URBANISM APRIL 1, 2013
What must surely rank among the most touching demonstrations of the emotional bond between a newspaper and its readers occurred in Washington during the summer of 1973. The Nixon tapes had just been released, and dozens of people flocked to the Washington Post building to wait for the first edition to come off the presses, then visible through the lobby windows. The news was a turning point in the Watergate drama and the crowd felt the urgent need, not just to hold the paper in their hands, but to be present at the place where letters and symbols were being forged into the first draft of history.
The traditional newspaper building, with its hierarchies and tribal rituals, is a thing of the past
It is impossible to imagine anyone being drawn to a downtown newspaper building today to receive the words of reporters on a still-warm paper product, for the obvious reason that information is beamed to each of us so much more conveniently on our personal devices. Besides, most urban papers moved their presses to the suburbs long ago. But as news has ceased to be a physical commodity, so too has the big-city newspaper building lost its meaning.
Traditionally located downtown, close to the centers of power, these buildings were once a paper’s most potent branding tool, a high-visibility signifier of place—not to mention a corporeal reminder of the publication’s significant first amendment powers. In recent years, newspaper buildings have become something else: fabulous real estate. That explains why so many struggling newspapers are now scrambling to convert their flagships into cash. The Boston Herald, Minneapolis Star Tribune and Philadelphia Inquirer have all ditched their legacy buildings and, in the process, set out to reinvent themselves in spaces unencumbered by the baggage of the past.
The Post is the latest to float the idea of unloading its downtown property. There has been surprisingly little protest from the journalists within its 15th Street building, given the glorious doings that unfolded behind those bland, beige brick walls, designed by the firm of Albert Kahn, an architect known for his immense factory buildings. This may have something to do with the charmlessness of the newsroom, an oppressive, low-ceilinged space where access to windows is largely reserved for the muckety-muck editors with offices on the “North Wall.” And even those windows face onto an alley. For the home of such a great and storied enterprise, the Post’s architecture is singularly undistinguished, though Washington’s top planner, Harriet Tregoning, says the 1950 printing plant on L Street and the 1972 office addition on 15th Street are eligible for historic designation because of their Watergate legacy.
Don’t hold your breath waiting for an application. Located four blocks from the White House, the property is likely to fetch a nice price as a tear-down in D.C.’s sizzling, unsentimental real estate market. Not only does the paper own its L-shaped parcel, but also the land under the corner building next door.
Where will Post journalists lay down their laptops when the deal is done? I wasn’t able to break through the brick wall of the Post’s communications office, but recent history suggests that the paper will not construct a new building of its own. Back when the paper was flush, it commissioned a design shaped to look like a typewriter by I.M. Pei, only to get cold feet about the cost. Lately, creating a signature headquarters has tended to bring bad luck to media companies. The New York Times, Time Warner and Gannett all ran into financial trouble after cutting the ribbon on glamorous new buildings, which became embarrassing monuments to overreaching.
These days, it’s the new media barons, Apple and Google, that are busy confirming their status with palace-building. The Apple headquarters, designed by Sir Norman Foster, will be an enormous, Starship Enterprise ring, simultaneously evoking a downloading symbol—and a crown. Not merely a building, it’s a 175-acre campus for 12,000 employees that includes such amenities as a thousand-seat auditorium.
Most likely, the Post will follow the path of my newspaper, the Philadelphia Inquirer, which sold off its slender, majestic, blindingly white Gothic tower and moved last summer into the “Ladies Garments” section of a defunct department store. This has not been a bad thing in my view, though some colleagues still mourn the loss of that quintessential, early 20th Century newspaper building (along with a developer’s plan to turn it into a casino). Wonderful as it was, the building was an albatross. It had become so depopulated that whole floors were empty, save for the lint-specked carpet, and working there was like living in a declining urban neighborhood where everything was falling apart. The Post building is similarly underused: Dark corridors are piled high with discarded furnishings. The cafeteria has been shuttered. The lobby could easily be mistaken for a social services agency.
Moving outside D.C.’s pricey downtown could be liberating. There has been talk of relocating to a buzzier address in the burgeoning NoMa neighborhood around Union Station, or near the Nationals ballpark along the Anacostia riverfront. Becoming a renter in someone else’s building would, of course, mean losing the commanding street presence the Post now enjoys. Those two neighborhoods are also a bit less convenient to D.C.’s twin power poles, the White House and the Capitol, as well as the hushed, expense-account lunch spots.
There may be a silver lining in leaving all that behind. Washington is becoming less of a company town and it might do reporters good to be in an area where they could mix it up with creative types. Should the Post choose NoMa – North of Massachusetts Avenue—it would become part of an emerging media row. CNN rents office space there, and NPR is about to occupy a warehouse building outfitted with a state-of-the-art, double-height “Newsplex,” where its radio and digital staffs can be merged into a single team. The Post might also consider a sprawling loft building where it could house its entire newsroom on a single floor. A less buttoned-down work environment could give the paper the energy of a start-up.
The traditional newspaper building, with its hierarchies and tribal rituals, is a thing of the past, left over from the days when news traveled in one direction—handed down from the great newsrooms to the working masses. Nowadays news is dispersed from multiple directions and from multiple content producers, some professional, some not. Yet the idea of a modern media row fits our changing world, where innovation comes from chance social encounters in dense clusters—an urban version of Silicon Valley. In that world, as everyone knows, the most valuable real estate is online.