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PAINTER: The death of a newspaper is a blow to democracy

• Jul 8, 2019 at 4:00 PM

Youngstown, Ohio, is losing its daily newspaper at the end of August. The Vindicator has served Youngstown and its surrounding communities for 150 years — a birthday that was celebrated just days before the announced closing

The owners published a letter in the June 28 edition of the newspaper outlining why they decided to close the doors of the long-time publication. They revealed that the newspaper has been suffering financial hardship and that a search for a buyer to save jobs was unsuccessful.

While we are aware that many newspapers are struggling to survive, the closing of The Vindicator is stunning. According to the Philadelphia Inquirer, The Vindicator will be the “first significant American city without a newspaper. ... The closing of Youngstown’s daily newspaper is a blow not just to a struggling city but to American democracy,” the Inquirer wrote.

Todd Franko is the editor of The Vindicator. I met Franko when he was the editor of the Sandusky (Ohio) Register, then a sister publication of the Grand Haven Tribune. I remember attending a seminar in Chicago with him. I came away impressed with his knowledge and drive.

Here’s what Franko had to say about the closing to Cleveland.com: “It is stunning news for us, internally, and it is going to be stunning for the community over the next days and weeks.”

The closing of The Vindicator is another tragic loss for Youngstown. Once a thriving steel mill town, the city’s population dramatically declined in the 1970s when the mills began to close. Another setback for the city occurred more recently when General Motors announced it was closing its nearby Lordstown automotive factory, eliminating 1,400 jobs.

It is sad to see a city suffer so much. The Vindicator was a strong voice in Youngstown. The newspaper has a reputation for its hard-hitting stories, a publication that wasn’t afraid to take public officials to task.

The owners said they did everything they could to keep the newspaper afloat, including cutting expenses, freezing wages and upgrading equipment. But, like other newspapers that went out of business, declining advertising and circulation revenues were too much to overcome.

Yes, the closure of The Vindicator is stunning news for the newspaper industry that has been reeling in the past years.

I know that newspaper cynics tell us that the newspaper industry is dying and that the only use of a newspaper is “for fish wrap.”

I don’t have an answer as to the future of newspapers. All I know is that I’ve always loved newspapers. Like others of my generation, I began reading newspapers at a very young age. That love has continued throughout my life. I had a 37-year career in the newspaper business, one that gave me much pleasure.

My mother was upset with me when I told her I was quitting my job at Ford Motor Co. to become a journalist. It was a decision that I have never regretted.

I’m sure that journalists at The Vindicator love their careers. So, I feel badly for the 144 full-time and 250 part-time employees who will be out of a job after Aug. 31. I’m sure many of them have homes in the area, have children who attend local schools and who are involved in community activities.

I know what it is like to become unemployed without warning. When I was editor/publisher of a small weekly newspaper in Texas, the newspaper got sold and I was out of a job. I was fortunate that the newspaper job market was still strong, and I was able to find employment in Flagstaff, Arizona. But newspaper jobs are scarcer now, and it may be much more difficult for Vindicator journalists to find new jobs. Plus, there is the matter of having to relocate.

Youngstown residents will also be hurt by the loss of The Vindicator. They will no longer have someone to be their watchdog, holding public officials accountable. Sure, some venues (online) will try to step in and fill the void, but they most likely will not be as credible as The Vindicator.

Someone once told me that we should all be concerned about the demise of newspapers, which play an important role in our democracy. I know I am. But I remain hopeful that small newspapers like the Grand Haven Tribune can flourish. Now that the Tribune is under new ownership, perhaps there are reasons to be hopeful.

This city and its surrounding neighbors need to have someone be their watchdog and hold public officials accountable. It is important to our democracy.

— By Len Painter, Tribune community columnist

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