Inquirer’s demise a sad reflection on state of print journalism

philadelphia inquirer sign

Anyone who has followed the print journalism industry over the past decade has witnessed its unmistakable decline.

Metro papers in particular have been hard hit as technology has revolutionized not only information distribution, but advertising, as well. The collapse of classified advertising coupled with the dramatic increase in online readership has resulted in the newspaper industry deteriorating precipitously in recent years.

Consider the Philadelphia Inquirer: 25 years ago it had 700 employees, dispatched journalists around the globe regularly to file stories and boasted daily circulation of more than 500,000.

Today, the paper fields barely 200 employees, has pulled back its coverage dramatically and seen daily circulation shrunk to a little more than 160,000.

“The Inquirer used to send reporters and photographers to South America and Africa,” said photojournalist Will Steacy, whose father was an editor at the publication and who has closely followed the paper’s decline since 2009. “They once sent a guy off to study the fate of the black rhino for six months. Now no story gets done that involves much more than a half-hour drive from the city. Otherwise it is mostly wire stories.”

As the British newspaper The Guardian notes, the Inquirer once had a reputation for both holding local government to account as well as breaking big foreign stories.

“ … it was the Inquirer that uncovered, for example, the full truth behind the OPEC oil blockade of 1973 that was causing panic in Philadelphia and beyond, by dispatching its reporters to examine the shipping lists of Lloyd’s of London and to interrogate dock workers in Rotterdam and Genoa,” according to The Guardian.

Today, in what is perhaps a sad reflection on both the industry and those that it serves, the Inquirer, at least based on its website traffic, appears beholden to lowest-common-denominator stories.

“The stories that receive the most clicks on,” Steacy suggests “are weather stories, celebrity stories, sex stories. I guess best of all is a celebrity sex story with a good weather angle… ”

The last bit fits all too well with musician Paul Weller’s wonderfully crafted line: “The public wants what the public gets.”

19th century farmhouse recalls fiery days of secession

Calhoun County 2015 035

Nearly 200 years old, the Keitt-Whaley-Pearlstine House sparkles amid the drab brown landscape of late winter in central South Carolina.

The large white two-story clapboard structure features six columns, first- and second-story porches, gabled roofs and touches of Greek Revival style.

Built in rural Orangeburg County, in what later became Calhoun County, near the Old State Road that ran from Columbia to Charleston, the structure’s interior features multiple fireplaces, some with hand-carved mantels with multiple cornices, according to the SC Department of Archives and History.

But for all the architectural appeal of the plantation house, its history is just as interesting.

Constructed between 1820 and 1825 for Dr. and Mrs. George Keitt, the Keitt’s son, Laurence, was born in the house in 1824. He would go onto become one of the South Carolina’s most ardent secessionists.

After serving in the South Carolina General Assembly while still in his mid-20s, Keitt was elected to the US House in 1853. He would be re-elected twice more.

Stephen Berry, writing in Civil War Monitor, described Keitt as the “Harry Hotspur of the South.”

“Keitt … was a Fire-Eater par excellence. Legendary for staging ‘pyrotechnic’ displays on the floor of Congress, Keitt paced his desk, scattered papers before him ‘like people in a panic,’ and pounding ‘the innocent mahogany’ until pens, pencils, documents, and even ‘John Adam’s extracts shuddered under the blows.’”

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Why ‘most corrupt’ title may not fit Mississippi

welcome to mississippi sign

Determining America’s most corrupt state is not unlike trying to ascertain history’s most prolific forger: In the latter, the counterfeiter too skilled to be caught remains forever unknown, while in the former, the most dishonest state is one that has tolerated and even declined to prosecute dishonest behavior.

That’s not the argument that Mississippi officials are putting forth to dispute a recent study that ranks the Magnolia State as the most corrupt in the US, but it would make sense.

Instead, Mississippi officials are arguing that the study by two public policy researchers – Cheol Liu of the City University of Hong Kong and John L. Mikesell of Indiana University – fails to take into account the state’s recent anti-corruption efforts.

