This story is copublished with The Delacorte Review, the literary nonfiction journal of the Columbia Journalism School.
WHEN THE VINDICATOR DIED, I knew it meant I’d have to leave my hometown. Again.
The shuttering of Youngstown, Ohio’s daily newspaper in the summer of 2019 meant my days of being a newspaperman in my own city were over. I’d already left Youngstown and returned twice. This time it would likely be permanent, because it had to be; there was no reason left to stay. My family was gone and my career options limited. It was time to go.
As the last day of the Vindicator’s long life—the paper had been around for 150 years—approached in late August, I began packing up my desk. Doodles and sketches that my colleagues drew were pinned to my wall. A brown, wooden cigar box from Indonesia next to my computer held foreign coins, a paperweight from my college newspaper at Youngstown State, and an old Cohiba I’d picked up in Mexico. I boxed them up.
I took an inventory of the scattered paperwork around my desk: public notices, press releases, and meeting agendas, as well as a pile of file folders containing the documents I used in developing my heftier projects: pages of information on a quartet of city politicians vying to be mayor; the history of a neighborhood so far from the city’s center that it had practically returned to nature; the tale of a woman who was born in Ireland but sold as a baby to a family from Youngstown.
I tossed them all.
Then I came to the newspapers. Some of my colleagues chose to hold on to every issue that featured their byline. But I held on to only a few, even though they were my stories, evidence someone had actually paid me to write. Years earlier, when the only work I could find as a college dropout was scraping the siding off houses or washing dishes in a bar, I’d dreamed about earning my pay as a writer, as a newspaper reporter. Those papers were proof I realized that dream, which was coming to an end, at least in the town where I grew up.
What was I going to do with them? Frame them? That seemed a bit grandiose. I knew I’d have to move, and those papers were just one more thing I’d need to drag with me. So for every one I kept I tossed two others.
Each front page sparked a memory. The image of a Jamaican immigrant I wrote about immediately brought to mind the toothy, slobbery smile of his pit bull. The face of Bernie Sanders reminded me of my very first Vindicator assignment, covering the Ohio primary.
Then I saw a photo of a battered sign, with most of its lettering dangling in the wind. The only legible section of the sign displayed the letters “GM.” The headline above the image read “The Last Days at GM Lordstown.” It was a story about the indifference of industry and the displacement of workers, which was a story all too familiar to people from Youngstown. I didn’t know it would soon become my story as well.
To understand the significance of that March 2019 story, you have to understand what it means to grow up in our region. We are frequently told to leave. Adults tell kids that there is no future here and that the best thing to do is to get a good education and run for your life. When we weren’t being told to leave, we were subjected to stories from our elders about the old days, before the city broke. As we age and mature in this part of the country, it is easy to feel less like we’re on a journey and more like we’re perpetually stuck on the tarmac. We know there’s a better life out there, if only we could take off.
For as much as we’re told to leave, however, so many of us don’t. For some it’s simply a lack of opportunity, but for many others it’s a conscious choice. After all, the ones who tell us to leave are the ones who’ve stayed. To leave means to say goodbye to family and friends and familiarity. So many stay, and once we’ve been stuck for a while, we start to take pride in our situation. We reason: “I’m tougher for having had to deal with this. I have more grit than others.” Our birthplace is a core part of our identity, and we start rationalizing all the reasons to stay.
“But have you seen the cost of living there?” is a common question lobbed at anyone who entertains the idea of leaving. The point of the question, couched in concern for the other’s well-being, is this: “You are from here. You aren’t built to survive in the world outside of here. You’ll be back.”
Most people around here, in fact, fight a constant battle between wanting to be loyal to your home and stay near your family—and fleeing.
For a long time, the people with the strongest argument for staying were the workers at the General Motors plant at Lordstown. Their labor had earned them middle-class lives without expensive investment in a college degree. That was one of the sad ironies of my story, “The Last Days at GM Lordstown.” While everyone else ricocheted between staying and leaving, those who most wanted to remain in the valley would be forced to go.
My job was to ask these people how they felt now that the end had come. And though I didn’t know it at the time, I would soon know that feeling all too well.
THE CLOSING OF THE MASSIVE FACTORY at Lordstown in March of 2019 was that rare Youngstown story that captured the nation’s attention. The New York Times, BuzzFeed, CNN, and every media outlet in between sent reporters and camera crews to cover a classic journalistic yarn—the end of a way of life in the Rust Belt. The hollowing out of the American Dream.
