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Ohio newspaper that battled injustice for 150 years to shut down: ‘Scary for democracy’

The Vindicator’s closure means Youngstown will be the largest US city without a major paper, and is the latest blow to an ailing American news industry

By Andy Gabbatt | The Guardian, in Youngstown | August 21, 2019

It was in the late 1920s that the Ku Klux Klan regularly began gathering outside the home of William F Maag Jr in Youngstown. Maag owned the Vindicator newspaper, which unlike others in this once prosperous part of Ohio, had been willing to criticize the racist Klansmen.

Men on horseback, clad in white robes and hoods, would burn crosses and flaunt rifles and shotguns, in an attempt at intimidation. It didn’t work. The men of the Maag family would stand outside their home, themselves armed, refusing to be cowed, as the Vindicator continued to expose government officials who were part of the Klan.

That defiance set the tone for decades of investigative, combative reporting from the Vindicator. The daily newspaper relentlessly reported on the mafia, the government, big business and even its own advertisers.Advertisement

But no more. Soon after celebrating 150 years since its first edition came news that was devastating to many in Youngstown and the wider Mahoning valley. The Vindicator was shutting down at the end of August. For good.

The Vindicator’s closure means Youngstown will soon be the largest city in the US without a major newspaper, and is the latest blow to an ailing American news industry. According to the University of North Carolina, more than 2,000 US newspapers have closed since 2004, and at least 1,300 communities have completely lost news coverage in the past 15 years. In July a Pew Research Center study reported that the number of journalists in the US declined 47% between 2008 and 2018.

It’s a sad end to a newspaper with a long history of fighting injustice – going all the way back to those days battling the KKK. That fearlessness is what Mark Brown, Maag’s grandson and the fourth-generation owner of the Vindicator, is most proud of.

“Fighting the Klan I think would have to be number one because that was a core social justice issue,” Brown said. “The Klan tried to make this area sort of its northern center. There was a lot of support here for the Klan and we fought hard against it, and I think we succeeded for the most part.”

Mark Brown, the fourth-generation owner of the Vindicator: ‘Fighting the Klan would have to be number one because that was a core social justice issue.’

Mark Brown, the fourth-generation owner of the Vindicator: ‘Fighting the Klan would have to be number one because that was a core social justice issue.’ Photograph: Jeff Swensen/The Washington Post/Getty Images

The demise of the Vindicator is especially galling given the multi-award-winning newspaper had marked its 150th anniversary with a look back to the first edition. That first copy, a print of which hangs on the wall at the newspaper’s Youngstown office, was four pages long. It carried a story about a boy who had his teeth kicked out by a horse, an article on a farmer who had two sons: one “an early riser” and the other “an incorrigible sluggard”, and a report on the water depth of the Mahoning River.

Now its closure heaps a little more pain onto an already struggling Rust Belt community. The population of Youngstown has halved since 1970, when the city’s steel industry went into a dramatic decline, and in 2007 it had the lowest median income of any US city with more than 65,000 residents.

After the steel mills closed, and other businesses departed, tens of thousand of people left Youngstown to find work elsewhere. Some, however, remained, and today there are many older people in Youngstown and elsewhere in the Mahoning valley who have been left behind.

“You still have neighborhoods, where nice little old ladies live, where their kids all moved away to get jobs, [their] husbands died, but the women no longer know each other or the neighbors very well – or sometimes there’s no neighbors,” said Mark Sweetwood, managing editor of the Vindicator.

“And I’ve had so many of them call me and use this exact line – they say: ‘The Vindicator is my only friend.’

“I’ve heard that over, and over, and over again, and it haunts me.”

The paper’s staff, some of whom have spent the best part of their lives at the Vindicator, have also been hit hard.

“My identity is the Vindicator. Without the newspaper I have no identity in the community,” said Bertram de Souza, the paper’s editorial page editor and columnist.

De Souza, 69, has worked at the Vindicator for more than 40 years, and was the paper’s first non-white politics writer. He moved to the US from Uganda when he was 19 years old, after then president Idi Amin expelled Asian people from the country, and eventually moved to Youngstown for the job.

“I’m going to leave town. Without the Vindicator I don’t have a compelling reason to live in Youngstown,” De Souza said. “For me to keep living in Youngstown, not being associated with the newspaper makes no sense. I could live anywhere in the world,” De Souza said.

The Vindicator became known for tackling the mafia and corrupt officials. The work of De Souza and other reporters in the late 1980s contributed to almost 70 elected officials, mafia members and businesspeople being convicted of criminal acts.

Despite the quality of the coverage, sales have declined over the past four decades. From selling 100,000 copies in the late 1970s – 160,000 on Sundays – the Vindicator is now down to 25,000 editions daily, and 32,000 on Sunday. The paper has lost money for 20 of the last 22 years, Brown said, with a family fund covering the losses. Brown hoped to ultimately sell the Vindicator, but no buyers were forthcoming. He explored a paywall, but the numbers didn’t work. Neither did making the Vindicator online-only.

“The demise of newspapers, I think, is scary for any democracy. Because I think newspapers have been totally under appreciated for what they have done to keep the government in check. To prevent corruption, to keep people honest,” Brown said.

“That’s what scares me the most, is I’m not sure who provides that check. And you have to have it. History has shown you have to have that balance if you want to maintain a democracy. And we’re about to lose it.”

The Vindicator has been in Brown’s family for 132 years, with Betty Brown Jagnow, Brown’s mother, spending the past 38 years as publisher. Brown Jaglow, 89, has worked at the paper for a total of 71 years, and the closure is difficult to take.

“I could cry. It’s been my life, and I’ve never regretted it,” Brown Jagnow said. “It’s been a wonderful experience.”

Brown Jagnow started at the paper on April Fool’s Day, 1948, aged 18. In spite of her advancing years, Brown Jagnow still comes into the office three times a week, working alongside her son and the team. It’s been a remarkable tenure, particularly as she hadn’t initially wanted to work at the Vindicator – only attending an interview after her priest recommended a job there.

“It was the best thing that ever happened to me,” Brown Jagnow said.

As for the final editions of the Vindicator, Sweetwood said the team are planning a “good old-fashioned Viking funeral”. The last week will feature exclusive stories each day, he said, alongside articles charting the paper’s past.

Then, after 150 years, the final ever copy of the Vindicator will hit the stands on Sunday 31 August. The last edition will bring the curtain down on an illustrious history, and leave Youngstown without its venerable, trusted news source.

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