ICYMI: “After the Vindy, Mahoning Matters”

The Fate of Local News is in the Balance

There is no free press without the press. Even before a global pandemic rocked the Earth, news outlets had been decimated after decades of losing ad revenue to Google and Facebook. More than 60% of digital ad revenue is controlled by the two companies, and Google especially is taking steps to further entrench its “virtual monopoly” of the digital ad marketplace.

Co-founded by previously laid-off reporters Laura Bassett and John Stanton, the Save Journalism Project stepped in with a Kickstarter campaign to fund freelance articles on the subject. More than 100 individual donors supported the Freelance Reporting Initiative to tell the story of Big Tech’s impact on communities across the country. The first of such reporting by Mark Oprea is featured at NPR.

The following is a statement from Laura Bassett, former Senior Politics Reporter for HuffPost who was laid off in January 2019, and co-founder of the Save Journalism Project:

Our Freelance Reporting Initiative was set to fund quality reporting on tech giants’ decimation of the journalism industry and the crisis facing local news. Over the past 15 years, 1,800 communities have lost their local news outlet, and the Vindicator was one of the hardest hit. It is a travesty that reporters are without jobs, but another startling statistic is the 70,000 Youngstown residents without local news. That means, beats not being covered, corruption increasing, political and voter participation diminishing and government officials are going unchecked. This isn’t a fad, it will not go away if we simply turn our backs on it. We have seen the impacts of a dying industry, we must continue to ensure that democracy thrives and the Fourth Estate prospers.

Oprea’s article on the fate of the news in Youngstown, Ohio after the fall of the The Vindy is available online here with its opening paragraphs below:

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 Youngstown Vindicator, 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 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?…

Mark Oprea is a journalist from Cleveland. He’s written for OZY, the Pacific Standard, Narratively and Cleveland Magazine.