In the early 19th century, Philadelphia was burgeoning with industrialization and an attendant boom of population, modernization, and media. Six newspapers were engaged in lively competition based on who could produce the most entertaining copy or uncover the latest scandal. At that time, the media was less focused on current events than it is now, and content often consisted of editorials, letters from readers, poetry, travel narratives, and recipes. John Norvell, a former editor of the city’s Aurora & Gazette, started the Pennsylvania Inquirer with printer John R. Walker in 1829. While their intentions were entrepreneurial, they ostensibly established their paper as a populist alternative. In the first issue of the Inquirer, the editors dedicated the paper to the “maintenance of rights and liberties of the people, equally against the abuses as the usurpation of power.” They affirmed the right of the minority to set forth its opinion, “however discordant they may be with those of the majority.” Though they placed their support behind then-current president Andrew Jackson, they issued a condition: “We condemn a blind, indiscriminate vindication of the acts, right or wrong, of any administration as much as we reprobate a factious and uniform opposition to them.”
After only a few months, Norvell and Walker had difficulty competing, and sold the Inquirer to Jesper Harding. Harding worked quickly to improve the paper’s circulation: he obtained the first American serial rights for several Charles Dickens novels and eventually absorbed four rival Philadelphia papers. Harding’s son William took over the paper in the 1840s, and innovated from the start, changing the paper’s name to the Philadelphia Inquirer, cutting single-copy prices, establishing delivery routes, changing the paper’s size, and positioning newsboys on the streets. Under William, the paper supported Abraham Lincoln for president and gained renown for its subsequent Civil War coverage. Harding filled the paper with special correspondence, war maps, and woodcuts of generals, admirals, and political figures. The Inquirer gained a national reputation for its objective coverage of the war, which boosted its circulation to 70,000.
Following the war, Reconstruction took its financial toll on the country, and Harding sold the paper to James Elverson in 1889. Elverson characterized his paper as “progressive” and “Republican.” The Inquirer campaigned for public works and created task forces to investigate large city projects and agendas. Elverson’s son James, known as Colonel Elverson, took over the paper in 1911 after his father’s death. Elverson intensified the pursuits of his father’s administration; the paper became known as the “Republican Bible of Pennsylvania,” and it followed public works campaigns.
While the paper often changed spaces as it grew, Elverson was responsible for the construction of its current building at 400 North Broad Street. Dedicated to his father, the eighteen-floor structure contained the latest technology in the industry, including the largest composing room in the world, the fastest printing presses, an assembly hall, an auditorium, and a water filtration and refrigeration plant. Colonel Elverson and his wife lived on the 12th and 13th floors, where pieces of their art collection presently remain. A golden dome tops the building, and underneath there is a four-faced clock. Upon its completion, thousands of visitors toured the facilities.
After Elverson’s death in 1929, ownership of the paper passed to his sister, Eleanor Elverson Patenotre. The Inquirer’s sole female owner had no interest in managing the paper. She did seize the opportunity to give employees and the public a greater stake in the paper, as she reorganized its capital structure and made 49 percent of the company’s stock available to them. The Depression and other events necessitated a series of sales of the majority share, and the changes of leadership were reflected in the paper’s public identity. New owner M. L. Annenberg declared it an “independent newspaper for all the people”; it subsequently passed to his son Walter H. Annenberg, who became one of Philadelphia’s most prominent cultural leaders and philanthropists. Knight Newspapers, Inc., a large national newspaper chain, acquired the paper in 1969, and oversaw an era of editorial independence and quality reporting that garnered many national awards between 1975 and 1990, including eighteen Pulitzers.
While profits and circulation soared in the 1980s, hard cuts by the parent company and a push toward local coverage in the 1990s led to circulation drops. This precipitated the paper’s sale to a group led by local businessman Brian Tierney. Tierney vowed to revitalize the paper, but, as was the case with many other newspapers nationwide, circulation figures continued to decline. Presently, the Inquirer’s daily circulation is about 340,000, with an average of two million readers of print and online editions. The paper focuses on maintaining local and web coverage, as newspapers continue to adapt to the changing needs of contemporary readers.
