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Newsroom of yore: Old cheese and a pile of leaves

DanaInfo=merlin.washpost.com+M2X00121_9.JPGAbove is the photo taken in April 2008 in the newsroom when The Post won six Pulitzer prizes. A personal point of pride: You can see this blog post author's father, Harry Shapira, his face all lit up, beneath the "e" in the headline's "yore."(Jonathan Newton/TWP)

After the maggot-infested cheese was discovered inside the famous columnist’s office, and after word traveled that a pile of crinkly leaves had been kept for years at the obituary desk, I had to see the mess for myself. It was earlier this fall and the Washington Post newsroom was being dismantled and renovated as part of the merger of our print and online staffs. I wanted one last glimpse of the grand old place, to see what I could learn from what we reporters left behind.

Our new newsroom is scheduled to be unveiled in the next few days, but back in September, I ventured into the gutted ruins of the old fluorescent-lighted room, now naked without its cubicles. It felt like a movie theater during the closing credits, the torn-up floor littered with reporters’ and editors’ artifacts like so many used popcorn buckets. Here are some of the leftovers I found scattered about: an 11-year-old, star-shaped plaque for editor Mary Hadar commemorating a journalistic achievement; business cards of literary agents in New York and Finland (yes, quite strange); a New York Times clip from January entitled “Web Passes Papers as a News Source;” years-old documents wrested from Prince George’s County through a Freedom of Information Act request; boxes of leftover copies of a book by Post reporters about the 2000 presidential election; an angry letter from a lawyer complaining about a photo that ran in the Metro section; an IBM Personal Wheelwriter typewriter; and a red beaded necklace with a figurine of a clown clutching a lobster.

IMG_0160.JPGAn editor's award, cherished but forgotten. (Ian Shapira/TWP)

IMG_0123.JPGThe gutted ruins of the old newsroom, about two weeks after renovation work began. I wanted to go swinging from the cables dangling from the ceiling but figured that move could damage the infrastructure and delay our long-awaited return to the newsroom--and produce a lasting injury. (Ian Shapira/TWP)

This used to be a quieter version of a Wall Street trading floor, where a sea of reporters, headphones over their ears, could be heard artfully cajoling sources or standing in clumps around a television monitoring a press conference or whispering in a hallway corner to a colleague about how it’s really just the business that needs fixing, not the journalism.

We're getting a new newsroom, but will it retain the same junky, homey feel? Will the eccentrics among us get to keep their fake palm trees, the towering mounds of old newspapers they call their "filing system," their decades-old collections of unopened mail?

I padded around the remains of the 1970s-era newsroom.

,DanaInfo=merlin.washpost.com+M1X00238_9.JPG Woodward and Bernstein, with Ben Bradlee. (Mark Godfrey)

There was the counter where Bob Woodward placed carton upon carton of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream when he edited the paper on weekends. There was the place where we gathered each March to celebrate our share of Pulitzer Prizes, and there is where I used to hear national reporter Carol D. Leonnig elegantly badgering White House officials to talk straight.


,DanaInfo=merlin.washpost.com+M1X00233_9.JPG
Longtime Post reporter Helen Dewar. (James K. Atherton/TWP)

As I finished my tour, I found one last item that made me pause. It was a crumpled memorial service program for Post reporter Helen Dewar, who died in 2006 at the age of 70. Dewar covered the Senate for 25 years. The service’s speakers included former Post executive editor Len Downie, and the late Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, who was quoted on the program: “She was a true Washington reporter whose love of the Congress and determination to ask the right questions earned the respect — and occasionally the fear — of those she covered.”

Maybe someone had kept the program around for good karma, as a tribute to a classic gumshoe reporter. I stood there in the vast, emptied room, paging through the program, and then I put it back on the floor, beneath some dangling wires. It was fitting that Helen remain here, in some way, until the newsroom’s very last moments.

By Ian Shapira  | December 4, 2009; 10:27 AM ET
Categories:  The inside story  
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Comments

I'll miss the old place but not the mess.
Keep the presses rolling!
Ian's Dad

Posted by: hshap10042 | December 4, 2009 1:02 PM | Report abuse

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