Notes from Scene on Radio’s ‘Seeing White’ in 2017

Ahead of an Antiracist seminar that several coworkers and I are attending, organizer Kim Crayton recommended attendees listen back to the popular 2017 podcast season of Scene on the Radio ‘Seeing White.”

Though it’s several years old, I appreciated listening in greater detail and with fresh eyes. It’s as timely today as ever. Here I will share notes for me to return to, but I strongly suggest you listen to the entire excellent 14-episode series on “whiteness,” the historical construct of race and its implications today.

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Notes on ‘The Invention of News’ by Andrew Pettegree

The journey to get to professionally-verified information includes social, economic and political coursework. To share this journey, historian Andrew Pettegree focused in his 2014 book The Invention of the News heavily on the European development.

It is dense and comprehensive, at least in the continental sense. It’s been on my list for a year or so, and I finally dug into it, with pages of notes. Find reviews of the book in the Times and Guardian, and consider buying the book yourself. The book’s focus is between the years of 1400 to 1800, and it’s clearly written by a historian, rather than a contemporary media studies approach—I prefer this more dispassionate and distant view of the origins of an industry.

Knowing that printing had earlier roots in China, the book is decidedly Eurocentric. Still I would strongly recommend it to anyone as interested as I am in the foundation of media, news and journalism. Pettegree’s stance is that the industry of professionalizing information-gathering was a European concept, which is his focus. This was one of several books on early journalism foundations I’ve read in the last year.

Find my notes below.

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Note on “Reporting the Revolutionary War” from 2012 by Todd Andrlik

As Mark Twain put it: “History is the pale and tranquil reflection” of news.

Before the patriotic tales of heroism, there was urgent, partisan and divided reporting about the relationship between American colonists and the British crown. In his 2012 book Reporting the Revolutionary War, Todd Andrlik gives us a chance at seeing the events when there was nothing predetermined.

The book is heavily reliant on scanned copies of original source newspapers (both from colonial and English accounts), with some contextual interpretation from 37 historians. I recommend the book for a visual look at the fast-paced beat reporting the era. Below I share just a few notes that stood out to me.

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Our ‘tranquilizing drug of gradualism’

version of this essay was published as part of my monthly newsletter a couple weeks back. In its own way, it commemorates African American History Month. Find other archives and join here to get updates like this first.

Dr. King is likely the American thinker who comes to my mind more than any other. Not the populist who was culturally moderated over time into a convenient character for classroom posters. But the difficult and complicated and tortured man, the leader who was flawed and inspiring and masterful in so many ways.

When a MLK quote rattles in my head, it isn’t his iconic, if tired, classic: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” Pulled from its context, that’s always seemed to me to be too universal to stir. Instead, it comforts, and I’ve found always found MLK misunderstood when he’s seen as a comforting.

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The Americas were more populated than Europe at the time of first contact

The Americas were home to some of the world’s most complex and established civilizations in the world at the time of European contact.

As many as 100 million people may have lived in the Americas in 1491, far more than Europe. In the next century, an estimated 80 million of them died, largely because of diseases humans didn’t understand yet.

Though those estimates are still actively contested, a growing number of anthropologists, archaeologists and historians defend the concept that perhaps as many as one in five people on the planet died. It would have been the largest epidemic in human history.

That massive change in understanding pre-Columbian was chronicled in the celebrated 2006 book 1491, by Charles C. Mann, who had written on the issue for the Atlantic. It made a stir then, and I finally got to picking through it, regularly reading news articles on the topic.

I shared my notes below.

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What we know from 150,000 years of human language

There was likely once a single language, first developed 150,000 years ago. That grew to as many as 100,000 languages, before we developed farming. Today there are 6,000 and by 2100, that might be back to as few as 500.

Along the way, languages have emerged, influenced each other and continue to change.

That comes from the 2003 book “Power of Babel,” the third consecutive book I read by linguist John McWhorter, which I finished early this summer. In the last six months, I’ve become quite a big fan of his — having read his 2016 book on language evolution and his 2009 book on the lesser-known stories of the English language history, I seem to be working through his language books in reverse chronological order. (Read the Guardian’s review of this book here.)

