In the wee hours of June 28, 2019, an email went out to the Youngstown Vindicator staff.
A series of meetings was planned that day. Employees all started to query each other. My first of many, many texts came from Editor Todd Franko. We didn't know what the news was. We just presumed it wasn't going to be good. Narrowing of print delivery days? Layoffs? A sale?
I joined other managers in the first meeting of the day, and General Manager Mark Brown, who had, for the better part of the past 11 years, looked as if he had the weight of the world on him, stood before us and patiently walked us through the cold details of his newspaper's recent past. In the last decade, revenue was down, circulation was down, his ability to cut costs had gone as far as it could logically go: In 60 days The Vindicator would be closed.
Sunday was the one-year anniversary. It feels both as shattering as if it happened yesterday and as distant as if it happened a million years ago. A few days after the announcement, on July 2, the Youngstown Press Club had a town hall meeting. Hundreds of people packed the Tyler History Center to express what the loss of The Vindicator meant to them.
Since I was a 13-year-old pedaling the Chicago Daily News around the East Side of Ottawa, Ill., all I had wanted to do was work at a newspaper. I loved reading Mike Royko, and I was deep into Chicago Bears coverage (our family had season tickets and gave them up the year the Bears drafted a rookie named Walter Payton).
For the next nearly four decades, for better or for worse, my dreams came true. I was an editor of the newspaper at Ottawa Township High School and at Bradley University. My first daily gig was an internship at the Journal Star of Peoria, and they kept me around until I graduated from college. I was managing editor of a daily — The Leader in Corning, N.Y. — by age 29. For the better part of the next two decades, from Illinois to Florida, I was editor, general manager, publisher and editor again until I was named managing editor at The Vindicator in 2008.
What an opportunity: a good newspaper with good people in a good news town.
But last June 28, I learned my newspaper career would be over in 60 days. And I wondered about my media career, frankly. It's not like the other media in town were beating down the door of a veteran newsman pushing 60. One exec referred to me less-than-discreetly as "a handful." That pleased me to no end, to be honest. While friends and acquaintances outside the Valley inquired about my interest in opportunities far away, we love it here. And my wife Mary's job is here, too.
Even though the old Vindicator had the No. 1 news website in the Valley, won a pile of awards every year and, even in a diminished state, more often than not set the journalistic pace in town and led the news conversation, I and many of my colleagues feared we could be washed up in the news game.
If only I had paid attention to what Billie Joe Armstrong had been telling me for so many years:
Another turning point, a fork stuck in the road
Time grabs you by the wrist, directs you where to go
It turns out, I had spent much of the last few years at the old place serving an apprenticeship for my next job. Working in the content management system. Watching analytics. Getting news online efficiently. Directing newsroom traffic with a small-but-mighty team. Deciding, of all the possible stories we COULD tell, WHICH stories would have the biggest impact.
Then, I met Mandy Jenkins, mostly because everyone said, "You've got to meet Mandy Jenkins." She was the driving force behind the McClatchy Newspapers/Google Compass Experiment now coming to Youngstown. Once I knew that Justin Dennis and Jess Hardin were in, I was sold. To be able to do what I wanted to do in a good news town with people I liked and respected was too good of an opportunity to pass up. Adding another editor of Jeremy Harper's caliber to the team was a wonderful, sanity-saving bonus.
Eight weeks after Brown's announcement, The Vindicator closed — but not before spiriting its name and web domain to the Ogden Newspapers company to be revived that Labor Day weekend as an edition of the Tribune Chronicle. One day I was managing editor of The Vindicator, and the next day there was another Vindicator that I had no part of. As if I needed more trauma.
Luckily, there was no time to dwell. Four days later, my new/old co-workers and I met the McClatchy team over lunch at Caffe Capri (Remember having lunch out? So quaint.). Forty days after the last Vindicator rolled off the press in Youngstown, Mahoning Matters was born.
You know what? I believe almost every member of the old newsroom who wanted to find a new job, did. They live on here with us or at The Business Journal, The Vindicator, WKBN, Triad Production Group and WFMJ. Some left the area for new adventures. Many folks were able to retire, too. Thanks to General Manager Mark Brown and Publisher Betty Jagnow's generosity, severance packages respecting employees' years of service were real lifelines for folks trying to decide what to do next.
So make the best of this test and don't ask why
It's not a question, but a lesson learned in time
The past year has certainly been something unpredictable. Good often follows bad. In the yin-yang existence of the past year, the world has witnessed more bad than good, frankly. While a part of me will always miss newspapers — ink in the veins and all that — I love my small-but-mighty team, the entrepreneurial spirit of a start-up and the accomplishment of telling those stories that otherwise might not get told.
The abrupt death of The Vindicator created a bit of a disruption. Between print and online, the old place was pretty much your Happy Meal of news: your burger, fries, drink, dessert and perhaps a prize. Now we live in an à la carte news world. There’s no one-stop shopping.
The remaining media picked lanes. The Vindicator/Tribune Chronicle seems to seek the traditional print path featuring matters of public record, meeting coverage and features. The Business Journal augmented its business news with entertainment and ProPublica investigations. The TV stations focus on the “now news” from weather to crime and started to lean into deeper online content from podcasts to live church services in the pandemic era.
Next week we'll celebrate the ninth month of Mahoning Matters. Many of you have been here from the start. We are grateful beyond mere words.
And I'm still a handful. And I'm surrounded by other handfuls. They are my bosses and my coworkers. They are the columnists we've picked up. They are the photographers whose work we're blessed to share. And we've expanded this year DURING the pandemic with Ellen Wagner and Tom Williams.
The time of my life? I’m still sorting that out.