Research: Sarah L. Hunter
Site Photos: Joseph E.B. Elliott
In 2009, the Philadelphia Inquirer celebrated its 180th anniversary. Like newspapers worldwide, the paper is battling financial and market forces as communications technology evolves at breakneck speed—from the Internet and e-mail to texting and Twitter. The future of journalism is increasingly uncertain, yet news continues to play a significant role in generating history and informing cultural self-understanding. People connect to information through different horizons of reception, but media fragments linger and recur in various ways. From President John F. Kennedy’s assassination, the Space Shuttle Challenger explosion, or the events of September 11, 2001, to local events, Facebook updates, advertisements, or celebrity snapshots, certain media materials leave psychical imprints.
Throughout the Inquirer’s history, as is the case with most newspapers, its representations of society were molded by its predominantly male leadership. The paper’s coverage catered to their particular perceptions of the public good and the desires of its audience. Working in the milieu of Dadaist photomontage artist Hannah Höch, Mir made an edition of the paper that pastiches ephemeral articles and images from 2000 to the present: bits of advertising, headlines, announcements, images, and words that together form a picture of the paper’s representations of women. Fragments shorn from a temporal archive, the scraps contain concrete kernels of historical forces. According to Walter Benjamin, the cognizance of these discarded, forgotten objects jolts us out of our understanding of the past and present as a grand progression. Through this awakening, the artificial continuum is revealed as such, and the ‘now’ is opened to new potentials. Change inherent in these defunct elements is indicated by Mir’s re-assemblage. The work conveys new narratives of women out of the vast expanse of Inquirer detritus, through which the viewer charts personal agendas, desires, and memories. Philadelphia readers may recall some of these articles and photos, though their original meanings are overwritten or made strange. The Inquirer has been instrumental in creating Philadelphias identity by shaping its stories, but now the paper must entirely re-imagine itself in order to survive. The ontology of “news”—as a record of the past and transcription of the present—may change, similarly to our understanding of “woman” through the discourses Mir unveils and challenges.
Newsroom Philadelphia was installed in the Inquirer headquarters. In addition to framed copies of the eight original montages that Mir created, the work was printed by a news press in an edition of 5,000 copies that were to be free take-away multiples for visitors. Following a controversy over the content and intentions of the project, these editions were destroyed.
Co-Producer: Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia
Support for development and planning of this project has been provided by The Pew Center for Arts & Heritage through the Philadelphia Exhibitions Initiative.
Aleksandra Mir concentrates on contemporary social processes, cohabitation, and the everyday. Attuned to popular cultures, she focuses on the traces remaining from public and private exchange; in particular, she examines the pathways and transformations of information through conversation and the media. From this material, Mir turns mundane objects and cultural detritus into renewed experiences that are critical, yet often whimsical and entertaining. Her work frequently takes the form of a site-specific, situation-bound process, intervention, happening, or installation.
Mir is a Swedish-American citizen, born in Poland, who lives and works in Palermo, Sicily. She received her BFA in Media Arts from the School of Visual Arts in New York and subsequently attended the New School for Social Research, studying cultural anthropology. All of these subjects conflate in her present practice. As a student in New York, she looked to 1960s and ’70s political art for influences (Fluxus, Allan Kaprow, Eleanor Antin, Vito Acconci, Hannah Wilke, Ray Johnson, et al.), aspects of which are still present in her work. She has exhibited in a range of international exhibitions and garnered public commissions at venues including the Biennale of Sydney, the Whitney Biennial, Palais de Tokyo in Paris, the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London, the Venice Biennale and the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York. Her first solo show was in 2006 at the Kunsthaus Zürich. She won the Baloise Art Prize at Art Basel.