Rob Christensen

Farewell, 215 S. McDowell St. – where The N&O always punched above its weight

The News & Observer building was built in 1956.
The News & Observer building was built in 1956. N&O file photo

The News & Observer building at at 215 S. McDowell St. was never much to look at.

It was a dowdy 1950s structure that had seen better days. The elevator was often on the blink. The cooling/heating system had a mind of its own. A few years back, when a big-time software executive visited, he supposedly declared: “What a dump!”

But oh, what journalism was produced in the 62 years it housed the state capital newspaper. Last week, The N&O officially settled into new digs on Fayetteville Street.

After 111 years on its Martin Street block, The News & Observer has moved into the heart of downtown Raleigh, a shift of just a few blocks that reflects the company's continuing transition from a traditional newspaper to digital news organization.

The N&O was in a seedy neighborhood when I started work there in 1973. There were no upscale bars and restaurants or luxury condos that we have today. But there were dilapidated hotels from a different era – The Carolina, the Park Central and the Andrew Johnson, complete with strip bars, hookers and bullet holes in the wall. After a late-night deadline, getting to your car in a surface lot a couple of blocks away was often a walk on the wild side.

Inside, The N&O looked different as well. The newsroom was filled with the clatter of typewriters that would rise to a crescendo as the early-evening deadline approached. At the shouts of “Copy!” teenage copy boys would scramble to put rolled-up stories into pneumatic tubes to be sucked down to the composing room.

Cut and paste was not a function on your laptop. Scissors and paste pots were essential tools on every reporter’s desk as paragraphs were re-arranged painstakingly by hand. A story that was killed was “spiked” — literally put on a spike.

There was a wire editor, a holdover from the days when faraway news came in via telegraph wires.

There were N&O old-timers who started work there in the 1940s. My boss, Bob Brooks, was a tough ex-Marine who still wore a fedora to work. One of my seat mates, the bull-dogged investigative reporter Pat Stith, spit tobacco juice into paper cups. The cops reporter usually had a cigar dangling from his lips. The women who took obituaries over the telephone were on prison work-release programs.

The staff was nearly all-white, and women reporters worked mainly, although not exclusively, in the features section, which was sort of a pink ghetto.

But The N&O, although it usually had a small, overworked staff, always punched above its weight.

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Talented reporters

The newspaper had seven executive editors while on McDowell Street. The best known were the first two – Jonathan Daniels, who was press secretary to presidents Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman and a prolific author; and Claude Sitton, the legendary civil rights beat reporter for The New York Times and later national editor at that paper.

While The Old Reliable was on McDowell Street, its staff won three Pulitzer Prizes and were finalists on several other occasions.

“The News & Observer stands out from most American newspapers because of its ambition and its execution,” wrote Leonard Downie and Robert G. Kaiser, in their 2002 book, “The News About The News.” At the time, Downie and Kaiser were executive editor and associate editor of The Washington Post, respectively.

There were so many talented reporters who learned their craft on McDowell Street — many of whom went on to prominent positions in journalism — that I wouldn’t dare begin to name them.

But there are a few names of people who worked there who might surprise you, including: Arthur Sulzberger Jr., who retired last year as publisher of The New York Times; James Bennett, the former editor of The Atlantic magazine and current editorial page editor of The New York Times; Gene Roberts, the former editor of The Philadelphia Inquirer and former managing editor of The New York Times.

Other McDowell Street veterans include Sir Harold Evans, former editor of The Sunday Times of London and former publisher of Random House, where he edited such writers as William Styron, Shelby Foote and Maya Angelou; Ben Sherwood, president of Disney-ABC Television Group and former president of ABC News; and David Barron, a judge on the First U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals who wrote a controversial memo justifying a lethal drone strike against a U.S. citizen while serving as acting assistant attorney general during the Obama administration.

Gentrification

The McDowell Street building housed not only The N&O but the afternoon newspaper, The Raleigh Times, which closed in 1989.

Two main wire services, the Associated Press and United Press International, also both maintained offices in the building before they opened their own offices.

The newspaper was owned by the Daniels family until 1995, when they sold it to McClatchy, a California-based chain.

The building had a Rube Goldberg flow to it, in part because the first floor was originally designed for parking. That changed when The Raleigh Times was purchased.

But the McDowell Street building was viewed by N&O old-timers as a big improvement over the paper’s previous office, on the same property, around the corner on Martin Street. That building lacked air conditioning, so doors were propped open and staff were greeted each morning with a fine film of dust and ash on their desks.

The McDowell Street building has been through a lot. A $4 million fire in March 1980 that was caused by a welder’s torch resulted in The N&O being published on the presses of neighboring papers. The soot could be found on files decades later.

The old N&O building will now almost certainly undergo gentrification, being turned into condos or apartments or offices, or even a hotel, by the new owners, a California investment firm.

Soon there will be nothing left of where countless journalists labored for a couple of generations.

Perhaps the new owners will open a restaurant – like the owners of the old Raleigh Times building did – and call it The N&O or The Old Reliable.

An earlier version of this column misspelled Judge David Barron's last name.

Rob Christensen: 919-829-4532; @oldpolhack
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