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graphic announcing Mississippi Free Press as "Startup of the Year"
After starting on a shoestring budget as the pandemic hit the state in March 2020, the Mississippi Free Press won the coveted 2021 "Startup of the Year" award from the Institute for Nonprofit News. Editor and co-founder Donna Ladd pledges to grow and spread the MFP's innovative model, which INN judges called "genuinely leading-edge work" that "leads the way for national readers and media outlets."

‘Leading-Edge Work’: Mississippi Free Press ‘Startup of the Year’ Due to Innovation, Inclusivity, Team

In my first editor’s note for the Jackson Free Press 19 years ago, I waxed respectfully about daring journalists and writers who had come before us. Perhaps as a returning Mississippi gone for 18 years, I wrote it from a place of paranoia about the state accepting a very new kind of journalism for and about our capital city. I sent the issue to my friend Hodding Carter III, who along with his father Hodding Carter Jr., had both moved needles and angered a lot of status-quo Mississippians with the Delta Democrat-Times, then an innovative and forward-thinking newspaper … for the time.

Close up of Frank Melton in a white shirt and red tie with his armed crossed leaning on a table
When Donna Ladd co-founded the Jackson free Press in 2002, famed journalism leader Hodding Carter III told her to find new voices to do daring work and not rely on older ones, which she took to heart. Her and her team’s work at the JFP helped put Mayor Frank Melton on trial twice. Cover photo by Kate Medley

In that direct way of his, Hodding both praised our vision and basically told me to not lean on the voices of the past and find and center new ones. I had planned to train and publish new writers for sure—It’s what I do—but Hodding’s swift-kick reminder was exactly the impetus I needed to believe in our vision of 21st-century journalism. To be blunt, what Mississippi needs from its journalism in today’s world is not what Hodding, his dad and other daring journalists were willing to do in past decades under fire and attack. That was then, this is now. It was one of the best and best-timed pieces of advice I’ve ever gotten. I took it to heart and still do.

What we need is innovation in Mississippi journalism, not nostalgia for the way it used to be done (and for whom). And let’s be honest, other than historically Black media (including the incomparable Ida B. Wells), our state’s press corps has never been that daring about our worst systemic atrocities in real time instead of years later.

At the statewide nonprofit Mississippi Free Press (a new and separate publication from the Jackson Free Press), we embody what the business world likes to call a “challenger brand.” That is, we don’t copy other “brands”; we create and follow a new model, while challenging existing journalism approaches and outlets here to, well, do better and to not rely on the successes or the journalistic choices and voices of the past, even if they seemed daring and forward-thinking once upon a time. As Hodding taught me well, our home state cannot stay stuck in a moment in time, whether 1946, 1964, 1970, 1982 or even 2002 when I co-founded the Jackson Free Press. 

Consequential journalism cannot rest on past laurels or habits—or bow to or seek to appease the powerful.

Radically Inclusive On-the-Ground Coverage

If you haven’t noticed yet, the model for the Mississippi Free Press is new, and not just new for our state. We are radically inclusive not just in staffing and freelance base, but in the ways we work with people across the state down to on-the-ground exploration county-by-county to lay our eyes on the results of historic inequities.

I’ve physically explored 55 of the state’s 82 counties so far on history-chasing road trips since MFP and the pandemic launched at the same time. I want to know each county intimately and see their challenges with my own eyes. Then, I can help our reporting corps dig deep for “why?” and report on possible solutions. Great journalism starts with difficult questions.

The core of our innovation is what I started calling “systemic reporting,” a phrase you haven’t heard very much if at all beyond MFP channels. Our goal is to explain why our state is crumbling in so many ways, and not just physically, as well as report potential solutions county by county. Our first large systemic project is imminent, so stay close.

Herbert Brown in South Jackson
Herbert Brown, a resident of south Jackson in Mississippi’s capital city, has to travel miles from his home in one of the more upscale neighborhoods left in the area to get many needed grocery items. Reporter Aliyah Veal’s award-winning work on food deserts in the Mississippi Free Press looks at systemic causes and potential solutions for hunger in Mississippi. Photo by Seyma Bayram/courtesy Jackson Free Press

Five of us were on the team that initially launched this publication in March 2020—co-founder and Publisher Kimberly Griffin, Director of Giving Cristen Hemmins, Deputy Editor Azia Wiggins and Senior Reporter Ashton Pittman—and we and most of those who have joined us since are all native Mississippians. We all know needles in Mississippi will never move significantly for all our citizens without (often-brutally) honest reporting on deep and often hidden causes that goes far beyond partisanship and embodies even our most difficult history to show where inequities, poverty, crime, brain drain, wealth inequality, decaying towns and counties, business failures and other challenges came from on the road to solutions across divides.

