve worked without raises and made concessions for several years but have continued to do good work.
“I’m just upset we don’t have a path forward,” Brown said.