On Friday of this past week, I saw a post that the daily newspaper from my hometown of Youngstown will cease publication at the end of August. This announcement came on the heels of the newspaper’s 150th birthday. As the publisher and general manager of the paper noted, ” The Vindicator will not have much of a birthday celebration.”
The story is a familiar one, perhaps exacerbated by generations of business losses and corresponding population declines. Circulation fell, and with it, advertising revenues. Attempts were made to modernize, to pare staff, to reduce the size of the paper. Other investors were sought. Eventually, the owners, the fourth generation in the family to own the paper, determined that there was nothing more that could be done to stem the continuing financial losses.
The news came like a body blow. This was a paper that had been the voice of the Mahoning Valley for generations. It stood up to the Klan in the 1920’s when the city had a Klan mayor supported by many of the ministers as well as people of the Valley. It chronicled mob and political corruption. The big news stories of my youth appeared in its headlines: the assassinations of the Kennedys and King, the football championships of the Browns in the Sixties, Vietnam, Woodstock, the moon landing, and Kent State. My picture appeared as valedictorian of my senior class. My wife’s engagement picture was there. For that matter our births were recorded there as were the obituaries of parents and grandparents.
I delivered the paper for over three years. I got up early on Sunday mornings, and delivered it on hot summer days and subzero days in the dead of winter. I often read its news stories before any of my customers. Sure, we complained when our papers were late or we got “shorted,” but it was a great learning experience. On my route, nearly every family took the paper. People noticed if they didn’t get their paper.
We subscribed to the local paper in Toledo and Cleveland. It was obligatory in Toledo, where my wife worked for the paper. We bought the local paper at least on Sundays for a time in Columbus where we now live. Then we stopped. Recycling the papers was a chore. We could watch the news on TV. Then the internet came along and we could often get news coverage for free until papers started putting up paywalls.
Interestingly enough, the Vindicator never used paywalls. I constantly looked up articles for my blog. I didn’t think to subscribe. Turns out I was one of the reasons the paper died. I valued keeping in touch with my hometown. But not enough to pay for it.
The greater loss is to the people who still live there. Local newspapers cover everything from local sports and entertainment events to weddings and deaths. They also cover local civic, business, and political affairs, the things that shape the quality of life of a community. At their best, they can offer far more depth than a 15 second story on TV. Usually, no one else offers the same kind of coverage of these local matters, or the impact of state and national policies on local life. It was said by Tip O’Neill, one time speaker of the House, that “all politics is local.” No other place keeps track of how city council members vote or how political appointees or civil servants do their jobs.
Furthermore, it is the disciplined work of getting the facts straight and writing a succinct and interesting story about a local school board meeting that trained many newspeople of the past to get the facts straight and write stories on issues of national import. Certainly no newspaper is neutral but many could tell the difference between news coverage and the editorial page. I wonder whether modern agenda journalism in part is a product of the lack of experience working under editors committed to those stubborn things called facts.
One of the themes of this blog is the value of the local. We all live someplace. The question is whether it is a good, and beautiful, and distinctive place. Does it have roots, a connection with a particular past? Does it have community institutions that give it character? Is it a rich and varied place, or a desert of big box stores and strip malls? I think part of the grief, the punch to the gut, that so many of the people from Youngstown felt this past weekend, was the loss of one more piece of its distinctive identity, and one more thread that helps knit a community together.
I don’t know what can be done in the case of Youngstown. I hope other media are able to step up and fill some of the gap. Public TV and radio have a particular role to play here. I wish now I had subscribed to the Vindicator, even as part of the Youngstown diaspora. It appears I’m too late for that. But perhaps not for the paper where I now live, that has faced the same pressures and has been forced to some of the same measures as the Vindicator. Today I decided to put my money where my mouth is. I became a subscriber.