Youngstown, Ohio, Lost Its Only Paper. A 'Zombie' News Site Wants To Fill The Void
If you told Brian Dzenis three years ago he would be loading postal semis for work, he would have laughed in your face. A former sports reporter at the now-defunct YoungstownVindicator, affectionately known as the Vindy, Dzenis, 31, has spent the time after his layoff as a second-shift loader for FedEx, and an expediter for the United States Postal Service.
Instead of covering D-1 varsity at Chaney High, Dzenis now wakes at 6 a.m. to process packages at a facility in Warrendale, Penn. He makes roughly $5,000 more a year than he did during his three years at the Vindy, and Dzenis says he has no concrete plans to return to journalism.
"It's not like I'm totally a shell of my former self," Dzenis says. "Still, I don't know that the things I do at the postal service will give me the same kind of satisfaction as I had as a journalist."
His internal crisis about his journalism future mirrors, in many ways, the predicament that has befallen American journalism as a whole. As the COVID-19 pandemic accelerates the downfall of the newspaper industry — scattering veteran local reporters with it — so does the urgency for those in the industry to find the proper digital stand-in. And also, how to fund it.
According to the Pew Research Center, nearly 34,000 newspaper jobs were lost between 2004 and 2018 (a third of all papers have seen layoffs since 2017), with smaller, local papers assuming the mightiest blow. Against that backdrop, the future of local community reporting seems grim.
The closure of the Vindy last August after a 150-year run rendered Youngstown the largest city in America without a seven-day-a-week print daily, and produced a horde of jobless journalists. Dzenis joined a league of 140 fellow news workers —44 of them editorial staff — adversely affected by the stark decline in the fortunes of print media.
And it left Youngstown, a city of nearly 70,000 residents, bursting with questions: Are we a news desert? Where do we source our daily info? Who is going to keep political forces in check?
Many industry professionals and print holdouts alike hope the answers to those questions lie with Mahoning Matters, a new website that has ambitions to fill some of the vacuum left by the closing of Youngstown's beloved media staple.
Made up of a tiny life raft of Vindy veterans, Mahoning Matters may be an example par excellence of the nearing future of digital as print replacement. With its cost-saving distribution — being online only — the Youngstown-based publication not only flexes hard its investigative bent, but hones a type of revenue model that pairs well with its for-the-reader philosophy. That is to say: quench locals' thirst for good watchdog journalism using Silicon Valley seed money, all while fine-tuning a donation-and-ad finance model. The goal: to make sure it's self-sustainable by 2021.
With their two full-time beat reporters, one editor, an ad rep and a general manager, Mahoning has its limitations by size. As editor of the operation, Mark Sweetwood navigates a balancing act now familiar to most Youngstown journalists: keeping a news operation pandemic-helpful while, as Mahoning's mission reads, shining a spotlight on the Valley's "long-standing bouts with political and business corruption."
"I didn't want to throw our reporting ranks out to the middle of the pandemic," he says. "But the question was always, 'How much can we ignore [with COVID-19], and still very much be a part of it?'"
The costs of these closures are borne not just by the now jobless journalists, but for their uncovered communities as well. After the 2007 closure of the Cincinnati Post, the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis found that local corruption swelled in its wake.
"Fewer candidates ran for municipal office," a 2009 report stated. "Incumbents became more likely to win reelection, and voter turnout and campaign spending fell." Despite the Cincinnati Enquirer stepping in, the Post's absence still reverberated, the Bureau found, "three years after they closed."
In Youngstown, a swath of publications, new and old, have taken over the Vindicator's territory, but the question of how a scattered team of journalists can keep corruption in check is not just an inquiry for the civic-minded.
"Every time you lose a reporter, you lose three, four, five of those issues being covered. And if they leave? Those issues, they go uncovered," says Graig Graziosi, 33, a former beat reporter for the Vindy now freelancing in Washington, D.C.
"They wanted watchdog reporting"
Mandy Jenkins was in a board meeting in New Orleans, discussing digital media, when news of the Vindy closing broke. She had just landed a job at The Compass Experiment, a digital media lab funded by McClatchy and Google, bent on finding a sustainable model for local news.
A native Ohioan, Jenkins was floored. "My phone was blowing up," she says. "Tons of my friends in the Youngstown area were like, 'Have you heard about this? You should look into it!'"
As a 15-year digital media veteran, Jenkins knew the sensation well. She had been laid off from two East Coast start-ups — TBD in Washington, D.C. and Digital First Media — in less than two years. She became a media-world realist, and founded a website promoting "zombie journalism," a cultural approach she urges journalists to embrace after vacating "dead" publications.
Assuming the general manager role at Compass, Jenkins sensed last June that Youngstown would be a potential first host city (of three) for such an experiment. In July, she began phoning distressed Vindy reporters, gauging their interest in an editorial role at a new site, eventually named Mahoning Matters.
