Tears, Laughter and Ideas for a Post-Vindicator Future
YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – A community forum Tuesday evening organized by the Youngstown Press Club and the Rotary Club of Youngstown brought a mixture of tears, laughter and frank discussion regarding the imminent closure of The Vindicator.
About 200 attended the event, billed as “What’s Next: A Community Forum on The Vindicator,” at the Mahoning Valley Historical Society’s Tyler Mahoning Valley History Center downtown.
Adam Earnheardt, a founding member of the Press Club and chairman of the department of communications at Youngstown State University, said the turnout Tuesday on such short notice serves as a “testament to how important this is.”
On June 28, Vindicator management confirmed that the newspaper would cease operations Aug. 31 after 150 years of publication, leaving a void in daily news coverage.
In the wake of the Vindicator’s announcement, The Press Club and Rotary moved quickly to organize the forum and inform the public of the event.
Earnheardt, who for the last five years has written a weekly column on social media for the city’s daily newspaper, acknowledged that the latest piece he finished around 5 p.m. Tuesday proved to be “the hardest thing to write.”
He said emails he’s received over the last two days expressed concerns about some of the community services the newspaper brings to subscribers every day, such as obituaries and others that are more subtle but nonetheless important.
“I got an email from a fourth grade teacher today asking me if YSU was going to take over the Vindicator spelling bee,” he said. “I didn’t even think about that.”
It was one of the many issues brought forth during Tuesday’s forum, an hour-plus discussion that ranged from fond memories of growing up with the paper to what the future of media in the Mahoning Valley will look like to exploring potential solutions to keeping the newspaper alive.
Debora Flora, a former Vindicator reporter who is today executive director of the Mahoning County Land Bank, stressed the importance of a newspaper that covers local news, urging a non-traditional method of supporting local journalism.
“There are certain beats at a newspaper that could lend themselves to a kind of endowment model,” she said.
Others suggested that over the next two months that employees create an employee-owned operation that would be able to sustain local news coverage.
“You could set up a nonprofit and have the employees be the board of the nonprofit so it is employee-owned,” said area resident Michael Harvey.
A tearful Mary Beth Earnheardt, Adam’s wife and a journalism professor at YSU, said that she sees The Vindicator as an outlet for young journalism students from YSU and an important community asset. “I’m angry. I don’t want it to close.”
Hattie Wilkins, a neighborhood activist from Youngstown, said she couldn’t believe it when she heard that the newspaper would be shutting down. “I started reading the Vindicator as a kid when I was in the sixth grade,” she said. “I’m not going to stop fighting to keep the Vindicator in publication.”
Others recalled fondly their days as a newspaper carrier. Or, in the case of Madonna Chism, community-relations director at WFMJ TV, their first published piece of writing.
“For a little girl in the 1970s, to be published in The Vindicator was huge,” she said. “Even if it was the Mini-Page,” once a section devoted to poems and stories written by young people.
Many expressed sympathy for the 144 employees who would lose their jobs in the wake of the Vindicator’s closure, complimenting their hard work over the years. However, among the biggest concerns from the audience was the potential for increased public corruption without the check of a watchdog press.
James Callen, an attorney who co-founded the Citizen’s League of Youngstown during the 1980s, said that newspapers such as The Vindicator were vital in that group’s fight against organized crime and public corruption.
“The Vindicator was a crucial element in the success of dealing with that problem,” Callen said. “We still have corruption, not quite the same, but it still important to have resources like newspapers and television stations for citizens to address those kind of problems.”
And how would future generations research information regarding life in Youngstown and the Mahoning Valley without a daily record of events? That was a question posed by Tim Seman of the Public Library of Youngstown and Mahoning County.
“I don’t want Youngstown’s history to end on Aug. 31,” he said. Most of the library patrons he deals with use The Vindicator for retrospective and research purposes, volumes of which are preserved on microfilm. “If the newspaper ceases to exist and there’s no source to get that kind of information, then years from now we won’t be able to find that information.”
Catherine Powers, whose father was the late John Weed Powers, a prominent attorney and counsel for The Vindicator, became emotional when she learned the newspaper would close. “When I heard this it just was shocking,” she said. ”How are we going to get along without this paper?”
Part of the void is likely to be filled with existing publications, as the news of The Vindicator’s shut down prompted news outlets to announce various expansion plans.
The Business Journal announced Tuesday that it would expand coverage of local government, politics, arts and entertainment, automotive, and real estate. It would also add important services such as obituaries, legal filings, real estate transactions and a listing of public events and meetings.
Justin Mitchell, managing editor at WFMJ, which is also owned by the Vindicator’s Brown family, said it is planning to beef up its digital content to help fill gaps left by the Vindicator’s absence.
“We’ve already been in the process of adding to our digital staff,” he said, a trend that will accelerate in the wake of The Vindicator’s closure. “We’re going to merge our digital content with our newscasts, hire more digital reporters. You can still count on us.”
Charles Jarvis, publisher of the Tribune Chronicle, the city of Warren’s daily newspaper, said that it’s not his publication’s role to replace the Vindicator, but could fill part of market should the opportunity present itself.
“We stand ready to help. We stand ready to take input from the community. We stand ready to take support from the community,” he said.
The Tribune is owned by the Ogden newspaper chain, which also owns the Town Crier community newspapers in Mahoning County, as well as the Salem News, the Lisbon Morning Journal and The Review in Columbiana County.
Jarvis said part of the difficulty of printing a daily newspaper is to ensure reliable delivery to patrons.
“We are not here to replace The Vindicator,” Jarvis reiterated. “There is no replacement for a newspaper that’s been in business for 150 years.”
Pictured: Former Vindicator reporter and executive director of the Mahoning County Land Bank Deb Flora suggested using endowments to fund reporting positions at the newspaper.
Copyright 2020 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.