Apparently, most Americans learned about the death spiral of metropolitan newspapers and the consequences from watching John Oliver. Then they went back to kitten videos on social media. None of this is new to readers of Rogue Columnist (see here and here). My aim today is more modest.
As Oliver's well-worth-watching segment was going viral, a few of us were following the demolition of the Charlotte Observer building in downtown (or as the boosters insist ahistorically, Uptown) Charlotte. The photo above shows the work about half done a few weeks ago. The building, which took up a city block, was once as substantial on the Tryon Street side (left) as it remained on the Stonewall Street side in the top photo. Below is the site as of August 29th — all gone.
During my 30 years (!) in the working press, I have been employed by 10 newspapers across the country. I never made it to the New York Times, but I was fortunate to work at some of the finest metro papers in America, among some of the best journalists. The Knight Ridder-owned Observer was one. It was here that I was able to hit my zenith of business-section turnarounds — and the credit goes to my gifted colleagues, I only pointed the way. If I live long enough, I'll tell some of the stories. Unlike the Rocky Mountain News, the Observer is still going, in much more modest leased space (the name isn't even on the building).
But today I mostly want to meditate on the building and its meaning. This classic piece of Knight Ridder hulking architecture was no beauty. But it symbolized the importance and power of the newspaper, which not only committed great journalism but was a large employer. Before the collapse, the typical metro daily could employ 1,500 people or more in real jobs, not "gigs," in a multitude of departments from advertising and dispatch to platemaking and the press room. In the lobby, through large windows, you could watch the massive presses run. From college graduates and creative bohemians to skilled blue-collar workers and high-school dropouts — a major newspaper offered secure work and paths up.
If you had paid your dues at little papers, if you earned a reporting or editing job at a well-respected metro, you knew you had arrived and had much proving to do in order to remain — the imposing building alone told you. The building housed not only a newsroom, but a sizeable manufacturing, advertising, marketing, and distribution center. At one time, trucks from here took bundles of the Charlotte Observer to places across the Carolinas every night. It was a major civic institution — Observer Publisher Rolfe Neill was one of the four or five titans who turned Charlotte from a middling Southern big town into a major metropolis of national consequence, and who revived downtown.
A sign of the revival is a developer's plan to build "a large mixed-use development" where the Big O used to stand. It's a sign of our times that newspapers' real estate is often worth more than their news, advertising reach, and intellectual capital. The post-fact society.
This is the third of my alma maters to be torn down, after the Rocky and the Dayton Daily News — in the latter case, the most historic part of the ornate building that was supposed to be saved was accidentally mauled. The Seattle Times vacated its building for leased space. The old structure is awaiting destruction, and in the meantime is a magnet for trespassing and arson by vagrants enjoying permissive, welcoming "Freeattle." All of this cuts me. You either get it or you don't.
These buildings symbolized how 425,000 Americans worked at newspapers in 1996. This year the number is 183,000. In most cases, newsroom losses — especially of the most experienced journalists — have been even more severe. Plenty of people with grudges have been happy to see this happen. So many times I've been told, "You're buggy whip makers!" One of the many problems with that analogy, genius, is that the automobile industry that replaced the buggy whip makers created exponentially more jobs — millions for hundreds. Good jobs, real jobs, ever better pay. The information economy has not done this.
Many of those laughing at our funerals can carry on their corruption without scrutiny now. The national news agenda has shrunk to what will fit through a straw, meant to last a few hours. Locally? In most cities, you don't even know what you don't know. Soon you won't know what building once stood there, what it stood for. Even 140 characters is a strain on the national attention span.
One of the most poignant parts of this deathbed vigil for the Observer building has been photos posted on the alumni Facebook page (yeah, I get the paradox and perhaps irony). Many are of employees (including me) and more contemporary scenes. But others go back into at least the 1980s and the only word I can use to describe them is...haunting. I will leave you with a few: