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The Post and Courier, the South's oldest daily newspaper, celebrates 220th anniversary

1886 earthquake

Rubble is piled in front of The News and Courier building, then located on Broad Street, after the earthquake of 1886. William E. Wilson/Library of Congress

America’s first museum on Jan. 10 officially opened a special exhibit in honor of the South’s oldest daily newspaper, and quite nearly the oldest in the country. For more than two centuries, both have been among the threads stitched through the historic quilt that is Charleston.

Front Page - Charleston Courier - January 10, 1803 first

The front page of the Charleston Courier’s Jan. 10, 1803 edition, its first, featured an article that outlined its intent of informing and entertaining the community. File/The Post and Courier archives

The Charleston Courier, the first of four predecessors of The Post and Courier, published its inaugural edition on Jan. 10, 1803. Save a handful of days when the operation moved to a safer location up the peninsula as Union troops shelled the city during the Civil War, the newspaper has published daily ever since — through catastrophic fires, a ground-buckling earthquake and devastating hurricanes, as well as other unfortunate, and often unforeseen, events that could have brought about an excusable absence.

No such excuse has ever been proffered.

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Prints of vintage photos from The Post and Courier are arranged in a glass exhibit case at the Charleston Museum in honor of newspaper's 220th year of operation on Monday, Jan. 9, 2023. Laura Bilson/Staff

“It’s kind of incredible,” said Carl Borick, director of the Charleston Museum, which as part of its 250th anniversary celebration will through March host a special exhibit on The Post and Courier’s history. “Charleston in 1773, when we were founded, and still the case in 1803 when you all were founded, it’s one of the major cities in North America … and by far the wealthiest.”

Though that financial status changed following the Civil War, the role of the newspaper continued as part of the community and its evolution.

“I know the newspaper has always been interested in preserving the history of this city,” Borick said. “That attitude is reflected in the people who have historically run and written for The Post and Courier.”

Historic preservation is one of the legacy pillars of the newspaper, said Pierre Manigault, chairman of the board of directors for Evening Post Publishing, Inc., parent company of The Post and Courier. Another is land conservation.

“Those are the two things that have sort of made Charleston what it is today — the beauty of the natural environment and the beauty of the built environment,” said Manigault, whose family has been involved in the lineage of the newspaper since his great-grandfather Arthur Manigault bought controlling interest of The Evening Post in 1896.

“The newspaper, under my father (Peter) and grandfather (Edward), has been instrumental in … being a strong voice in supporting those two values in this community. I think the newspaper has really helped in making those two things become important values within this community for a long time, and it has made a real difference.

“It’s why Charleston is Charleston, because we have this beautiful inventory of historic buildings and we’ve got this beautiful natural landscape.”

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A copy of The News and Courier, one of the papers that evolved to The Post and Courier, is displayed in a glass case at the Charleston Museum on Monday, Jan. 9, 2023. This copy was published on Friday morning, May 3, 1912.  Laura Bilson/Staff

Early days, innovation

Before Charleston Harbor was dredged and configured as it is today, ships waited offshore until tides and opportunities allowed them to reach the city and unload their goods. The Courier, instead of waiting, dispatched a reporter on a news boat to paddle out and gather the news — be it from copies of newspapers from other cities, both in the U.S. and abroad, or from firsthand accounts of captains and crew members aboard the vessels.

The innovative approach was carried from Charleston to New York City after an editor relocated and replicated the effort, which gave the publications a head start on competitors in getting news to their readers, according to “Page of History,” written by longtime Post and Courier employee and editor Charles Rowe for the newspaper’s 200th anniversary in 2003.

Some of the Courier’s earliest noteworthy local reporting included a detailed and gruesome account in 1820 of the hanging deaths of two pirates on a ship in the Charleston Harbor. 

Another innovative enterprise was used by the Courier, along with the New York Sun, during the Mexican-American War. The papers in 1847 into 1848 took on considerable expense for a pony express to cover the 150 miles between Mobile and Montgomery in Alabama in order to gain a day on the mail — and to get war reports to customers before competing publications.

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Carl Borick stands in the The Post and Courier’s exhibit at the Charleston Museum on Monday, Jan. 9, 2023. Laura Bilson/Staff

Soon, the Courier would find itself reporting on war as local news, from the bombardment of Fort Sumter to start the Civil War in 1861, through the blockade of the harbor and the siege of the city — which the paper chronicled daily until Charleston surrendered to Union forces on Feb. 18, 1865. The front page that day contained, along with an article on the surrender, another that chronicled an explosion at a train depot that killed around 150 people — one of the single deadliest disasters in city history.

For the next nine months, the Courier continued publishing — only as the official journal of the Union Army. Control was returned to local ownership in November 1865.

The newspaper and its successors — the Evening Post, Charleston Daily News, News and Courier and now The Post and Courier — have stood sentry over happenings in the city, across South Carolina and the nation in the days, decades and centuries since. That includes coverage during Reconstruction, women’s suffrage, prohibition, the civil rights movement and beyond.

