By Barb Shaffer
Vindicator Society Editor, retired
There’s so much to be said for being at the right place at the right time.
For me, losing a job at the hands of a different company closing, that of Youngstown Steel Tank Co. in 1973, put me at the right place, then known as the Youngstown Vindicator.
Thanks to a mutual friend of a woman retiring from the paper’s Society department, in a matter of just days of being jobless, I found myself filling out an application for employment at the newspaper I had grown up with. I’ll be perfectly honest, it felt too good to be true.
My employment history could have been submitted on a Post-It. And the word journalist was nowhere to be found. Yet, inside of a week I found myself meeting Ella Maag – the paper’s Society editor and, more significant, a member of the Mahoning Valley’s esteemed Maag family. The niece of William F. Maag Sr., this slight, manicured and prim and proper gem tucked me under her wing, taught me the ropes like no one else could have done, made me proud to be where I was.
As for the right time, I soon understood that my journey started during some of the best times for The Vindicator. The People’s Paper carried clout that could do anything from bringing down a dirty politician to helping an area sports standout become a local legend. That powerful force caused our readership to love us or love to hate us. Either way, they needed us. They wanted us.
On a personal level, it happened at a time that had promised to be a rough ride lying ahead for my husband, George, and me – newlyweds – allowing us to dodge the kind of jobless worries now hovering over the heads of so many Vindicator employees. So many friends.
In case you are wondering about the irony of the closings of the two places of employment, I’m not the kiss of death. My too-good-to-be-true story didn’t come to an end until my retirement in September 2017 – 44 years for which those two jobs are bookends.
Bless her heart, Ella taught me everything I needed to know as a staff writer for 17 years into my 27 years that followed as editor.
It wasn’t until after her death in December 1985 that I was comfortable calling her anything but Miss Maag. Her very presence commanded that kind of respect from the staff and the public alike.
She was such a strong influence in my life that I still think fondly of her whenever I am with my former co-worker-turned-best-friend, Susan Williams (then Marshall). She is a leaf on the Maag family tree – Ella’s great-niece. For many of Sue’s 15 years at The Vindicator, she was the smiling face that greeted Society’s customers who made a left inside the second-floor door to the newsroom.
To me, Ella’s department was something to behold, not unlike the rest of the newsroom, with its manual typewriters, wooden phone boxes, pneumatic tubes used to send copy to the typesetter, her lethal weapon-looking spike used to stab copy onto and the brown glue bottles used to paste multiple sheets of copy when stories were long. (Not unlike this trip down memory lane.)
Society carried several pages each weekday and an entire section of its own on Sundays with as many as 24 pages. The front page, considered by many to be a statement of social status, was the source of pride for those who appeared there as well as attempts at bribery from those who wanted to appear there. As if appearing in one of the several 2-column pictures or in the highly revered center oval, wasn’t enough, landing above the fold was considered better than below it.
The inside Sunday pages often swelled with as many as 35 to 40 announcements. The staff of five spent their entire Friday proofreading pages as they were built line by line of type-in-reverse, sent on type sticks from the typesetter to the awaiting trays.
The Sunday announcements were of ceremonies that took place the day before. Adhering to the strict one-week-before-the-wedding deadline, each bride usually hand-delivered details for the announcement along with a black and white portrait of only herself.
Then the ’80s came
As the ’80s arrived, I began to experience a subtle sense of family with my co-workers as well as the managers. The earliest change in this decade is ingrained in my mind. In April 1981, Betty Brown (now Jagnow) and her son, Mark Brown, were surrounded by the newsroom staff to share with us the sad news that Publisher William J. Brown, her husband and his father, had passed away. He was 68. That’s when my work family increased by two, and the Vindicator moved forward with Betty as publisher and Mark as general manager.
A major change in the newsroom’s role came when production went from hot-metal typesetting to cold type, involving the use of computer typesetting. That took us away from our daily workout pounding the keys of a manual typewriter to the soft touch required for the more sensitive computer keyboard. Some of us were better at that than others.
change in the ’90s
The ’90s began with a game changer for me when I was moved into the driver’s seat as editor after Martha Gagyi, Ella’s successor, retired in 1990.
The second change was hiring the first male Society staffer. Our old-school managing editor Paul Jagnow warned me against putting a possible “skirt chaser” in the “women’s department.” Turns out, Garry Clark proved he had an eye for nothing but details.
Based on the many complaints I had been fielding over the previous years regarding our bride-only photos, my next project was changing the photo policy to include the groom. However, for the many brides unwilling to test the superstition of her groom not seeing her in her dress before the wedding, we eventually revised our one-month deadline to two months to make a picture of both doable.
Joining that change to the appearance of Society pages was a modular design of the entire paper, with stories and packages alike laid out in the shape of blocks.
While all these positive changes made for a better product, the downward trend was well underway for Betty and Mark to battle. Not even a new-to-us offset press that increased speed and improved appearance could stop the bleeding.
By the 2000s downsizing had already begun but didn’t affect me until 2008 with the combining of Society and Features. As with everyone else, that resulted in shortcuts and longer hours. Ironically those were some of the most enjoyable years of my career.
Some of the best opportunities that came with that job included appearing as a local “celebrity” in the annual Easter Seals Fashion Show and conducting our writing contests, The Vindicator Valentine Love Story and the American Girl Doll Essay for girls 8 to 12. There is nothing like the scream of the winner of an American Girl Doll on the other end of the line.
But my personal favorite was getting to speak at local club functions. The very mention of Ella Maag was guaranteed to put a smile on many faces in the audience. In the final years of my career we all had a ringside seat to watch the home of our second family circling the drain. It was never a matter of if, it was a matter of when. There is a good chance I’d have still been there during these final agonizing weeks if it wasn’t for a little girl who calls me Grandma who tipped the scales when it was time to retire.
Nearly every story I’ve read since the news of our closing broke has described it as the death of The Vindicator. So painfully true. The recent news about the Tribune Chronicle’s purchase of the Vindicator’s name, its list of subscribers and vindy.com is good news for our readers. But it does nothing to ease tonight’s pain of watching what we all worked so hard to save take its last breath. Time of death: 11:59 p.m.