Thursday, September 9, 2010

Our Dumb Newspaper

By Todd Morehead

The first paragraph I ever read in Columbia City Paper was a piece on Hurricane Katrina written by Corey Hutchins:

"You'll need gas cans, a reporter from Florida said over the telephone when we told him we were going to New Orleans. "And all communications are down, so you'll need a satellite phone. A chainsaw too. And a .38 Special in the glove box. Loaded."

We're bringing everything but the chainsaw.

It was the fall of 2005, City Paper's second issue, and the country was steeling itself for three more years of the Bush administration. Though it was four years out from 9/11 at that point, the national press still seemed anemic and stymied -at least to me. There was a literal ban on media showing images of military caskets. The press was worse in South Carolina. Though I have a soft spot for the other papers in town, about the only political commentary from the local alternative press at that time came from conservative blowhard Michael Graham. It was refreshing to me that two doofs from Columbia crammed themselves into a Nissan Sentra and drove to New Orleans to cover Katrina first hand for the second issue of a dinky 16-page alt weekly published out of a Park Circle apartment.

The rest of that issue was a rip-roaring jamboree through a typo-ridden mess of a paper that was rough around the edges, but had more balls than any publication in the Southeast at the time, let alone locally. Even the hipsters didn't know what to make of it. It was an unabashed experiment in absolute freedom of the press, the exact type of kick in the face that Columbia needed.  I put the issue down and contacted them immediately to sign on as a contributing writer. And it's been a rip-roaring, typo-ridden mess of an adventure ever since.

City Paper's early days involved dodging repo men, sleeping in the office, working day jobs to keep it afloat, and distracting the dock foreman at the printer so we could load papers in our cars and sneak away because we couldn't pay the bill (sorry State printing company). We got into public beefs with high-ranking state officials and low-level business owners, alike, and have had a virtual revolving door of ad sales people. A lawsuit or two even flared up (a middle finger raised prominently to any plaintiffs who happen to be reading). But, we figured it out on the fly. Slowly we began to turn a profit. Like a bacterium, the paper has continued to evolve and devolve, grow and shrink, but the renegade spirit of it --its core, at the risk of sounding melodramatic-- has remained intact. Just look at Paul Blake in the mustard yellow City Paper van, a sloshing 12-volt coffee maker duct taped to the dashboard, making deliveries on Thursday mornings and you can see that.

The following is a list of moments that pop out when I look back over five years. Maybe a story we broke or a particularly soul crushing bit of backlash from the community. Some of these events nudged the paper in a particular direction; others simply still give me a chuckle. To fans of the paper: we've got the spite and grit to keep this beast around for another five. We won't be buying retirement homes on Lake Murray anytime soon, but we've got everything we need. ...Well, everything except a chainsaw.

The Starr Report

In October, 2005 Paul Blake and Corey Hutchins reported on a sexual discrimination lawsuit against Harvey Starr, a department head in the USC Political Science department. The case, which alleged that female professors were paid less than equally qualified males, was settled out of court. Starr maintains his innocence and called the separate allegations of sexual harassment "all crap." The university reportedly paid public money to the plaintiffs to settle the case. The "Harvey Starr Report" put City Paper on the map, for good or ill, as a new source for investigative journalism.

Three Rivers Throwdown

Some people in town still blame City Paper for the demise of the Three Rivers Music Festival. It all started with a March, 2006 editorial by Paul Blake entitled "Three Rivers Music Fest: The Sound of Sucking." Blake questioned why a taxpayer-funded festival that continued to lose money could consistently retain monetary backing from city council. The answer, he asserted: Three Rivers festival director, Virginia Bedford, raised around $30,000 for councilwoman Tamieka Isaac Devine's campaign.

A string of records requests and nasty emails followed. We published one internal letter from Bedford to a festival organizer in a subsequent piece, entitled "Virginia Bedford, Annotated" in which she speculated about City Paper staffers: "Perhaps they were abused as children," she wrote. Classic.

The festival funding wasn't renewed the following year.

Howie Rich

City Paper was one of the first local print publications to report on New York-based political puppet master Howard Rich. In January 2006, Hutchins wrote a great piece revealing Rich's various LLCs and their contribution amounts to local campaigns, including Gov. Sanford's.

The Fire

In January 2006 an arsonist broke into Hutchins' house and set it ablaze. From what the FBI and other investigators could tell, it was in reaction to the paper. The national press picked up the story, decrying it as an effort to smother free speech in the Deep South. Which it apparently was. But, the event marked a turning point for CCP, even though the paper was only a few months old. Corey temporarily resigned which shook up the editorial structure. We collectively put our guard up, armed ourselves, and were paranoid for months afterward. Definitely a low point and a learning experience about the full-contact nature of journalism in Columbia.

Zesto's Deep Fried Fiasco

Speaking of publicity stunts, we got caught at the ass end of a collaboration between Zesto and WLTX in 2007. Expanding our distribution further into the wilds of West Columbia, we dropped an issue at the Zesto on 12th Street. The issue featured a risqué Perry Bible Fellowship comic and a rowdy ad for Five Points Tattoo. That's when, according to WLTX, the owner of Zesto "took a stand" for decency and called a TV news network instead of simply tossing the papers or asking us to distribute elsewhere. The news report painted us like Hustler, featured a little girl eating ice cream at Zesto (a shot filmed like an advertisement, in my opinion), and actually had an American flag waving in the background of a shot at the restaurant. We'd always thought of TV newscasters as subhuman counterparts, but that hatchet job took the cake. Another important learning experience.

