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A look into the new Charlotte Observer offices

Welcome to the new Charlotte Observer offices

Take a look inside the new offices of The Charlotte Observer, located in the NASCAR Plaza.
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Take a look inside the new offices of The Charlotte Observer, located in the NASCAR Plaza.

People are taking their desk lamps home.

One reporter was spotted wearing shades, indoors.

Others brought in binoculars, even a telescope.

Yes, there is just that much glass and sunlight inside the new Uptown headquarters of the Charlotte Observer.

In case you missed it, we completed our move last week, our first in 89 years. Our new address is 550 S. Caldwell St., a mere three blocks south of our former address at 600 S. Tryon.

But the setting is another world, all together. Our old place (the current building went up in 1971) was a massive factory with offices wrapped around and over it. The building and its outcroppings sprawled for more than a city block, housing huge presses, loading docks and enough underground storage for thousands of tons of newsprint, ink and lead.

Thanks to technology, we now produce and distribute our printed newspapers from a modern press facility inside an industrial park in University City. We also need fewer newspapers, since three times more people now read us in a digital format (3 million monthly) than in print.

So, as much as we cherish the memories inside our block-shaped building on Tryon, we’ve been overdue for a new environment that matches our growing digital reality. Most now experience us on a phone, tablet or desktop. Our greatest assets for the future are talented people, computers and software. And all fit nicely on three floors of a modern office tower in NASCAR Plaza.

We’re on floors 10, 11 and 12, occupying 68,500 square feet. But we’re also all over the community. Reporters, visual journalists and ad executives fan out across the region each day, working among you. They may or may not return to our new headquarters, now that they can send stories, videos and advertising orders remotely, using phones and iPads.

But inside the tower? It’s a very nice space.

Let’s start on Floor 10. The elevators open within our new lobby. You’ll find Cherri Foster there during business hours (8:30 a.m.-5 p.m.), weekdays. She knows how to find everyone else. Last week, Foster still sat among construction workers because this floor needed the most renovation to fit our needs.

Floor 10 will feature three conference rooms, a training room and a meeting room with seating for 75 that we call The Outlook. Here you get the stunning effect of floor-to-ceiling windows that wrap the entire building. This room offers a spectacular view of the city’s skyline. The sensation is about as close as you can get to being outdoors while still inside a building.

Floor 10 also has offices for Publisher Ann Caulkins, our divisions for Finance, Audience and Human Resources, Technology Support and the regional operations of the Associated Press.

The space is “just what we wanted and needed,” Caulkins says. “It is set up for the way we do business in the digital world. We made a large investment in the technology. Our new offices fit the needs of the media company we are today.”

Next stop, Floor 11. Here you find our Advertising division, as well as offices for our magazines: Lake Norman, South Park and Carolina Bride. Our vice president for advertising, Kelly Mirt, says his staff is thrilled to be in a new setting with both creative spaces and state-of-the-art technology.

That includes wide-screen monitors in every meeting room that toggle easily between presentations and live Google hangouts.

“It’s such a creative environment,” Mirt says. “Our people are in these fresh spaces, brainstorming and collaborating.”

Donna Robinson joined the Observer’s advertising division in 1981 when the former building was only 10 years old. Miss the old building? Sure, she said. But it was time for a change, and this is better.

“We came in here, and it is like starting all over again,” Robinson said.

On to the 12th floor, inside the newsroom. It’s not the top of the building (there are 20 floors), but plenty high enough to see much of this region.

To the west, low-rise apartments in South End. Jets taking off and landing at Charlotte-Douglas International Airport. Carowinds. Crowders, Spencer and Kings mountains. To the south, Cotswold, SouthPark. To the east, Elizabeth, Independence Boulevard. To the north, Charlotte’s spreading skyscrapers.

Kevin Siers, our Pulitzer-Prize-winning editorial columnist, works in a corner that lets him to scan the city’s skyline. He marvels at his natural light, and then some.

“I started out drawing for newspapers in the basement of the journalism school in Minneapolis,” Siers said, “and I often called my (former) Charlotte Observer office my cave, with the narrow gun slits for windows, and dark walls. Now I feel like I'm up in the sky, more of a falcon's nest, where I can look out my window over to the Government Center, ready to pounce on my prey.”

Inside, reporters are adding personal touches to cubicles. It’s the sort of stuff that amuses visitors to every newsroom: Checkered race flags, a dancing chicken, postcards, bumper stickers, crime scene tape. Reporter Mark Price tacked up a sign from our old lobby: “Escalator out of service. Please use the elevators or the stairs.”

Our food writer, Kathleen Purvis, was inspired to set up a telescope her son wasn’t using at home. It’s in position to magnify the giant video screen now visible inside Bank of America Stadium.

“We’re watching the planes go by,” Purvis said. She grins.“We hear there is a rooftop pool going in next door.”

But the biggest show on this floor is a newly installed “media wall” facing the news desk, the newsroom’s nerve center. This is our window to the rest of the world. Twelve 60-inch monitors aid our own reporting by providing 24-hour access to broadcasts, websites and social media.

That’s never been more important as we transition to a new era of journalism. We’re still committed to the in-depth reporting you rely on. But the Observer’s deadline once was a fixed point in the night. Now, it’s minute by minute. You need to understand news as it happens, through videos, live feeds and continuous updates. Our new workplace positions us to deliver on that, too.

Not that it wasn’t hard to say goodbye to our former building. Generations of Observer employees toiled endlessly there so all of us could grasp the perils of Brown Lung, the birth of the city’s professional sports, the scandal that was PTL, and the deceit that fueled our nation’s foreclosure crisis.

Their good works endure. And we aspire to add to them in this next chapter.

Reach Rick Thames at rthames@charlotteobserver.com, on Twitter @rthames, on Facebook (/rthames.obs), 704-358-5001.

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