Sale of newspaper building in capital city is fresh evidence of sad times for the industry

The former offices of the Tallahassee Democrat in Florida's capital city, seen on Dec. 20, 2020. The paper's owners have sold the structure. Credit: Michael Moline/Florida Phoenix

In a world where the spread of COVID-19 controls much of what we do, it also seems to be adding to the problems facing many hometown newspapers.

The Tallahassee Democrat, a newspaper established more than 100 years ago, is moving out of the nice brick building where it has been housed since the late 1960s. They are looking for new office space to rent once the pandemic is over, but editors say the remaining staff will continue working from their homes until then.

The Democrat announced the sale of the building in November but has not identified the buyer who reportedly paid $4.3 million for the property, which is next door to a Tallahassee Ford dealership. Documents confirming the sale have yet to be filed in Leon County.

Editor William Hatfield says the entire staff has been working “virtually’’ to protect their safety since the COVID pandemic broke out in March 2020.

The Democrat, now owned by Gannett Co. Inc., is only the latest in a series of papers to sell their real estate. Similar sales have occurred all over the nation as newspaper owners raised operating capital.  Once the Democrat started printing the paper at presses in Panama City, they had no need for the space occupied by printing press operations.

Several newspaper bureaus in Tallahassee are also abandoning downtown office buildings as cost cutting measures. Most of their offices have been sitting empty since March while reporters worked from home, a move that has led a number of papers to make “working from home’’ a permanent situation.

The Florida Press Center in downtown Tallahassee, as seen on Dec. 20, 2020. Credit: Michael Moline/Florida Phoenix

The Tampa Bay Times and Miami Herald are among those with staffers who have been working from home. They will soon make the practice permanent and move out of offices in the Florida Press Center building, which once bustled with reporters in every office.

The Times sold its main office building in St. Petersburg several years ago and operated out of rented quarters in the building until COVID chased everyone home. The paper is printed at a different location.

Several major papers that have reporters working in Tallahassee have offices in other buildings around town. The Florida Phoenix, an online news operation, has retained offices in the Press Center, but a number of other news tenants have closed their doors.

Working from home is the new model. Caused at first by the spread of the virus, it is quickly becoming the new norm for many reporters and photographers. Distant editors no doubt see it as a way to save money in a business that is seeing less home delivery of papers and more publishing online.

It has happened all over the nation as even the biggest newspapers have encountered reduced circulation of a print product, sold buildings, and increased online circulation.

During the 55 years I have worked for news organizations, I have often worked from home — not because of a virus, but due to the fact that I was sometimes the only employee in the area I was covering.

Former staffers at the Democrat have been remembering the good times of the past in posts on Facebook and Twitter. After News Director Jim Rosica posted pictures of the empty office building earlier this month, former staffers expressed sadness over the sale of the building and the move.

“In all fairness, the building was too big for the amount of staff we are now,’’ Rosica replied. “Once we stopped printing the paper on site, there was really no more reason to stay there.’’

Many former staffers have happy memories of the paper’s past.

“That building got 27 of my best years, from 26 to 53 years,’’ noted photographer Mark Wallheiser.

Former Editor of Editorials Mary Ann Lindley praised the “really good journalism’’ of the past, but noted it is now “on the backs of an intrepid small number of journalists.’’

“I’m so thankful for their dedication to this vital freedom,’’ she said in a Facebook post.

Carrol Dadisman, former publisher of the Democrat, still lives in Tallahassee and subscribes to the paper.

“It makes me sad,’’ Dadisman said last week when asked about the latest turn of events at the Democrat. “But everything that is happening in the news business makes me sad. It’s melancholy to me, but it’s a fact of life. I’m just glad some national papers will still be around.’’

He worries about the future of small-town newspapers where there is no other source for news. Dadisman worked for the Democrat from 1980 until his retirement in 1997.

Working from home seems to work for some, but I worry about the loss of collegiality that is usually present in newsrooms. The ability to talk face-to-face with editors and other reporters and photographers is a valuable part of news gathering and writing. Working alongside other reporters and editors means you are always learning something new.

I fear that freedom of the press is quickly losing something vital withall this moving around.

Lucy Morgan
Pulitzer Prize-winner Lucy Morgan was chief of the St. Petersburg (Tampa Bay) Times capital bureau in Tallahassee for 20 years, retiring in 2006 and serving as senior correspondent until 2013. She was inducted into the Florida Women’s Hall of Fame and the Florida Newspaper Hall of Fame. The Florida Senate named its press gallery after Morgan, in honor of her two decades covering the Legislature.