It was billed “The Fight of the Century” before a single punch was thrown: Jack Johnson versus Jim Jeffries, black versus white for the 1910 heavyweight championship. In Reno, Nevada, thousands gathered to watch Johnson defend his title, while in Manhattan tens of thousands more gathered outside the New York Times building for the next best thing to a ringside seat—a blow-by-blow account that flashed on an electronic board. Election nights and other big news events drew similar crowds to the paper’s Times Square home, which used spotlights to signal ballot results.
By 1952, the rise of television had snapped this physical connection between the newspaper’s home and its public. That year’s election-night crowd was “the least demonstrative” on record, “without voice, without the traditional horns and bells, and utterly without enthusiasm,” the Times reported the next day.
The Internet’s ascent over the last decade has eroded another physical bond between people and newspapers: an increasing number of readers no longer hold print and pulp in their hands. Last year, according to a Pew survey, was the first in which more people got their news online for free than from a paid-for print publication.
This loss in readers’ physical connection to newspapers gets an interesting new treatment in a study by Brigham Young communications professor Dale Cressman in the Winter edition of Journalism History. Cressman, a former television news producer, traces the rise and fall of journalism’s once precedent-setting architectural wonders: the Pulitzer Building on Park Row that was the first to soar higher than any church steeple in New York; James Gordon Bennett Jr.’s Herald building that boasted twenty-six bronze owls with lighted eyes; and Adolph Ochs’s Times Tower that used more steel than any other building of its day. He follows the historical arc from block parties, fight nights, and spotlights to online products created in anonymous buildings far from the madding crowd.
For Cressman, the reason the relationship between newspapers’ readers and their buildings matters is collective memory: no longer confronted with splendid architectural symbols of journalism that draw news-hungry crowds, he says, the public is harder-pressed to retain a sense of the institutions’ worth. Citing academic literature on the links between spaces and their symbolic meanings, Cressman may make more of architecture’s influence on society than many might be comfortable with. And the study certainly doesn’t explain—or claim to—journalism’s current woes. But it offers an intriguing suggestion that the fall of the newspaper building as urban icon paralleled the newspaper’s drift from a central place in the nation’s collective memory. Journalism buildings, Cressman’s study indicates, were neither mere bricks and mortar, nor just containers for the activities that took place within; they were civic centers that offered physical reinforcement of the value of journalism and the identification of a city with its newspapers.
At a time when journalism is casting around for new ways to connect with readers, perhaps these physical connections, not just purely informational ones, matter. Of course, there’s no returning to the days when newspaper buildings regularly drew crowds—as many as fifty thousand people gathered outside Pulitzer’s World building for election-night results in 1896. But more modest connections are possible, like panel discussions, newsroom tours, and cultural festivals that draw people to journalism’s great(ish) spaces and into close proximity with its practitioners.
That’s why Washington’s monumental Newseum museum of news, and WNYC’s new glass-walled, radio-performance space—where previously hidden hosts, DJs, and guests are visible to hip Soho street traffic—have value. Ditto Slate’s live recordings of its popular podcast series, the TimesTalks weekly conversation series between reporters and public figures held in the New York Times building, and even the satirical Onion’s weekly bar-based boozefests for readers held under the auspices of the “Society for the Preservation of Alcohol.”
The industry is rightfully concerned with getting more people to value its product enough to pay for it. Reminding them of the spaces, faces, and work involved is part of that effort.