Watching the worthless watchdog


Former newspaperman Jim Hopkins does an outstanding job of keeping tabs on the evil empire of journalism, aka Gannett Corp., through his Gannett Blog.

Gannett is the largest US newspaper publisher based on circulation and its properties include USAToday, the Greenville (SC) News and WLTX-TV in Columbia, SC.

Long before other media chains began putting profits before journalism, Gannett was gutting franchises, chopping jobs and making a mockery of the established traditions of the Fourth Estate.

Hopkins, however, has been shining a light on the nefarious workings of Gannett since January 2008, much to the displeasure of the chain’s bigwigs, used to doing as they pleased without interference. 

One can just picture the addle-minded corporate bean counters at Gannett clenching the fists in impotent rage as they peruse Hopkins’ reports, unable to quash the flow of bad news his blog uncovers on a daily basis.

One of Hopkins’ secrets is his strikingly strong network of Gannett employees, willing to feed him information and documents, reminiscent of Cold War-era Russians willing to subvert the hated Soviet regime by passing secret information to the outside world.

In this post here, for example, Hopkins does an outstanding job of assessing Gannett’s current and future position, and it ain’t pretty.

The sad thing is, Hopkins’ blog is necessary because Gannett has long made a career of utterly obfuscating any negative news about itself. Bad circulation numbers? Sweep them under the rug. Accused of questionable advertising practices? Bring in the lawyers and have everything sealed. Wholesale employee turnover? Ignore it completely.

The watchdogs need a watchdog and that’s what’s Hopkins is doing, and doing well.

People unclear on the concept


Here’s a marketing concept that may not have been thought out completely.

AAA Carolinas is expanding its ad campaign warning drivers of the dangers of distracted driving with …. billboards!

In fairness to AAA Carolinas, the organization is focusing on warning drivers about the possible consequences of driving while using a cell phone or texting, but wouldn’t throwing up a giant billboards that seeks to catch a driver’s eye also prove distracting?

Perhaps the idea is to add more realism, as in, “Hey, look at that dolt over there. He just looked away from the road at one of our billboards, lost control of his car and plunged down a ravine, to a fiery death. Don’t be like him!”

Subtle, yet effective.

Remembering the 1915 Pan-Pacific Expo


The San Francisco Chronicle has a fascinating collection of photos from the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition.

The Pan-Pacific Expo was a world’s fair held in San Francisco to both highlight both the completion of the Panama Canal and to showcase the city’s recovery from the devastating 1906 earthquake.

For many of the millions of visitors from around the world who attended, the fair represented their first opportunity to see such technological marvels as the airplane.

The fair was constructed on a 635-acre site in San Francisco, along the northern shore now known as the Marina.

Among the exhibits at the Exposition was C. P. Huntington, the first steam locomotive purchased by Southern Pacific Railroad. A telephone line was also established to New York so people across the continent could hear the Pacific Ocean.

The Liberty Bell traveled by train on a nationwide tour to and from Pennsylvania to attend the exposition. After that trip, the Liberty Bell returned to Pennsylvania and would not be moved again.

What we don’t need – more government help


What is about legislators that when they get together they have to “do something?”

Cafe Hayek has an excellent post that ponders four different provisions – one, two three, four – that individually are each bad in and of themselves, and collectively disastrous.

All are part of the stimulus bill passed by the House Wednesday.

As Russell Roberts puts it so eloquently: “Any one of these would be a bad sign. All four in the same day? As each legislator and Congressional committee and the Fed and the President try to help improve the economy (or bail out a favored constituency) the stress on the whole system grows. Every once in a while I think we can come out of this mess. On a day like today, I start to think we’re going to have a profound economic collapse.”

If Congress wants to do something good for this country, it ought to quietly sit on its hands. If Americans knew the real cost involved when their elected leaders got involved with “fixing things,” they’d gladly pay them to do as little as possible.

Some banks opting out of bailout program


While the list of banks participating in the federal bailout program continues to grow, a small number have reconsidered, concerned about what they perceive as hidden strings and potential government interference, The Associated Press reports.

About 20 banks so far that applied for or had been approved to receive about $1 billion combined in taxpayer money have reversed course in the past month and refused to take the money, according to The Associated Press.

“The government’s going to own a good portion of these banks,” David Heintzman, president of Stock Yards Bank & Trust in Louisville, Ky., told The AP. Heintzman’s bank recently turned down $43 million in approved bailout money.

In SC, a number of institution’s have received bailout money, including The South Financial Group, SCBT Financial Corp., Congaree Bancshares, Tidelands Bancshares, Security Federal Corp., First Financial Holdings and First Community Corp.

