Cities suffer their ups and downs. They lose big businesses — factories that employee thousands — and stores and restaurants decide to pick up and leave as well. Sometimes these cities never recover, as their reason for being suddenly has no reason at all. And so memories, perhaps of a perfectly thrown pass spiraling through the night, replace Glory Days.
Youngstown, Ohio, has lost more than its share — particularly when its steel mills closed down in September 1977. Eighteen years later, Bruce Springsteen, in one of his finest songs, wrote of the city's demise — "Well my daddy come on the Ohio works/When he come home from World War Two/Now the yard's just scrap and rubble/He said 'Them big boys did what Hitler couldn't do.'/These mills they built the tanks and bombs/That won this country's wars/We sent our sons to Korea and Vietnam/Now we're wondering what they were dyin' for."
Youngstown didn't die gently, but rather slowly. General Motors' Lordstown plant hung on until about three weeks ago — and 17 days from now, the last vestige of the city's heyday — its venerable and wonderfully named family-owned newspaper, The Vindicator — will print its last edition just weeks after celebrating its 150th birthday.
And for all the industry boarded up or torn down, this may be the biggest loss of all, townspeople say, using any number of metaphors to register their dismay.
“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 Youngstown, told the great roving reporter Salena Zito recently.
"A local newspaper is to a community what a central nervous system is to a body,” says 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.”
So true, but to reduce the effect to a more visceral level — newspapers like The Vindicator are part of the social fabric, a recorder of the local history and, frankly, a part of the family. If any city needed all these things — watchdog, central nervous system, recorder of history, family member — it was Youngtown, a rough-hewn, old-school burg that needed both oversight and love.
Regretfully, while the Youngstown may be a classic example of a town in need of a newspaper, many other city may take exception to the distinction. Over the past 15 years, so notes the University of North Carolina's Center for Innovation and Sustainability in Local Media, the industry has lost 1,800 local news organizations — The Vindicator,with its 144 employees and 250 carriers is one. What's more, half of the nation's 3,143 counties boast just one paper, while nearly 200 counties have no local newspaper at all.
But in Youngstown, as Ms. Zeno said, it's more than silenced presses or a boarded building. The newspaper's passing signals the continuation of a trend and poses rhe question, "What's next? Or do we have anything else to lose beside our university (Youngstown State)?"
Nine years ago, the newspaper invested $12 million in equipment. The Vindicator's future, if not the city's, seemed bright. Now it's the latest door to close, and, as Mayor Jamael Tito Brown laments, "We lose our vitality and connection to each other when that door closes for the last time."
What door will be next? It can happen anywhere.