I was surprised to see this week that the Des Moines Register building, my workplace for nearly a decade, may soon be demolished.
I shouldn’t have been surprised. As I’ve noted before, nearly every organization I’ve worked for has been sold or closed or both. Two of my former workplaces have already been leveled.
I spent more than a decade (in two hitches) at the Omaha World-Herald and a year or so after I left, they moved across the street and demolished the building where I worked. The photo below is me sitting in the park that now occupies my former workplace.
While I have many fond memories of working at the World-Herald, they center more on the people than the building. A couple memories of the place:
- First Amendment lover though I am, I always thought Freedom Center was a pretentious name for our new press building, opened in 2001 (that’s the Freedom Center behind me in the photo. It’s now named the John GottschalkFreedom Center, after the retired publisher I worked under).
- It was a 1997 remodeling of the newsroom in that old building that led to one of the best stories of my career. In sorting through years worth of files, equipment and other stuff accumulated in the photo department, editors found the negatives of other photos Buddy Bunker had shot the day of his iconic photo “The Homecoming.” The editors asked me to write a story about that day, and I ended up expanding it to write about the lives of the people in the photo. And 11 years later, I did a multimedia story when a home movie of the homecoming surfaced. Multiple enlargements of Bunker’s photo hung in the old World-Herald building. I’ll always be glad they remodeled that newsroom.
I started my career in the building below, home to the Evening Sentinel in Shenandoah, Iowa. I worked there while in high school in 1971 and 72, then a couple times while I was in college and for my first job after graduating from college, in 1976-77. That was a cool, old building, with a press, a huge camera for shooting page-sized negatives and a rolltop desk where I wrote my first stories on a manual typewriter.
The basement was a veritable maze, with a darkroom, a pop machine selling glass bottles of Coke for a dime and a vault storing bound copies of old papers going back to the 1800s.
If you’ve read Mimi’s novel, Gathering String, the building of the Lindsborg Journal very much resembles the Sentinel building. A couple scenes take place in a downstairs vault where the main characters are doing research in back issues. (That standard fiction disclaimer about resemblances to people being coincidental may not apply to buildings.)
The Sentinel closed in 1993 and the building was leveled some time in the ’90s. Last time I drove by (several years ago) it was a vacant lot. I just checked the satellite view on Google maps and it appears to be a parking lot.
I also spent two hitches at the Register, where I was a reporter and editor from 1977 to 1985 and religion reporter and writing coach from 1998 to 2000. That was the first place I wrote and edited on a computer. I worked two Iowa caucus nights in that newsroom (that’s me at the computer terminal in the photo below, on caucus night 1980; that’s Mimi’s favorite photo of me).
While I have fond memories of the Register, the newsroom was physically nothing special. As in Omaha, it was the people who made it a memorable experience, and with fewer people, the Register needs less space now.
It was cool to walk along 8th Street in Des Moines when the press was running behind huge street-level windows. But the Register opened a new printing plant south of town in 2000. I’m envious of a friend who salvaged a round “Goss” plate from the end of a press cylinder for a coffee table.
In the fourth-floor elevator lobby, gateway to the newsroom, the Register displayed historic front pages — wars beginning and ending, the first moonwalk, Pope John Paul II’s visit to Iowa. The display included Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoons by Frank Miller and Ding Darling and cartoons celebrating the Register’s soaring statewide circulation, hitting 400,000 and then 500,000 on Sundays. It’s now about 212,000 (barely over 100,000 daily) mostly a metro paper, and ready for smaller quarters. A Register story says a move down Locust Street to an office building is likely, with the building slated for demolition and downtown redevelopment.
The Gazette building in Cedar Rapids was considered as a post-flood site for the new library, but the city built elsewhere. As far as I can tell, the Kansas City Star still operates from the same building I worked at in the 1980s and ’90s (and Ernest Hemingway worked at 1917-18) and the Minot Daily News still work out of the same buildings I worked at in the 1980s and ’90s. The Newspaper Association of America is looking for a buyer (or, I suppose, a tenant) for the American Press Institute building where I worked from 2005 to 2008, but I’m sure the building will last a while. I presume Allbritton Communications will be in the glass towers at Wilson Boulevard and Lynn Street in Rosslyn for years to come. Or if they move, someone else will work there.
I work out of my condo for Digital First Media, though I presume we’ll see some of the buildings I visit sold and demolished in time. The company recently sold the Saratogian‘s building and is planning to sell the building housing the New Haven Register. I have no idea whether new owners will use or demolish the buildings, or which other buildings, if any, our company might sell.
As printing consolidates and news staffs shrink, the grand (or decrepit, or both) buildings that once housed newspapers are no longer needed. As I’ve noted before, sometimes the real estate a newspaper building occupies, especially in a thriving downtown, might be most of the company’s value, at least until we develop sustainable digital revenue sources.
I presume I’ll see a few more buildings in my past demolished. I note their passing with a bit of nostalgia, but with less sadness than the demise of news organizations. My career isn’t about the buildings where I worked. It’s about the newsrooms where I worked, the people I worked with and the journalism we did together. That work will withstand the wrecking balls.