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In Depth: Vindicator to Cease Publication Aug. 31

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio — The Vindicator will cease publication Aug. 31, The Business Journal has learned, the apparent result of plummeting circulation and advertising revenues.

The closing had been feared for some time given the shrinking page counts and a sharp decline in ad placements. Employees were notified today as were employees of WFMJ, which is owned by the Brown family, the owners of the daily newspaper.

WFMJ-TV broke the story at 4:48 p.m. Friday, and reported that tomorrow’s edition of the newspaper will contain a letter from publisher Betty J.H. Brown Jagnow and general manager Mark Brown explaining the decision.

A letter dated today was received by WFMJ employees, according to the news station. In the letter, Brown said, “We have no plans, no intentions, no desire, no thoughts and no interest in selling WFMJ. Period.”

As of 6 p.m. Friday, The Vindicator had yet to report on its closing.

Indications that the end could be near fed the rumor mill for months. Employees were unable to receive raises, they said, and open positions were not filled. News events that typically would have been staffed were not; there simply were not enough reporters to cover the types of meetings and developments that were always covered. And routine business expenses such as memberships in organizations were slashed.

Then there was the curious sale of old bound volumes of the newspaper for $30 apiece, which The Vindicator launched a few months ago. Hmmm, some observers said. Was it a fire sale?

There is no indication of whether a buyer was sought for the newspaper, although rumors that a few publishing companies were kicking the tires also circulated in recent weeks and months. Calls to Brown were not returned as of this posting.

Newspaper employees contacted by The Business Journal did not want to speak on the record but they did confirm the last day of publication would be Aug. 31.

News of the decision to cease publication follows a celebration of the newspaper’s 150th anniversary chronicled last Sunday in a front-page spread. The newspaper printed its first edition June 25, 1869.

In recalling its history, the celebratory article also contained congratulatory comments from Gov. Mike DeWine. “The Vindicator has been a vigilant watchdog for the citizens of the Mahoning Valley, and an advocate for the Valley’s interests. I congratulate The Vindicator on this milestone anniversary, and wish the entire organization continued success,” he said.

“While The Business Journal competes with The Vindicator for advertising dollars — as it does with all news outlets in our coverage area — we take no joy in its pending demise. Through the decades, it has covered the region in outstanding fashion, and its investigative reporting has uncovered numerous instances of public corruption and malfeasance,” says Andrea Wood, publisher of The Business Journal.

“The void in the marketplace may be filled, perhaps by another daily newspaper beefing up its coverage of the Youngstown area. But it won’t be the same.”

The most likely candidate would be the Tribune Chronicle in Warren, which is owned by The Ogden Newspapers, based in Wheeling, W.Va. Ogden is owned by the Nutting family, which also owns the Pittsburgh Pirates.

The newspaper chain includes “over 40 daily newspapers, along with a number of weeklies and a magazine division – stretching from New York to Hawaii,” states its website. The chain was founded in 1890 with the launch of the Wheeling News.

In addition to the Tribune, Ogden publishes the Town Crier weekly newspapers in Mahoning and Trumbull counties as well as the Morning Journal in Lisbon, the Salem News in Salem, and The Review in East Liverpool.

Charles Jarvis, publisher of the Tribune, could not be reached for comment.

During its storied history, The Vindicator reported on events ranging from the financial Panic of 1873, the rise of the iron and steel industry and the election, inauguration and assassination of Mahoning Valley native William McKinley, through the Great Depression, the New Deal and World War II, to the rise of General Motors Lordstown and, more recently, the shuttering of the plant, said Bill Lawson, executive director of the Mahoning Valley Historical Society.

“I’m stunned at this point. I know the print news industry is hurting across the country, but when it hits close to home – or at home – like this, it takes some time to process it,” Lawson remarked.

“Beyond that, what’s interesting about the paper is it’s always been locally owned, by the Maag and Brown families for the last 135 years,” he added.

The newspaper industry, particularly daily papers, have been hit hard by the growth of digital news. As 2018 study by the University of North Carolina found that nearly 1,800 local newspapers had closed since 2004.

As the Pew Research Center reported June 13, “The estimated total U.S. daily newspaper circulation (print and digital combined) in 2017 was 31 million for weekday and 34 million for Sunday, down 11% and 10%, respectively, from the previous year. Declines were highest in print circulation: Weekday print circulation decreased 11% and Sunday circulation decreased 10%.”

The Pew study found estimated total newspaper advertising revenue in 2017 was $16.5 billion, a 10% decrease from 2016.

Citing data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the study reported “39,210 people worked as reporters, editors, photographers, or film and video editors in the newspaper industry in 2017. That is down 15% from 2014 and 45% from 2004.

Mary Beth Earnheardt, director of the Anderson Program in Journalism at Youngstown State University, was saddened to learn about the news. She had expected some type of change in the paper’s publication schedule – possibly reducing the number of days the print edition was published but not “a very quick shutdown like this,” she said

“Journalism was disrupted more than a decade ago and we’re still feeling out what that means. It’s hard to speculate, but there are business models that could definitely work in the Valley, and hopefully either the existing media will step up and do the job of a daily newspaper or someone else will come in and do it,” Earnheardt said.

Something will fill the media void left by the paper’s absence, but figuring that out now is “a fool’s game.”

“It’s hard to believe the Vindicator won’t survive in some way,” says Dan Pecchia, president of Pecchia Communications and former business editor of The Vindicator.

“Although circulation has fallen and the business has become very difficult, The Vindicator still has a strong reporting operation, a popular website and a core readership that’s used to a daily newspaper,” Pecchia says. “Those aren’t enough to offset the very high cost of traditional news delivery, but they could be enough to spark a revival of the paper in some other form. This could be one whale of a business opportunity for the right investors.”

George Nelson contributed reporting for this story.

FOLLOW-UP STORY:
Brown: Vindy Lost Money in ’20 of Last 22 Years’

Published by The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.