Yes, being downtown matters to newspapers

April 30, 2018
Category: Newsletters

El Segundo, aka prime Silicon Beach, is indeed the new location of The Los Angeles Times, likely as of June.

Soon-to-be new owner Dr. Patrick Soon-Shiong is moving the newspaper once its lease is up at the building it has been in since 1935. A spokesman for Soon-Shiong said the move was necessary because of a large rent increase ($1 million a month more) that building owner Omni Group was requiring.

This impulse to build, buy a fancy building, or move a newspaper is a classic mogul move, in a pattern visible since the 19th century. In Omaha in 1865, George L. Miller, town booster and founder of what would become the Omaha World-Herald, built a newspaper building for a non-existent audience and population, the first brick building in the frontier boomtown. It’s why Colonel Robert McCormick built Tribune Tower.

So one can’t blame Soon-Shiong for wanting to restart and refresh with new digs. But don’t let the idea of a headquarters on the beach near Chef’d and Hopscotch with Snap a few miles up the coast fool you — the new L.A. Times building is more in LAX territory than it is tech-corridor beachfront.

And in this way, its fortunes recall The Miami Herald’s move from Miami’s downtown to close to the Miami airport. While The Miami Herald is adjusting and seeing the advantages of its new location, overall, it’s a mistake for newspapers to move from downtowns.

And while it’s too late to change where the L.A. Times’ new headquarters will be, it’s certainly worth thinking what’s at stake when a newspaper leaves downtown — and what this may mean for the L.A. Times.

Geography and place still matter to journalism, even in an age of virtual communication with Slack, Blue Jean and multimedia mobile journalists. How journalists do their work is affected by where they are, from the news decisions they make to the perceived audience.

If the “coastal elite” and “Beltway versus heartland” divides tell us anything, it’s that place — real, geographic, material place — matters to how the rest of the place-based storytelling in journalism proceeds. As I’ve been arguing, at least for the past five years and in forthcoming work, we need to reestablish the importance of thinking about place to journalism in the digital platform era.

And newspaper buildings matter, a lot, still. Where they are located — and the symbol that they project — makes a difference to their standing in a community.

Think about the difference a newspaper’s physical address makes.

Can news consumers find the building, or get there on public transportation? Even in large cities like L.A., that’s a lot easier to do if a newspaper is downtown.

Is that intangible and immeasurable brand visible to anyone looking at the city skyline?  

How does the proximity to journalists’ sources and one’s newsroom impact the kind of coverage that happens, even in an age of mobile journalism?

We need to think more about how the built environment — where journalists are and where they are headquartered — impacts the news they produce.

And the built environment matters too: as a proxy to power, standing, and influence that is fairly immeasurable. Insurance and banks were built of stone to symbolize lasting institutional heft; newspaper buildings, too, have been built to occupy a central space in anchoring a downtown — often, but not always, next to courts, city hall, government buildings, and civic institutions such as theaters.  

The L.A. Times’ building is a classic example of this, with Disney Music Hall, the courthouses, and city, state, and federal buildings within a stone’s throw. As a bonus, you can see the building’s neon sign coming into downtown on a particularly trafficked spot where highways converge and diverge.

Today, the location and size of a news company’s headquarters will tell you a lot about how it’s doing. If the building’s been sold, particularly a historic one, that’s not a good sign (Chicago Tribune). If a building is built afresh, like Bloomberg’s epic London headquarters, opened this year, or The New York Times’ 52 story building designed by a world-famous architect, it’s a show of certainty verging on tempting fate. Opening up new, bigger digs, particularly when it’s Jeff Bezos cutting the ribbon and the Secretary of State is on hand (The Washington Post) is maybe even braggadocio.

If the newspaper gets to stay downtown, even if it’s in an old department store (The Inquirer), above a transit center (The Plain Dealer), or a shared building in the city skyway system (The Des Moines Register), particularly if a building’s got the newspaper’s name on it (The Fort Worth Star-Telegram) — that’s still troubling but at least less of a call for desperation.

