Facing a swarm of national media who arrived to cover the plant’s funeral, Graziosi’s managing editor summoned the reporter to his desk and gave him an assignment: match or exceed the efforts of the big guns from out of town.
Graziosi spent the next two and a half months interviewing plant workers, diner owners, and union and city officials to measure the economic and social impact when a plant, that had employed several thousand workers in its heyday, shuts its doors. “The Last Days of GM Lordstown,” the biggest story of his three-year career at the paper, would tell the tale of the “cast away worker.”
But as Graziosi worked, he was unaware of forces closer to home that would doom his own employer and that he would soon share the fate of the GM workers who lost their livelihood.
This past August, a few months after his story ran, the presses of the 150-year-old Vindicator ran for the last time, a victim of anemic circulation and vanishing advertising. Graziosi chronicles his last days there while deftly twinning the paper’s demise with the end of a sprawling factory that gave its workers a middle-class lifestyle and created vibrant communities teeming with activity and rich with history.
“When My Newspaper Died,” co-published by The Delacorte Review and Columbia Journalism Review, parallels the death of newspaper manufacturing with the demise of manufacturing in other industries. Between 2001 and 2015, nearly 60,000 manufacturing establishments closed in the United States, census figures show, wiping out a 4.3 million jobs. the Washington Post reported in March 2018. During about the same period, the country lost nearly 1,800 local newspapers, creating a nation of news deserts, a University of North Carolina found last year.
Graziosi’s story was personal in more ways than one. He’s a native of Youngstown, the city where he witnessed “the cycle of death and exodus” when plant closings drove residents elsewhere for work. After the Sheet and Tube’s Campbell Works in Youngstown closed in 1977 — a day forever known as “Black Monday,” — nearly 60,000 people — almost half the population — left the city in two decades.
The shuttering of the Vindicator” Graziosi writes, “meant that meant my days of being a newspaperman in my own city were over.” But he dodges the self-indulgence of a journalist whose job has disappeared by using his story to describe a region that relies on manufacturing to keep its communities and families intact. “In Youngstown,” he writes, “families set their clocks by the whistles of the shift changes at the steel plant. 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,” he writes.
Graziosi has a gift for a well-turned analogy, After observing that the GM plant shut down in stages — first the third shift, which employed about 1,200 workers, shuttered in 2016, then its 1,500 strong second shift two years, he writes that it wasn’t a shock when the final blow came.
“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.”
The day he left the Vindicator, Graziosi carried two front pages with him: a hopeful feature about a Jamiacan immigrant who is rehabilitating abandoned houses and his last big story, “The End of GM Lordstown.”
He’s now trying to make it as a freelance writer in Washington, DC.
Storyboard reached out to Graziosi to talk about his approach to reporting about others through the prism of others, the challenge of first person narrative and whether he has lost faith in the newspaper business he loves.
You take a subject — losing one’s job — that could have been a self-indulgent complaint and elevate it by twinning it with the closing of the GM plant set against the larger story of “the hollowing out of the American Dream.” How did you come up with this approach?
The proximity of the plant and the Vindicator’s closings highlighted the parallels in a way I couldn’t ignore. I include a scene in the piece where I text the UAW president of the Lordstown workers — who I’d pestered for months for interviews about the layoffs — that he could feel free to text me incessantly about losing my job. The similarities weren’t lost on me. Examining the loss of the Vindicator without also examining the loss of the GM plant— two major establishments of this region — wouldn’t be telling the full story.
Beyond that, any story told in Youngstown will have the cloud of Black Monday — the day in 1977 that our steel industry died — hanging over it. All of the pressure to leave the city, the anxiety from job insecurity and the struggle to feel like there’s any path forward in life is rooted in Black Monday. So it wouldn’t really have been possible to talk about losing my job without examining all the other layoffs that shaped Youngstown before me.
You do a masterful job writing about others through the prism of your own story. How and why did you choose to approach the subject this way?
Thank you. As a journalist, I’m most at home telling other people’s stories, so I think I naturally trend toward writing about other people even when I’m writing about myself. When I think of my time out west, for example, I think about the other people I lived with and their experiences as crucial elements of my time there. I couldn’t divorce their stories from my own and still tell the truth about that time of my life. Likewise, I couldn’t tell the story of my final weeks at the Vindicator without talking about the workers at Lordstown that dominated my life just before it happened.
I also wanted people to relate to my story. You mentioned earlier that there’s a risk in a piece like this of it becoming self-indulgent. If I just wanted to write about myself, I have a journal. For something I’m creating for mass consumption, I want it to serve a greater purpose than simply a place for my thoughts to bounce around. I knew I wasn’t the only one feeling this way, so I tried to use the stories of those who could sympathize with my situation to strengthen the piece and give it a more universal appeal.
After a career in a business where “I” can often be a dirty word, why did you decide to write a story in the first person? What were the challenges? The rewards?
The story was always going to be a personal essay, so the first person perspective was pretty much built in from the start. I find most of the ways reporters try to write around the first person to be clunky and distracting. “This reporter” is just a bizarre way to communicate.