The title of the book is, of course, a reference to the biblical story in Genesis of the Tower of Babel. Following the Great Flood, humans speaking a single language plan to build a tower that can reach heaven. God destroys it, sets humans into an array of languages and spreads them across the world to keep them from conspiring to do something like that ever again.

Find my notes from the book below.

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The Path Between the Seas: how the Panama Canal was constructed

mccullough-panama

The classic, National Book Award-winning 1977 historical narrative by David McCullough on the Panama Canal’s construction called the Path Between the Seas was perfect reading material leading into, during and after my 10-day trip to the Central American country.

In large scale projects, preparing to do the work is often more important than doing the work. That was likely the biggest lesson I drew from the book, which chronicled a failed attempt by a consortium of French government and business leaders to build a sea-level canal and then a painful but ultimately successful American attempt that used locks and came at the heels of advancements in understanding how to deal with yellow fever.

I also drastically underestimated the magnitude the Panama Canal represented as an engineering and public health campaign. My previous ignorance to this period of human history is embarrassing.

As I often do when I read a book of relevance to leadership and history, I share my notes here.

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Philadelphia Evening Bulletin history: ‘Nearly Everybody Read It,’ a 1998 book from Peter Binzen

The importance, sway and influence of one of the world’s most dominant 20th century newspapers was the focus of the 1998 collection of essays about the once powerful Philadelphia Evening Bulletin, edited by its former education reporter Peter Binzen, who also wrote Whitetown USA.

Dubbed ‘Nearly Everybody Read It,’ a riff off the paper’s legendary slogan, the 163-page book has nearly 20 essays from former Bulletin reporters and editors, including its first female and black correspondents. For 135 years, the family owned paper was a powerhouse among a rich daily newspaper tradition in Philadelphia.

A central story line of the book was the Bulletin’s battle with the Inquirer, its chief rival, and how, in the end, the Inquirer, considered by many to be the chain response to the family-owned operation, won. Through all the bluster, I thought there were four primary reasons that rang most true to me:

  1. The Bulletin fundamentally failed to innovate, remaining an afternoon daily as circulation fell with growing TV news audiences, increasing transportation costs due to traffic and changing news cycles.
  2. The Bulletin failed to develop the revenue to stay competitive, including a premature sale of its nascent TV station, denying alcohol advertising and other funding methods that kept it lagging behind the Knight-Ridder funded Inquirer.
  3. The Bulletin resisted aggressive editorial reconfiguration, following the investigative spirit of the 1970s that soared the reputation of the Inquirer behind editor Gene Roberts, and pushed out its own innovative editor George Packard.
  4. The Bulletin came up short in following the suburban trend, having its 1947 purchase of the Camden Courier Post denied by the U.S. Department of Justice for anti-monopoly concerns was a large blow.

As I often do when reading something relevant to the news and innovation conversations I so adore, I wanted to share some choice thoughts from the book.

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A Brief Timeline of the History of Daily Newspapers in Philadelphia

This Philadelphia daily newspaper family tree is framed in the Inquirer editorial board room at 400 N. Broad Street. Photo by Russell Cooke. Click to enlarge.

There were a dozen or more daily newspapers in Philadelphia at one time, I hear. Trouble is, I couldn’t seem to find anyone who could name what all of those papers were.

So I went and did some good old fashioned research — with some great direction from representatives of the following institutions.

Below, find a historical timeline of daily newspapers in Philadelphia, or at least what I could decode using four sources: primarily the Pennsylvania State Library newspaper collection [call number: Philadelphia] and the archives of the University of Virginia, with some help from a 1997 collection of essays called ‘Nearly Everybody Read It,’ edited by Peter Binzen (whose other book I recently read) and an essay from Broadcast Pioneers of Philadelphia member Gerry Wilkinson. (I compiled some other notes on the Inquirer here.)

Check it out below and offer any criticism or comment — I’m certainly expecting that this is incomplete, so any other leads are appreciated!

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