The announcement to close the plant wasn’t a shock, at least not to us at the newspaper. GM had cut the third shift at the plant in 2016—which provided jobs for just over 1,200 workers—and cut the 1,500-worker second shift two years later.
So when word came four days after Thanksgiving of 2018 that the plant would close, idling another 1,600 workers, the news didn’t catch us completely off guard. It felt as though we’d gotten a call from the hospital alerting us that a terminally ill loved one was nearing the end. We knew it was coming, but it didn’t make the news any easier to hear.
In fact, I first read of the plans to close the plant on the day of the calling hours just before my grandmother’s funeral. She died the night after Thanksgiving. The day of the viewing, I stepped away from the funeral parlor’s main hall and ducked into a small kitchen to pour a cup of coffee. I was browsing my phone when I came across a headline announcing the GM closures. My first thought was how chaotic my newsroom must have been that morning, how our little skeleton crew—which was still somehow large by today’s newsroom standards—were almost certainly making frantic calls and cursing under their breath at every voicemail and dodged call they encountered.
I’m ashamed to admit that I called my boss from that kitchenette to offer to work remotely on the story once the calling hours ended. I didn’t mean to be insensitive, but I knew how hectic breaking news days could get, and there wasn’t a bigger breaking story for our readers than this one. My boss told me they had things handled back in Youngstown.
Our business reporter would soon be leaving for the Cleveland Plain Dealer, which meant that much of the Lordstown reporting would likely fall to me. The Vindicator was struggling, and each time a reporter left, their beat was diced up and doled out to the rest of us.
As the story gained national attention, the out-of-town writers began filing profiles of the local United Auto Workers president, Dave Green, and his doomed autoworkers. Many of the pieces were very good. So less than a month after the closure announcement, my managing editor, Mark Sweetwood, called me to his desk in the gray, windowless newsroom. He turned his laptop toward me, displaying the latest article on Lordstown; coverage was only going to grow as the shutdown approached. Sweetwood believed that this was our story, and there was no reason why we couldn’t produce a piece just as good as the big papers. We knew the people, the place, and what Lordstown meant better than anyone. The “End of Lordstown” would be my story to tell.
With stories like this one you talk to everyone—labor leaders, diner owners, politicians, and the workers themselves—trying to make sense of what what those last days meant. I spent time with a worker who’d just bought a house and had no idea what he was going to do about his mortgage. I met a commercial developer who still believed that Lordstown could survive the loss of GM and envisioned a promising future once it weathered the closure. I met students who had to decide whether they’d finish school nearby or move with their parents to new schools. I met union members who were so used to jumping from plant to plant that the whole thing felt like business as usual.
The story ran a week before the end. I felt good about the piece, but in ways that went beyond the reporting. I had come to feel as though I was destined to tell the story of the castaway Lordstown worker, because that, at its core, is the story of Youngstown, which meant it was a story about my town, my world. And because Youngstown had shaped me, a story about myself.
TO UNDERSTAND LORDSTOWN, to understand why this story so captured the cycle of death and exodus so familiar to us, you have to go back forty years, to 1977, when Youngstown was still a boomtown. You have to go back to Black Monday.
Youngstown sits in the Mahoning Valley and is under the cover of clouds for most of the year. The clouds disappear in the summer and it’s actually pretty nice, though it is hot and humid and half the city stays indoors. The nearest big cities are at least an hour away, as are the nearest beaches. The landscape is a flat sea of trees, suburbs, and strip malls, all populated by frumpy Midwesterners like me. But it also has incredible beauty in places like Mill Creek Park and Yellow Creek. It’s got amazing Italian-American food, an ever growing community of artists and musicians, cheap living, and, most important, it is where almost all of the people I love most live.
Youngstown Sheet and Tube’s Campbell Works plant was the flagship facility for the region’s largest steel producer since the dawn of the 1900s. It sat in a natural valley along the path of the Mahoning River between the cities of Struthers and Campbell. Inside the sprawling complex of hearths and furnaces, thousands of workers—27,000 at the plant’s peak in 1950—labored day and night to produce the steel that made Youngstown more than just a blip on the map between Pittsburgh and Cleveland.