The pair looked the rate at which public employees in each of the 50 US states had been convicted on federal corruption charges from 1976 to 2008 to determine which state was the most corrupt in the union, according to Fortune magazine.

They concluded that Mississippi had the highest ratio of public workers who were censured for misuse of public funds and other charges. The researchers looked at the hard numbers – federal convictions – to control for differences in spending on law enforcement and the rigor of state corruption laws, according to Fortune.

But Mississippi State Auditor Stacey Pickering argued in an interview with Fortune that the study relied on old data and didn’t take into account the state’s anti-corruption efforts.

Pickering contended that many Mississippi laws have changed since he took office in 2008, with the state legislature putting an investigative arm into the state auditors office.

What makes just as much sense, however, is the idea that truly corrupt states – think Nigeria, Liberia or Russia – simply decline to prosecute corruption.

It’s not unlike the purported actions of law enforcement in bad areas of certain metropolises, which, often at the request of politicians, underreport crime in order to either create a false sense of security or to give the impression that crime is declining.

Put another way, if every county in your state but one chooses to ignore speeding laws, is it fair to label the one that enforces the law – provided it does so justly and impartially – a speed trap?

Those caught speeding may not be happy, but that doesn’t mean the county following the rules should be singled out as the problem.

Does Mississippi have challenges? Yes. Is it the only one? No. Is it the worst offender? Probably not.

An unintended consequence of minimum-wage laws

Borderlands Exterior

Borderlands Books is a privately owned San Francisco bookstore that has been in operation for nearly 20 years.

Concentrating on science fiction, fantasy, mystery and horror works, Borderlands has overcome a number of challenges since opening in 1997: a 100 percent bump in rent in 2000; the trend toward online sales; the increasing popularity of ebooks; and the impact of the Great Recession.

Still, according to store officials, Borderlands managed to overcome each of the trials. In fact, last year was the best the store had enjoyed.

“At the beginning of 2014, the future of the business looked, if not rosy, at least stable and very positive,” Borderlands officials wrote on the store’s website. “We were not in debt, sales were meeting expenses and even allowing a small profit, and, perhaps most importantly, the staff and procedures at both the bookstore and the cafe were well established and working smoothly.”

Despite that, Borderlands recently announced it would be closing, by March 31 at the latest.

The reason? Last November San Francisco voters, out of touch with the realities of running a business, overwhelmingly passed a measure that will increase the minimum wage within the city to $15 an hour by 2018.

Borderlands Books as it exists cannot remain financially viable in light of increased minimum wages, according to the store website.

Unlike some businesses, bookstores are hindered in their ability to adjust for rising costs.

There’s a limit to how much a bookstore can increase book prices because publishers set prices. In addition, companies such as have siphoned off consumers from brick-and-mortar bookstores and made it more difficult to get them to pay retail.

In other words, adjusting prices upward to cover increased wage costs isn’t an option for Borderlands.

The change in the minimum wage will see Borderlands’ payroll jump nearly 40 percent. That will result in total operating expenses being bumped up by 18 percent. For Borderlands to offset that expense, it would need to increase sales by a minimum of 20 percent, which it doesn’t see as realistic.

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We can’t erase Pitchfork Ben, but we can learn from him

pitchfork ben tillman

For more than a century, Tillman Hall has dominated Winthrop University’s campus.

The three-story building, constructed in the Richardsonian Romanesque style, features a combination gabled and hipped roof configuration, projecting bay windows, and is highlighted by a clock tower with an open belfry.

The red-brick edifice was erected in 1894, during South Carolina Gov. Ben Tillman’s reign, and the structure was named for the Palmetto State politician, who would go on to serve in the US Senate, in 1962. Tillman was instrumental in the founding of both Winthrop and Clemson University.

Unfortunately for Winthrop, Tillman’s legacy hasn’t held up well under the scrutiny of history.

A virulent racist who worked not only to codify Jim Crow laws in South Carolina, Tillman personally advocated the lynching of blacks.

