Vacating the Tower of Truth

We all know too well how the technology-driven disruption of the news business has led newspapers to slash their staffs—nearly 23,500 jobs (out of 56,400) at U.S. daily newspapers since 2001. David Uberti has a neat follow-up piece in the September/October 2015 Columbia Journalism Review—on the demise of America’s great newspaper buildings. (See a related piece by Tim Adams in the Guardian.)

newspaper buildings

Some of the landmark edifices were actually destroyed once journalists had been re-located to less expensive digs—One Herald Plaza, the Miami Herald headquarters on Biscayne Bay since 1963, pictured here, was torn down last year by the property’s new owner, a Malaysian casino operator. The art deco Inquirer Building, home to the Philadelphia Inquirer for 87 years, nicknamed the “Tower of Truth,” was purchased in 2011 by a property developer who wants to turn it into a hotel. Symbolizing the struggles of the Inky, which had been sold five times in six years, the remaining staff moved to smaller premises a year later. Other papers that vacated historic sites in recent years include the Detroit News and Detroit Free Press, Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Cleveland’s Plain Dealer, and Chicago Sun-Times, among others.

Uberti’s CJR cover story nicely captures the nostalgia for the pre-digital newspaper trade. He quotes the late journalist Al Martinez’s 2007 reflection on his old Oakland Tribune newsroom:

We were a brotherhood of young lions back then, working hard through a half-dozen deadlines a day and drinking hard. We did it, we told ourselves, for the people’s right to know, and affixed it like a knight’s pennant to the end of a spear.

But Uberti’s piece, headlined “Why the sale of old newspaper buildings isn’t all bad,” points out that the fading businesses can use the cash to pay down debt or reinvest in new products. And there’s more. He writes:

After the Inquirer departed the Tower of Truth, Inga Saffron, the newspaper’s architecture critic, was optimistic that it could forge a new identity elsewhere. “Making our home in a newspaper building froze us psychologically in history, and kept us from interacting physically in the city,” she wrote in a 2012 Inquirer column. “The future for all media is an interactive one.” In that environment, she added the next year in a New Republic piece, “the most valuable real estate is online.”

Such new offices certainly won’t solve newspaper companies’ long-term financial problems. But they’re a symbolic step forward into the unknown, an acknowledgement that there’s no going back to what came before, however glorious it was. The resulting psychological benefits can’t be overstated, especially for the younger generation on whose shoulders the fate of journalism rests. If the companies that formerly produced only newspapers have any chance of survival, they will need that energy—not the baggage that accompanied vaunted historical headquarters.

This job isn’t as noble as it seems, most journalists would admit, but it’s as noble as any job is going to get. The real reason it’s so difficult to let go to of aging buildings is that they’re relics of an era in which journalism was simply a calling, not a struggling business with corporate ownership, quarterly earnings reports, not enough money coming in, and too many journalists going out. The physical structures remind us of a time when those in our profession felt in control of their own destiny.

—Scott MacLeod