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Aug. 19, 2019, 3:27 p.m.

So Youngstown will have a daily named The Vindicator after all. But it’s a brand surviving, not a newspaper.

Long after the local newspaper business stops making any sense at all, there’ll be a lot of powerful brand names that will retain value better than what the printing presses pumped out. That’s how we’ll get local news outlets without much local news.

In June, The Vindicator, the daily newspaper of Youngstown, Ohio, announced it would be shutting down, with its final edition scheduled for Aug. 31. It had been losing money for ages, and the family that owns it had been unable to find a buyer among the national newspaper chains. The idea of a city the size of Youngstown having no newspaper at all was (and is!) depressing for those of us who think local reporting is important to a community. And the fact that the few consolidation-hungry newspaper companies left apparently weren’t interested in buying it was another dark indicator of where we were headed.

But now for a little piece of light. One of the chains most mentioned as a potential Vindicator buyer — Ogden Newspapers, based nearby in West Virginia and already with a dozen-plus newspapers in Ohio and Pennsylvania — is indeed buying it. Well, sort of:

An agreement has been reached for the Tribune Chronicle to acquire The Vindicator’s subscription list, The Vindicator masthead and the Vindy.com domain, Mark Brown, general manager of The Vindicator announced on Friday.

[Editor’s note: The Tribune Chronicle is an Ogden newspaper in Warren, Ohio, about 30 minutes’ drive and one county line north of Youngstown.]

The agreement clears the way for the Tribune Chronicle to produce an edition under the name of The Vindicator and the Tribune Chronicle has agreed to provide a newspaper for the remainder of the unexpired term for all subscribers of The Vindicator.

The owners of The Vindicator announced on June 28 the newspaper, which recently celebrated its 150th anniversary, would cease publication on Aug. 31, citing unprofitability for several years. The Tribune Chronicle announced on July 2 that it would attempt to fill the void left by the closure of The Vindicator by publishing a Mahoning County edition beginning Sept. 1.

“We have always felt strongly about the need to have a local newspaper. The agreement announced today provides The Vindicator’s subscribers with continued delivery of a daily print newspaper focused on their communities, Mahoning County and the Valley,” said [Brown]. “We are very happy to be able to provide our readers with a daily print newspaper from a family-owned company. The Nutting family and Ogden Newspapers have been in the publishing business since 1890.”

“We are extremely happy and honored to be able to preserve the long-respected name of the newspaper that has served this region for a century-and-a-half,” said Charles Jarvis, publisher of the Tribune Chronicle. “We look forward to delivering approximately 30,000 of the new The Vindicator editions to the people who have supported The Vindicator through the years and have developed a printed newspaper reading habit.”

So they’re buying the masthead, the URL, and the subscriber list. Essentially, it’s the right to create something that can call itself the Vindy. The journalists losing their jobs are still losing their jobs.

The Tribune Chronicle had announced last month that it would be investing more in covering the Youngstown area and creating an edition that would distribute there. The scope of that investment isn’t clear, but it’s highly unlikely to match the two dozen journalists that were in The Vindicator’s newsroom at the time of the closing announcement — or the 144 employees it had overall. (Even as it announced the new Mahoning County edition last month, The Tribune-Chronicle wasn’t sure it would even open a physical bureau in Youngstown. Also, fun fact I learned today: The Tribune Chronicle’s ancestral name, from back in 1812, was The Trump of Fame.)

For The Vindicator’s current print subscribers, this is great news — their decades of newspaper habit won’t be broken, even down to the name in blackletter type at the top of Page 1. Old habits really do die hard, and this will make it easier to keep them going. The companies involved are emphasizing the local-newspaper standbys that will continue, like (almost) all the same comics and obits from the Tri-County Funeral Directors’ Association.

But for Youngstown, the reality is it’s moving from having a newspaper of its own to having a zoned edition of a smaller newspaper in a smaller city one county over. (The Vindicator sells about 25,000 copies on weekdays, The Tribune Chronicle about 15,000.)

I wrote last month that I feared Youngstown is an early harbinger for more U.S. cities that will lost their only newspaper — that we’re getting closer to the point when more owners will get tired of the annual cutbacks and instead just shut the place down.