Day after day, week after week, generation after generation, workers descended on the valley. Many walked from their homes in Campbell and Struthers down the hill, hard hats and lunch pails in hand. The workers had carved a decent life for themselves thanks to the wages they earned; though they may have had little more than a high school education, they had their own homes, their own yards, and their children went to decent schools.
During the day, the steam whistles that blew at noon and 3pm to signal the end of shifts were so much a part of the community’s life that families could set their clocks by their wails. At night the sky over the mills glowed orange, a reminder that the heart that kept the city alive was still beating.
Youngstown was once home to 150,000 people. Steel drew workers from nearby Pennsylvania, from West Virginia, and from much farther: Italy, Greece, Poland and across the Slavic world. By the 1970s, some Black workers—long discriminated against even by the otherwise progressive-minded union leaders at the time—found jobs in the mills. Every mill job, it was estimated, created four others—bartenders, train engineers, salespeople.
And Youngstown was a boomtown. Department stores like Strauss and Woolworths drew crowds, and elaborate light displays illuminated downtown during the holidays. Wealthy doctors and lawyers lived in mansions that lined Wick Park on the city’s North Side, just across the street from the Parthenon-like Stambaugh Auditorium. Youngstown College expanded and became Youngstown University. When workers left their shifts, they would gather at the bars that lined Wilson Avenue on the Campbell side of the plant and Poland Avenue on the Struthers side. Shops and homes dotted the streets, all in service of the steelworkers.
On the morning of September 19, 1977, the Campbell Works laborers made the familiar procession down the hills to the plant. And there they were told their plant was shutting down. Five thousand workers would lose their jobs. It was, said Jack Hunter, the mayor of Youngstown at the time, “the worst possible news.”
The shutdown had followed the merger of Youngstown Sheet and Tube with the New Orleans–based Lykes company. But the company would not invest its profits into the aging mills to keep up with the technological advances that propelled foreign steel producers, and the Youngstown plant struggled to compete against imported products. The failure to modernize caught up with the plant, and the company decided to shutter the facility. And that decision effectively killed Youngstown.
TODAY, WILSON AVENUE is unrecognizable. A few bars survived, but most of the land is barren. No one walks the streets anymore; there’s nowhere to go.
When the jobs left, so did the people. Between 1980 and 2000, nearly 60,000 people left the city. Some couldn’t find gainful employment. Some were driven away by the Mob violence of the decades that followed. And some fled for new places that promised a future. My mother and father contemplated leaving. At one point my father had considered taking a job in Vermont, but opted instead to stay and work at a bank in downtown Youngstown.
And so I would spend most of my childhood in and around Youngstown. After my parents divorced, I spent my weekdays just over the city line with my mother in a suburban township called Boardman. I returned to Youngstown on weekends, where my dad lived, in his family’s house overlooking downtown.
People in Boardman like to pretend they are different from Youngstown folks. Youngstown, went this bit of local snobbery, was a place of slums and crime. Boardman was suburbia, nice and safe. And though there is some truth to this—thanks largely to the white flight and redlining that kept most of the African-American population locked into decaying city neighborhoods—the fact is that as Youngstown went, so did all of Mahoning County.
I eventually learned I lived on the “bad” side of Boardman; my mom’s house was deemed too close to the Youngstown border. In truth, I wasn’t aware of the status of my two homes until I was a teenager and began to notice how many buildings along the two central roads leading into Youngstown’s city center were boarded up.
I asked my father about them and he told me a truncated version of Youngstown’s grim history since Black Monday. There is a gulf between my generation and that of my parents, who knew the city before it died. They remember when downtown was crowded with shoppers, and summers at Idora Park, a small amusement park that shut down in the late 1980s. My memories of the park are of the fire that burned down a roller coaster and led to its eventual closure, and that the carousel wound up in a glass box next to the East River in New York City. In my Youngstown there was nothing downtown and there were many neighborhoods where you had to be careful.
My parents and I knew different cities. They knew Youngstown when it was alive and so mourned it in death. I knew it only after it had been taxidermied and forgotten in the attic.
I BEGAN WORKING on the Lordstown story in January. The goodwill of the holidays had faded and the charm of the snow-covered landscape had passed. It was gray and cold and wet when I began making the half-hour drive to the factory.
