They threw a big party at the Charlotte Observer on Thursday. You could also get by with calling it a wake. The reason for the party was that the newspaper is moving out of the building it has lived in since 1970, on the spot where the newspaper has been published since 1927. The reason for the wake had nothing to do with concrete and steel. It was about the people who make newspapers, and what they believe in.
Hundreds of people filled the lobby of the old building at 600 S. Tryon St. There were Pulitzer winners, and people who sold millions in ads, and circulation directors who figured out how to get the paper on the doorsteps of hundreds of thousands of people at 6 in the morning every day. There was Cynthia McCarter, the security guard who knows the building like a mama knows her child, and Gladys Shamblin, who could get the phones working when God and AT&T had no idea how. People had taken off work and used up vacation time. Gary O’Brien, the great photographer, flew in from Tucson, Arizona. I can’t remember the last time I hugged so many necks.
The old building doesn’t have much going for it but memories. It has always been ugly. The newsroom on the fourth floor has narrow slitted windows that would be useful in case of a Viking invasion but are terrible for letting in light. The escalators break so often that the one safe job at the paper was escalator repairman. In the last few years the elevators started trapping people, and sometimes the doors open and close on their own, like a scene from “The Shining.” A few years ago the paper sold the building to its parent company’s pension fund, and the pension fund sold it to developers. It will surely be a teardown. I would pay a fair amount of money to push the plunger that blows the building up.
But the Observer is not leaving because the building is decrepit. They’re leaving because the staff needs only a fraction of the space. The Observer has shed employees by the hundreds in the last eight or 10 years, just like every other paper of any size in this country, because the ways newspapers used to make money are gone. Classified ads, which used to fill entire sections of the paper, vanished into Craigslist. Businesses took most of their display ads online, for a fraction of the cost, or just built their own websites. The printed paper is still a moneymaker, but younger readers don’t want it. The Observer (and most other papers) have more readers than ever when you add print and online, and the money from the digital side is growing, but it’s not enough to cover the nut.
None of this is new. You’ve heard it for years. What you might not have heard is the distant quiet of an empty newsroom. What you might not have seen is the vast vacant mailroom, big enough for two basketball courts, where dozens of workers stuffed sales papers and coupons into the daily paper. They moved that operation out of the building years ago, along with the presses two stories below that used to rumble all day with editions that went to every corner of both Carolinas. There was a huge window in the lobby where you could watch the presses run. Some nights, when I had a big story in the next day’s paper, I’d stand and watch for a while on my way out the door. The papers rolled off the presses and wound through the pressroom, too fast to keep track of, like blood coursing through a giant beast. I could feel it in my heart.
There’s a mural covering that big window now, so you can’t see the empty room behind it.
We believed. No, that’s wrong: We believe. Still do. We believe in what a newspaper means to a city. A great newspaper tells stories and raises hell. It helps you figure out what your government is doing and what you can do about it. It shows you where to buy a new car or a pair of shoes. It gives you a crossword puzzle to work on with your morning coffee. It is a public utility. You turn it on and it’s there like the water or the lights.
It’s hard work putting out a great paper. “You’re gonna cry,” somebody said Thursday when I walked into the newsroom. “It’s OK,” I said. “I’ve cried in here plenty of times before.” The Observer has never been a shouting-type place — you rarely even heard a door slam — but there have been plenty of uncomfortable conversations, and quiet seething anger, and gripe sessions down at the vending machines. This is the same as pretty much any situation when strong creative people work on something together. I read about a TV writers’ room one time, and somebody said that no matter how heated it got in there, the same rule always applied: Best idea wins. At the Observer, the best idea usually wins.
The upside is that most days it was a glorious place to work. You didn’t have to wear a suit and nobody shivered in fear when the boss came through the door. One of my all-time favorite Observer moments is when the new CEO of our parent company came to town on his tour of the newspapers the company owned. He gave a brief speech and asked if anybody had questions. Binyamin Appelbaum, one of our business reporters, asked the CEO to name some good work he’d read in the papers he was now in charge of. The CEO’s second-in-command jumped in to answer the question, but Binya stopped him. “No,” he said, pointing at the CEO. “I want HIM to answer.” At a lot of other places, he might’ve gotten fired for that. At the Observer, we were taught to hold powerful people accountable — no matter who. (Binya, by the way, is now killing it as an economics reporter for The New York Times.)
What I still haven’t gotten to, way too far into this story, is how much fun it was. I’ve been gone from the paper nearly four years now and the thing I miss the most is just coming into the newsroom and shooting the shit with people I enjoy being around. It’s such a joy to work with smart, committed people who care about the same things you care about. We would pass around stories we loved, or crazy reader emails that made us laugh. We’d idle away downtime with endless debates or silly contests. The art department used to have an epic Nerf basketball game that involved complicated rules and shots made from various spots around their office. Every so often you’d hear a gigantic roar in there, and you’d know somebody made the full-court shot from the other end of the room.
The best times were when a big story broke. All the petty disputes, all the efforts to avoid work that day, all that was dropped in an instant and the giant machinery of the newsroom meshed together. It was like watching a pile of parts assemble itself into a precision clock. To work with a group of absolute professionals putting together a package of stories on a tight deadline … there will never be anything better in my working life. And once you’re in it you see how many people it takes to do it right — from the people answering the phones to the copy editors saving us from errors to countless other people whose names you never see in the daily report, but who are in there just as deep as the electrons and ink.
I’ve written a lot of this in past tense, because I don’t work at the paper anymore, but the present tense holds. There aren’t as many people who work there now, but they still do great work every day — more than every other media outlet in town put together. Wherever you’re reading this, that’s probably true in your city, too. We have far more news outlets than ever before. Some of them do important, compelling work. Most don’t. If the NFL expanded to 500 teams, there would be a lot more football. Tickets would be cheaper. But it wouldn’t be a better game.
They made a wall with all our names. There were thousands of them — all the people (or at least all the ones they could identify) who worked at the Observer over the years. At first it reminded me of the Vietnam Memorial, or one of those small-town monuments to the war dead. That’s not comparing journalists to soldiers, although many journalists have risked their lives covering wars. It’s more about a struggle a lot of us have in different ways: trying to fight for something bigger than yourself, and feeling like you’re losing. You don’t have to be a soldier to deal with that. You can be a pastor trying to keep a church alive, or a parent raising a troubled kid.
The business I love has put a lot of good people on the street and left behind a lot of empty buildings. I love it anyway, and so do the people who came by the paper Thursday, not so much to say goodbye to the old building but to say hello again to one another. I did most of the best work of my life with those people, and had most of the good times I’ll ever have, and met the woman I married. Newspapers can break your heart. But I’ll let it be broken every time for what I got out of the deal.
After three hours or so, the old building emptied out, except for the people who still had to put out the news. Alix and I walked through the revolving doors and out of 600 South Tryon, probably for the last time. But the party wasn’t quite over. Some folks had arranged to meet at a bar around the corner. We went to spend a little more time with our newspaper friends, a little more time, just a little more time.