Ragtime — Reflections on the Columbus Ledger-Enquirer’s history on 12th Street and its historic move (Columbus and the Valley Magazine, January 2015)

by Jim Lynn

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Ragtime —
Reflections on the Columbus Ledger-Enquirer’s history on 12th Street 

By Jim Lynn

Every day at 10 a.m. Every single weekday, Fairy Lee Hunter would polish the brass stair rail that led from the entrance of the Columbus Ledger-Enquirer building to the second floor newsroom. We would bound past her, often two steps at a time, those of us in our 20s and early 30s, wondering fleetingly why she polished the railing every morning.

No time to ask, though. Deadline! There was typically a rush to grab one of the glowing, green terminals with their loudly clacking keyboards before someone else did. In the pre-PC, pre-newsroom layoff days, there could at times be more reporters than terminals. Planners threaten to widen 13th Street through Wynnton! Shenanigans on the Phenix City Council! Speed traps in outlying counties! Fort Benning gets a new commander! Carlton Gary is charged! Mayors promise riverfront development will happen “soon”!

But every day, Hunter, an older, African American woman wearing a crisp blue and white uniform, would smile and continue her methodical polishing. Gone were yesterday’s fingerprints and smudges like yesterday’s papers, replaced with an impeccable shine for a new day and new deadlines for the afternoon Ledger and the morning Enquirer. Turning the flight of stairs, a large window let in sunlight that seemed to set Hunter’s handrail ablaze. Outside the window, an American flag on a pole mounted above the entrance would catch the breeze.

There was a lot of pride in that stair rail. A lot of pride in that building, and in the work that was being done over the decades at typewriters, then terminals, then computers. Patterned on a bank building in central Florida, the 1930, Mediterranean-styled structure features a weathervane that always points to “NEWS,” no matter which way the wind blows.

When the Ledger-Enquirer decided to abandon its historic, signature building last fall, it followed the path of many papers (and eventually probably almost all papers) in realizing that history and tradition are esoteric concerns when the industry itself has been upended. As the dust settles from the internet upheaval and new business plans take shape, publishing companies are seeing that they can no longer support large staffs and hulking buildings that roar at midnight when multi-story, four-color web presses hit full speed on the day’s news. The Columbus paper left a noisy, rambling 170,000 square feet for 17,000 in the non-descript Hardaway Building across Broadway from the Rivercenter.

“It’s more efficient and just smart business,” publisher Rodney Mahone said of the move. “This has provided big expense savings, as well as capital avoidance. It allows us to focus more strongly on the heart of what we do, providing quality local news and information in our community.”

In a trend that’s now roughly five years old, papers in Atlanta, Macon, Philadelphia, Detroit, Des Moines, Miami, Seattle, Fort Worth, Newark, Washington, Ann Arbor, Durham, Birmingham and many other communities either have or are looking to move out of traditional newspaper buildings and into smaller, less expensive office space. After all, you really only need a place to plug in.

Mahone is right. The moves make perfect business sense, say those who watch the industry. “It’s terribly sad to see the Ledger-Enquirer now moving out of its longtime home, but I don’t imagine the owners have much choice,” said former editor and journalism school dean Tom Kunkel, now president of St. Norbert College. “With a much smaller staff and production operations, it doesn’t make financial sense to occupy and keep up so much valuable real estate.”

This spring, the entire block from Broadway to Front Avenue will be dramatically altered, in some ways returning the footprint to an earlier era. Columbus State University, the block’s new owner, will raze the 42-year-old, six-story tower on the corner of Broadway and 12th Street. The production building to the south will be demolished as well. All that will remain is the original, historic structure, plus some adjoining space along Front Avenue.

The complex will become home to CSU’s College of Education and Health Professions and its roughly 2,000 students and faculty. Tom Helton, the university’s vice president for business and finance, says the historic building will be renovated and used mostly for meeting rooms and offices. New construction, which architecturally should complement the existing structure, will fill in the rest of the block toward Broadway and provide classroom and lab space. Construction and renovation should be completed in time for the start of classes in the fall of 2016.

Ed Sprouse, the elder statesman of Columbus legal and civic life, says the changes make the best of a new reality.

“I think that the facility was just more than was needed for a newspaper that is printed elsewhere and an editorial staff that likewise has been reduced,” he said. “The good news for the community is that the facility will continue to be utilized in a manner that will increase the number of people in Uptown, expand activities and preserve – I hope – the historical character of the building.”