The twenty-five-minute ride to Lordstown from the Vindicator’s office in downtown Youngstown can be completed in three turns by taking Mahoning Avenue. No highway driving required. Mahoning Avenue begins near the city’s center, just past an old B&O Railroad station—now home to a bar, brewery, and banquet hall—that sits along the edge of the Mahoning River. You pass through the city’s West Side and the nearby city of Austintown and eventually cross the Meander Creek Reservoir; pass the rural community of North Jackson and turn onto North Bailey Road, which leads straight to Lordstown.
My car was a slim, silver 2003 station wagon and wasn’t in the best shape. Its heater was broken and I’d already driven it across the country twice. The car had more than 150,000 miles on it and every day it started was a gift. The thought of breaking down on the highway, waiting while trucks tossed slush onto my windshield, was enough to persuade me to take the back roads.
I wasn’t the only one traveling that path to the plant. Most of the workers at the Lordstown plant didn’t actually live in Lordstown; they lived all across the valley, each day making the drive in their GM cars and trucks to the massive facility, not unlike the steelworkers who a generation earlier had descended to the riverbanks to work at the Campbell Works plant.
The story I was sent to cover wasn’t just about a business leaving; it was about what would happen when the people left. What would happen to their homes, their neighborhoods, and the businesses that relied on their patronage?
One business sure to take a hit was Ross’s Eatery & Pub. It sat practically across the street from the plant and was regularly filled with GM workers. I’d been kicked out of the bar twice for the degenerate act of trying to interview some of those workers after their shifts. I understood the rationale; the last thing people want to do when they’re at the bar trying to forget the bad news is to talk about the bad news. Since the second- and third-shift layoffs, the bar had even gone so far as to post a sign warning reporters they’d be booted if they were trying to talk to people at the bar.
Naturally, I stopped there first.
Ross’s is a dimly lit blue-collar bar. A duo of deer-head trophies flank a pair of flatscreen TVs over the bar. The back wall is adorned with brewery signs, union stickers, and photos of UAW members from years past. I settled in at a table near the bar. A few men in heavy jackets and wool beanies were sitting a few seats away, and a smiling, middle-age woman was working the bar, chatting with them about—what else—the plant. I ordered a beer and a grilled cheese and, to avoid suspicion, opened the notes app on my phone rather than pulling out my notebook. I figured I could respect the bar’s rules and still get some color.
The older men were retired workers and talked about their days at the plant, plus in-the-know shop talk, sprinkled with critiques of GM’s argument that the plant couldn’t be retooled to produce a new vehicle. They weren’t buying the line that GM didn’t have the money to refit the facility to build the Chevy Blazer. The company, they argued, had wanted to close the plant for years. The slow death was by design, they said, and the concessions the union was forced to make during their years at the plant were indicative of that plan.
Ross’s opened much earlier than other bars—6am—so first-shift workers could stop by to pick up sodas, chips, or a sandwich before heading into work. Before the third and second shift were laid off in 2016 and 2018, respectively, the bar would likely be a lot busier in the middle of a weekday. But with only the first shift left working, Ross’s became a bit of a ghost town in the daytime. Just me, the bartender, and a few retired autoworkers talking about the conspiracy to bring down the plant.
GM stocks jumped the day after the company announced it would close five North American plants. GM also announced plans to expand its operations in China and South America, where it would continue producing the Cruze.
I wanted to get into the plant, but knew there was no way GM was going to let me in, at least not without an envoy of PR lackeys following me around making sure I was fed the “correct” narrative. I didn’t have technical knowledge of how a plant operated or what would have to be done to accommodate a new vehicle. But I had a few sources who knew the plant intimately, and I had a friend who knew quite a few people in Lordstown. He connected me with a police officer who put me in touch with a few folks he figured might have some insight.
The people I was writing about, I came to realize, were mostly a lot wealthier than I was. Many had homes and car payments and retirement plans. Though chasing work wasn’t new to some GM workers—those who had moved from plant to plant due to layoffs or shifting labor demands had taken to calling themselves “GM Gypsies”—plenty of the Lordstown workers expected to retire from the plant and live out their days in relative comfort in the valley. It wasn’t long before stories started emerging from the plant about other workers who were preparing to leave their spouses and children behind to finish out the last few years of their work so they too could retire, and eventually return home.
