Some contrary thoughts on the pending closure of Youngstown’s Vindicator

I’m no conspiracy theorist, but I want to sound a note of skepticism over the pending closure of The Vindicator, the only daily newspaper in Youngstown, Ohio. The paper is family-owned, and those who have looked at the situation — including Joshua Benton of Nieman Lab and Lukas I. Alpert of The Wall Street Journal — have noted that the family also owns the NBC and CW television affiliates.

That’s where I think some more reporting needs to be done. It’s been said that the owners couldn’t find a buyer, not even a cost-cutting chain like GateHouse Media. But it strikes me that that would be a dicey proposition given that the old owners would still be able to leverage relationships they’ve built with advertisers for many years in order to crush a paper that they would now see as a competitor.

I don’t know what the union situation is at the TV stations. But I do know that, according to the Journal, the unionized Vindicator employs 144 people. The TV stations could, if they wanted to, add some free web-only local coverage while hiring far fewer than 144 people in order to further put pressure on The Vindicator.

I realize this is a pretty cynical take and that The Vindicator’s business model has no doubt broken down, perhaps irretrievably. But I do think a little more needs to be said about this odd development.

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Some thoughts on those 3,000 lost journalism jobs

The news was shocking. On Monday, Gerry Smith of Bloomberg reported that about 3,000 employees at news organizations have lost their jobs through layoffs or buyouts through the first five months of this year — the worst drop since 2009.

There is nothing good to be said about this. But, in looking over the details, it seems to me that things aren’t quite as bad as they first appear.

First, there is that “worst since 2009” claim. For the first five months of 2009, Smith writes, the job loss came to 7,914 — more than double what we’ve seen this year. Of course, that was in the midst of the Great Recession, a time when the structural problems facing the news business were compounded by economic collapse. The New York Times Co. was even threatening to shut down The Boston Globe, which it then owned. In 2019, journalism job losses have accelerated in the midst of prosperity, which is pretty ominous. Still, things are not nearly as bad as they were 10 years ago.

Second, a large share of those 3,000 lost jobs were at digital-only news organizations whose business model has always been dubious. The Bloomberg story puts the number of lost jobs at 800 at HuffPost and Yahoo and another 250 at BuzzFeed News. Todd Spangler reported for Variety earlier this year that Vice Media had eliminated 250 jobs. So that’s a total of 1,300, or more than 43 percent of the 3,000 lost jobs. Obviously I don’t like to see any jobs eliminated, and I especially don’t like the fact that Facebook’s and Google’s ongoing dominance in digital advertising is crushing free news sites. But in these cases, the job losses should mainly be seen as the day of reckoning finally arriving.

That’s good news — or, rather, the not-so-awful news. The bad news is that many of the other job losses involve local news organizations. Many are owned by gigantic corporate chains such as GateHouse Media, MediaNews Enterprises (formerly Digital First), Gannett and McClatchy, all of which have cut numerous jobs this year. Some are independents, such as The Vindicator of Youngstown, Ohio, which, as Joshua Benton notes at Nieman Lab, couldn’t even find a buyer. Via Brian Stelter, I learned this morning that the weekly Katy Times of Texas will go out of business, too.

As I and others have written on multiple occasions, the real crisis in journalism is at the community level. This week’s Bloomberg numbers are sobering, but it’s important to keep in mind what they say and what they don’t say.

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