In more recent times, that has included major news events such as the 2015 massacre of nine congregants inside Emanuel AME Church during a Bible study, which came months after a North Charleston police officer shot and killed Walter Scott after a traffic stop. The paper covered both tragedies through in-depth examinations of what happened — and why — and through the successful prosecutions of the men charged with the crimes.

Making a difference

Joseph P. Riley Jr., Charleston’s former longtime mayor, called The Post and Courier a “civic enterprise.”

“Truth, honesty, excellence, engagement, all of that,” Riley said. “That’s what a great newspaper is, and I believe we have a great one.”

He recalled a meeting in the 1980s with Frank Gilbreth Jr. and Peter Manigault regarding Charleston Place, the then-conceptualized and highly controversial hotel project in the heart of downtown. After talking for more than an hour, the newspaper management strongly supported the project, Riley recalled.

The massive hotel, retail and restaurant complex opened in the late 1980s in the block between King and Meeting streets at Market. The project proved to be a huge catalyst for decades of redevelopment downtown.

“If I had lost the paper’s support over Charleston Place, I don’t know that we would have been able to hold the line,” he said. “It’s a good example of honesty and integrity of a public enterprise, in this instance a newspaper.”

Riley noted that the newspaper and his administration didn’t always agree on issues — which he said was OK.

“They had a commitment to do the right thing,” Riley said. “Sometimes you have a difference of opinions.”

Over the years, the newspaper has helped educate the public on land-use issues and why they matter, said Dana Beach, founder and director emeritus of the S.C. Coastal Conservation League.

“The newspaper has been unique in its persistent and in-depth coverage of conservation,” Beach said. “In a way, that has allowed the readership to understand what’s at stake and … what the political landscape is.”

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Patty Serpico (center right), Lanna Taylor (right) look at The Post and Courier’s exhibit at the Charleston Museum on Monday, Jan. 9, 2023. The exhibit is in honor of the news company's 220th year of operation. Laura Bilson/Staff

The Post and Courier’s dedication to covering issues of environmental concern extends back decades. That commitment could be seen in the hiring of Lynne Langley in 1979 to report full time on the environment. She went on to author more than 1,000 Nature Watch columns during her 25 years at the paper. She was followed by Bo Petersen, who provided expert hurricane analysis and coverage of the coastal environment in the decades that followed.

That commitment has only grown in recent years with the creation of an environmental reporting team to dig deep into the far-reaching effects of a changing climate and sea rise on South Carolina — and beyond. A constant theme has been how changes in our interconnected world influence our lives in the Palmetto State.  

Among other things, the newspaper sent reporter Tony Bartelme to Asia to explore how China’s smog problem affects world weather patterns and to Greenland to study how melting glaciers contribute to sea rise in Charleston, located some 3,000 miles away. 

His groundbreaking environmental coverage also included "Chasing Carbon," in which he used a special camera to identify carbon dioxide emissions, and deep dives into plankton; coral bleaching; the Gulf Stream; and the Santee Delta, one of the crown jewels of the South Carolina coast. 

In 2021, The Post and Courier was named as a finalist for the Pulitzer Prizes — journalism’s highest honor — for its Rising Waters series that explored the effects of climate-driven flooding on the Charleston region. Rising Waters documented how the accelerating forces of climate change pose an existential threat to the Lowcountry, from wetter hurricanes to “rain bombs” to flooding high tides.

The newspaper also leveraged its investigative reporting experience in a project called "The Mercury Connection," which exposed how people who eat mercury-contaminated fish from South Carolina rivers were contaminating themselves. Reporters took hair samples and had them lab tested for toxic metals. This led to protests and eventually a campaign that targeted a billion-dollar plan by Santee Cooper to build a coal plant in the Pee Dee. Under public pressure, Santee Cooper canceled the plan. 

The Post and Courier also revealed how a Lowcountry congressman was bending federal rules to smooth the way for a housing project on Captain Sam's Spit, a delicate curl of sand at the southern end of Kiawah Island. That story helped ignite a still-ongoing campaign to protect the property.

Newspaper reports also have waded into murky floodwaters in Charleston to test for bacteria, an investigation that showed the dangers of walking through these rising waters.

Some success of the Coastal Conservation League and groups like the Southern Environmental Law Center, which have focused on better planning, better land use and advocacy efforts, can be attributed to work done by The Post and Courier, Beach said. That includes articulating, revealing and connecting topics such as the Clean Water Act, Coastal Zone Management Act, and local zoning to people’s lives and the environment.

“You have to not only see what The Post and Courier has done, but look at other (cities) and what has not been done,” Beach said. “But for our local papers, these issues wouldn’t be understood by much of the public.

“Politicians on their own devices probably aren’t going to fight for large policy changes unless they are being held accountable by the voting public. That is where the newspaper has been invaluable.”

The Post and Courier won its first Pulitzer Prize in 1924, with an editorial title “The Plight of the South” written by News and Courier editor Robert Lathan.