By early February, as the clock ticked down to the final day of production, the mood at Lordstown had changed. Just weeks before I had been hearing a thin, underlying thread of hope in our conversations—hope that maybe the public pressure would change GM CEO Mary Barra’s mind about the closure. Hope that maybe the closures were just a way of scaring the union ahead of the upcoming contract negotiations. But now that hope turned to skepticism and morbid anticipation. There were still holdouts around; Dave Green, president of the United Auto Workers Local 1112, never backed down from his belief that the plant could be saved. But others spoke of the plant like a dying loved one. The end was coming, so best to prepare and enjoy the time that was left.
I went to go see Lordstown’s mayor, Arno Hill. His office was at the village administration building near the GM plant. He’s a tall man in his mid-sixties with a burly frame and graying hair. He’s a Republican, which is rare in the region; historically, right-leaning candidates have had to run as conservative Democrats if they hoped to win an election in the Mahoning Valley. Voters felt a deep loyalty to their unions. The Democrats were seen as the party of workers’ rights and organized labor, so regardless of their cultural and social stances, union members voted for the candidates their leaders endorsed.
But with the nationwide decline in union membership and the Democratic Party’s general shift to the center over the past forty years, that stalwart base had slowly eroded. Donald Trump won Trumbull County and won more votes in Mahoning County than any other Republican in recent history.
Even as a Republican, Hill was an oddity. Though few of the GM workers were actually his constituents, he still couldn’t be openly hostile to organized labor in a town that was home to the local UAW chapter. So he tried his best to be a worker advocate while still dangling substantial tax abatements in hopes it would bring in new business.
It was a tough time to be the boss in Lordstown. Hill was going to be seen as the guy in charge the day the plant died, and it was clear that the weight of the situation was heavy on him. He was up for reelection later that year, and was fresh off a confrontation over an incoming TJX Homegoods Distribution Center with a group of residents who felt the facility and its accompanying traffic would disrupt their neighborhoods.
I wanted to know where he thought Lordstown would find its identity once the plant closed. His village was synonymous with General Motors. What would it be after? After all, Youngstown was known as a steel town, before it became known as a former steel town. Even as optimistic local industrialists tried to rebrand the region as the “Tech Belt,” Youngstown could not shake what it once was, even as it tried hard to embrace what it might one day become.
Hill told me that if the plant somehow got another product to make, Lordstown would be known for something new. Maybe even for TJX.
But then again, he added, “There’s nothing wrong with being known just for ourselves, either.
“We have some great people here, and there’s plenty of identity in that.”
WHEN I WAS GROWING UP, the only rebranding effort from the city that managed to penetrate my teenage myopia was the “Youngstown 2010 Project.” The plan was to use downsizing and consolidation to reshape the region. Rather than trying to reclaim the glory days, it was reasoned, Youngstown might better thrive as a small city.
I was in high school in the early 2000s, and the culmination of Youngstown 2010 was still more than six years away. I figured by then I’d have finished high school and college and be far away from Youngstown. I had no intention of sticking around.
I took the bus to high school, and each morning after we’d get dropped off we’d walk up a flight of stairs leading into the school. As we strode in, full of dreams and expectations for what we would become, we passed other students seated on the stairs, waiting to depart. These students were waiting to be taken to the local trade school. We looked down on them—figuratively and literally—as we moved past. Didn’t they know that college was the only chance to get out? Didn’t they care?
Even though most of us came from lower-middle-class backgrounds, we were not encouraged to go into the trades. Our parents did not want us to become plumbers or HVAC technicians, even though those jobs paid decently and were in demand. College, we were told endlessly, was the pathway out of Youngstown.
So I went to college, where I found myself utterly incapable of deciding what to study. I tried journalism, but I found it too restrictive to what I saw as my creativity. I tried archaeology, but I found it too antagonistic to my then-zealous Christian beliefs. I tried history, but I didn’t know what I could actually do with the degree.
In truth, I was simply too immature for college. I was restless and wanted adventure. I grew up on Star Wars and Indiana Jones and was entrenched in escapist fantasies. I adored Jimmy Buffett, because he told stories about worry-free rogues in beautiful, warm places.
So when an opportunity to work at a mission in Mexico presented itself, I left college and traveled south, ostensibly to serve the Lord, but in truth because I needed anything that wasn’t the dull gray of Youngstown. I spent just under two years at the mission, building little homes and working in dumps and orphanages and leading groups from the US and Canada. It was essentially a voluntourism operation, but it felt meaningful, and the recipients of our work seemed grateful for what we did.
