Editor and co-founder Donna Ladd writes about the origin of the Mississippi Free Press, and the mission. “ Great journalism is about people. Impactful stories lead with people and the effects of decisions, historic inequities, and current politics and often-toxic partisan politics on people far from the halls of power,” she writes. Photo by Ran Berkovich on Unsplash

Tis the Season for Believing in Mississippi’s Potential

To me, a long Thanksgiving weekend is about reflection as much as being with people I love.

Mostly, this four-day break has been a meditative time for me about the ups and downs of the last three years since my breast-cancer diagnosis and then double mastectomy and then weeks at a writing residency in upstate New York recovering and thinking about the future in early 2019. I was getting up close to 60 (which I recently achieved) then and thinking about my own path forward. 

Was it time yet to draw back from running a Mississippi publication—then the Jackson Free Press—and start writing full-time? I’ll be honest: That was so tempting then during my convalescence.

But during my residency, I stumbled into a gathering of nonprofit media leaders happening at the Carey Institute for Global Good at the same time, and it was conversations there around the fire pit that planted seeds for the Mississippi Free Press. It was long my dream to run a statewide newsroom to reach the state’s news deserts as well as the capital city; I’d had the URL reserved for nearly 20 years, in fact. And I do like to start stuff. (Take that as you will.)


A primary reason the Mississippi Free Press exists is to cover young people working for change—like these activists who played a key role in changing the Mississippi flag—even as other media fixate on mostly white leadership in the halls of power and their machinations among themselves. Put simply, MFP journalism centers different people. Photo by Taylor Turnage

 

The news business, though, was getting even scarier on the for-profit side as the long-time advertising model faltered and corporations and hedge funds steadily shrunk local newsrooms. I was also new to the nonprofit world, having dipped a toe in through my W.K. Kellogg leadership fellowship, which turned into three summers of the Mississippi Youth Media Project, with local teenagers yielding amazing journalism. (Watch for YMP’s return in collaboration with MFP.) 

But long story short, two things happened around that fire pit: Nonprofit veterans from across the U.S. convinced me that my and my team’s experience doing top-level journalism in Mississippi made us more qualified than many who start nonprofit journalism outlets with no local journalism leadership or bootstrap entrepreneurial experience. 

And it made me really think about the holes in journalistic coverage and approach in Mississippi then, in 2019. I decided I wanted to use my experience, skills and networks to fill them.

Running MFP Like a Smart Business

Kimberly Griffin
Publisher and Director of Revenue agreed in 2019 to co-found the Mississippi Free Press with Donna Ladd. Donna writes that it was one of her best ideas ever. Photo by Kimberly Griffin

More than anything, I have started and run media outlets in my home state because I believe in its potential, despite its immense historic and current flaws and power continually consolidated in a few, decidedly non-inclusive hands. So when I came back from New York, I talked to JFP Associate Publisher Kimberly Griffin, whom I was lucky to have worked side-by-side with for 13 years. I proposed that we found MFP together as a team, with women leading a new kind of journalism for our home state. She agreed. Now, I and so many know it was one of the best ideas I’d ever had.

You know what’s happened as a result since both COVID-19 and the MFP hit Mississippi in March 2020. Through sheer will and a ton of talent, our team has done impactful work; repeatedly challenged the status quo to do better (including other media); built a dedicated readership inside and outside the state; grown relationships with donors who want to help this new kind of journalism flourish here; multiplied our existing networks across the state, attracted 24 national and regional U.S. awards; racked up over 4 million page views in 20 months; and been featured in well over 100 media outlets across the U.S. (and that list needs an update with recent accomplishments).

We’ve also continued to intelligently grow our team as we prove ourselves and financial support builds. Kimberly and I come from the small-business world, so we don’t take a single dollar for granted or waste it as we add team members to spread our reach, and develop a plan to steadily compensate team members in ways they deserve for doing all this amazing work. We are quite literally running this nonprofit media outlet like a smart business, and we thank you for reading and supporting our efforts.

We Exist to Move Needles

I’ve always said: Great journalism is about people. Impactful stories lead with people and the effects of decisions, historic inequities, and current politics and often-toxic partisan politics on people far from the halls of power. 

With MFP, it’s about hopeful Mississippians who work for change, like recently passed Dr. Marvin Hogan. Great journalism also reflects the people who create it: who they are, how much they care about the place they serve, how much they respect and care about each other. 

MFP Editor and co-founder writes that the late Dr. Marvin Hogan was a hopeful Mississippian who did his part to create change for children here—as all of us can do, either through journalism or using our skills and networks in other ways. Courtesy Beverly Wade Hogan

Are they in it just for the honors or ego, or to move actual needles? We love awards as much as the next journalist, but we exist for needle-moving.

We’ve hit the jackpot on that front with the Mississippi Free Press, as we use lessons from 19 years of running the JFP to build and support a truly collaborative and caring team with help from a different kind of board of directors and advisory board.

All About Relationships

We’ve also hit the bullseye in another way. One of my fears about starting a nonprofit was, let’s be honest, the continual need to fundraise. I’m an editor and writer first, and I was used to Kimberly’s side of the building figuring out how to get us all paid. I didn’t love the idea of asking for money. 

But what I’ve learned is that good people will support great, honest, inclusive journalism if that is the top focus, not scratching the backs and soothing the egos of the powerful. And fundraising is really about relationship-building with people who share the mission to make Mississippi everything she can be, as Kimberly talked about on a new Lion Publishers podcast

Funders aren’t slot machines, as she put it; our donors are people looking for a smart and prudent investment in the future of our state and nation. Our job is to prove our concept, just as any entrepreneur, social or otherwise, has to do. Our whole team has helped do that, and we thank them. So many of you have given in ways you can—from gifts large and small, to story tips, to encouragement and amazing public comments, to sharing our work with your networks. That’s really all we can ask.

Yes, we need your investment in our vision for it to grow and to care for our people. You know that; I don’t need to sugarcoat it. (See, I’ve learned that, too.) Journalism costs money, as Kimberly-our-revenue-guru likes to remind people. But what I want you to know today is that each of you is part of this movement to gather up Mississippians past or present, and those who want to see us succeed, to believe and take collaborative action toward shared progress and change for all our people.

What binds us all together, I’m quite sure, is that we all believe in Mississippi’s potential to overcome her deficits. We also know this vision takes us all joining as partners. 

Thank you for believing, too.

Please help grow Mississippi Free Press journalism during our end-of-year NewsMatch campaign. Right now, funders are tripling your gifts up to $10,000. And tomorrow on #GivingNewsDay, your recurring membership (any recurring amount) means you can invite an additional member for MFP membership perks in 2021. 

Can you support the Mississippi Free Press?

 The Mississippi Free Press is nonprofit, solutions-driven journalism for Mississippians and others who care about the state. 

With your help, we can do even more important stories like this one.