The Vindicator of Youngstown, Ohio, will not have a sports reporter in Montgomery, Ala., on Saturday, Aug. 24, to cover the Youngstown State football game against Samford that will serve as this season's Football Championship Subdivision opener. The newspaper instead intends to hire a stringer, whose words will appear online late Saturday and in print on Sunday.
Penguins beat writer Brian Dzenis made a pitch to cover the game, but his bosses rebuffed it.
"I don't want to get into the inside baseball of why, so I'll just leave it at we aren't staffing the game," Dzenis said. "It'll be pretty weird not being at the last Youngstown State football game before we shut down."
Yes, it will be. It will be even weirder after Aug. 31, when The Vindicator ceases to exist and the newspaper that has covered Youngstown State for decades — including the NCAA Division I-AA glory days of the 1990s — never covers another Penguins football game.
Or anything else, like city council meetings or the police beat or high school graduations.
The Vindy, as its known, is a victim of the downturn in the newspaper industry. The family-owned newspaper announced June 28 it would stop publishing after 150 years, unable to turn a profit or find a buyer from a large chain willing to fold the Vindicator into its portfolio.
So the chronicler of Youngstown's colorful history, from the boom and bust of the steel mills of the Mahoning Valley to civic corruption to the city's mob families to the thrill of the Penguins winning four I-AA national championships in the '90s, will disappear. The newspaper's subscription list, website and brand name have been purchased by the nearby Warren Tribune Chronicle, but it won't be the same. The Vindy is Youngstown's newspaper.
"There's a lot of concern, a lot of sadness to it," said Dzenis, who's been at The Vindicator for about 3 1/2 years. "What I've seen is that people are more concerned about us, the people who work at the paper, than they are about what it means for coverage. I personally have had the Youngstown State athletic director, men's basketball coach and football coach ask me if I was going to be OK. They wished me well and asked me if I had something else lined up for a job.
"I don't know if people at Youngstown State or around the community know what it will mean to not have a daily newspaper. It might be a case where they don't know what they have until it's gone."
So Bo Pelini, the fiery Penguins football coach who has been known to spar with the media during his head coaching stops at Nebraska and Youngstown State, was one of those who offered comforting words?
"Yes. Privately, he can be empathetic. He has the capacity for joy. I think he appreciates people who are direct with him and doesn't like when people in the media dance around what they are trying to get at. I feel like we're on OK terms," Dzenis said.
The 1990s were heady times not only for the Youngstown State football program, but for the newspaper industry as well. The Vindicator was with the Penguins each step of the way as the Jim Tressel-led Penguins won national titles in 1991, 1993, 1994 and 1997. The program's success was splashed all over the front page of the newspaper and the sports pages were filled with stories and photographs of the triumphs.
The national championships were more than just a sports story to Youngstown, a once-thriving city crushed by the closing of steel mills in the 1970s and '80s. Football is king in Ohio and the Penguins' success pumped life back into the town. After Youngstown State beat Marshall 25-17 in Statesboro, Ga., to win the school's first title, a column in the Dec. 22, 1991, Vindicator read: "Jim Tressel tells the Valley: 'This one's for you.'"
The newspaper basked in the glory of Youngstown State's success, too.
The same thing happened in 2016, when Pelini's Penguins made an unexpected trip to the FCS title game in Frisco, Texas. Youngstown State lost to James Madison, but the newspaper was there for the ride.
"Like any newsroom in America, we’re excited to serve where the community wants to be served. We’re a football town, and there’s no better service to many than solid football coverage," Vindicator editor Todd Franko said. "The YSU program was certainly part of that. High school is huge around here, too.
"YSU coverage was, at times, a challenge in that we would put much effort into pre- and game coverage. And then you see the stadium with a few thousand fans. But it was nice when it all came together with the national title game a few years ago. The local appetite measured up to the coverage we aimed to serve. It’s magical to be in media when a community rises up around a singular group as it did that playoff run."
It wasn't always rosy. The powers-that-be at Youngstown State, including Pelini, were not happy with the newspaper during the championship-game run in 2016 because The Vindicator reported that four players were suspended from a semifinal game against Eastern Washington after testing positive for an unknown substance.
The Vindy also reported that Ma'lik Richmond, convicted in the infamous 2012 Steubenville, Ohio, rape case, walked-on to the Youngstown State team in 2017. That led to backlash against the football program and Tressel, now the school's president. Richmond remains on the team as a senior defensive end.
Reporting the bad and controversial is part of a newspaper's job, too. Often, we are the only ones willing to do it. Schools' websites and the myriad of fanboy sites that purport to cover teams certainly won't. That will be lost when The Vindicator goes away.
So will the jobs of about 140 people. Including Dzenis, the Youngstown State beat writer.
"I will admit, it's awkward to preview a season I'm not going to cover," he said.
Dznenis' last day is Aug. 30. He's taken a job with FedEx Ground in his home state of Pennsylvania.
Who will chronicle the history of the Penguins then?