When my time in Mexico came to a close I returned home for a few months and went from a life that felt full of purpose to working at a pool supply retail store and doing seasonal warehouse work at a Toys“R”Us shipping center. I desperately wanted to get back to the work I’d done in Mexico, and I had no intention of going back to school; missionaries couldn’t have debt, and I had no means of getting a degree without debt. So when a group of friends from my time in Mexico told me they had a house in San Diego and needed another roommate, I jumped at the chance to once again get out of town.
My plan was to join the Navy, learn a skill that could be used in a missionary context like healthcare or building construction, and get back to the work that made me feel alive. I flew to San Diego and moved into a small house with four other guys my age just off the campus of San Diego State University. I didn’t have a car, nor did I have a job lined up, but I figured it would be easier to find something.
Unfortunately, I made the move in 2009, just as the economy was crumbling. I spent months trying to find work doing anything—movie theaters, serving, bartending, whatever I could find. Eventually I found work as a nonunion construction laborer. I lugged lumber up scaffolding, stained wood, and tore off siding for $9 an hour.
We were told if we fell off a ladder or scaffolding we’d be fired before we hit the ground; it was said with a laugh, but we knew it wasn’t a joke. Now I was taking orders from the very people I looked down on when I was walking into school. My Navy recruiters told me it would be a year before I could enroll in the Delayed Entry Program. I was laid off my job and barely scraping by. I crashed with friends and lived in my car in a beachside parking lot. One by one my friends moved on, and there was nothing left for me in San Diego.
I moved overseas for a brief time to teach English, and when I returned, I decided it was time to go back to Youngstown. I would get my degree. While I could have gone anywhere, I had heard things were changing at home— bars and restaurants were opening downtown and groups were working to try to revitalize the city. On top of that, Youngstown State University was cheap and I knew I could live at home for a bit until I had saved enough to get my own place and start school. It made sense, and I missed my Youngstown friends.
At Youngstown State University, I ran the student newspaper. After a decade of wandering I felt I had some purpose. I began working at the Vindicator during my last year of school, and figured I’d stay for three years, long enough to gain enough experience to move up and once again out. That decision, however, was being made for me. Just as I approached my third year, we got the news: the paper was closing.
THE LORDSTOWN STORY was published a few days before the final car rolled off the line at the plant. The story documented the mood of the village and explored the circumstances surrounding GM’s decision. Finishing the story was a relief, but we didn’t have time to rest; the week leading to the plant’s final day was filled to bursting with events in Lordstown that we were expected to attend.
Word made it out of the plant that the last Cruze to be built at Lordstown would roll off the line a few days early, so we had to scramble. GM wouldn’t bring the workers in if there wasn’t a car to build, so the real last day—at least for those of us in the storytelling business—was going to be on a Wednesday rather than a Friday, to capture that last shift walking out.
I spoke with Joel Albright, a twenty-year veteran at GM who was considering abandoning the profession if the plant didn’t get a new product. He had a family and wasn’t willing to uproot them to chase GM. Instead, he told me, he’d pursue an associate’s degree and try to start a business.
Moving was never an obstacle for GM nomad “Buffalo” Joe Nero, whom I met at the UAW union hall. Nero, a sixty-two-year-old in a blue UAW jacket and a black cowboy hat, didn’t wait for me to ask him for an interview. Once he saw my notebook, Nero launched into his story, telling me about his forty-plus-year career with GM and how he had become a “GM Gypsy,” eventually working at five plants by the end of his career.
Then I met Chuckie Denison, who’d had more than two decades with GM and took a medical retirement after the company announced it would close the plant. Denison has been an outspoken critic of GM, claiming that—given the company’s record profitability since its federal bailout in 2009—the company should share more of its profits with its workers. Denison, bearded and tattooed, spoke with fire when defending his fellow autoworkers, and last I heard he was considering a primary challenge to congressman and former Democratic presidential candidate Tim Ryan.
We learned the last day would be March 6. The air was frigid that morning, effectively keeping all of the reporters without broadcast vehicles hunkered down inside the UAW Local 1112’s union hall until just before the end of the last shift.
