Ode to a pile

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The photo above is about the best thing that can be said about 30 S. Prospect St., the Gazette’s home from 1957 until today. The slightly elevated perch on a hill near Memorial Park gave the place an enviable view. Indeed, this image is pretty much the thumbprint of Colorado Springs, and it served as the Page One flag for years.

Of course, this being a building constructed and expanded by newspaper operations people, all of the windows were installed on the east side of the building. One had to climb onto the roof, or better yet, eat lunch in the top-floor cafeteria of the adjacent Penrose Hospital, to take in this million-dollar view. Only the photo desk, appropriately enough, had a window looking in this general direction, and even that view was largely obstructed. Perhaps now, as the Gazette decamps for office space downtown, the staff might be afforded a few more glimpses of the mountains.

The most unfortunate aspect of the old pile was its location. Built on a moderate grade next to Shooks Run, it’s about the last place you’d want to erect a manufacturing plant that spews ink by the barrel: On a hill, next to flowing water. Most newspaper printing plants sit next to railroad sidings, so that boxcars of raw newsprint can snuggle up next to the building. Instead, 18-wheel trucks had to haul the 1-ton paper reels from train to Prospect, then back themselves down the hill and execute a 90-degree pivot to the Gazette’s loading dock. Employees had to give up on trying to enter or leave their parking lots whenever the big rigs were making deliveries. The grade of the lot forced the engineers to put the printing plant on concrete piers, so that at the very bottom of the building is not a concrete basement, but industrial-sized crawlspaces with raw dirt underfoot. Outside, the winter footing could be treacherous. I’m aware of at least one worker’s compensation claim due to a slip on the icy slope.

Over the years, the original one-story brick office grew upward and outward through a series of bolted-on mutations. At the seams, corners don’t always match squarely, and the pitch of the floor changes. Upstairs in the newsroom, the row of executive offices is suspended above the Prospect sidewalk. The floors in those offices are not insulated, and the windows are sealed with clear packing tape. The heating and cooling system couldn’t respond to rapid changes in the weather. When an arctic blast shattered a stretch of warm weather, the AC continued to pump cold air inside as the temperatures plummeted outside. Merely turning a dial wasn’t enough to even things out; someone had to climb into the gullet of the HVAC unit to bang on something.

The nightly start of the presses was announced with a flicker of the lights and the subsequent beeping of a hundred backup-power boxes under reporter desks. More than once during my time as editor, prolonged summertime power outages forced emergency meetings to plan for an emergency 8-page edition of the Gazette. The newsroom’s concrete floor was riddled with holes that had been bored to route power and computer cables. The newsroom remodel of the 1990s required cranes to insert the copy desk through the windows, while the news staff huddled in the photo studio, which had been converted into a makeshift bullpen during the renovation. The executive conference room never got an upgrade. The narrow room, where company leadership spent unending hours hammering out the franchise’s most important decisions, had slick wood paneling and tiny, high windows, giving it the feel of a 1970s suburban basement den. For a few months, staffers could conduct interviews in the “Tiki Room,” a windowless closet painted black and lighted by a single hanging bulb.

Not that the funkiness of the place really mattered much. You could give a newsroom the penthouse of the Plaza of the Rockies, and they’d have it looking like a frat house inside of a week. Newsrooms just have a gene for slovenliness, that’s all.

Yet, the Gazette newsroom at 30 S. Prospect was mesmerizing to me when I walked in for the first time, in 1987. It wasn’t much to look at then, either, nothing more than a collection of desks and file cabinets and green-tube terminals. What made it captivating was the energy. More than 100 people worked in that room, many of them shoulder-to-shoulder, and sharing the same computer tube. There was a hum and a rhythm to the room. It would start quietly at around 9 a.m., then peak between 4 p.m. and 6 p.m., then settle into a background noise until deadline. Eventually, only the voices of the sports desk and night-charge editor could be heard. To a newbie reporter, it was intoxicating.

During the next 24 years, I spent a significant chunk of my life in that room. More than once, my wife and kids brought Thanksgiving dinner to me, and to the skeleton staff, on duty that day. Once I spent a night at my desk, running a long series of multiple linear regressions for a package about TCAP (then CSAP) scores. I sipped some champagne at my keyboard on the day Dave Curtin won the Pulitzer. I tried to hold things together on the metro staff during Columbine, and in the newsroom on 9/11 — two days when I was holding interim editor positions. I made some very good friends, and learned a lot about journalism.

What made 30 S. Prospect obsolete wasn’t its age, but the fact that it had hollowed out. The layoffs began in 2006. The lower floor of the building was mothballed when the circulation and production staff moved to the main floor, where the diminished sales staff had plenty of space to offer. Today the news staff is less than half the size it was during the early 1990s, and there is no longer a hum in the wide-open newsroom. The presses have been shut down; printing has been outsourced to Denver. I think it will be good for the staff to move into tighter quarters downtown, to work in a room with some life and noise and commotion. Because it’s not about the place; it’s about the people.

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This is the last photo I took in the newsroom, late in 2011, after a staff discussion about the 2012 news agenda. I didn’t get the chance to turn these notes into a plan, but I was informed many months later that the notes were still there. No one had erased them.

That’s what made the room special. For the same reason, the next room will be just as special.

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4 thoughts on “Ode to a pile

  1. As usual my friend, you got this oh so right. Beautifully written. I declined the invitations to return to say “goodbye” to the old building. I didn’t see the point – it’s the people not the walls.

  2. We had our last newsroom trough in the old place today. You’re so right. Special, special people have come and gone in this oddly wonderful building. I have the -30- from the front of the building. Some newbies asked why I wanted a street address number but all the veteran journalists just smiled at the typed-copy designation for “-30- end of the story.”

  3. Well done, sir. I was there with you on 9/11, still probably the most surreal day I have ever experienced. No planes overhead, a crystal clear day, fears that Cheyenne Mountain would be attacked, cars lined up at gas stations and President Bush’s voice echoing down Tejon Street from the big-screen TVs in empty bars. And you are right, it was about the people. Some great journalists walked on that dingy carpet. They will again in much nicer digs.

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