Moves like the Ledger-Enquirer’s do make sense for the balance sheets. But the changes and the downsizing of newspapers risk an impression the institutions are playing less of a role in a community’s social and political fabric. The challenges facing newspapers have been well chronicled. The industry has struggled mightily with remaking itself after the double whammy of the 1990s – the growth of the internet and its bias toward free content, plus the damaging Wall Street demands for double-digit, year-over-year growth.

Some, like Birmingham, Huntsville and New Orleans, are not even publishing every day. Even the venerable New York Times has eliminated more than 300 positions in the last six years. It’s inescapable that marquee buildings do make strong statements, and here as around the country, no longer do large, downtown edifices speak loudly that HERE IS THE NEWSPAPER, an institution that was every bit as much a force in town as the local government, banks and churches.

The simple truth is, however, that running a business trumps the ego of having large, landmark buildings. “It’s a symbolic step back from newspapers’ traditional role as anchors at the center of their towns,” said Rick Edmonds, who tracks newspaper trends for the Poynter Institute. Echoing Kunkel and others, he added that “no one can really afford keeping up those sorts of appearances when they only need half as much space as they used to.”

It gets down to having to spend money on things that matter, Mahone says. The move “will save several hundred thousand dollars. More importantly for us, though, we’re able to be in a modern facility that is designed for our current needs. It also allows us to focus on journalism rather than fixing old pipes or maintaining manufacturing spaces that we won’t ever use.”

The challenge for papers like Columbus is to retain that institutional force in a new, online, more competitive marketplace. In 1996, barely 6 percent of Columbus residents used the internet, according to a Knight-Ridder study. Most simply yawned. Efforts to start Mercury Center, the chain’s first foray into online publishing, were slowed when the executive leading the team said there “really isn’t much appetite” for an online newspaper and admitted he was having trouble getting to the task because of his role in getting out the daily San Jose Mercury News, the Columbia Journalism Review reported. Today, not 20 years later, newsprint seems quaint. Even PCs seem quaint when most of us get news on our “devices.”

The 12th Street and Broadway complex, substantially renovated in 1988, appears worn from lack of attention, somehow an obvious metaphor for the transitions in the industry itself. Paint peels and fence posts crumble. Vines grow up one corner. Employees say they’ll be thrilled to move on to a more modern newsroom in a building that’s better maintained.

But like the brass stair rail, a lot of memories will remain.

Wars declared and won, the ascendance of Fort Benning, the growth and decline of cotton and textiles, scandal in Phenix City. Consolidation, the rebirth of the Springer, the death of a mayor in a plane crash, the construction of a developmental highway named after him. A peanut farmer from down the road takes up residence on Pennsylvania Avenue. The actor who sent the peanut farmer packing comes to town. Columbus gets its first Walmart. A mother slays her family with a .357 Magnum and stares at us blankly as her child’s body is lowered from a second-floor window. Pearl Harbor and 9-11. Three museums are rebuilt. A space shuttle explodes. A space science center opens. A teen night club opens and closes. Teen-aged prostitution on Broadway and a hidden tent city of homeless people. A never-ending discussion of differences north and south. Magnet schools. The Olympics. A new civic center. Whitewater.

The flow of history and civic discussion through the “12th Street Rag” now comes to a stop. The building “represented stability, solidity, financial success, and all the fabled journalism that’s been produced in that city through the decades,” said Kunkel, an editor who actually did scream “stop the presses!” when the Challenger exploded.

But the newsgathering adventure never stops. Founded by a politician named Mirabeau Buonaparte Lamar in 1828, the Ledger-Enquirer now makes a historic move and faces the challenges of a new era, of remaining a successful “media company” in an age when the newsroom has a leaner staff and no presses to stop, and when the internet and mobile apps make a deadline of every minute.

Jim Lynn is an independent journalist and a former Ledger-Enquirer reporter and editor. Richard Hyatt and Jill Tigner provided research assistance.

“A moving van moves people and furniture but it can’t load up memories. I’ll never forget the afternoon I went inside that building for the first time. They gave me a test, I met several folks for the first time, not knowing I would spend an important chunk of my life at 17 West 12th Street, a place where I actively worked for 36 years. I changed titles and positions but never my profession for it was in that old building where I found my soul as a writer and practiced my skills as a reporter. Like so many others, I came to love that building with the beautiful cupolas and dingy stairwells. Inside of it, I laughed and cried and struggled against endless deadlines and pushy editors. But no matter what happened the night before I knew that it would be worth it all when those presses swirled and another miracle hit the streets. Some of that magic is forever lost, but the miracle continues and those emotional moments will still be found at a new address.”

– Richard Hyatt, author and journalist