This week, you are about to see fully what systemic reporting looks like at the Mississippi Free Press and across our state, and I can’t wait to hear what you think and how it inspires you to help innovate and enact solutions. We do not believe in hopelessness; at our core, the Mississippi Free Press is all about hope for a stronger, more loving and collaborative Mississippi from corner to corner.

Huge Award for Local-National Startup Publication

We’re here first for Mississippi, but a secondary goal is to get the nation to both look at itself and at our state in a more honest, less scapegoaty way and to, yes, learn from our dig-to-the-roots journalism model and the substance we report. This combination of systemic reporting about Mississippi and outside forces that helped create and then chastises our problems and people; how we are building a passionate and engaged readership network inside and outside the state; and our promise of free-to-all journalism by enlisting individual donors to help make it happen for everyone, is radically innovative “local-national journalism,” as I’m now calling it, inside and outside Mississippi.

The Mississippi Free Press started when the pandemic hit the state with a core team of five Mississippi natives and about $50,000. The New Yorker featured our COVID-19 work with weeks, and statewide and national support for our innovative journalism approach helped us grow revenue, staff and reporting resources. Graphic by Kristin Brenemen

You may have heard that the MFP won a jaw-dropping award this past week: The Institute for Nonprofit News named us their first-ever Startup of the Year—a stunning national honor this scrappy news nonprofit without deep pockets won in a field of excellent finalists probably with, well, more financial backing to date. Cheers to The 19th, Block Club Chicago, THE CITY (New York City) and Sahan Journal in Minnesota; their outstanding organizations make our win that much more special to us and our supporters. We aim to embody and model excellence in Mississippi for the nation and world to notice, and this sure helps.

Beyond the thrill of victory for our now 16-member team (and a growing slate of contributors) and our kickass boards, it was what the judges said that brought tears to my eyes. They got us and what we’re trying to do. The judges wrote:

Mississippi Free Press is doing super impressive work on all fronts—journalism that doesn’t just inform Mississippians but also leads the way for national readers and media outlets. They have created a statewide presence in a short period of time and they clearly have very strong growth in revenue size and diversity. Their projects are innovative and approach the audience as partner, and they are performing genuinely leading-edge work on building a young, diverse audience.

I mean, wow, y’all.

Not to mention, both Ashton Pittman were finalists in three reporting categories: Investigative Reporting (Ashton for UM emails series); Explanatory Reporting (Nick for Jackson water series) and the Breaking Barriers (Ashton and Nick for series about the Black activism that forced Mississippi flag change).

Former University of Mississippi School of Journalism and New Media Dean Will Norton, seen here in 2018 condemning school donor Ed Meek for a Facebook post criticizing Black women on the Oxford Town Square, resigned in April after a whistleblower’s public records request revealed similar remarks in email exchanges with another donor. Ashton Pittman’s investigative series on the systemic coverup of the full “Ed Meek incident” and fallout has won multiple awards and was a finalist for an INN investigative-reporting. Photo courtesy University of Mississippi

Here’s the thing: Having an innovative journalism plan is one thing; motivating people across the state, nation and the world help us activate it is another. And each person reading this is helping make the Mississippi Free Press model a reality—and likely replicated. We are already hearing from journalists, editors, publishers and academics across the country seeking advice on shifting to a more systemic-reporting approach in their areas, which is needed as badly as it is in Mississippi.

It is a time when history and facts are under political attack in an attempt to preserve power structures and white supremacy. Now more than ever, history-soaked contextual reporting is essential to preserving and spreading our democracy. As Hodding advised me nearly 20 years ago: Don’t rely on the old voices; create a space for new ones and lead with them, instead of the usual suspects, however much we may admire them.

We are here to help, innovate, collaborate and lead in every way we can—from the heart of Mississippi. This state has much to teach the nation because we are all in this experiment in real freedom together, and our state was where the worst of American history congealed to embed systemic racism into future generations—but it sure didn’t do it alone.

Thank you for imagining a better state and nation for all our citizens. Your evangelism and donations are making this innovative journalism possible daily.

Also see the Mississippi Free Press’ Impact, Awards and Media Coverage to date here.

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