de SOUZA | AN UNWAVERING DEDICATION TO FAIRNESS


AN UNWAVERING DEDICATION TO FAIRNESS

Mahoning Valley Congressman James A. Traficant Jr. was riding high. His election victories were landslides; most area politicians feared him; his national reputation kept growing because of his profane (rather than profound) one-minute speeches on the floor of the House; and his war with The Vindicator was reaching new heights.

Thus, when Traficant appointed Claire Maluso, one of his earliest supporters and defenders, to serve as his economic development coordinator in the 17th Congressional District – a job for which she was clearly unqualified – it was a classic in-your-face move against The Vindicator. You see, Traficant knew that Maluso was a childhood friend of the newspaper’s publisher, Betty Brown Jagnow.

The congressman’s office called me to make the announcement, to which I replied, “He must be joking.” But it wasn’t a joke.

I chose to write a Sunday column about the appointment, and I called Claire to find out what I was missing in her background, education and experience. As it turned out, nothing.

“Are you going to write about this?” she asked.

I told her I was.

It wasn’t long before the publisher called to say she had heard from Claire, who was unhappy with my questioning of her.

“Do you mind sending me a copy of your column?” Betty asked, after acknowledging that she and Claire were in elementary school together.

The publisher didn’t demand to read what I had written. She didn’t order me to send her a copy. She asked politely.

I hand-delivered it to her and then I waited. I later found out she had talked to her son, Mark Brown, the general manager of the paper, about the column.

With my deadline approaching, I tried to think of other topics I could address.

Then the phone rang and it was Betty.

“I read your column,” she said, as I braced for a smackdown. “I have only one question: Is it fair?”

I told her it was, to which she responded: “Then print it.”

After a brief pause she added with a chuckle, “You know Claire will call me first thing Sunday morning.”

I apologized in advance for putting her in a difficult position, but she said simply, “I’ll deal with that.”

She was right about the Sunday morning call from a very unhappy congressional staffer with no discernible qualifications to conduct economic development policy.

Is it fair?

That question has long defined the journalistic integrity of The Vindicator.

It is, therefore, a fitting epitaph for a 150-year institution that dies with today’s special commemorative edition.

I came to Youngstown 40 years ago and not only found a home and an identity at The Vindicator, but a family with Betty and Mark. I left mine when I was 19 with every intention of returning to my country of origin, Uganda, after earning a degree in journalism.

But fate intervened, and after spending 10 years in Oklahoma, Kansas, Alabama and Wisconsin, I came to The Vindicator with a bachelor’s degree in journalism, a master’s in political science and the intention of leaving after two years.

Now, not only have I ended my career as a journalist, I’m mourning the passing of an exceptional paper.

Newspapers in the greatest democracy on Earth aren’t supposed to fail, but they are, at an alarming rate.

Much has been written about the history of The Vindicator and the myriad milestones that marked its success.

I was fortunate to be a part of this institution when we were the eighth-largest newspaper in Ohio, competing with the likes of the Cleveland Plain Dealer and The Columbus Dispatch.

As the first political writer to follow in the footsteps of the very knowledgeable Clingan Jackson, who had spent 50 years on that beat, I was given the freedom to restructure our political coverage. We formalized the candidate endorsement process, we hired outside firms to conduct polls and we demanded that candidates for office submit position papers on the crucial issues in the race.

There was a time when the Sunday Vindicator leading up to an election had several pages dedicated to candidates and issues.

To the very end, we believed the role of a newspaper is to educate and elucidate, and for the nine years I served as politics writer we worked hard to meet those obligations. Since 1992, I have been a member of the Editorial Board, first as an editorial writer and now as Editorial Page editor.

I’ve often asked myself why someone who isn’t from the Valley and doesn’t have roots here would stay so long. The answer is quite simple: Betty Brown Jagnow and Mark Brown. They were dedicated to the proposition that The Vindicator was first and foremost a newspaper, and then a business.

It was not surprising, therefore, that when a childhood friend of the publisher’s tried to kill a column that she objected to, the response was an unequivocal “No.”

And when Mark Brown had to listen to complaints from advertisers and prominent Valley residents about my writings that were critical of them, never once did he tell me, “Shut it down.”

Indeed, he and his mother embraced the newspaper’s role of government watchdog with gusto, and never shied away from a fight.

They had my back when it mattered most and never asked me to treat anyone with kid gloves.

Sadly, as the years went by, the realities of a family-owned newspaper became impossible to ignore.

Like other newspapers, we were forced to cut back on the extensive news coverage that once defined our role as the Valley’s news leader.

In assessing what’s taking place in the newspaper industry, this much is evident: The increase in political stupidity in this country is directly related to the decrease in newspaper readership.

And it’s going to get worse as more newspapers either shrink or close altogether.

For four decades I experienced the highs and the lows of journalism and was fortunate to be given unprecedented freedom in writing my column.

I made a lot of enemies, but I also garnered a lot of support in my quest to end government corruption in the Valley.

Betty Brown Jagnow and Mark Brown joined me in that quest, and for that I will be eternally grateful.

Postscript: One of the most memorable comments made to me as I fought the good fight came from the late Atty. Don L. Hanni Jr., the mercurial chairman of the Mahoning County Democratic Party:

“When you die, you’ll have the largest turnout at your calling hours in the history of this area. But people won’t be there because they like you. They’ll show up just to make sure you’re dead.”

Now that’s worth 40 years in the Mahoning Valley.

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