A complete list of institutions that are participating in the US Treasury Department’s Troubled Asset Relief Program can be found here.

Congaree shares fall 80 percent, to $1


Apparently, shareholders of Congaree Bancshares didn’t take the news of founder and CEO Hank Ray’s departure as a good sign.

On Thursday, just a little more than a full day after Ray’s resignation from the Cayce, SC, bank company became public, Congaree’s stock fell 80 percent, to $1 a share. In fairness to the company, only 200 shares of stock were listed as being traded on Wednesday.

That’s a precipitous decline from the $10 per share investors paid to buy into the company during its inital offering, in 2006.

Congaree State Bank, like most financial institutions, has had a rough go of it in recent months. For the quarter ended Sept. 30, the most recent available, it lost $430,533, compared with $482,990 for the same period in 2007, according to Securities & Exchange Commission filings.

However, it’s not unusual for new banks to post losses during their first couple years of operation.

Earlier this year, the bank received $3.3 million in federal bailout money.

Ray’s last day with the bank was Jan. 21, but the departure wasn’t announced until Tuesday. No reason was given for the change. Ray was replaced on an interim basis by Charlie Lovering.

Charleston Harbor to be mapped for war wrecks


One of the nation’s last great unexplored battlefields will soon be a little less mysterious.

The SC Institute of Archaeology and Anthropology at the University of South Carolina has been awarded a grant from the National Park Service to map the wrecks hidden beneath Charleston Harbor, according to The Charleston Post and Courier.

State archaeologists will use a $28,000 grant, part of the American Battlefield Protection Program, to begin mapping the shipwrecks and torpedoes left behind after the War Between the States.

The information will be used to protect the wrecks from dredging and development, and give historians a more complete scope of the site where the conflict began, a harbor that endured a years-long blockade, the paper reported.

Among ships in the harbor

  • The Keokuk, a 677-ton Union ironclad allegedly buried in the sand off Morris Island;
  • The blockade-runner Mary Bowers, a side-wheel steamer that sank off the Isle of Palms late in the war; and
  • The Patapsco, a Union Monitor-class ironclad, sunk by a Confederate mine in the channel between Forts Sumter and Moultrie in the final months of the war.

Interestingly, the Confederates at one time knew exactly where the Keokuk lay. Working at night over the course of three weeks, they managed to extricate the ship’s dual 15,700-pound Dahlgren guns.

Once ashore, one Dahlgren was mounted at Fort Sumter and later moved to Battery Ramsey at the eastern end of White Point Gardens in Charleston. It was either destroyed somehow or sold as scrap after the city’s evacuation.

The other was mounted at Battery Bee on Sullivan’s Island and was used to guard the harbor until the evacuation. It was eventually abandoned by the Confederates and one day overturned, where it was buried in the sand near the beach.

In 1898, the gun was found by troops stationed at Fort Moultrie and a year later it was mounted on The Battery, where it can be seen today at the corner of East Bay and South Battery.

AgFirst president holds hope for industry


Andy Lowrey, president of Columbia-based AgFirst Farm Credit Bank, believes that while Southeastern farmers are facing an uncertain future, the industry is in better shape than many others, according to a detailed interview that appears in Southeastern Farm Press.

Agriculture is in the eye of this financial hurricane, the South Carolina banker told the publication. At the end of 2008, short-term investments are there for agriculture. Long-term investments for agriculture or virtually any other area of industry are just hard to come by, he said.

“Fortunately agriculture is in a stronger financial position tha other sectors of U.S. industry, but we cannot dodge all the financial bullets created by problems in housing and other segments of the financial industry,” he said.

The Farm Credit System was created in 1916 to give rural America better access to credit. Now, the organization is split into 12 regions and is owned by more than 400,000 farmers.

The Farm Credit System is in great financial shape compared to other banking institutions. Short-term there is plenty of money. Long-term the outlook is not so bright, Lowrey said.

“We used to have multiple financial institutions bidding for our business. Now, we are lucky to have three or four we can depend on,” he added.

Lowrey told Southeastern Farm Press that most of the financial problems in the agriculture sector are tied to home lending and can be laid at the feet of the U.S. Congress.

“Fannie Mae set out to increase home ownership in the U.S. from about 60 percent to over 90 percent. In the background, Congress was involved urging higher home ownership. When home lending got an AAA rating, banks and pension funds got involved,” he told the publication.

“Everybody thought home prices could not drop by 20 percent, but they did — and more in many areas of the country. They should have taken a look at farmland prices — in 1980 farmland prices climbed and everyone was saying land prices would never go back to 1970’s levels. By 1987, farm land prices were well below 1980 levels,” he said.