The Scarborough Affair

Though we've designed cover art with blown-apart suicide bombers, a crucified Santa Clause, and naked blood covered strippers in Obama and McCain masks, the 2006 image of two Playskool toys engaged in a sex act to depict the illicit affair between a pair of state legislators created a distribution nightmare of epic proportions. The paper was banned from dozens of locations following that cover. But, censoring ourselves was a lesson we didn't learn. Instead of skimping on cover art, we simply added new locations.

Where the Heck is DHEC?

I first put DHEC in my sights starting in 2006 with a story on storm water runoff. Richland County had no storm water management system in place at that time and a USC student threatened to file suit against both DHEC and Richland County, citing negligence. The storm water issue came up again when DHEC awarded Wal-Mart storm water runoff permits for a questionable site in Ballentine and again in Florence. Once air quality permits were issued to the proposed Santee Cooper coal fired power plant, the battle was on. Two years after we started our ongoing DHEC reports, the State newspaper won various journalism awards for plowing much of the same ground. ...But we're not bitter.

The "Five Points Mafia"

City Paper's ongoing investigation of the various dealings of the Five Points Association has spilled into city hall, the pages of other newspapers in town, and the annals of Five Points infamy. It has driven some to tears, others to blind rage. Paul and I have actually been physically thrown out of two separate bars following our report on the FPA's use of hospitality tax funds for the St. Patrick's Day Festival and the thousands of dollars in "commission" payouts to FPA members for the event.

The result of our reporting: City Paper racks were banned from FPA board member establishments and board members, at the time of publication, called our advertisers encouraging them to pull out. "No chairs have been thrown at City Paper staffers yet," we wrote, "though [Duncan] McCrae did tell publisher, Paul Blake, to 'buzz off' at a recent meeting when Blake asked financial questions regarding the Five Points After Five concert series before another board member, Debbie McDaniel, told an attending police officer to 'get him [Blake] out of here!'"

Points for creativity go to McDaniel, who later wrapped a copy of City Paper around a toilet paper roll and displayed it in her shop window. That reminds me, FPA: don't you have an FOIA request to tend to?

Apologies, Martha Williams-Brice

We made a spectacle of the press box in your fine stadium. Though USC made some noise about revoking our press passes after a couple of incidents, we ultimately opted to cover football from the regular seats, in lieu of the bus station lobby feel of the press box. Hutchins' first visit found him tanked and accidentally wandering into Sanford's suite; Blake's behavior warranted a phone call from media relations to see if I had loaned my credentials to a homeless man; and the last time I covered a game up there with former "Wanna Bet" columnist, Pat Jablonski, he went overboard at the press buffet and clogged the toilet.

Tempted to apply for baseball credentials just to see what would happen...

Lott v. Phelps

We actually cleaned our apartments in anticipation of a police raid after Paul's editorial on Sheriff Leon Lott. The sheriff had threatened to arrest Olympic medalist, Michael Phelps, when photos of the swimmer smoking pot at a USC party surfaced online. Multiple people were arrested in connection. When several college students' careers were being jeopardized for what Paul believed was the sheriff's politicking, he grabbed a USC bong snapped a photo of himself with it and started typing one of the more savage editorial beat downs I'd read in a while. In the age of the blogosphere, contact journalism was still a hit even in South Carolina. And, thankfully, Paul stayed out of jail on that one.

The Running Man

For decades, independent political candidates like Joe Azar and Gary Myers have been ignored or marginalized by the mainstream local press. Last year, two candidates running for city council and mayor, respectively, were almost ignored completely. Our outside the box election coverage helped, I like to think, get them in front of constituents who not have heard about them at all otherwise. Grant Robertson actually won just under 42 percent of the vote in his bid for city council.

Carrie Allen McCray's last interview

City Paper had the honor of conducting, if I'm not mistaken, the last interview local author Carrie Allen McCray ever gave. McCray invited me and photographer, Sean Rayford, to her house for lunch to discuss the release of her biographical (actually semi-autobiographical) work on Ota Benga, a pygmy man who actually displayed alongside monkeys in a cage at the zoo back in 1906. McCray, then in her nineties, kept us transfixed with stories about how Ota Benga lived with her family when she was a child, before he ultimately committed suicide. One of the more fascinating lunches and interviews I've had the pleasure to conduct.

I have to admit, the publisher balked at the idea of me revisiting some of our older stories. "It just looks like," he said, "the middle aged frat boy that is still wearing a pink polo blathering on about his glory days and frat stunts at Snowden, while his beer gut protrudes and he sucks down frozen drinks at Dr. Roccos."

But, I disagree. I think it's nice to reflect on our early years. Especially since we're hitting sort of growth spurt and moving forward as an independent voice in the region.

"Yeah," he finally consented. "I guess it's better to reflect once every five years on dozens of great stories, verses writing one story every five years and then yammering on about how awesome our dumb newspaper is."   Thanks for giving me this one, Paul. See the rest of you in 2015!


  1. Well done CCP. I was sorta missing the Bey Report though.

  2. here: