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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Jim Camden: Remembering when Spokesman-Review newsroom ‘security’ was our elevator operator

The Spokesman-Review building. (Spokesman-Review archives)
The Spokesman-Review building. (Spokesman-Review archives)

When I came to The Spokesman-Review in 1981, the historic newspaper building had no security to speak of.

The way to the newsroom was the same for anyone: Walk through the revolving doors at the base of the tower, past the marble and brass counters and either ring for the elevator or walk up the wide, open staircase.

The elevator had an operator, so in a sense that was our security, although Amy was about 5 feet tall, asking “Floor please” in a quiet voice to anyone she didn’t recognize, and “Passageway out, please” if the car was crowded when she stopped at a floor. Many people just climbed the broad wooden steps to the third floor and strolled into the newsroom.

All manner of people, from politicians to scoundrels – but I repeat myself, as Mark Twain would say – walked off the elevator and into the newsroom looking for a reporter, a columnist, an editor or the publisher. To see Mr. Cowles, they’d have to get past his secretary, unless she was at lunch, in which case people sometimes walked right into his office.

For a while, I had the newsroom desk closest to that office, with a full view of the elevator doors and the top of the staircase. I never worried about my safety. In fact, I never thought about it.

When the new building was constructed in the mid-1980s, and the old building renovated, they closed the big, open staircase because it was a huge fire hazard. It would act as a chimney should a fire start anywhere, like maybe a lit cigarette being dropped in a building that had no restrictions on smoking. The new elevators were automated with push buttons, and Amy moved to the lunch room until she was eligible to retire.

We still had no security speak of, and people regularly rode up the elevator and walked into the newsroom without any scrutiny. Jimmy Marks, fabled head of Spokane’s Gypsy community, regularly paid us a visit, sometimes to harangue us, sometimes to drop off a gigantic jar of the family’s pickled vegetables which were so hot they probably should have been registered with some agency.

People who were the subjects of unflattering coverage would come up to complain, sometimes loudly. An editor would listen up to the point where the angry person said “I’ll sue,” in which case the standard rejoinder was “Sorry, I can’t talk to you anymore if you’re going to sue. You’ll have to talk to the newspaper’s lawyer.” The editor would give them the law firm’s number and ask them to leave. I can’t remember a time when they didn’t.

Security gradually tightened over the year, particularly after our satellite office in Spokane Valley was bombed by white supremacist wackos. That wasn’t primarily because they hated the paper (although they did) but because the dipsticks needed a diversion so they could go rob a nearby bank.

Our ID badges got magnetic strips, and later chips. Our spouses and kids had to sign in at the guard’s desk instead of riding up to the newsroom, and people who looked the least bit suspicious – there are plenty who wander into a newspaper office, and some even with good cause – had to wait in the lobby until a staff member came down to vouch for them.

The last time I was back in Spokane, the newsroom was set off from the elevator and the rest of the building with glass walls and a door that’s always locked, operated by the chip on the ID card. That was a bit of a problem because I regularly left my card on the desk while stepping out to get a cup of coffee or to use the restroom. The editorial assistants who are stationed at the front desk were always quick to buzz me in, although sometimes with a smile that said “Old guys are always forgetting their key cards.”

I used to complain about the cards, and the walling off of the newsroom from the public. After the mass shooting at the Capital Press, I’ll still miss the old open newsroom, but won’t ever say a negative word about the new one.

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