In a different sense, though, I suspect this Ogden deal is also the sort of thing we’ll see more of across the country: a newspaper being hollowed out to its brand shell.

I get asked a lot whether there’ll still be newspapers in 5 years. (Or 2, or 10, or 20, depending on the optimism or pessimism of the asker.) My usual response is that we can’t be sure when a given paper will have that turn-off-the-presses moment — but that there’ll probably be something with the name of the local daily in just about any city.

Because a 150-year-old newspaper brand has value. Even if young people in Youngstown don’t read a print newspaper, they know there is one, called The Vindicator. They see its boxes on street corners downtown, its editions sitting by the counter at the convenience store. And no matter what the future brings for local journalism, someone will find that brand valuable enough to use it, in one form or another.

As our Ken Doctor has reported tirelessly, the best solution newspaper industry execs seem to have for their problems in 2019 is to get bigger. And to get bigger in a particular way: by accumulating lots of papers in close geographic proximity to one another.

Being part of a larger chain does unlock certain cost efficiencies — national advertisers don’t have to deal with each paper individually; you only have to buy or build one CMS and ad tech stack; you can centralize some functions like page design and copy editing. But the bigger savings come with proximity. Papers near each other can share the same printing presses. They can squeeze more out of local management. They can lay off some local ad sales folks, not just the national ones. If each paper has someone covering the nearest pro teams, that headcount can get sliced down to one.

The logical endpoint of this line of strategy is local dailies that are really just thinly rebranded versions of the same newspaper.

If the Gannett-GateHouse merger goes through, the combined company will own about 15 newspapers in Ohio. How much of the output of those papers, in print or online, will be generated locally in two years? To what degree will they all be some edition of “The Gannett Ohio Daily” — swapping in a local photo on Page 1, one city council story in the B section, and high school football stories produced by stringers on fall Friday nights?

In a lot of smaller markets, we’re already on our way there — but trust me, there’s more left to be squeezed out. I think this sort of unacknowledged-zoned-edition model is going to be a big part of what happens next to local newspapers — bigger than actual closures.

All of that may be fine for the many print readers who value a newspaper more as a delivery system than as a creator of journalism. These people exist! For plenty of the remaining print diehards, the core attraction really is the comics, or national wire stories, or the car ads, or the crossword, or the ad inserts on Sunday. There are substantial parts of any local newspaper that don’t have to be produced locally — often don’t even benefit from being produced locally — and you can be sure corporations will find and regionalize them all.

But local reporters, local editors, local photographers, local editorials — these are things that are stubbornly tied to geography.

About once every other week, I catch an early dinner at a restaurant that always has a local station’s newscast up on the TV. It’s the only time I find myself watching local TV news, to be honest. And the main thing I’ve taken away from watching quite a few hours is how unlocal it all is.

So much of the newscast could be described as “random events happening elsewhere that (a) produced decent video and/or (b) are popular online today.” An alligator looked scary in Florida; a small plane crashed in Oregon; a cute kid saw something weird in Kansas. It’s social media’s trending topics rendered in television form, saving you the labor of scrolling.

Sometimes, it’s compelling stuff. (I mean, did you see, that alligator snapped in the general direction of that kid!) It’s not even a particularly bad newscast. But it’s a local news outlet distributing content, not creating it.

In the days before the Internet, local newspapers and TV stations distributed a ton of content produced elsewhere — because there was no other way to distribute it! But today Instagram exists, Twitter exists, Facebook exists — there are plenty of other ways to find interesting videos of things that happened far away and have no impact on your life.

A local news outlet in the Internet age really has only one justification for its existence, and that is to be local. But a large share of their audiences — I’d wager even a growing share over time — are people whose main attachment is to the format, not the content. And that’ll make it easier to delocalize the content.

So I’m glad that Youngstown will still have a print newspaper available daily that will be called The Vindicator. But a zoned edition that may or may not have an office is not the same thing as a real local newspaper. And the fact that a newspaper’s most valuable assets in 2019 might be its name, its URL, and an Excel spreadsheet of credit card numbers tells you something dark about where we’re headed.

POSTED     Aug. 19, 2019, 3:27 p.m.
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