Up, Up, and Away

December 1, 2020

In 2015, a few weeks before a wrecking ball was scheduled to level the Washington Post building, which had stood for three decades on the corner of 15th and L, several hundred employees gathered inside for champagne toasts and to sign their names on the walls. The event was bittersweet. They were about to leave the only building in America to take down a sitting US president—a symbol of power in a city full of them. In a few months, another office building would begin rising in its place, amid a trend of newspapers abandoning their stately headquarters in the hearts of American cities to downsize and save money. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette had just left the Boulevard of the Allies. A year and a half before, the Miami Herald, whose newsroom overlooked Biscayne Bay, had been vacated. Soon, the Boston Globe would depart Morrissey Boulevard.

The coronavirus has accelerated the breakup between the journalism industry and its buildings—which, from the days of the penny press, were designed and situated to be powerful structures overlooking the cities they covered. The idea of newspaper buildings as physical beacons of authority dates to 1872 and the death of Horace Greeley, the New-York Tribune’s founder and swashbuckling editor. “Not a month after Greeley’s death it was decided that architecture should be the chosen instrument to fill the void left by his absence in the public realm,” Aurora Wallace, a scholar of media and communications at New York University, writes in Media Capital: Architecture and Communications in New York City (2012). Greeley’s successor, Whitelaw Reid, used funds from his predecessor’s life insurance payout to design and build a nine-story building with a soaring clock tower overlooking Park Row.

“As per Reid’s directions, the building was a massive, fireproof stone-and-brick structure,” Wallace writes. “Light-colored granite and redbrick contrasted in a striking pattern that helped it stand out against its neighbors.” Reid thought the building was so monumental, both in magnitude and metaphor, that the paper devoted ten thousand words to describing the architecture to readers. “Every ornament has its uses,” according to the Tribune. “The position of every stone is dictated by the necessities of construction; and the whole work exhibits the overruling influence of a consistent idea.” And that idea was simple, Wallace writes: “The building was intended to attract attention.”

There was a religious component, too. With their buildings, newspapers were trying to outdo churches, whose spires towered over cities. In Chicago, Wallace writes, “when the Tribune Tower first overtook the Trinity Church spire on the skyline, it was a gesture intended to show the momentum of progress and the dominance of mass communication as the more authoritative source of information.” The result: publishers came to be seen as “community leaders, public servants, statesmen.”

When newspapers couldn’t construct tall buildings, they settled for locations close to city hall, reminding citizens—and elected officials—that someone was always watching nearby. Newspaper headquarters also infused a sense of righteousness, strength, and bravado into the reporters who worked inside. “When journalists walked into these buildings, they felt the power,” Nikki Usher, a University of Illinois media scholar who studies newsroom culture, told me. Now, as those spaces fade away, “one of the biggest challenges facing traditional journalists in a postindustrial environment for news is not economic survival—it’s ego survival,” Usher wrote in a 2014 Tow Center report.

Usher spent time with Miami Herald employees before and after their move out of their downtown headquarters, at One Herald Plaza, and into the suburbs. They spoke as if Miami had lost a human being—a “major institutional figure,” as a reporter put it to Usher. An editor told her: “It’s bad for the psyche for there to be no building to exist for people to see every day that’s associated with a traditional media company.” Another editor said: “We felt very proud. You could see the building, and it was not hard to think about the glory days of newspapers.”

Michael Rosenwald is a reporter at the Washington Post. He has also written for The New Yorker, Esquire, and The Economist. Follow him on Twitter @mikerosenwald.