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On Final Day, Vindy Staff Bid Their Newspaper Farewell

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – As thousands of newspapers churned through a massive machine Friday, imprinting 150 years of memories of The Vindicator, employees and their families gathered around to watch the final press run of newspaper.

Saturday’s commemorative edition is expected to be a keepsake, but it also represents the instability for many print publications as they struggle to compete in a digital world. Many employees said they weren’t sure what the future holds in store. Some immediately began searching for jobs; others who are eligible are retiring.

For sports writer Brian Dzenis, Saturday will mark the end of his journalism career. He will be packing his apartment and moving to Zelienople, Pa., over the weekend and on Monday will start working full-time for FedEx. 

“I’m pulling the rip cord on my parachute on journalism,” he said. “There is so much uncertainty and I can’t take another hit.”

The 30-year-old said he has been writing for newspapers for 11 years. He previously worked at a paper in Trenton, Pa., but left after a month to take a job at The Vindicator.

“It’s kind of ironic that that paper is still going and this one is closing,” Dzenis said. 

“I’m going to Disney World,” said society editor Garry Clark. His family had already planned and paid for the trip before the announcement of the newspaper’s closing. He said hasn’t decided what he will do, but still needs to work. 

Sports editor Ed Puskas said it took about a week after the announcement for reality to sink in. 

“This [being unemployed] hasn’t happened to me since I began working at 18,” Puskas said. “After the first week I realized this is really happening. So I paid someone to do my resume. Searching for a job is full-time job and you have it do it while you’re still working a full-time job.”

Almost all of the employees said they were taken aback when the announcement was made June 28 by general manager Mark Brown that The Vindicator was closing. They knew revenue for print media wasn’t going well, but they thought layoffs or a reduction in print days would come first, much like other daily newspapers throughout the country have done. 

Employees had heard GateHouse Media may have wanted to buy the family-owned paper, which has been in the Maag-Brown family through four generations, although such a deal never materialized. Betty H. Brown Jagnow, Brown’s mother, has been the longtime publisher. Several employees said the Browns tried everything to keep the presses running, but in the end, made the difficult decision to close. 

Vindicator staff and their families were invited to watch the final edition of the paper make its way through the presses.

Dzenis and Puskas thought other steps would happen, such as layoffs, cutting back on print days or even switching to an online-only version of the newspaper. But Brown has said in the time since the announcement that they went through all options, crunched the numbers and realized those measures wouldn’t stem the red ink. 

Employees said the Brown family has done all they can do to help employees in the transition, including offering a severance package. According to a letter they received, severance will be calculated one week of pay for every six months of employment up to 48 weeks for people hired before 2010. Those hired after 2010, when the union contract changed, will get one week’s pay for every 12 months worked. Employees also will be paid their unused vacation pay. 

Many newsroom employees have worked for The Vindicator more than 25 years, so the idea of creating a resume and applying for unemployment was daunting. The Browns asked representatives from OhioMeansJobs to come in to help workers and talk about searching for jobs.

“I think when you work somewhere for a long time, you get comfortable and you don’t think something like this will happen to you,” Puskas said. 

Tom Williams, who has worked in several departments over the past 39 years, 11 months and 28 days, said, “I’m going to get to celebrate 40 years.”

Clark has worked at the paper for 29 years, mostly in the society department. He laughs while pointing out “there aren’t many men who work in the society department writing about weddings. But my mom and grandmother used to drag me around often going to Joanne Fabric, so I knew about material.”

Before working in the newspaper business, Clark graduated from college with an accounting degree, which he pursued at the behest of grandmother who would pay his way if he went to college and studied accounting.

Emotions have been up and down since June 28. Williams said this past week has been surprisingly upbeat, partly because everyone has been busy with the commemorative edition. The sports department also is publishing a football preview tabloid.

Cleaning out desks and packing personal items didn’t happen right away. Dzenis said it’s strange because some posters have come down and now there is an outline on the wall. Many people are finding items in their desks they thought were lost or forgot they had. “I think the best thing was Tom Williams finding glossy photos of the cast of ‘Married With Children,’ ” Dzenis said.

The newsroom at The Vindicator clears out Friday; boxes packed, trash cans full.

Williams said he feels for colleagues who are younger and too far from retirement. “I see they are hurting and it’s tough because there’s nothing you can do.”

Meanwhile, there has been an outpouring of kindness from the community, Williams said.

Nearly every day over the past week, some restaurant is dropping off food. “I was here during the day working on the football tab and I couldn’t believe all of the food, and I was thinking, ‘This isn’t like calling hours,’ ” Williams said.

But other employees likened the last few weeks to watching someone who is going to die and there’s nothing you can do to help. One sentiment was consistent for the writers: they would miss telling people’s stories. 

“That was the best part of my job,” Williams said.

Many of the employees have found other jobs, some in journalism. Guy D’Astolfo will join the staff of The Business Journal covering entertainment.

D’Astolfo said he credits the staff for not losing their passion to do their jobs. “Everyone knew the end was coming but they just went about their business as professionals,” D’Astolfo said. 

Like the others, D’Astolfo said his most memorable moments at the Vindy happened outside the newsroom as he covered events, met people and saw performances at area venues.

Everyone agreed that newspapers are important institutions that can’t be lost. 

“A community newspaper is the thing that makes a community,” D’Astolfo said. “Sometimes there are blurry edges, but on the other hand the community won’t know to do without one. I guess we’ll find out.”

Dzenis said he knows The Tribune Chronicle in Warren and McClatchy, through its Compass Experiment partnership with Google, will expand their presence in Mahoning County to fill the void, but he believes readers will be in for a rude awakening, especially in coverage of high school sports. 

“They won’t have do anything better because there is no one to compete with,” Dzenis said.

The Tribune Chronicle bought The Vindicator name, subscription list and digital rights. Publisher Charles Jarvis said a Mahoning County print edition will be published and staff have been added to expand coverage. The paper will continue using the familiar old English masthead of The Vindicator, Jarvis said, though it will be an edition of the Tribune Chronicle. The papers will keep separate web sites, but The Vindicator’s will be changed to look more like the Tribune’s, Jarvis said. The first edition will appear Sept. 1.

The Tribune has hired several Vindicator employees, including reporters, a copy editor/page designer and advertising staff. Jarvis said The Vindicator archives were not part of its assets acquisition.

While Puskas, Clark and many others said they were still weighing their decision to watch The Vindicator presses run for the last time is a decision Puskas, 40-year veteran Williams said his wife would join him to watch the presses put out the final newspaper.

 “Watching the presses roll is a fitting way to end,” Williams said.

Pictured: On the last day of work at The Vindicator, Tom Wills presented general manager Mark Brown with a drawing of him with his mother, publisher Betty Brown Jagnow.

Published by The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.