I’m pretty hostile to the distaste for the first person that we have in our business. I understand why we don’t write general news reports in first person and I’ve participated in endless conversations about language and objectivity. But first person writing is gripping, and intimate, and if I’m going to put myself out there, I figure I should just go for it and really try to bring the readers into my world as I’ve lived it.
In terms of challenges, the only one that stuck out was pacing. It can get boring quickly if you just have graph after graph of a writer pontificating, so you have to find ways to break it up. That’s why we jump across time periods or will momentarily shift the focus away from me to the UAW workers, or the Lordstown mayor, or the Jamaican immigrant for a moment. It’s like a relief cut when you’re woodworking.
What was the editing process like, going from being edited as a staff writer to working as a freelancer with Michael Shapiro, editor of The Delacorte Review?
Once we chatted and settled on a very basic idea for a subject, he would send me a prompt or a question ‑— “Take me back to when you decided to leave San Diego. What went into that decision? Why did you go back to Youngstown?” — and I would send him a reply. As we engaged in this back and forth, a narrative emerged, and we were able to identify where we had meat and where we had fat. We expanded on the parts we liked.
Obviously my editor at the newspaper, Mark Sweetwood, couldn’t have taken this approach with me. When you’re on a daily deadline schedule there isn’t time to develop stories like that — you really just have to make sure things are accurate and on-time. Sweetwood trusted my writing and generally let me do what I wanted when it came to developing larger or more literary pieces. In turn, in my day-to-day reporting, I tried to be respectful of the process and write like a newspaper reporter: inverted pyramid, third person, just the facts, etc.
You can’t be someone who needs constant feedback if you’re working for a daily paper. There just isn’t time. If you wanted to see what was changed by the editors, you often had to go back yourself and compare the draft you sent to what was published and try to adjust.
What was the difference and/or difficulty between writing about yourself verses about others?
Writing about yourself can be tough because it’s not always clear what information is worth including. Moments you think are relatively mundane can be mined for gold and moments that are very defining in your mind sometimes just don’t fit. If you ask me what about the last several months was more world-changing for me — beginning a relationship with my girlfriend or sitting in a diner in Lordstown for an hour and eating a grilled cheese sandwich — I think it’s obvious I’d say my relationship. Yet that only gets a brief mention in my story, while my visit to the diner is like five graphs long.
I think it’s easier to write about other people for the simple reason that you have more emotional distance from the events being described, and can use that distance to exercise editorial judgement over which parts are critical to the narrative.
I admire your use of metaphors and analogies. “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” and “My parents and I knew different cities. They knew Youngstown when it was alive and so mourned it in death. I knew only after it had been taxidermied and forgotten in the attic.” Compared to how you wrote for your newspaper, is this your natural style or did you feel you had more emotional access to your own story?
I try to be careful with metaphors because it’s obviously easy to mix them and muddle your meaning, but I do think they’re powerful tools for helping build emotional familiarity with a concept. When I was writing for the newspaper I only wrote like that on a few occasions. But I would absolutely say the style you see in the CJR piece is indicative of my style when I’m left to my own devices.
Any skill I have at metaphor I have to credit to the many hours I spent listening to sermons back when I was a very active church-goer. Pastors almost always utilize some parable to segue into their weekly message, so I had weekly exposure to good and some not-so-good examples of how to weave a personal story into a larger message. During those days I used to lead a Bible study and would often try to replicate that style. It influences my writing to this day.
Not too many people in the general public are sympathetic toward journalists, employed or not. How did journalists react? The people in your hometown? Did you take any flak from either quarter?
Most of the journalists who read it and commented seemed to relate to the story I told and sympathized with many of the fears I express about my future in the industry. The praise that has meant the most to me has come from readers who are native to the region that have shared the story and said “yes, this is what it’s like to be from here.” Knowing that I could give a voice to the anxiety of other people from the Mahoning Valley was high praise.
If there was any negative response to the story, I didn’t see it. There’s always the risk when a journalist writes about losing their job that people will tell you to learn to code or whatever, but I feel like that animosity is mostly aimed at digital journalists with large enough followings to attract trolls and detractors. My general anonymity in the field probably saved me some grief.
What are you going to try next? Are you looking for a newspaper job elsewhere or have you given up on journalism?
I won’t ever say I’ve lost faith in journalism, but I have lost faith in this economy. That being said, I really don’t know what I’m going to do next. I’m in Washington, D.C. now and I want to continue to write and report, but I see all these layoffs; there are so many more qualified people than me competing for every single job I’m considering. And most of the time those jobs aren’t paying tons of money. So it’s certainly discouraging.
I want to have a stable job and to get a nice apartment with my girlfriend and go on vacations and have a decent life. To do that though, I’ll probably have to leave journalism, and while I know I can always write on the side, we all can recognize how utterly exhausting a hobby that would be. I loved working construction, and I loved bartending, but I always felt a little restless because I wasn’t using the one skill I knew I had. I never felt that way while I was working as a reporter. I was so excited the day I started earning my money from writing and not from washing dishes or hauling lumber around. It was all I’d looked forward to during all the years I spent in general labor jobs, and I hope I’ll get to do it again someday.