Jim Jenkins

Jenkins: N&O is more than just the building ...

A scene from The News & Observer newsroom on election night in May of 1960
A scene from The News & Observer newsroom on election night in May of 1960 News & Observer file photo

News item: The News & Observer building property at Martin and McDowell Sts. has been sold to a local development group for $20.2 million. Newspaper employees will stay in place as renovations begin. The move comes as McClatchy Newspapers divests itself of buildings and other publishing companies do the same to raise capital in a time when staffs are smaller and less space is needed.

After 29 years, sometimes I still have to ask directions. The News & Observer building is a sort of labyrinth, which is what happens when work sites more than 100 years old are changed, added to, rearranged, renovated, remodeled, painted ... and people move around. Advertising was here, now it’s there. Editorial was on the third floor. Now it’s on the second. Where the hell is the copier?

And so it has fallen to me to call up some memories of the place, as one could say a new era is about to begin. I’m sure you’ll see, in the coming months, other mini-memoirs about the building from those who worked in advertising, circulation, the business office and at the great Raleigh Times. All have made tremendous contributions: Without the yeoman efforts in those other departments, we’d all be doing something else, and we know it.

For my purpose, though, I’ll confine myself just to the News & Observer editorial and news operation.

I thought about how to start: If these old walls could talk ... maybe not. But if they could, most of the words coming out of them, at least in the newsroom, would have four letters.

The business then, when I signed on part time while in college more than 40 years ago, was full of raucous, profane, disheveled, chain-smoking, intense, smart and righteous people.

They didn’t care much about money. They thought what they did was important. They loved not just to question authority, but to get in its face and make it sweat. They had no use for arrogance, no tolerance for self-important politicians or pipsqueaks who thought they were important because they worked for the politicians. They called all their bosses, their editors and their publisher, Frank Daniels Jr., by their first names, and it would never have occurred to Frank or his successors to expect anything else.

The newsroom then was full of paper and smoke and beat-up desks, some of them surplus from the U.S. Army and others with smudged, fake-leather tops. Chairs were of no particular vintage or style. And noise ... good God, the clatter of typewriters and chattering wire service machines and the yelling was deafening. The place was full of characters: one intense guy would kick chairs across the room; another would fall asleep (or fake it) to annoy a screaming boss – daily; trash cans would catch fire from a cigar ash; on occasion, a punch would fly; the jokes were quick and as dirty as they get. Authority was barely tolerated: A new reporter came in on his first day in the early 1970s to find he didn’t have a desk, so a veteran colleague said, “I’ll take care of it, kid” and stood on top of his own desk and screamed to no one in particular, “Get him a *&%$# desk, for God sakes!” A desk appeared.

Today, computers hum softly. The newsroom is as quiet as a bank. There are no shouted dirty jokes; there’s no smoking, no screaming, no chair kicking. Throwing a punch would put someone out the door.

The building? Well, in trying to conjure memories of it over the years, anticipating modest new digs months from now, it comes to mind that it hasn’t been about the building at all, though readers do associate us with the window-blinds headquarters on McDowell St. Change may throw us off a bit, and perhaps some of you, too.

But it’s been about all those righteous people, so many great ones: Gene Roberts, who became an admired civil rights reporter before becoming the best editor of his generation, including a stint as managing editor of The New York Times. Simmons Fentress, Saigon bureau chief of Time magazine at the height of the Vietnam war. Pat Stith, investigative tiger. Woodrow Price and Bob Brooks, managing editors. Dwane Powell, editorial cartoonist for 30 plus years and my office mate for many.

People. They cared about what they did and still do. They worked long and hard and still do. They were honest and tough and no matter what anyone said or says, always wanted to be fair and still do. They had egos and still do. Their advertising colleagues heard complaints from clients about stories or editorials, and bless their hearts, still do.

But they were righteous people, and still are, people you were proud to know and still are proud to know. The building has framed their story, but they wrote that story. And still do.

Jenkins: 919-829-4513 or jjenkins@newsobserver.com