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'Newstown' documentary chronicles loss of Vindicator, rise of local media

“They couldn’t save their paper, but they could do something. I started taking a look at those ‘somethings’ and they were extraordinary,” said filmmaker Craig Duff, whose documentary "Newstown" was previewed Wednesday.
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(Northwestern University Medill School of Journalism, Media and Integrated Communications)

CHICAGO — The closure of The Vindicator a little more than one year ago forever changed the Mahoning Valley.

Youngstown became the first city “of substantial size” without its own daily paper, according to Margaret Sullivan, the Washington Post’s media columnist, who was embedded in the Vindicator newsroom in its final days.

Many others said the loss was personal when speaking to filmmaker and Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism professor Craig Duff for his documentary “Newstown.” The first 30 minutes of “Newstown” were previewed Wednesday during a virtual event hosted by the Medill journalism school. 

Michael Briceland, Chaney High School Class of 1969, told Duff he continued to get his hometown paper while serving in Vietnam.

After the announcement of the newspaper's closing, some readers told Mahoning Matters Editor Mark Sweetwood — then The Vindicator's managing editor — “The Vindicator is my best friend.” Though their spouses may have died or their children may have moved away, The Vindicator was on their doorstep every morning, he said.

“It hurt, and I was wondering to myself, ‘Why do I feel so bad about this? I haven’t lived in Youngstown in a long time,'" said Duff, whose father was a Youngstown steel mill worker and whose school theater productions always made the Vindy pages.

“It was part of my growing up. It was part of my life in Youngstown.”

Duff has spent the past year tracing the void left by the 150-year-old locally owned newspaper. The film “Newstown” wheels between local perspectives and profiles local news initiatives that have stepped up to keep the region informed: The Business Journal, whose reporter Dan O’Brien undertook a ProPublica-funded investigation into economic development in the Valley; Mahoning Matters’ new digital newsroom, comprised of Vindicator veterans; the Vindicator edition of the Tribune Chronicle, which more than doubled its subscribership overnight to continue serving Youngstown and Mahoning County; and WKBN-TV, which has expanded digital storytelling with help from Vindicator alum Joe Gorman.

“They couldn’t save their paper, but they could do something. I started taking a look at those ‘somethings’ and they were extraordinary,” Duff said. “There’s an incredible resilience among the people there. They’re genuinely trying to do something.”

The full, 52-minute documentary, which Duff said also examines the void The Vindicator leaves for local libraries and genealogy — “the other ways people use the newspaper” — will be available today on Northwestern University’s local news initiative page.

“I like that this film takes a clear-eyed view of the challenges and opportunities for local news in Youngstown,” said Mandy Jenkins, publisher of Mahoning Matters.

“Everyone in local media has had to grow or adapt in the wake of The Vindicator. The audience growth we have seen in our first year at Mahoning Matters shows there’s a need and desire for local news in the area," Jenkins said. "It is up to all of us to keep those readers informed and build businesses that can last.”

Following Wednesday’s preview, a live panel featuring Youngstown Mayor Jamael Tito Brown; Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist Connie Schultz and her husband, U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown of Cleveland, D-Ohio; David Folkenflik, NPR’s chief media correspondent; and Nancy Lane, CEO of the Local Media Association, took questions on the decline of local newsrooms and its consequences.

“We don’t have that trustworthy news source in many places like we used to,” said Sen. Brown. “My friend, [Vindicator reporter] Dave Skolnick — he knows when I’m ‘BSing’ him and he’s pushing back. Those personal relationships really matter.”

Mayor Brown said “Youngstown’s had its past,” but The Vindicator could be expected to tell its future story, chapter by chapter.

“They’ve been writing about it the last 150 years,” he said.

With the city now staring down “one of the biggest economic crises we’ve had” in the COVID-19 pandemic, Mayor Brown said he feels the Valley’s news audience needs the kind of consistency they could find in the local paper.

“I don’t want the fear. I want the facts. I think that’s what happens when you don’t have the stable cornerstone in your community, like the Youngstown Vindicator,” he said.

Schultz, an Ashtabula native and former Plain Dealer columnist, said when communities lose their regional, on-the-ground reporters who are telling stories about the places they live, those communities are often reduced to stereotypes.

“I tell my students — particularly during election season — you can find someone saying something stupid on every street corner in America. Unfortunately, they always seem to come to Ohio to do it,” she said. “The national narrative can affect the confidence of an entire community and an entire town. … We are the storytellers.

“The way [‘Newstown’ honors] storytellers really hit me. … With everything else going on, they want to be journalists. They are working for peanuts to be able to do this,” Schultz said.

Folkenflik said though the closure of The Vindicator created economic opportunity for neighboring news outlets like the Tribune Chronicle and the Business Journal, Youngstown’s new role as a newsroom incubator adds much more.

“These are important players and actors. They are not a replacement. They are not a solution. But without them, the impoverishment of journalism and people’s understanding of themselves would really diminish much more steeply,” he said.

Lane, whose organization collaborates throughout the media sphere, said many local outlets have shifted to “survival mode” during the COVID-19 pandemic, which has caused advertising revenues to plummet and forced newspapers to turn to philanthropy — but also led to a surge in digital subscriptions and accelerated the digital transformation of print newsrooms.

“If there is a bright side, it’s forcing media companies that were still very print-centric to get their act together on the digital side,” she said.

Looking ahead to the next couple of years, Lane said “the ones that will survive will be mission-driven, with very strong local leadership.

“The strong will survive, and it will be an exciting time for some and a sad time for others.”

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