I was hurrying on Broad Street in Philadelphia on April 22, headed to Temple University, when I happened upon a terrifying sight. It was early morning, with orange sunlight slanting in from the east. I hadn’t expected to come upon the former Philadelphia Inquirer office, an 18-story, off-white skyscraper that stretches upward like a church spire, topped by an imposing Romanesque dome. But there it was, a lifeless shell of its former shelf.
I was in the City of Brotherly Love representing the Press Club of Long Island at a Society of Professional Journalists regional conference. Clearly, the Inquirer needs a little love.
The paper once boasted a circulation of nearly 650,000 on weekdays and more than 900,000 on Sundays at its height in 1968. It’s still alive — thank goodness — but its circulation is a third of what it once was, according to Philadelphia Magazine.
Back in the day, journalists streamed in and out of the austere Inquirer building, which was constructed in 1924 with the clear intention of instilling awe in all who gazed upon it. The winner of 20 Pulitzer Prizes, the paper was — and, to my mind, still is — an institution.
As a journalist, though, it was a frightening to see the iconic structure, in the center of Philadelphia, abandoned, as it has been since the paper moved out in 2012.
I crossed Broad Street to check out the building up close. The exterior light fixtures were ripped out, likely the work of vandals. The massive front windows were coated with dust, with plywood sheets covering parts of them. Banners stretched across other sections of windows. Their words were so faded that they were no longer decipherable.
I stood thinking about this great newspaper’s having lost its home base of 88 years. Are we journalists losing the battle? I wondered. Has the public given up on newspapers, which have been the core of American journalism for more than three centuries?
No, I thought, people can’t give up on newspapers. They mustn’t.
Of late I’ve heard so much at newspaper conferences about how we journalists do an awful job of defending our profession. For decades, politicians, egged on by corporate lobbyists, have screamed of liberal bias in a continual campaign to discredit the media. President Trump has inflamed an already inflammatory conversation by labeling journalists enemies of the people. Yet journalists have done little to respond. We simply take it, believing our work must speak for itself. We needn’t defend ourselves. We needn’t promote the profession.
The Philadelphia Inquirer building tells us otherwise.
So here goes: Journalism — particularly newspaper journalism — is the glue that binds our democracy together. The founders wrote press freedom into the Constitution’s First Amendment for a reason: They understood that the press, now the media, acts as a check against government power — that is, against tyranny.
We mustn’t lose newspapers. Our nation would be poorer for it.
Imagine that there had been no Washington Post or New York Times to call out the Nixon administration’s malfeasance. Imagine that there had been no media on Sept. 11, 2001, to beam out on-the-spot information to help inform, and calm, an anxiety-ridden nation.
As much as Facebook and Twitter help us reconnect with long-lost family and friends, they also sow confusion, discontent and animosity. They are social media platforms. They mustn’t be confused with newspapers, which rely on discernible facts arrived at through the push-and-pull testing of information that, in many ways, resembles the scientific process. The modern notion of objective reporting, in fact, grew out of that process.
Journalists are a quirky, non-conformist breed that resist groupthink. Their essential job is to question authority. That is why they resist the very notion of a professional certification or license. They do not wish to operate according to government rules. They cherish press freedom.
I arrived a day early for the Society of Professional Journalists conference and spent the evening of April 20 wandering around downtown Philadelphia, through its vibrant arts scene and then east to Independence Hall, where the Constitution was signed in 1787, when the dignified red-brick structure was called the Pennsylvania State House. I peered at the Liberty Bell through an oversized viewing window and strolled across the massive green before it, and then returned on Market Street to my hotel.
Along the way, I stopped briefly in front of the humble, three-story row house where Thomas Jefferson drafted the Declaration of Independence in 1776. A block later, I came upon it: the Inquirer’s new office, in a building shared by the Philadelphia County Assistance Center. Its news ticker hung above a Century 21 department store, in the middle of “a dowdy collection of low-price chain stores, cheap eateries, high-security government buildings and surface parking lots,” as one Inquirer critic wrote in 2012.
Journalism might be battered, but it lives. It’s up to the people to support newspapers and ensure that they remain for future generations.
Scott Brinton is the Herald Community Newspapers’ executive editor and an adjunct professor at the Hofstra University Herbert School of Communication. Comments about this column? SBrinton@liherald.com.