In the American Heartland, the white working class was riled up. They were angry about immigrants — so many of whom didn’t even bother to speak English — and the economic advancement of African Americans. And so large numbers embraced right-wing extremism, especially the resurgent Ku Klux Klan. The white fury spilled over to politics, as far-right radicals co-opted state legislatures, city councils, even local school boards.
That scenario might sound like it’s ripped from 2019’s headlines, but this was Youngstown, Ohio, in the early 1920s. The then-booming region of northeastern Ohio known as the Mahoning Valley was a hotbed of America’s massive revival of the KKK in the years not long after World War I. The white backlash was inspired by a burst of immigration from predominantly Catholic Southern Europe, the prominence of black war veterans and their new demands for civil rights, and, bizarrely, the popularity of D.W. Griffith’s groundbreaking film “The Birth of a Nation” and its nostalgia for white supremacy.
Historian William D. Jenkins has written that at least 10,000 people in or around Youngstown joined the KKK by 1923, influencing mayoral elections there and in nearby Ohio towns like Niles, a Klan stronghold. Jenkins wrote that their so-called klaverns “worried about foreign speaking people, about the Catholic church and influence of the pope and the Catholic schools that were opening.”
But the KKK’s reign of terror in the Mahoning Valley ended almost as quickly as it began, and a key player in restoring reason was the region’s daily newspaper, the Youngstown Vindicator. The paper and its longtime then-owner, William K. Maag, staked their reputations on virulently opposing right-wing extremism. In 1896, the paper had exposed Youngstown’s mayor, who was under the thumb of the racist anti-Catholic American Protective Association, and now in the 1920s it revealed hypocrisy and corruption among KKK leaders, covered violent marches that turned citizens against the Klan, and finally beat out a rival newspaper that had been sympathetic to the hate movement.
Nearly 100 years later, a political movement infused by anti-immigrant fervor has spread its tentacles all the way to the White House, and the demagogue surfing atop that wave just announced his 2020 campaign for a second term. But the Youngstown Vindicator, with its century-and-half legacy of award-winning journalism, won’t be there to cover it.
On Friday night, the Vindicator stunned the journalism world when the family that owns Northeast Ohio’s largest newspaper (having resisted the chain ownership that’s gobbled up many similar news orgs) announced it will stop printing in late August, killing off 144 full-time jobs and also delivering a blow to 250 part-time news carriers. It’s another hit for a region that’s suffered 40 years of industrial job losses and is still reeling from GM’s shutdown of its giant Lordstown assembly line, but there’s a much deeper significance to this news.
Ever since the rise of the internet sped up declines in print newspaper circulation and blew up that business model in the 2000s, media pundits have speculated when and where a significant American city will no longer have a daily newspaper, and now we know the answer: Youngstown, Ohio, in 2019. It’s hard to imagine a worse place or a worse time.
Even sadder, the grim announcement from Youngstown was the exclamation point on a Black Friday for journalism in the United States. On the same afternoon, the New Orleans Times-Picayune, one of the most iconic nameplates in American journalism history, was absorbed into the rival Advocate, a move that will also shrink the number of journalists covering a city coping with poverty, murder and climate change. But scores of other news orgs are also coping this year with job losses, and this is in the so-called good economy.
But journalism’s problems transcend mere dollars. Last Friday was also a painful day for American journalists because it marked the one-year anniversary of the newsroom shooting by an angry local resident that claimed five lives at the Capital Gazette in Annapolis, Md. — highlighting the rising threats to a free press in this country. Halfway around the world, President Trump chose this day to joke with Russia’s Vladimir Putin — who’s had more reporters killed than the monster of Annapolis — about “getting rid of” journalists who produce what these two autocrats both call “fake news.”
All of this is a reminder that the closing of Youngstown’s only daily paper is a blow not just to a struggling city that needs information, but to American democracy.
On the first front, the Vindicator had continued to do remarkable journalism right up to this summer’s bitter end. In the 1990s and 2000s, the newspaper and its veteran columnist Bertram de Souza played a critical role in exposing the corruption and buffoonery of wild-maned-demagogish-Trump-before-Trump U.S. Rep James Traficant. Even as its staff was slashed in half over the years, the Vindicator continued to produce award-winning reporting about the opioid crisis and other local issues.
“It was the paper that first taught me the importance of journalism,” reporter Karen Hall told the Cleveland Plain-Dealer (another Ohio newsroom battered by job losses). “It was always scrappy and going after corrupt officials. I was in awe of that.”
After a decade in which a number of smaller towns than Youngstown have seen their local daily or weekly newspapers disappear, both academic studies and investigative reports have shown that costs to taxpayers on now-not-covered topics like municipal bond issues increase, while fewer people run for political offices or even vote in local elections they can no longer track from their front doorstep. And then there’s the ability of daily, professional journalism to not only check corrupt pols like Traficant but also waves of hysteria … like the KKK, or the xenophobia that’s such a force in modern politics.
That brings me to the broader point that should concern folks beyond the Mahoning Valley, which is that the death of the Youngstown Vindicator, the raft of other small-town newspapers, and maybe some other big ones over the next 16 months could have a huge impact on the 2020 election and whether Trump will win a second term to espouse his view that journalists are “the enemy of the people.”
The loss of the Youngstown Vindicator every morning doesn’t mean that the region’s 200,000 will no longer be getting information. It just increases the likelihood they’ll be getting bad information — intentionally manipulated, and sometimes out-and-out fakery. After the 2016 election, Buzzfeed found that in the preceding months the top 20 fake or distorted news stories about Trump or Hillary Clinton from deliberately manipulative websites received more social media shares than the top 20 mainstream, actual news stories. This is in addition to the conservative, pro-Trump media bubble like Fox News that rose up during the generation that newspapers like the Vindicator shrank or died.
There’s no reason to believe that 2020 will be any better. It may be worse, and Team Trump seems to be counting on that. Between December and May, Trump’s reelection campaign spent a whopping $4.6 million on Facebook ads — much, much more than the Democrats running to unseat him. What we don’t know is how much that’s going to be amplified between now and Nov. 3, 2020 by bad actors, whether it’s Putin’s henchmen in the Internet Research Agency or just teens in Macedonia looking to make a few dimes.
We do know this: that Trump’s ads are going to play on the fears of voters, especially the senior citizens who used to be reliable newspaper readers. So far this year, Trump’s Facebook ads have targeted over-65 voters with scare stories about the surge in immigration at the southern border and the need to build a wall. In other words, the exact same kind of demagoguery that lured thousands in Ohio into the KKK just a century ago. The only difference between then and now is that the Youngstown Vindicator won’t be rolled up on the front porch to womp readers on the head with some common sense.
Bad news for America’s newspapers is good news for Donald Trump. I pray the 2020 election won’t be a vindicator of that, but it may be.
Will Bunch is a columnist for The Philadelphia Inquirer