Buildings’ fate tells the tale of newspaper industry decline

The Oakland Tribune abandoned its grand tower in 2007.

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.

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.

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Comments (5)

  1. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 08/06/2012 - 11:47 am.

    doesn’t have to be that way….

    Paper’s could be owned by individuals and families again. They still turn a profit, just not one that’s big enough for investors.

  2. Submitted by Winston Wood on 08/06/2012 - 12:56 pm.

    The Daily Planet, RIP

    Good piece. Unless you’ve been uprooted by one of these corporate moves, this is a little appreciated aspect of the “death of print.” Classic old newspaper buildings have been a civic focal point for many a city — New York with the old NYT and Daily News HQs, the Philadelphia Inquirer, Baltimore Sun, the Seattle Post Intelligencer with its globe mounted roof, Chicago’s magnificent Tribune tower; the list goes on — but in the digital age they’re considered expensive museums. But they can also be goldmines to new owners because after depreciation they’re carried on the books at well below their true market value. This is a ready source of cash for the suits looking to raise money to reduce the debt incurred in buying the paper. They can save on overhead too by moving the staff to a windowless server farm out in the suburbs. This hurts actual reporting and source development, but hey, that’s what Wikipedia’s for, right?

  3. Submitted by Connie Sullivan on 08/06/2012 - 03:18 pm.

    Family owners of traditional newspapers were satisfied with single-digit annual profits from those papers, too. When was the last time ANY investment group was satisfied with single digits? Leveraged buyouts were the true scourge of the newspaper industry.

    Also, we have trained a populace now to expect quick, narrow, and shallow news that is strongly opinionated and carries the false idea that there are always two sides to the truth, or to the facts. They wouldn’t recognize a decent traditional newspaper’s emphasis on full-coverage, objective news if it came out of their iPad and shouted at them.

    Some of us don’t so much miss the monumental newspaper buildings, as we do the solid news gathering and disseminating they did.

  4. Submitted by Alex Burk on 08/06/2012 - 06:43 pm.

    I feel your pain…

    Check this out…”Dying Breed: The True Story of How the Internet Killed My Career as a Newspaper Reporter”

  5. Submitted by John Reinan on 10/23/2013 - 09:21 am.

    A year later, the New York Times catches up to MinnPost

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