Tuesday, March 6, 2007

Training in the exurbs

The address is 790 Township Line Road, Yardley, Pa.; the headquarters of Journal Register Co., the United States' 10th-largest publicly traded newspaper company. It's in a complex of offices in Bucks County, a far suburban area in what once was farm country between Philadelphia and Trenton. Today, the county has a population of more than 600,000, and has grown by more than 20,000 people in the last five years.

The building itself is identical to two others on either side, and reminds me, for some reason, of the anonymous, utilitarian office buildings that were thrown up around factories during the 1930s and 1940s.

Few of them still stand these days. People preserve beautiful buildings, but the purely functional have a tendency to disappear and be replaced by different architecture. Out there, in the greenfields where metropolitan areas have grown together, function may follow form.

JRC is listed on the New York Stock Exchange, publishes 27 daily newspapers and several hundred weeklies and shoppers, and runs a couple of hundred Web sites.

Yet the world headquarters of this company sits quietly, anonymously in rented space far from the bustle of the media world. The thick, glass doors off the elevator lobby are kept locked, and traffic is minimal. The site has a training room, but it's mostly just tables, a projector, Ethernet connections and a whiteboard. The Mac lab and the PC lab where I teach beginning writers and designers are more sophisticated -- and those are outmoded and need to be replaced.

The office itself seems to be mainly an accounting office; perhaps paying attention to the bottom line is appropriate for a company that's lost half its market value in the last year. The walls contain framed art -- but it's abstract, suburban vanilla office art. The only thing I saw that was specific to the company was the framed certificate that JRC is traded on the NYSE.

In the back room are a couple of stacks of framed images apparently moved from the old headquarters in Trenton. They seem to be images of newspaper plants and other industrial scenes. Putting them up on the walls has not been a high priority, and images of front pages? great journalism? I suspect no one thought of that.

Perhaps I'm just a romantic, but I'd expected life, buzz, excitement, ideas -- it's the media! What emanates from headquarters is ... nothing.

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