For this year, short-term financing for a crop in the Southeast is still realistic for most farmers, Lowrey believes. Most of AgFirst’s customers who needed $250,000 to finance a crop 2-3 years ago now need $350,000-$400,000 for the same size operation, he said.

“Long-term, buying a farm or making multiple equipment purchases, as farmers move from one crop to another, will be increasingly difficult,” Lowrey contended.

“I visited with 20 farmers recently and all agreed they are going to put off making input purchases, especially fertilizer until the last minute. If this happens on a big scale, supply problems will be a big issue. Sometimes wait-and-see may be wise, but not healthy,” Lowrey stressed.

“The current recession is likely to be long and protracted, but not very deep. It is likely to persist most of 2009. Going into 2010, I think the economic recovery will be slow, but steady,” Lowrey said.

“Consolidation of financial regulators is likely to happen in the future. This is not good for agriculture because most bank regulators know little or nothing about the business cycles that drive agriculture,” he added.

Speaking at a recent agricultural meeting Lowrey said in closing, “Of all the dire things I’ve said about our economy and our financial situation, by far the most frightening is that, going into 2009, the financial universe is in Washington D.C.”

When isn’t yet history


Historical re-enactors tend to belong to close-knit groups that attempt to recreate aspects of past historical events or periods, and strive for authenticity and accuracy whenever possibly.

In SC, re-enactments can be seen at a variety of locations on a regular basis, such as Cowpens (scene of the 1781 Revolutionary War battle), Columbia (recalling the Federal devastation of the Confederate city in 1865) and Aiken (site of the 1865 Confederate victory).

Re-enacting isn’t just an American pastime, either. Last weekend, about 4,000 people gathered near the Russian village of Nikolskoye outside St. Petersburg to watch a re-enactment of the battle that led to the breaking of the Siege of Leningrad during World War II.

At least 350 participants, dressed in original Soviet and German military uniforms, staged a 40-minute battle to mark the 65th anniversary of the end of the Siege on Jan. 27, 1944, according to The St. Petersburg Times.

A real German T-4 tank, a Soviet T-34 tank, 45-mm antitank guns, an armored vehicle and a truck were used in the battle, which simulated the repulse of the Germans from Leningrad, as St. Petersburg was then known, by Soviet forces.

However, due to the massive human cost and the relative recentness of the battle, this re-enactment had a much rawer feel to it.

The Siege of Leningrad, which lasted just under 900 days, was one of the longest in human history and cost more than 1.5 million lives. The city’s residents were reduced to eating leather, glue, rats, wood and just about anything else they could find. Hundreds of thousands starved.

As the Times’ story relates, the Siege left an indelible impression on its survivors:

“Valentina Sysoyeva, 81, a survivor of the Siege, who attended the show, said she was ‘moved that young people still remember about the tragedy of the Siege.’

“Sysoyeva was 13 when the Siege began. She said her most dramatic memory of the Siege was dragging a sled carrying the body of her 15-year-old sister, who had died of starvation.

“We buried her in a huge deep mass grave where coffins were stacked on each other four rows up,’ Sysoyeva said.

“Sysoyeva said she only survived by begging for food.

“After my sister died I felt such a great desire to live, and then I like many other children went to beg from military men. They always shared their food with us,” she said.

“Alexander Kruzhkov, 73, who also survived the Siege as a child, said he came to Sunday’s re-enactment with his son and grandson.

“I still can’t hold back the tears when I remember cutting a tiny piece of bread into several parts for my brothers. Our parents had died of starvation by that time,’ Kruzhkov said.”

Credit unions belly up to bailout buffet


The Wall Street Journal is reporting this morning that the Federal Government is now moving to bail out the credit union network.

“In the latest effort to prop up a sector of the finance industry, federal regulators on Wednesday guaranteed $80 billion in uninsured deposits at the powerful institutions that service the nation’s credit unions,” the paper reported.

The paper added that the vast majority of the nation’s credit union’s are considered financially sound. Some 90 million Americans are believed to hold accounts at credit unions, which reach into virtually every community in the nation.

Meanwhile, The Obama administration is developing proposals to help rescue the banking system that could cost taxpayers much more than the $700 billion bailout Congress already has approved, according to The Associated Press.

“Details are still being worked out,” according to The AP. “But the administration will likely propose spending hundreds of billions more to address the foreclosure crisis, guarantee against losses on some bank assets and expand liquidity programs, according to people with knowledge of the discussions.”

Yes, this is going to end well.