Some of my colleagues were tasked with hanging out at local diners. I was sent to the union hall to keep vigil outside of Dave Green’s office. An hour or so before the last shift let out, Green left to join a growing gathering of people standing on a narrow strip of dirt along Ellsworth-Bailey Road, just across the street from the facility. We all followed him out there, and soon reporters made up nearly half of the group lining the street. The other half were the workers’ friends and loved ones. A woman sang Bruce Springsteen’s “Youngstown” with a few lyrics changed; rather than lamenting the forsaking of a steel town, it was a car town. Little else needed changing.
The workers who didn’t head straight home after their shift joined us in the gaggle. Many of them knew they might never see their colleagues again. There were hugs and tears and a final burst of defiance as workers stretched a UAW flag across Ellsworth-Bailey Road, stopping traffic as they chanted their union’s name. Drivers honked their horns in solidarity, and the police looked the other way.
Had I been directing, I would have rolled credits after that scene. Unfortunately, closure is rare in our realm of storytelling. Now that the Big Moment was over, both the workers and those of us covering their plight would switch our focus—to the consequences.
THE LORDSTOWN STORIES were going to be with me for as long as I was at the Vindicator. Inevitably there would have to be a story about the final crew leaving the plant, another about the plant’s fate, stories about the negotiations between the UAW and GM, a story about GM tearing down the giant Cruze banner. There would be follow-up tales about the workers and their families, and a slew of financial stories about the impact of the worker diaspora on local businesses and the housing market.
Most of the national and regional media were gone as fast as they’d arrived, save for a few from the New York Times and CBS News. As the weeks dragged on after the plant closing, the village got quiet, though never fully out of the spotlight. It was a punctuated calm. A week or two with no major news would pass, and then Bernie Sanders announced he was hosting a town hall at Lordstown High School. Then a few more weeks of silence until rumors start circulating that GM was planning to sell the plant to an electric truck company.
By mid-April I was still making regular trips out to Lordstown, and filed a piece on the plant for a national media outlet. I called these “clean-up stories,” stories of the mess caused by the Big Story. I felt like a war profiteer. I consoled myself by looking Dave Green in the eye and telling him the Vindicator wouldn’t forget about his people.
NEAR THE END OF JUNE, I was driving around on my morning beats, checking police reports and dropping in on my sources working around the cities I covered. A group chat with my coworkers had been active all morning, but I put off looking at it until I finished my rounds. When I did check I learned that the paper’s owner had called an all-staff meeting for later that day, a Friday. Every reporter who has gotten a press release at 5:40pm on a Friday knows the move: better to share bad news right before the reporters leave for the weekend. The timing of our meeting did not inspire hope.
An all-staff meeting with the owner was new to us. One of my colleagues asked, half joking, if we were all going to get fired. I assumed we were getting sold to some private equity group that would dice us up and bleed us dry over the next few years. I was wrong.
There is a familiar dread that comes in anticipation of an inevitable, unwelcome event. The desire to shout “come on, just do it already!” was palpable as we shuffled into the conference room.
The news was worse than I thought: we were going out of business at the end of August. The publisher asked if we’d keep the news to ourselves until he had a chance to inform the night crew himself, but the news made it out to our broadcast partners and competitors before most of us even got back to our desks. No secrets in the news business.
Anesthesia is my primary defense mechanism; confronted with bad news, I feel nothing at first. But then slowly the pain I avoided swells up and reminds me that I’d been hurting all along. Some people were numb like me, while others—from our new hires to our veteran police reporter—cried. This was all a lot of them had known for decades. Where would we go now?
My colleagues and I went drinking that night. We had a go-to bar, the Boxcar Lounge, just down the street from the office, where we knew we’d find friendly faces and plenty of sympathy. While I sat at the bar knocking down my first beer, I texted Green, the UAW boss.
“Hey Dave, if you want to text me constantly for the next two months about losing my job, you’re welcome to.”
He replied with a laughing emoji.
And then he wrote: “I’m going to be moving in the next couple months too buddy.”
He was going to be transferred soon. Maybe Toledo. I hadn’t told Green that I planned on leaving. But he knew better than anyone the reality of losing a good gig in our region. If you wanted to move up, you’d almost certainly have to move out. I’d probably have to head elsewhere, putting Youngstown in my rearview mirror, perhaps for the last time.
Our editor told us he wanted our final weeks at the newspaper to be a “viking funeral,” filled with the kind of character-driven, deeply reported stories we often would reserve for our Sunday centerpieces. So we looked at our projects planned for the fall and moved their timelines up so we could load as many as possible into the final weeks.
