Sherry Linkon is a professor of English at Georgetown University and the editor of the blog Working-Class Perspectives. She is also a faculty affiliate of the Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and the Working Poor at Georgetown University. Her most recent book is The Half-Life of Deindustrialization: Working-Class Writing on Economic Restructuring.
It’s been a tough year in Youngstown. Along with the closing of the nearby GM Lordstown plant, 2019 has also seen the Ohio city lose one of its two major hospitals. Then, late last month, the community’s 150-year old newspaper, The Vindicator, announced that it would close in August.
This latest body blow has left Youngstown punch drunk, struggling to regain balance. Once known for steel production, the city has since the 1970s become better known for industrial decline. Its economic plight routinely draws national attention, in part because, as we argue in our book, Steeltown USA: Work and Memory in Youngstown, Youngstown’s story is America’s story: What happens here illustrates and often predicts what will happen around the country.
When reporters call us up to ask why autoworkers cling to jobs they should know are doomed to disappear, we often suggest they take a look around the empty desks of their own newsrooms. The same economic shifts that closed this city’s steel mills have also hit journalism, and not just in Youngstown. As the Columbia Journalism Review and Bloomberg have recently reported, between January and May of 2019, 3,000 journalists were laid off around the country, most in the Midwest. The toll from The Vindicator closing is 144 jobs, including 24 reporters.
Just like a plant closing, the shutdown of newspaper is about far more than lost jobs. A city like Youngstown, which has a rich history of local political corruption, can ill afford to lose the watchdog role that aggressive local reporters provide. But it’s also about losing social networks. A local newspaper provides connective tissue, day-to-day knowledge that is essential to place-making. The Vindicator called itself “the people’s paper”; as former Vindicator reporter Denise Dick wrote in the Washington Post, its pages were filled with news of “seemingly mundane things”—high school sports and church food sales, local art shows and wedding announcements.
The Vindicator is not the only source of this kind of information. In addition to local TV stations, both the local Business Journal and the Tribune Chronicle, the local paper for nearby Warren, Ohio, have announced plans to expand their coverage of Youngstown. Two new projects from national media organizations will also try to fill some of the much-needed public oversight gaps. The nonprofit investigative powerhouse ProPublica will create a local operation in Youngstown as part of its Local Reporting Network, and last week came the announcement that the Google News Initiative’s Compass Project, a partnership with McClatchy, will launch a local online news outlet here in August. In this way, Youngstown’s story will yet again provide a glimpse into a wider future, hosting experiments in alternative models for the production and distribution of local news.
Each of these efforts can take up at least part of what The Vindicator once provided. The Warren paper can host Youngstown’s obituaries and wedding announcements, while the Business Journal will pay attention to local economic issues. ProPublica may be able to field more investigative reporting than The Vindy has in recent years, and the Compass Project could expand digital and social media news coverage for the area. If any of these can figure out a business model that will sustain their operations while also maintaining serious coverage of local issues, that would be a win not only for the Mahoning Valley but for the industry.
Yet we remain concerned about what the loss of the local paper will mean for this city, not only because we believe that Youngstown matters nationally but also because we understand the value of local stories—told by local reporters for local readers—for a city that has, over the last few decades, suffered real challenges to its identity. A shared narrative about the history and significance of a city plays an important role in creating community; the stories we tell about our cities link people together and provide a basis for moving forward. But that has to come from the inside. As with so many towns and cities inside America’s growing news deserts, losing the local paper means that the job of telling Youngstown’s story will increasingly be in the hands of outsiders.
Over the years, our experience as frequently cited sources for national and international journalists writing about Youngstown has shown why we can’t count on outside news organizations to tell the city’s story. Too many reporters come to town thinking they already know what this place is all about. Forty years after the mill closings, they still want to interview us in front of an abandoned factory or boarded-up storefront. These days, most want to talk about one thing: white working-class voters, because they define this community primarily as “Trump country.” It’s a rare journalist who asks for help making contact with African American workers, local environmentalists, neighborhood redevelopers, or area writers and artists.
It’s not their fault, really. These reporters—smart, thoughtful individuals whose work we respect and value—just don’t have the kind of deep understanding of this community that Tim Fitzpatrick recalls as central to his experience working at The Vindicator in the 1980s. During that difficult period, when thousands of local workers were losing their jobs, Fitzpatrick found that working for a local paper gave him an incredible “sense of connection to the history of Youngstown and belonging to something bigger.” That sense of connection changes the way journalists understand their work. Even when they aren’t doing the kind of critical investigations that a city like Youngstown needs, local reporters recognize that a city is more than its economic woes or its political tendencies. And even the big stories are deeply embedded in the memories and relationships, conflicts and victories, that come into play as a community decides where to build a new school or how to deal with vacant properties or any of the other challenges facing any city.
The closing of The Vindicator will also cut future historians off from this community’s story. When we were researching our book on Youngstown, we spent hours reading old issues of the paper, devouring its meticulous coverage of the September 1977 announcement of the first major steel mill was closing. Where national papers devoted a few column inches to the news, The Vindicator interviewed dozens of workers, local officials, small business owners, ministers, and others, documenting the immediate response in a way that neither an outside journalist nor a historian conducting interviews even a few years later could have. This is the kind of reporting that only a local newspaper—and local reporters—will do; only they have the connections and commitment to the community to make it happen.
In recent years, we’ve often been critical of The Vindicator’s boosterism and its lack of attention to community and neighborhood activism. But we’re also skeptical that the ad-hoc new alternatives that are rising to take its place can do any better for local readers. The closing of The Vindicator is a bitter loss, not only for Youngstown, but for all the communities across the country whose local stories will be erased as the newspaper industry undergoes its own era of deindustrialization.