Sometimes newspapers make the news, not just report it. So it was this morning when the News & Observer reported that its owners were accepting proposals to sell the N&O's landmark building in downtown Raleigh.
Other tidbits could be found in the story: The N&O now employs about half the number of people in the downtown building as it did in 2008. The Charlotte Observer is also considering selling its downtown offices.
All of this reminds us of the sad state of American newspapers. All — or nearly all — have sharply curtailed staffing. News isn't being reported. The newspapers' heft is a fraction of what it once was. Classified advertising is almost completely gone. Fat newspaper profits ("a license to print money," it was said) have dwindled. Esteemed newspapers have found their real estate more valuable than their business. The Washington Post has sold its iconic headquarters, lovingly reproduced in the movie "All the President's Men." Now North Carolina's largest papers are looking for real estate developers to give them an infusion of cash they can no longer get from advertisers.
I've been in the N&O building in downtown Raleigh a couple of times, never able to figure out the labyrinthine layout. I'm more familiar with the Charlotte Observer building. In 1970, the summer I interned at the Observer, the big, modernist building was half built. The production department and presses had moved into the new facility. News was holed up across the street in offices that had housed a fraternal organization. One of my jobs, as the lowest on the department's totem pole, was to run "copy" — the typewritten paper news articles — across the street, where each letter would be typeset in lead for the gargantuan presses.
Later, after I had resigned as editor of the Danville Register, I talked to the city editor and editor in the expansive newsroom one Saturday morning about possibly working for the Observer. Nothing came of the interview, but I saw the newspaper office completed nine years after I had couriered paper into the building, which had become a downtown landmark.
The sad state of American newspapers has been recognized since the sudden collapse began about 10 years ago, but the sale of newspaper real estate clarifies just how low once-great newspapers have sunk. Downtown real estate is the seed corn of journalism, the monuments to once-powerful empires now up for sale like an empty Kmart.