In 2015, the newspaper staff repeated the feat by winning the Pulitzer’s highest honor, the award for public service. Its series “Till Death Do Us Part” explored South Carolina’s deadly toll from domestic violence and spurred several legislative reforms to address the killings.

The newspaper has taken on a host of award-winning investigative projects since that time, probing issues of utmost concern in South Carolina.

“Shots Fired,” published in the wake of the police shooting of Walter Scott in 2015, exposed flaws in the state’s investigations of law enforcement shootings. “Minimally Adequate” explored failings in South Carolina’s public school system that threatened the state’s newfound prosperity. And “It’s time for you to die” provided the first comprehensive account of a 2018 riot at Lee state prison that left seven inmates dead and scores more seriously wounded.

Independent, and family owned

The importance of local ownership has been a key to the company’s success, said P.J. Browning, publisher of The Post and Courier.

“If you look at The Post and Courier and how long we’ve been here, even before it was The Post and Courier, it’s like we are a fabric of the community,” Browning said. “I think a part of that is when you have local ownership, the local ownership really cares about the community — that connection between Charleston itself and the community, it’s a relationship.”

Charleston and beyond has benefitted from that continuity, Riley said.

“We luckily have had family ownership that has continued to have high ideals and understood it as a civic enterprise,” he said. “The owners stayed true to that cause.”

Remaining a privately held, family-owned newspaper makes The Post and Courier one of the “Last of the Mohicans,” Manigault said.

“There has been a continuity in that legacy of what the newspaper’s role and beliefs should be throughout the generations of leadership within the paper and through my family. I do think there has been a real continuity there,” he said. “And I think that has been passed down both within management and the newsroom.”

That continuity will be critical to the company’s future.

“One thing I am really proud of, and I think we all are, is the role The Post and Courier has played in trying to promote and keep community journalism alive in South Carolina in these rural communities,” Manigault said. “We are making a difference here, and that is a satisfying thing.”

Specifically, he noted “Uncovered” — one of the newspaper’s most ambitious projects. The first-of-its-kind effort exposes questionable government conduct throughout South Carolina. The Post and Courier has partnered with 18 community newspapers and PBS Frontline in a two-pronged effort to shine a light on corruption and beat back news deserts.

The newspaper has joined journalists in rural corners of the state, adding its reporting and financial resources to their deep well of institutional knowledge and network of sources. Placing collaboration over competition, they teamed up to root out misdeeds and underscore the important role local newspapers play in holding governments accountable.

The collaboration has produced more than 70 stories to date, exposing cozy deals, conflicts of interest, cover-ups and power plays — a breathtaking portfolio of questionable conduct that has triggered legislative action and criminal charges.

“I think we can make a real difference in the state, and that we are making a real difference in the state, through the expansion markets and the way we’ve been helping the small communities through Uncovered and our community journalism fund to help preserve community journalism in South Carolina,” Manigault said.

Forging a digital future

The future of The Post and Courier is focused on expanding digitally to serve communities across South Carolina.

In addition to Charleston, the newspaper has expanded statewide with reporters in Beaufort, Bluffton, Columbia, Greenville, Hilton Head, Myrtle Beach, Rock Hill and Spartanburg.

“The immediate goal at hand is for us to become the state newspaper, and I think we are well on our way to that,” Manigault said. 

He praised Browning and Autumn Phillips, executive editor of The Post and Courier, for their leadership and vision not only with the expansion into new markets but also into the digital world of delivering news to readers statewide.

“You look back at all the headlines we’ve covered, whether it was abolition of slavery, women’s right to vote, man walking on the moon, and it’s like, what will the next 220 years bring? We are going to have this new history for us as we embark on a new printing press, which is still very, very core to our being, but also the digital age,” said Browning, noting the company’s new printing press when went into operation in December at a new plant in North Charleston. “We look at those headlines we wrote years ago, and it was important what was on the front page. Today, we have a new front page online 24/7. So capturing that history for us as a newspaper is going to be completely different 220 years from now.”

With that change comes a heavy responsibility, and one Browning said she takes seriously.

“The digital transformation is absolutely critical and, at the same time, we always want to have an eye towards that responsibility of documenting what goes on in a community and holding people accountable,” she said.

Instead of chasing trends, The Post and Courier must remain true to a newspaper’s responsibility of providing news that people need and which makes a difference.

“For me, it’s that balance of making sure we are true to our industry and true to the commitment of what a newspaper should be and also understanding the revenue that supports that newspaper,” Browning said. “Content will always be king.”

Manigault agreed, saying it is important to remain focused on what has gotten The Post and Courier to where it is today.

“That secret is as simple as good journalism and context,” he said. “No matter how much the model has changed over the decades and centuries, no matter how much it has changed in the 21st century, it all boils down to the product we have to sell. Whether it’s digital, or it’s printed, or it is paid for by the advertiser or the consumer or it is paid for by philanthropy, it still boils down to us creating good content that has value that people want and need.

“That’s good journalism, and we have to continue to maintain good journalism at all costs.”

Glenn Smith and Tony Bartelme contributed to this report.

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