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Buildings’ fate tells the tale of newspaper industry decline

Lately, a lot of newspapers have been leaving their landmark downtown buildings for smaller, cheaper quarters.

The Oakland Tribune abandoned its grand tower in 2007.
CC/Flickr/Kevin

I worked at seven newspapers in my journalism career, from Alaska to Florida. And six of them were located in large, grand buildings that were recognizable downtown landmarks.

Everyone knew where the newspaper was; you had only to refer to “the Times” or “the Gazette” — no address necessary.

In the early days of my career, most newspapers had no security desk. Anyone who wanted to talk to a reporter about a story could walk right in the door and find their way to the newsroom. The newspapers had a vital physical presence that placed them at the heart of the city’s life.

Lately, though, a lot of newspapers have been leaving their landmark downtown buildings for smaller, cheaper quarters.

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The Oakland Tribune abandoned its grand tower in 2007. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution moved out of downtown in 2009 and donated its building to the city, which turned it into offices. Last year, the Philadelphia Inquirer and Daily News moved out of their iconic downtown tower into a smaller leased space nearby.

In recent months, the Des Moines Register, Indianapolis Star and Greenville (S.C.) News have announced plans to sell their landmark downtown buildings.

Closer to home, there’s long-running speculation that the Star Tribune might eventually leave its Portland Avenue home. A shrinking staff and a new stadium could make relocation a more attractive option.

Just last week I was in Akron, Ohio, and visited the Beacon Journal, a newspaper that was the historic flagship of the Knight chain (later Knight-Ridder). The grand old building was at least one-third empty.

I can’t help but view these real-estate changes as a metaphor for the overall role of newspapers in our society. They once were commanding civic institutions, owned by local businesspeople who expressed their pride and influence by constructing grand buildings to house their media properties.

Now they’re pieces of far-flung corporate empires, staggered by recession and rapid transformation in their industry, run by absentee owners focused on the bottom line above all else. No longer a symbol of local power and influence, the newspaper building is merely an economic asset on a balance sheet, to be disposed of when it becomes a drain on profits.

Today’s digital media allow new voices to have vast influence without a vast physical footprint. It’s the world we live in. But allow me a moment to miss the world that the grand old newspaper buildings symbolize.