Buildings of record: Republic’s move stirs many memories

By Harry McCawley

I worked in three different buildings from 1963 to 2013 — two in Columbus and one in Franklin. All three buildings were built and used for a single purpose, to print newspapers.

All three are still standing, but none are producing newspapers as their end product.

I left my last newspaper building when I retired at the end of 2013. I had spent 42 years under its roof. I was there in the summer of 1971 when the first paper rolled off its brightly colored and clean press. That press and the unique space it occupied were taken away some years ago, but the building was still The Republic. That role ended earlier this month after the building was sold to Columbus Regional Hospital and the newspaper staff was moved to another building on National Road.

I had a personal attachment to all three buildings in which I worked for more than 50 years. I spent far more waking hours in each of them than I did in my places of residence.

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The first was the Daily Journal in Franklin. I was a few months shy of being a part of history when I reported for work in September 1963. The newspaper’s first edition was printed two months earlier that year.

It was a new building and it was revolutionary. The design by Chicago architect Myron Goldsmith literally opened the newspaper process to the public driving by on U.S. 31. Motorists had only to turn their head at a certain time in the afternoon and they could see newsprint whirring by on the unique offset press. The press was a departure from traditional printing methods with images that were to make up the pages of the newspaper transferred from lightweight plates to cylindrical mats and from them to the whirring newsprint.

The printing method was a gamble as was the expensive building in which it was conducted. The biggest gamble, however, was that a newspaper was being started from scratch and competing for readers against a half-dozen established papers in the area, including one that had been around for a century.

It was an exciting time in my career, easily the most exciting. The competitive nature of the situation increased the adrenaline of all who worked at the Daily Journal. I was single and spent very little time in the apartments in which I lived. Workdays often lasted more than 12 hours. I loved it.

I was at the Daily Journal only three years until I moved to Columbus in November of 1966 as sports editor of the Home News Enterprise flagship, The Evening Republican. It was a promotion but it was a bittersweet one. When I left the Daily Journal, the new kid on the block had established itself as a permanent presence in Johnson County. We were winning the war against our competitors and the handwriting was on the wall. Within a few years, the Journal would stand alone as the premier paper in Johnson County.

I was also leaving behind the remarkable building in which I started my career. The one into which I moved could charitably be called a dungeon.

The newspaper was called The Evening Republican. It would retain that political name for three more years. It was in a two-story structure at the corner of Fifth and Franklin streets. It had been built in 1925 to house the community’s principal newspaper.

I suppose it could have been considered innovative when it was first opened, but 41 years later (when I arrived) the building at 444 Fifth St. was a dark and confusing conglomerate of offices and work spaces. It was also loud and dirty.

The daily paper was printed by the letter press or hot type method. In contrast to the open nature of the press at the Daily Journal, the Evening Republican’s printing vehicle was squirreled away on the ground floor of the building. Its sound was deafening and the ink which was to be imprinted on the newsprint often wound up being sprayed on the concrete walls and floors, not to mention the clothes of the press crew.

The sound of the running press was but one of many that echoed throughout the building on Fifth Street. Upstairs in the production room, stories were put into type by clanking linotype machines. The type that emerged from the loud machines was cast in molten lead, each line about an inch deep and set aside to cool until individual stories were moved into trays and transferred to make-up tables.

Compositors worked with page trays, following “dummies” sent from the newsroom and picking up dozens of lines of lead type for placement onto their assigned places on the enclosed page trays. It was a convoluted and dirty process, but at the same time it echoed of professional creativity.

Stories were composed in the newsroom which neighbored the production department. The sound of machinery was quieter, but that quiet was often offset by the strident and loud voice of a desk editor yelling at various reporters. It wouldn’t be tolerated in today’s work spaces, but back then The Republic’s newsroom was largely limited to those who worked there. Visitors had to climb a steep set of stairs to get to the news department, and those who did make the climb were so used to the angry outbursts that they took them for granted.

The newsroom was not only loud, it was also dirty. Clutter was common on every desk, since visitors were so rare. Each desk also was equipped with ashtrays, often heaped with discarded butts. Most of us smoked at that time, especially during deadline periods.

