Like just about every president who followed, Thomas Jefferson sometimes gnashed his teeth over what was printed about him in newspapers. But the author of the Declaration of the Independence also had the equanimity to state, “Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.”
Unfortunately, the residents of Youngstown, Ohio, 80 miles north of Washington, are about to find out what it’s like to have a government without a newspaper.
On June 28, the owners of The Vindicator, Youngstown’s 150-year-old daily newspaper, announced that it will be closing in August. The announcement caught many observers by surprise; sure, newspapers across the country and around the world have had well-documented difficulties making their longtime business models work in the digital age. Some small dailies or weeklies have folded, and some bigger dailies have opted to trim publication days to save money. But Youngstown is a metropolitan area that contains more than 500,000 residents, about twice as many as Erie. It’s not a one-stoplight town. It’s the home of a state university, a well-regarded museum, a symphony, and has a long and complicated history. Once a hotbed of corruption and organized crime, Youngstown has also had to grapple with all the woes that have flowed from the decline of manufacturing in the Rust Belt, which has afflicted scores of other communities. Youngstown needs a newspaper.
But it won’t have one.
Television news outlets or radio stations will continue their coverage. The Tribune Chronicle, located in nearby Warren, Ohio, and owned by the same company that owns the Observer-Reporter, should be able to step in and scoop up some subscribers. Someone might try their luck with an online news site. But there’s the very real possibility that a substantial portion of the institutional memory that reporters and editors at The Vindicator possessed will be lost.
Mark Brown, the general manager of The Vindicator, told the Youngstown-based Business Journal that his newspaper had lost money almost every year for the last two decades, and that two potential buyers ultimately decided against purchasing it. Management considered cutting publication days or making other changes, but these maneuvers would not have nudged the paper to the break-even point.
“We never thought we’d be in this position,” Brown said.
Nature abhors a vacuum, as we’ve been told time and time again, and it could be that something will emerge – eventually – that will fill the void in Youngstown that will be left by the end of The Vindicator. In the meantime, there is a way to make sure that the Observer-Reporter and other local newspapers do not go the way of The Vindicator, but continue to survive and thrive – namely, readers should maintain a subscription.
Newspapers are businesses, no doubt, but they are also a public good. They deserve support.