But if a newspaper moves out of downtown, that presents a different situation. The Miami Herald has moved from One Herald Square to an oddly zoned former military building (the U.S. Southern Command) near the airport and across from a cow pasture. It’s closer to Univision and cruise line headquarters, bunkered safely from any hurricane that may come to pass, but it’s certainly a pain to get downtown in traffic.

Nonetheless, moving out isn’t always a bad thing: Reshaping the newsroom physically allows for architecture to influence patterns of news production; and while many reporters are out in the field and photographers have often little semblance of any personal space, the newsroom is a place to direct coverage, enable editing, and now, shoot a lot of video.

Conversely, big old buildings have gone under-maintained, have poor lighting and slow fiber wiring under the floors, and even some freaky elevators.

So why make the case that being downtown matters? In interviews with close to 120 or more journalists on the subject, almost every single journalist, aside from maybe some in management, has argued that being downtown is critically important for branding and proximity to newsmakers.

Even today, court documents aren’t always digital. Press conferences with lawmakers are called at an hour’s notice. Being at meetings, trailing the accountable, a journalist as a body in a room as a reminder that someone is watching is exactly the kind of physical accountability that news industry observers worry is disappearing.

When it comes to Los Angeles, the city to an outsider may not seem to have a downtown or any real center. Arguably, there are at least two downtowns (Century City, downtown proper), and depending on your definition, dozens more, if one counts cities in L.A. County incorporated on their own terms, like Santa Monica, Culver City, Pasadena, Long Beach, Burbank and beyond.

So maybe a new headquarters with at least greater proximity to tech encourages some new kind of energy. (Though there’s an argument about modeling the burn rate of a tech company, too; all too many have invested in offices and perks only to have spent down too much of their early investment, and Soon-Shiong might want to think about that.)

But there is public duty for many newspapers to stay downtown, if not in physicality, then in heart and mind. It’s the same reason that Beltway versus heartland stuff causes so much strife — journalists, imagined as disconnected from the real problems facing real people, cloistered in their urban enclaves.

This is especially true if a newspaper’s headquarters are nowhere to be seen and hard to get to. It’s the opposite of news engagement, and distances the newspaper from the community, meaning coverage about it seems to come from a city institution with a voice from nowhere, at least in the geographic sense.

But the story of downtown L.A. is critically important, and The L.A. Times cannot forget its roots. Sadly, leaving downtown will make that easier.

Being downtown means that the public service mission of journalism, why this all matters in the end, is fresh on display. Steve Lopez, L.A. Times columnist and this year’s Pulitzer finalist, writes many of his best columns negotiating this sense of difference and disparity.

Downtown L.A. is where poverty is at its most acute. Despite all efforts to clean up downtown L.A., there is no real resolving L.A.’s Skid Row. The poorest of the poor in Los Angeles, the most down on their luck, and arguably, the sickest, live within spitting distance of The L.A. Times, often on the streets nearby during the day and moving blocks south to tent cities at night.

Being this close to the downtrodden, sharing these sidewalks, and then slipping off to indulge in post-work $17 cocktail grounds you as someone with good fortune. Watching with your own eyes the few single-occupancy, day-rate hotels left get snapped up by developers is a reminder that finding somewhere to sleep is not to be taken for granted. There are some indications that certain outposts of the newspaper will remain downtown (the city hall journalists, for example), but the bulk of the newsroom will be leaving.

Not everything about the move is a negative. Just as The Miami Herald is reporting a lot more about Dade County, The L.A. Times might get to do a bit more scooping of L.A’.s industrial and tech industries. Maybe this is a wealthy new subscriber base to tap, too.

The argument I’ve posed here about Los Angeles is a good reminder that the city is united in its own wacky post-modern way, regardless of what some might say, in residents’ obsession with arguing about geography, traffic, and debating if indeed, there is a center from which the city all begins.

But being downtown matters to journalism, and in L.A., it’s a critical reminder for journalists as a daily recall of why journalism matters and who it can help.

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