I especially remember one day when I came into my cubicle and noticed that my brownish-tinted curtains were sparkingly white. I went into Editor Bob Marshall’s office and thanked him for the new curtains, to which he replied, “Nah, they aren’t new. They just washed them.”

Despite all its drawbacks, there was a certain homey atmosphere about the building on Fifth and Franklin streets. City Hall was directly across the street and I still remember mornings when our government reporter would look out the window to watch the mayor or other city official enter the building. Occasionally, he would open the window and yell a question down to the official instead of waiting to place a phone call.

Still, it was a dungeon, a fact that became abundantly clear on July 17, 1971, when we moved all our possessions into the “new” building on Second Street.

It was literally going from night to day.

Looking back on it from the vantage of all the technological advances that have taken place over the past 45 years, The Republic’s new home was something of an antique from the past.

For those who had worked at The Republic previously, the move was dramatic. Since I had been exposed to Myron Goldsmith’s designs and the offset printing method, it was a move back into a familiar home.

Stories were still composed on typewriters, but they were now electric, not manual. The press, like the one at the Daily Journal, was exposed to the public but in a much closer atmosphere. Pedestrians could stand on the Second Street sidewalk and watch the press in action only feet away.

Inside the building it was as if the press was not there, soundwise. It was separated from the neighboring composition room by a glass wall, and compositors could stand by that wall watching the press run but not hear a sound.

The press was also clean, the crew operating under dire warnings that it had to be kept that way every day. Cleanliness and order were not expected, they were demanded. I still remember memos from the front office reminding employees that notes or other material were not to be scotch taped onto any glass in the building.

There was an order to the traffic pattern for the building. Production moved from west to east on both the north side of the building (advertising) and the southside (news room) to the press and the conveyor bets which rolled the finished product into the hands of newspaper carriers.

We also used an overhead conveyor belt to transfer pages of typewritten stories from the newsroom’s copy desk to the production department. It seems primitive today, but back then it was something straight out of “Buck Rogers.”

Change came quickly. We began switching to an electronic editing system in 1976, five years after the move. The transition was fairly smooth because it was anticipated in the original design. Wiring and cables which would eventually connect individual terminals to the building’s central processing unit were laid in channels built into the floors during the construction process.

I remember that process well. Instead of bringing in an outside crew, Publisher Bob Brown took on the task himself, enlisting the company’s tech guy, Eddie Huston, and myself to do the grunt work. Since I knew nothing about electronics, I just did what Bob and Eddie told me, often wrapping myself in yards of colorful wiring and sometimes having to be disentangled.

I became the newspaper’s managing editor in 1972, and one of my principal duties was to interview and hire newsroom staff. I’ve often said that my main recruiting tool was the building in which those I hired would work.

I’ve been witness to numerous events relating to the building on Second Street but the most telling one was the day the press stopped running in the downtown office. The newspaper and its production demands had grown so great that the existing press was not up to the task. To move a new and larger press in was impractical because of the building’s constraints. Instead, the printing operations were moved to a new facility in Woodside Industrial Park.

The old press was sold and the press area was converted into space for the composition department and a new conference room.

The public noticed. Alarm bells went off. We fielded dozens of inquiries from people sure that the newspaper had gone out of business. The Republic still appeared each day, but something was missing — the piece of art that created it.

Despite that loss, The Republic building remained very much a part of the heart and soul of Columbus. I think that its prominent location in the downtown made it an even more vital part of the community than it had ever been. To so many people in this community, The Republic was “our newspaper.”

In more recent times, the newspaper industry has experienced an evolution. Today a good share of The Republic’s circulation is composed of people who read it online. It is a trend which will likely grow in the future.

Emotional though the decision might have been, there was a certain inevitability to the sale of the building at 333 Second Street. It had certainly happened before. Today, the Daily Journal building on U.S. 31 is owned by a neighboring business, KYB America. The Republic building at Fifth and Franklin streets is now the Columbus Area Chamber of Commerce. Next month, 333 Second Street will be the address for Columbus Regional Hospital offices.

I hope that all three buildings will continue to have one thing in common, that is that people will know that whatever their purpose might be, these buildings were once used to produce newspapers.

Harry McCawley is the former associate editor of The Republic. He can be reached at harry@therepublic.com.