What Happens When a Newspaper Dies? Medill Professor’s Film Looks at Impact in Youngstown

The Youngstown Vindicator, a 150-year-old newspaper, announced in the summer of 2019 that it was closing. The fate of the newspaper known as the “Vindy” was a painful blow to its northeast Ohio city and a grim symbol of the growing distress in America’s local news industry.

The news was also the inspiration for a new documentary called “Newstown” by former Youngstown resident Craig Duff, a professor at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications. Duff, a former CNN and Time.com producer, took his cameras to Youngstown and found much more than a simple tale of urban decline. “Newstown” is a nuanced story about journalists both inside and outside of Youngstown fighting to overcome the Vindy’s loss and keep the community informed.

“People cared and people did something,” Duff said. “Local news organizations found ways to shore up and try to do more to fill that void.”

A 30-minute excerpt from Duff’s documentary will be shown publicly for the first time in an online screening followed by a panel discussion. The event takes place on Wednesday, Sept. 30, from 5 p.m. to 6:15 Central time. The link: https://northwestern.zoom.us/j/98225294190

People cared and people did something. Local news organizations found ways to shore up and try to do more to fill that void.

Craig Duff, Medill Professor and creator of the documentary “Newstown.”

The event, moderated by Medill Senior Associate Dean Tim Franklin, features a prominent panel: Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio; Pulitzer prize-winning columnist Connie Schultz; chief media correspondent David Folkenflik of National Public Radio; Youngstown Mayor Jamael “Tito” Brown; and Nancy Lane, CEO of the Local Media Association.

The Vindicator was one of at least 300 local newspapers that have failed in the United States in the past two years, according to a study led by Penny Abernathy at the University of North Carolina’s Hussman School of Journalism and Media. About one in four of the 9,000 newspapers published 15 years ago have shut down. The UNC research found that 1,800 communities around the country are now “news deserts,” places with very limited or no local reporting.

Duff, who grew up 20 miles north of Youngstown and attended Youngstown State University, recalled how the Vindy’s news hit him.

“Last summer, in 2019, there was a tweet on the last Thursday of June where I saw Peter Sagal from ‘Wait Wait … Don’t Tell Me,’ who had remarked about the name of the Vindicator being a great name for a newspaper,” Duff said. “They were celebrating the 150th year of that paper. One family had owned it for 132 years. That was on a Thursday and I remember retweeting it and saying I know the Vindy – it’s my hometown paper. And then the next day, I saw a tweet that said the newspaper was going to fold in two months. … So immediately I started thinking, well, this was an opportunity to tell a story.”

Rescue Efforts in Youngstown

Duff’s film follows journalists rallying to rescue news coverage in the city.

The local Business Journal and TV stations tried to boost reporting on Youngstown. The Tribune Chronicle, based in nearby Warren, created an edition for distribution in Youngstown, featuring the Vindy’s nameplate. The ProPublica investigative news outlet teamed with the Business Journal on a hard-hitting project.

In perhaps the most innovative response to the Vindy’s closure, Youngstown was chosen as the first site for a new digital media project called the Compass Experiment, a joint project of the McClatchy news chain and the Google News Initiative that explores sustainable models for local news. The Compass Experiment, run by General Manager Mandy Jenkins, stepped into the gap left by the Vindy to create a new outlet called Mahoning Matters, serving Ohio’s Mahoning County. In another contribution by a national organization, Mahoning Matters’ staff includes a journalist from Report for America, a program that places emerging journalists in local news organizations.

All of this gave Duff a story of contrasts – both disheartening and uplifting.

“The sad story is that 144 people were let go when the Vindicator closed,” Duff said. “More than 40 of those were storytellers, journalists – reporters and editors on the editorial side. A handful of those were hired by other entities. But there was a significant loss over-all. … You can’t rebuild a paper once it’s gone. You can fill in certain parts of it, but that entity is no longer there, that community organ is no longer there. So that’s the sad part. But the great part is, Youngstown is not a news desert. … The people on the ground really do care and tried to do something about it. And are succeeding, but it’s still fragile.”

The film is a story about the news business, but it’s also a people story, a look at hard-working journalists and the public they serve. Duff interviewed a wide range of people, from state and local political leaders to the Washington Post’s media columnist to the local librarian to a local funeral director.

The local news crisis isn’t just an issue for the journalism industry, it’s an issue that affects the civic life of a community.

Tim Franklin, Medill Senior Associate Dean and head of the Medill Local News Initiative

Event moderator Franklin, who heads Northwestern’s Medill Local News Initiative, noted the wide impact of the closing.

“Very understandably, there’s considerable focus on the people losing their jobs when a local newspaper shutters. It’s an awful consequence of the local news contraction in recent years,” Franklin said. “But one of the things we wanted to accomplish with this documentary was to show the impact on a community and its residents when the main source of local news closes its doors. The local news crisis isn’t just an issue for the journalism industry, it’s an issue that affects the civic life of a community.”

Duff’s film depicts the journalists as everyday heroes.

“People talk a lot about the elite media,” Duff said, “but really on the ground there are just good folks that aren’t getting paid a lot and are dedicated to telling the stories in their communities.”

The documentary was funded in large part with contributions to the Medill Local News Initiative, a Northwestern project to promote financial sustainability in local news. The largest individual supporters of the project are Medill graduate Mitch Tobin (BSJ79) and his wife, Susan Jacobson.

About the author

Mark Jacob

Editor

A former Metro Editor at the Chicago Tribune and Sunday Editor at the Chicago Sun-Times, Jacob is chronicling the Local News Initiative’s progress for the project’s website. He is the co-author of six books on history and photography.

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