Most were hesitant. They had plans to migrate to the Tribune Chronicle, a longtime Vindy competitor based in nearby Warren, Ohio, to bolster its new "Vindicator" section (adopting the Vindy's subscription list and its website). Others, like Dzenis and Graziosi, skipped town. Some went to the Youngstown Business Journal's newly-expanded entertainment section.
Those who hadn't moved on or moved away were skeptical. After all, Compass' initial budget of $500,000 in Google seed money had a spending cap, and would eventually be reliant on a self-sustaining revenue system. On top of that, Jenkins would only have the start-up dollars to wrangle a team of five — three of them reporters — to cover what before had been covered by a team of 40.
"I was very candid," Jenkins says, recalling the interviews. "This is a three-year project. It could end at that point, and it could be done."
In the wake of the "old" Vindicator, Jenkins flew to Youngstown for months of feedback with her first official team, including Sweetwood, who was formerly a Vindy managing editor, and reporters Justin Dennis and Jess Hardin.
At community forums, Jenkins bore immediate backlash from Vindicator hold-outs. They were painted as "coastal elites," "outsiders." They were from California, not true Youngstowners. What did they know about the city's history?
A month before launch, McClatchy hosted a listening session at the public library. What they heard — past the resistance — was reassuring.
"They wanted to know where their money was being spent," Jenkins says. "They wanted watchdog reporting. They wanted us to go beyond the basics of crime."
An early investigation
It was January 16, when an internal investigation by the city of Canfield — a town 14 miles southwest of Youngstown — announced that police chief Chuck Colucci had engaged in an "inappropriate personal relationship" with a subordinate.
In many a reporter's eye, the story reeked of scandal: Colucci was married and was being paid $26,000 extra a year to handle human resource duties for the department. The city did not uncover criminal wrongdoing by Colucci or any violation of its sexual harassment policies, but investigators said the episode "may have a damaging [effect or bring] the public image, integrity or reputation of the Canfield Police Department into discredit or disgrace."
But the original report had one major flaw: it didn't cite Colucci by name.
"We immediately started pushing back," Sweetwood says. After the initial report was released, Mahoning Matters followed up with a Freedom of Information Act request.
"We said, 'We want more information,'" Sweetwood says. "And they're like, 'Back off! Other media is playing ball, so why can't you?'"
A week later, Sweetwood got an anonymous tip from a dedicated Mahoning reader. He was overjoyed. Sweetwood says that despite threats from officials, he was determined in his decision to run the Colucci exposé. He even had a preparatory hours-long conversation with Canfield Mayor Richard Duffett, and wrote a follow-up explanatory editorial positioning the exposé as a centerpiece for Mahoning's anti-corruption creed.
"When the name was reported to me, I was like, 'See? This is why we have our tone," Sweetwood says. "If we exist for any reason, we exist for this."
A safer, sustainable future
Existing as a five-person crew watchdog team still can't seem to match the behemoth of the Vindicator of years past. Hardin and Dennis often work eight to 10 hour days, juggling three or four beats. Such pressure is doubled during a pandemic, Sweetwood says, when physical city records are not accessible, when reporters' lives are at risk, when calls for obituaries are ramped up as Mahoning County jumps to fourth in state COVID fatalities. It's why Sweetwood created a "Keeping The Faith" column, a weekly spiritual boost to combat pandemic-era despair.
"It's, 'What do people need right now? What do readers expect?'" Sweetwood says. "More than ever we need to start setting the bar higher and higher."
Other than the push to solidify self-sustained funding, it seems Sweetwood may have found a workable blueprint for digital media's blurry future: balance necessary school updates, traffic alerts and sports columns with ceaseless, in-depth investigations of code-violating restaurants, allegations of harassment in the fire department or city-wide stormwater neglect.
"The impulse after the Vindicator closed was that all the media organizations here would just get bigger," Hardin, 27, says.
"I always told people that it's going to be the Wild West," Dennis, 36, adds. "No one's really going to know for a while."
"Everyone's going to have to pick lanes," Sweetwood, 60, says. "You see where the audience is naturally gravitating. You look at the revenue in our market. I think it'll take years before it shakes out completely."
Even after McClatchy declared bankruptcy in February — citing over $700 million in unpaid debts — and the nearby Cleveland Plain Dealer laid off its entire unionized staff, the Mahoning crew is promising to trudge on despite the repeated slings and arrows of the industry.
"I have no faith that any one model is going to be the solution," Jenkins says. "There isn't such a thing as a 'safe job' in journalism these days. But we're doing what we can to make it safer."
Mark Oprea is a journalist from Cleveland. He's written for OZY, the Pacific Standard, Narratively and Cleveland Magazine.
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