Building changes hands, but legacy of great journalism endures

Philadelphia Police Headquarters Move
The former home of the Inquirer, Daily News, and at 400 N. Broad in a 2007 file photo.

When the news broke Wednesday that the former home of the Inquirer, Daily News, and would become headquarters for the Philadelphia Police Department, it transported me back to that grand white tower that still dominates the corner of Broad and Callowhill Streets. To many of us who worked there in the three newsrooms, the business offices, and, at one time, the mail room, the pressroom, and on the loading docks, it also was known as the “Tower of Truth.”

When I first entered the building one warm afternoon in June 1972, what I discovered was that a beautiful building on the outside was antiquated on the inside. Four uniformed operators ran the elevators; a little shop in the lobby sold cigarettes, cigars, candy, and magazines. On the fifth floor, home of the Inquirer newsroom, there were dull gray desks clustered tightly together and, in the background, the rhythmic tapping of typewriters and the clacking of news-wire machines amid the haze of cigarette smoke.

Despite a long-term, gradual decline in circulation, the newspaper industry in the summer of 1972 — thanks to highly lucrative advertising revenues from department stores and classified ads for employment, cars, and real estate — was profitable and robust. Outside on Broad Street, one of the city’s tallest police officers stood at the intersection of Broad and Vine — this was before the Vine Street Expressway was submerged below street level — and directed an unending stream of traffic. On the southwest corner, a newspaper vendor hawked the Inquirer and Daily News, cackling to passersby emerging from the subway, “Whaddaya read! Whaddaya read!”

When I joined the staff as an assistant to Pulitzer Prize-winning economic columnist J. A. Livingston, the Inquirer and Daily News were owned by Knight Newspapers, an Akron, Ohio-based newspaper group known for its commitment to public-service journalism and the highest ethical standards. Knight later merged with Ridder Publications to create Knight Ridder, a publicly held corporation that once was the largest newspaper group in the United States.

I worked in that cramped, grungy, collegial newsroom for 19 years, and I savored the experience. I then spent two more years working in the publisher’s office on the 12th floor, which had once served as the office of Walter Annenberg, the former ambassador to England and the owner of the Inquirer and Daily News. Our newsroom was transformed in the fall of 1972 when Gene Roberts, the national editor of the New York Times, arrived to take the helm. A laconic man who spoke with a North Carolina drawl when he spoke – Roberts often intimidated staffers with his prolonged periods of silence – he came to Philadelphia with a wealth of journalistic experience that gave him immediate credibility. He had covered agriculture in rural North Carolina, the maritime beat in Norfolk, labor in Detroit, and the civil rights movement and the Vietnam War at the New York Times. He recognized excellence in his staff — reporters, editors, and photographers alike — and he gave them the latitude and the support to pursue their dreams.

Those dreams often were the seedlings that produced great stories — journalism that would make a profound difference in the lives and work of the Inquirer’s readers, their community, and the nation. When Roberts arrived, the Inquirer had never received a Pulitzer Prize. By the time he left in the fall of 1990, the newspaper had amassed 17 — for stories about questionable use of IRS audits; a near meltdown at the Three Mile Island nuclear plant near Harrisburg; criminal violence by Philadelphia police during the administration of Mayor Frank L. Rizzo, onetime police commissioner; and many more. After Roberts’ departure, the Inquirer added three more, including a Pulitzer for public service for stories about violence in the city’s public schools. The Daily News, Philadelphia’s aggressive, irreverent, and feisty tabloid, which also occupied the Tower of Truth, took home three of its own Pulitzers, including groundbreaking investigative work on allegations of misconduct by narcotics officers.

So as I contemplate the metamorphosis of our longtime home, I know that what will endure for those of us who toiled there and those who read our work is the excellent journalism produced over the decades — stories that made a difference — and the lessons taught and learned by generations of dedicated journalists.

William K. Marimow, Philadelphia Media Network editor-at-large and vice president, received two Pulitzer Prizes for stories about police misconduct.