Downsizing newspapers

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Upper reaches of the Tribune Tower, once home to the Chicago Tribune. (architecture.org)

Unlike some other shrinking daily newspapers, the Providence Journal has not moved out of its historic headquarters building, designed by Albert Kahn and completed in 1934, during the Great Depression. But the Journal has shrunk big within its extraordinary neo-Georgian edifice. It used to occupy all four floors – five counting the mezzinine, which housed the newsroom for many years. In those days you could look through the arched windows from the sidewalk and see the printing presses pumping out the newspaper. Later, you could see the newsroom. Today? Move along. Nothing to see.

The newspaper has shrunk, but so has the building, in a sense. It looks the same from the outside but on the inside it displays the same facelessness of its feel-good corporate co-tenants. Its former granite and bronze lobby, so bold, now epitomizes blandified schlock. To fit the paper onto the second floor, a staff that during the 1980s boasted about 500 reporters and editors (counting only members of the Newspaper Guild) has been chopped down to maybe 20 reporters and 80 editors and other staff in the Guild.

A recent column by the Chicago Tribune’s architecture critic, Blair Kamin, describes in fascinating detail how many major papers have abandoned their historic headquarters buildings. His piece, “More newspapers are departing their landmark homes, and why that matters,” suggests that while good reporting can be exercised from bad buildings, these relocations are more than just a matter of finance or geography:

[T]he exit from structures that long symbolized their watchdog role hurts nonetheless. Lacking a memorable physical presence, embattled news organizations will have to work that much harder to keep the importance of their enterprise fixed in the public mind.

Kamin tells the sad story of the Des Moines Register & Tribune Building, site of his first real newspaper job. Originally a Beaux-Arts highrise, it was later “sheathed in modernist glass and metal.” It was an “architectural mishmash” but “it burst with character.” The Register moved out to another downtown building in 2013, which he does not characterize except as having “many” other tenants. He gives the tale a hint of nostalgic sadness, but does not describe his feelings, as a critic, toward the Register’s new headquarters. The old one is now residential lofts with floor plans blessed by cutesy news-biz nicknames like “Scoop” and “Byline.” Maybe one of them is “Deadline.”

Perhaps the most startling move will take place in late July when Kamin’s own Chicago Tribune will leave the famous, and famously alluring, Tribune Building designed by Raymond Hood and John Mead Howells and completed in 1925 after an international competition, an event equally famous among us building fanatics. With its flying buttresses and soaring pinnacles, its High Gothic style suggested that “journalism was a higher calling.” But now it will be condos. Worse, a condo tower expected to be 1,300 feet tall and, no doubt, 50 shades of ugly, will be built behind it. The paper and its architecture critic will move to the Prudential Building, a 1951 tower he considers “stolid.” It may better reflect the more sordid calling the field now embraces.

May he enjoy to the fullest his remaining occupancy of architectural history. I don’t know about Blair Kamin, but I would be massively pissed.

He discusses the fate of the Washington Post, a workplace that I coveted long, long ago. I must admit that upon reading his account I felt a sort of regretful Schadenfreude. And yet the Post has definitely gone to a better place, about equidistant from the White House, though proximity to that building may resonate differently now than when they moved in 2015.

Kamin reports that the Post’s Brutalist headquarters at 15th & L St., N.W., where I met David Broder in 1976 or thereabouts, has been demolished. It was designed in the early 1950s by Albert Kahn Associates (the founder died in 1942).* The Post has moved into One Franklin Square, which is a big step upward. It is an elegant building with two towers. I wrote about it more than two decades ago in a profile of new traditional buildings then arising in D.C.

When I was a boy I used to deliver the Post’s rival, the Star, an afternoon newspaper. I slid my folded papers down long carpeted halls to the comfy units of elderly dowagers in bland midcentury residential highrises along Connecticut Avenue. And I delivered the Daily News (which tanked even before the Star) to the Broadmoor, a Beaux-Arts confection more to my taste before I even had taste. I never wanted to deliver the Post – early to rise makes a kid cranky, not wise.

Kamin’s article is filled with fascinating details about the fate of newspapers. It has a slide show with many of the buildings on display. A dismaying number are midcentury modern, which may mean that many of these moves will not necessarily be so unfortunate, stylistically speaking. However, one paper, the New York Times, built its own shiny new skyscraper a decade ago. Predictably, the Renzo Piano glitzoid was so costly that, along with other factors shrinking the media, it forced the Newspaper of Record to cut staff and squish the paper’s offices onto fewer floors on behalf of the bottom line – from which even the First Amendment does not exempt the press.

This new Timesbuilding is said by Kamin to be the only instance in recent years of a major newspaper erecting what he calls a “major work of architecture.” Let that be a lesson.

[* Initial versions of this post erroneously attributed the Post’s former Brutalist headquarters to the same Albert Kahn who designed the Providence Journal Building. Blair Kamin did not make this mistake. He attributed the Post building to Albert Kahn Associates. Hats off to Michael Rouchell for his sharp eye.]

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About David Brussat

For a living, I edit the writing of some of the nation's leading architects, urbanists and design theorists. This blog was begun in 2009 as a feature of the Providence Journal, where I was on the editorial board and wrote a weekly column of architecture criticism for three decades. Architecture Here and There fights the style wars for classical architecture and against modern architecture, no holds barred. My freelance writing and editing on that topic and others addresses issues of design and culture locally and globally. I am a fellow of the Royal Society of the Arts, and a member of the board of the New England chapter of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art, which bestowed an Arthur Ross Award on me in 2002. I work from Providence, R.I., where I live with my wife Victoria, my son Billy and our cat Gato. If you would like to invest your prose with even more style and clarity, please email me at my consultancy, dbrussat@gmail.com, or call 401.351.0457. Testimonial: "Your work is so wonderful - you now enter my mind and write what I would have written." - Nikos Salingaros, mathematician at the University of Texas, architectural theorist and author of many books.
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4 Responses to Downsizing newspapers

  1. barry says:

    If we are getting nostalgic about the old Journal, I remember way back when I was growing up in New York in the 1950s hearing that it was a higher quality paper than would be expected in a metro area of Providence’s size. When I moved to Providence in 1966, I noted their afternoon Bulletin and their radio station WPJB which played some classical music, just like the radio station of the NY Times! I did get to be impressed by their building when was among those who had written letters to the editor who got invited to a community dinner there. Its hard to imagine today’s out of state chain owners ever doing that again.

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    • Barry, I recall participating in those excellent dinners (the company, not necessarily the food) for letter to the editor writers. I enjoyed getting into it with those who disagreed with me, or us. Philip Terzian ended those dinners when he took over as EPE in 1989, I think it was.

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  2. David: This is a fascinating and timely piece, and I will read the Blair Kamin article as well. I agree that the free press and investigative journalism are bolstered by symbols like buildings and even logos/mastheads. The denigration and gutting of major news organizations is one sign of the erosion of democracy under Trump and the alt right. We need to fight it on all fronts.–MAH

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    • Thanks very much, Mark. Nevertheless, the denigration of major news organizations started long before the regrettable Trump, and it will be difficult for professional journalists to walk back their abandonment of objectivity over the past year or so if Trump’s original tweet about being spied on turns out to have been correct.

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