I had an interview with a paper in Florida, but I eventually withdrew from consideration because they needed me to start before my paper’s last day. Most of us felt some sense of duty to see things through to the end, and I was no exception, so I told them if they couldn’t budge on letting me start after the Vindicator closed, it wasn’t going to work.
Finding work in Youngstown wouldn’t have been impossible for me once the paper closed. Several local and regional publications reached out in our final weeks to let me know they were interested in picking me up after the paper closed. While it was kind, wages are low in general in the news industry, more so in Youngstown. That wasn’t going to change if I stayed. I knew this break was my best chance to get out of Youngstown and go somewhere where I could—hopefully—earn a real salary. I just needed to find wherever “somewhere” was.
Not unlike the public’s measured reaction to the closure of the Lordstown plant, there was a swell of support when the news about the Vindicator broke. Local organizations hosted forums to discuss options for saving the Vindicator, or at the very least mitigating the impact of losing the area’s daily newspaper. The owner of Westside Bowl—another bar we frequented—bought us shots and sat with us to discuss the importance of local news and labor solidarity. But short of some miracle investment, there was no saving the paper. So we spent the last weeks writing and drinking, with job prospects the constant topic of conversation.
Near the end of July, I started dating a colleague and longtime friend who was going to be moving to Washington, DC, for work once the paper closed. If losing my job hadn’t been enough to persuade me to go, choosing between the city and my relationship would have done the trick.
A few weeks later, it was announced that Pacific Standard, a digital newsmagazine featuring strong and well-written reporting on important subjects, would shut down. Pacific Standard was the kind of place I hoped I could work my way into, somewhere I could dig into stories about climate change and automation and political polarization without having to deal with the grind of daily deadline reporting. When both my current and dream job disappeared within a month of each other, it shook my confidence that I could even continue to work in the industry. That closure was just one of many in 2019; more than 7,500 media jobs were lost throughout the year. That’s a lot of people gunning for the same jobs I was.
Things didn’t feel all that different from my final days in San Diego; I had no idea what I was going to do, but I knew I wasn’t going to figure it out without leaving. I felt guilty abandoning the city, but I couldn’t build the life I wanted in Youngstown.
My last major story ran two weeks before the paper’s final day. I was working on another story when I met a Jamaican immigrant who had rehabilitated a house in a neighborhood filled with abandoned and blighted homes. Not only did he make the house livable, but he built a sizable greenhouse in his backyard that incorporated an aquaponic system and a tilapia farm.
William Johnson had grown up just outside Trench Town in Jamaica, learned building trades, and eventually found work in the United States. He became an American citizen and started working for a company in Pittsburgh. He wanted to be close to work but also close to Jamaican friends in Cleveland. They told him about the cheap housing in Youngstown, and he took a risk. Since then, he has not only built and rehabilitated his house, but had purchased another five abandoned properties and rehabilitated them as well.
Johnson told me he wasn’t interested in trying to turn a profit. One of the properties was going to serve as the headquarters for a nonprofit youth-mentor program he was starting, and he hoped friends would move into the other properties. He was working full time on of top of rehabilitating his buildings.
I asked him why he bothered spending so much time and money rehabilitating homes that everyone else had long abandoned to blight.
He replied that he wanted to surround himself with good people, and so took it upon himself to build that life for himself, far from his home.
On the Vindicator’s last night, we gathered in the press building to watch the paper’s final run. The presses groaned to life and the broadsheets—printed but uncut—sped above our heads to be separated and sorted.
It wasn’t as dramatic as the last day at the Lordstown plant. There was little national media coverage, it wasn’t freezing, and there was no big corporate owner to defy, because our owner was losing his job, too. But it still felt historic, and we were still just as jobless when the presses stopped as the autoworkers were when the assembly line shut down.
I managed to whittle down everything I was keeping from my desk into a neat little box. The newsroom was dark when I walked out to my car. On top of my box were a pair of papers that I chose to keep. One carried the Lordstown story. The other bore the smiling face of William Johnson in his greenhouse.
FROM THE NEW ISSUE: Some reporters mine data. Carole Cadwalladr mines people.
TOP IMAGE: Vindicator reporters Graig Graziosi (right) and Samantha Phillips in the press room on the Vindicator's final night. Photo by Jennifer Phillips