Hulking newsrooms good news for developers

A rendering of the new lobby of the Post-Dispatch building, which will become a home for the mobile-payments company Square.
A rendering of the new lobby of the Post-Dispatch building, which will become a home for the mobile-payments company Square.PHOTO: NYTIMES

ST LOUIS (United States) • The lead engraving of newspaper publisher Joseph Pulitzer's retirement message from 1907 has been removed, along with much of the rest of the interior of the St Louis Post-Dispatch's former headquarters in St Louis, Missouri.

The engraving will be replaced in the remodelled building with a version etched in glass.

But the newspaper has already moved to a smaller home in a nearby building owned by the Starwood Group, a developer and investment firm that has big plans for the old newsroom.

The block-long building in downtown St Louis is one of at least 15 newspaper sites in the United States that have been sold since 2012 as technological and advertising changes rip through the print journalism business.

Like the Post-Dispatch headquarters, many former newspaper sites are being redeveloped to appeal to 21st-century technology companies, urban home owners and even beer connoisseurs.

First, though, there is the matter of knocking away the past. "These buildings were not built as buildings - these are factories," said Mr Jim McKelvey, president of the Starwood Group, which acquired the Post-Dispatch site in 2018. "These are newspaper assembly factories."

His company was planning to spend around US$60 million (S$83.4 million) to remove walls and reconfigure rooms, like the one that once held a 30m-long printing press weighing up to 600 tons when fully loaded.

The overhaul is designed to create a modern office space for Square, the mobile-payments company Mr McKelvey founded in 2010 with Mr Jack Dorsey, chief executive of Square and a co-founder of Twitter.

Work is expected to wrap up in a year.

There is also the scrutiny that such redevelopment of often well-known buildings with protected historic status can draw.

The Onni Group, based in Vancouver, is redeveloping the former headquarters of The Seattle Times, an amalgam of Art Deco, Beaux-Arts and neo-Classical design that was built in 1931. The site is expected to become a project that will have 1,092 apartments and a grocery store by the end of next year. Onni bought the site in 2013 for US$29 million, two years after the newspaper moved.

"While attractive as infill development sites, sites like The Seattle Times that come with landmark or heritage buildings, as well as historic uses, always get more scrutiny and have additional city processes to manage," said Mr Duncan Wlodarczak, Onni's chief of staff.

Despite the challenges, newspaper headquarters present an attractive opportunity for developers.

Part of the allure harks to the pre-Internet days, when it helped newspapers to be near the centres of power they covered, like City Hall, police headquarters and financial districts. That often meant being downtown.

"Every developer says location. That's the case here," said Mr Johno Harris. His firm Lincoln Harris is behind the redevelopment of the 4ha former home of The Charlotte Observer in the North Carolina city's downtown.

These locations usually included vast amounts of space for loading docks, storage rooms and newsrooms for staff that tended to number in the hundreds.

That is all over now. The number of US newsroom jobs dropped by 25 per cent from 2008 to 2018, with much of the decline driven by losses at newspapers, said the Pew Research Centre. Consequently, the need for space has shrunk. Rather than hold on to the headquarters from a bygone era - and pay expenses such as property tax - publishers have unloaded their hulking buildings and regrouped on an often much smaller scale.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 15, 2020, with the headline 'Hulking newsrooms good news for developers'. Subscribe