Opinion

The Death of a Local Newspaper Rocks America to Its Core

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Posted: Aug 13, 2019 12:01 AM
The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not represent the views of Townhall.com.
The Death of a Local Newspaper Rocks America to Its Core

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio -- When the press stops rolling at The Vindicator this month, a lingering question will once again taunt the residents of the Mahoning Valley: How much collapse can one region take?

The family-owned newspaper announced in June -- just days after celebrating its 150th anniversary -- that it is permanently ceasing production on Aug. 31. Started in 1869 just months after Ulysses S. Grant was sworn into office, it has been run by the descendants of William F. Maag ever since he purchased it midway through Grover Cleveland's first term.

The closure will cost 144 employees and 250 carriers their jobs and comes just weeks after the General Motors Lordstown plant down the road turned out the lights, leading to thousands of job losses.

It is one of a series of gut punches that has dented this area's spirit since the collapse of the steel industry in September 1977. But losing a local newspaper feels like a bigger blow than most.

"Newspapers are the watchdogs who hold our civic institutions accountable and act as a cheerleader for the unique fabrics in our society," Democratic presidential candidate Rep. Tim Ryan, the congressman who represents this region, told The New York Post.

As a young high school football star, Ryan enjoyed glowing coverage in The Vindicator. And as an elected official, he has felt the sting of its criticism.

"We've had our share of tensions, and they certainly have held me accountable, but that is their job -- to be that check on government -- and I cannot imagine our community without them," he said.

Closures like The Vindicator's are sadly more common than ever across the country, as old-school newsrooms struggle to compete with digital operations that aggregate web content but lack editorial oversight or seasoned reporters who have a deep understanding of their local area.

In the past 15 years, the country has lost 1,800 local news organizations, according to a report by the University of North Carolina Center for Innovation and Sustainability in Local Media. Half of the country's 3,143 counties have just one newspaper to cover sprawling, often isolated territories, while nearly 200 counties have no newspaper at all, the report said.

"A local newspaper is to a community what a central nervous system is to a body," said Paul Sracic, a political science professor at Youngstown State University. "Like the nerves in our body, the newspaper transmits vital and non-vital information throughout the community."

And without that, it's very difficult for a community to maintain its sense of self.

At the local school, Becky Ford has used The Vindicator (formerly known as The Youngstown Vindicator) as a resource for the American history and social studies classes she teaches. She also relies on it to stay connected with her community. "For us, it was like our New York Times," Ford said. "Sports, features, local social clubs, volunteer activities, class reunions ... you name it, they did it. If you called The Vindicator and asked (them) to be at your event, they were at your event taking pictures."

High school athletes, in particular, will suffer from a lack of coverage, said Rick Shepas, athletic director of Youngstown city schools.

It will be "devastating for the kids and their families not to have The Vindicator write those daily articles about the student-athlete's accomplishments both on and off the field," he said.

After 150 years of chronicling the Ohio Valley, beginning with the Reconstruction and followed by the Industrial Revolution, two World Wars, a Great Depression, civil rights, a moon landing, the Vietnam War, Watergate, 9/11 and the rise of populism, it is hard to believe that The Vindicator is no more.

Although the internet is a great source of information, the virtual communities that exist on sites like Reddit aren't local or even identifiable.

Youngstown Mayor Jamael Tito Brown worries that the disruption caused by the paper's closure won't stop at the city line.

"This is a problem for our whole country," Brown said. "Communities suffer when local journalism closes up shop, and we lose our vitality and connection to each other when that door closes for the last time."

He adds, "The bigger problem is: How are we going to stop those doors from closing here -- or anywhere?"

Salena Zito is a CNN political analyst, and a staff reporter and columnist for the Washington Examiner. She reaches the Everyman and Everywoman through shoe-leather journalism, traveling from Main Street to the beltway and all places in between. To find out more about Salena and read her past columns, please visit the Creators Syndicate webpage at www.creators.com.