A Newspaper's Decline, Writ Large
A photo essay by photographer Will Steacy chronicling the decline of the Philadelphia Inquirer's newsroom has gotten a lot of attention in the last week, with articles in Paid Content and Wired. The pictures focus on individual employees and workspaces in the last days of the paper's residence at 400 N. Broad Street, a.k.a. the "Tower of Truth," its home since 1925. All operations moved last year from the iconic Beaux Arts office tower to a single floor in a former department store downtown.
I remember visiting that newsroom as a grad student in 2001. The place hummed with activity as editors and reporters worked among massive white columns, impressive balconies and high ceilings in the recently-renovated space. Legendary names in journalism strode the halls of the Knight-Ridder news empire's flagship paper. Just before last year's move, a shoestring staff ushered out the last Broad Street edition amid dirty carpets, denuded fixtures and piles of broken-down office supplies, some of them still sporting bumper stickers saying things like "Democracy Depends on Journalism."
The move is only the latest stage in the gutting of what was once considered by some America's best newspaper. In 1989, near the tail end of a string of 17 Pulitzers in 15 years, Philadelphia Newspapers Inc. (which included the Inquirer and tabloid Daily News) employed an editorial staff of 721. By early 2012, the number of newsroom employees was down to 340.
Of course, it took way, way more than editorial operations to publish a newspaper in those days. The Inquirer's footprint—both as a provider of jobs and physically, on the city's grid as a major industrial concern—was huge. As it happens, we at North American Publishing Company have perhaps the world's best view of the old Inquirer complex from our offices on Spring Garden Street in Philadelphia. From our back windows one can see the grand edifice topped with a clock tower whose chime was a daily part of my work experience until a few months ago; the massive former printing plant (now headquarters of the School District of Philadelphia), the right-of-way and bridges for the abandoned rail line that brought in huge rolls of paper, a parking garage and various outbuildings that once housed and serviced delivery trucks and other facets of daily operations.
Mostly empty now, a proposal is afoot to turn the whole area into high-end condos, hotel rooms and shops abutting a casino. Time marches on, and for better or worse, what once housed reporters, pressmen, drivers and sales teams may one day employ an army of service workers. Hopefully there will still be a local paper to place in the lobby.