So perhaps it’s not unreasonable that a pair of former Winthrop students would like the Rock Hill-based school to consider changing the name of the structure.

However, Winthrop University officials have replied that state law prevents such action.

South Carolina law prohibits changing the name of buildings or monuments named for historic figures, Winthrop Board of Trustees Chairwoman Kathy Bigham wrote to former students Michael Fortune and Richard Davis in a letter this week.

In the letter, Bigham cites a South Carolina law that was passed in 2000 to protect war memorials and historic structures on public property. The law prevents anyone from changing the name of any street, bridge, structure or park that has been “dedicated in memory of, or named for, any historic figure or historic event,” according to the Rock Hill Herald.

Changing the state law requires a two-thirds vote of the General Assembly, the publication added.

Given that it’s difficult to get two-thirds of SC lawmakers to agree on what day of the week it is, it’s unlikely that anyone could gather enough support to rename Tillman Hall.

However, that doesn’t mean that Winthrop can’t use the building’s name as a chance to highlight Pitchfork Ben Tillman’s backwardism or how much damage his views have done to South Carolina over the decades.

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Independence movements around globe watching Scotland

With a week until the people of Scotland vote on independence from Great Britain, separatist movements around the world are watching closely.

“From Catalonia to Kurdistan to Quebec, nationalist and separatist movements in Europe and beyond are watching the Scottish independence referendum closely – sometimes more so than Britons themselves, who seem to have only just woken up to the possibility that Scotland might vote next Thursday to bring to an end a 307-year union,” writes the New York Times.

“A curious collection of left and right, rich and poor, marginal and mainstream, these movements are united in the hope that their shared ambition for more self-determination will get a lift from an independent Scotland,” it added.

The Telegraph reports that a record-breaking 4.3 million have registered to vote in Scottish referendum, the highest number in Scottish electoral history, and recent polls show the pro-independence movement gaining steam as the vote nears.

As of yesterday, the No campaign had a slim lead over the Yes campaign, 47.6 percent to 42.4 percent. But when the 10 percent who said they were still undecided were removed from the equation, the survey suggests that the Yes campaign would win, 53-47, according to The Telegraph.

The referendum is gathering attention around the globe.

“Busloads of Catalans, South Tiroleans, Corsicans, Bretons, Frisians and ‘Finland-Swedes’ are headed for Scotland to witness the vote,” according to the Times. “Even Bavaria (which calls itself ‘Europe’s seventh-largest economy’) is sending a delegation.”

“It would create a very important precedent,” said Naif Bezwan of Mardin Artuklu University in the Kurdish part of Turkey. Across the Iraqi border (or “the Kurdish-Kurdish border,” as Mr. Bezwan puts it), where a confluence of war, oil disputes and political turmoil has renewed the debate about secession, Kurds pine for the opportunity of a Scottish-style breakup, the publication added.

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Wine cup belonging to Greek statesman Pericles found

pericles cup

A wine cup believed to have belonged to one of the greats of ancient Greece has been found near Athens, according to published reports.

A cup thought to have been used by Classical Greek statesman Pericles was recently found in a pauper’s grave in the northern Athens suburb of Kifissia, the Greek newspaper Ta Nea reported.

The ceramic wine cup, smashed in 12 pieces, was found during building construction. After it was pieced back together, archaeologists were astounded to find the name “Pericles” scratched under one of its handles, alongside the names of five other men, in apparent order of seniority.

Experts are “99 per cent” sure that the cup was used by the Athenian statesman, as one of the other names listed, Ariphron, is that of Pericles’ elder brother.

“The name Ariphron is extremely rare,” Angelos Matthaiou, secretary of the Greek Epigraphic Society, told Ta Nea.

“Having it listed above that of Pericles makes us 99 per cent sure that these are the two brothers,” he said.

The cup was likely used in a “wine symposium” when Pericles was in his twenties, and the six men who drank from it scrawled their names as a memento, Matthaiou said.

Apparently, the youthful Pericles and/or his companions imbibed rather heavily on that particular occasion.

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