The room stretches half a football-field’s length ahead, it is dark and I am alone in it. Here and there, around me, are the telltale cigarette-tip-red dots and cool-blue glows of electronic equipment on desks, waiting to be switched alive. One can feel the thrumming of the HVAC system as it rolls fetid air through huge and dirty ducts that hover over the room from the low ceiling. It is a Saturday; we don’t publish a Sunday paper, so this, the newsroom, is abandoned. But, lately, it’s seemed abandoned even at the height of the day and the heat of the chase. A place that can accommodate maybe 150 workers – and once did – now is home to only about a third of that, and, what with varying shifts, there are times, especially at night, when there are so few people in the cavernous space, and all spread about like blindly sown seeds, that we joke sometimes that we could all carpool to work. In a Smart Car. With the latest buyouts and layoffs freshly sliced into our hearts, it is hard to believe that the few remaining reporters, editors and graphic artists will be able to put out a metropolitan newspaper on time every day. And it is, occasionally, hard to believe that we will exist long enough to get used to the new normal.
How long one has worked for this newspaper determines the ghosts one sees when one is here, in the quiet, in the dark. A newspaper, for its success, depends on the voice it projects, and the diversity of voices that appear on the pages. But the voices that readers don’t ever hear – the voices of the copy editors joking with each other and grumbling about the horrible stories they have to save, the voices of reporters on the phone trying to cajole facts from reluctant sources, the voices of clueless editors and administrators trying to sound sincere while mouthing corporate platitudes or uninformed and ill-used journalese – the voices that inform the decisions that end up as the words you read (if indeed you are reading them these days, which, of course, is the problem) are getting weaker and thinner, less assured, and are fading away. Some may not consider what we do in making newspapers as art, but there is an art to the smoothly functioning, at times inspired machine that drags raw materials from thin air, pounds them into shape and extrudes them out the door in a polished package. At some future time, in some museum, that defunct item we call a newspaper might be displayed in a case and looked upon as a work of art, the way Toulouse Lautrec’s posters, once commercial come-ons, are now seen. Maybe not. After all, they didn’t use his posters to wrap fish and line bird cages.
At times, in this room, I feel like Jonah, except that it is not a whale that I have been swallowed up by and am in the belly of, but rather a dinosaur. In fact, we in this business are dealing with conjoined dinosaurs: the print newspaper format itself, and the newsroom where it traditionally has been created. I won’t go into the decay of the daily, which is well documented elsewhere ad nauseam and is a perfect-storm confluence of misunderstanding, mismanagement, confusion and irrational exuberance about the digital realm. But what is also falling by the wayside are these grand newsrooms, once teeming with ideas and with colorful people full of those ideas. With so many folks rubbing up against each other, the friction often sparked exciting results: a critical mass of skepticism, cynicism, witticism and idealism. The newsroom went through evolutionary phases – from the smoky, feverish, wild and untamed “The Front Page” days to cool and distancing insurance-company-like corporate reinventions (some blame print journalism’s decline on the banning of indoor smoking, and the frowning upon by bloodless management of visible signs of alcohol misuse) – but it was always a place that could become a mess quite easily, piled high with handouts and food scraps, and swirling with contorted workspace and equally twisted personal relationships. But now, with reductions in the workforce, and the selling off of old newspaper office buildings, and the digital and mobile and work-at-home capabilities of the new enterprise, the vast newsroom, which often seemed like a cross between an asylum and Grand Central Station with desks, is a money-eating anachronism.
And, so, this room that I am in now, so appropriately and symbolically silent and dark – this basement space that once held mighty printing presses before they were moved to the suburbs and the bosses (whichever bumbling or sinister iteration of them it was at the time) decided to move the editors and reporters from some lofty floor in the building to this now unvacuumed mite- and mouse-infested dungeon – is to be abandoned before summer, slated to feel the developer’s work crew and ultimate conversion to a residential and retail-space future. We few, we unhappy few, we band of dysfunctional brothers, will be moving to a much smaller space in a building that itself is a relic of a gasping industry: the department store. Where once this news operation and all its attendant sales and support services took up 13 floors of an iconic structure known throughout the region, now two newspapers – once bitter sibling rivals, now sharing the same bunk bed – will be shoehorned into one floor that at one time might have been where one went to purchase lingerie. Irony upon irony: It is the demise of department stores, and loss of the big advertisements that they used to fill newspapers with, that is at the root of the financial collapse of big-city newspapers … and, now, the one invalid is inhabiting the other.
I am sure, considering the millions of dollars that are being tossed at this new workspace, that it will have fine lighting, fresh carpeting and all the modern amenities, and it will, by comparison, show the current place for the NIH-alarming germ-pit that it is. But it will, almost certainly, be another stop on the road to homogenization. With each successive modernization of quarters, the newspaper product itself has become concomitantly colorless. Clothes make the man; newsrooms make the paper. Once I worked for what was then called an “alternative” newspaper, a weekly that was created with somewhat less than the extension of journalistic excellence in mind; indeed, the owner – who also owned the town’s slick and thick and superficial city magazine – came up with the idea of this new venture because he wanted an advertising venue for those businesses that couldn’t afford the rates in his flagship publication. In other words, this new newspaper came into being solely for the publisher to snag the dangling dollars of low-rent operations; we, the writers and editors, were to be, from the get-go, mere filler. It’s always that way – publications are, first, businesses – but it’s rarely so blatant; there is usually the pretext of providing readers with exciting reading. At any rate, the owner gathered a staff, and this staff – snookered into thinking that they would be able to do something good – wanted digs that reflected their idea of the enterprise: an alternative paper should be in alternative offices. We wanted a loft someplace, with (this was decades ago) old standard typewriters, bare floors, brick walls, crummy lighting and the feel of gritty, old-timey journalism squeezed through a Village Voice-y filter. The only thing we didn’t think of was a Jolly Roger flapping in the breeze outside the offices, but that’s the atmosphere we wanted to work in and the image we desired to project. Instead, the owner spent lots of money to lease fairly fashionable space and to decorate it with the most neutral, cool, patrician accoutrements one could imagine. The newspaper, unfortunately, came out the same, and died an ignominious death. Lesson: Newspapers take on their surroundings, like camouflaging animals. Not that art can’t be made anyplace, but sometimes a certain kind of art needs a certain kind of place. Our new place may turn out to be too nice for doing what we do; journalists can be seduced by anything, even a free meal, and, subliminally, the workspace can be a seducer and defuser of creativity.
New owners of our paper have made all the usual noises about the future, and hope, and commitment, and hands-off integrity, and blah-blah. They have bought the product; they have inherited the plans for the move into the new, snazzier offices. We can’t stay here, in this big, long and barren room – it’s been sold out from under us by the previous owners – but, if the new owners had any sense, they’d keep us away from the new place, and find us some déclassé dump and let us thrive there. And we could pretend to be not the “information workers” we have been forced to become but honest to god newspaper people again, for as long as we have that privilege.