Sometimes you just want to pinch yourself.
I’ve had that thought often in the last two years since Kimberly Griffin and I officially opened the remote doors of the Mississippi Free Press on March 15, 2020, just a couple days after we went home for the COVID-19 pandemic. We didn’t even have a website for the Mississippi Free Press yet, but it was go-time anyway. When Ashton Pittman, a former star Jackson Free Press reporter already lined up as our first reporter, and I decided via text to just start publishing about COVID-19, we threw up a temporary website and just started doing what we do. That immediately meant journalism revealing the paucity of statewide COVID safety consistency in the state and the clear inequities the virus quickly revealed—proving quickly that we were a proud “challenger brand” to the way journalism had always been done in Mississippi. That is, we are unapologetically focused on people over power, not the reverse.
Within 23 days, our work had influenced coverage in The New Yorker. And from there the impact, media coverage and honors just kept mounting.
If you weren’t familiar two years ago with this sassy startup team that seemed to pop up out of nowhere as the pandemic started, you might’ve been confused at how fast we blew up into what the Institute for Nonprofit News declared the Startup of the Year about 15 months later for being “innovative and approach(ing) the audience as partner” while doing “genuinely leading edge work on building a young, diverse audience.”
But, to be candid, we weren’t your typical startup; we had built a deep inclusive Mississippi network for two decades. Plus, we already knew how to work like a well-oiled newsroom populated with journalism professionals who had long worked well together, who had mutual respect, and who cared deeply for each other and our mission.
Seeds for MFP Planted 15 Years Ago
That started with Kimberly and me. Our journey began 15 years ago when she showed up at the Jackson Free Press—the award-winning, impactful for-profit newspaper I co-founded in 2002—one day looking for some way to get involved with our mission as so many have over the years. She started out helping with distribution because, well, we needed that. She quickly turned to her natural talent of ad sales and revenue generation, rising over the years to associate publisher and into a wonderful, funny, caring partner in Mississippi journalism and community building.
Then March 15, 2020, came, and here we are now.
At the time the MFP launched, the pandemic hit and advertising in the JFP tanked—all at the same time—the 19-year-old newspaper had dream-team staff members, including Kristin Brenemen, Nate Schumann, Azia Wiggins, Nick Judin, Dustin Cardon, Kayode Crown and Zilpha Young, as well as Aliyah Veal, a previous and brilliant intern I really wanted to hire as a culture reporter. The MFP started with small kitchen-table funding (as had the JFP two decades before) so the nonprofit startup team could only afford to launch with Ashton, Azia (then an assistant, now deputy editor), Kimberly (part-time) and me (let’s be honest, double/triple-time) and started building from there. Our Oxford friend Cristen Hemmins—she and Kimberly attended Chastain Middle School in Jackson together!—signed on, pivotally, as director of giving and has worked hard ever since to help us grow.
Over time, and as the Jackson Free Press had to scale back its operation due to pandemic effects, the MFP has hired all legacy JFP staff members as we could afford them. (Zilpha stayed behind to do digital services, although she does some freelance design for MFP.) That is, none of these amazing people faced layoffs or pay cuts. And the MFP got to hire some of the most talented, passionate and, yes, loving and mutually respectful journalism professionals in Mississippi to build out the MFP. Our people, their skills and their collaborative spirits are why we do what we do, and so well. To use a cliché, it was win-win.
And here’s the thing: Every former JFP staffer is growing and stretching into new skills, and each one earns more at the MFP. Why? Because their top-level work has drawn such a strong base of financial support and donations, which we use to support them and hire new people to support them and grow our reach. Journalism is always about the people—the ones doing it and the ones who need to be covered more.
New MFP Leader for Radically Collaborative Newsroom
This week, I’m pinching myself even more. Due to your support, we just launched a search for the kind of news editor I’ve always wanted in Mississippi but couldn’t afford. Someone who comes in the door with editing and managing experience to help guide our deputy editors and our reporters without me in the room. Someone who can step into my shoes to run the daily news operation so I can focus my energies on working with writers on deep-dive systemic reporting like the amazing BWC Project; my real love of reporting and writing myself; my other love of training writers and reporters; and of course higher-level strategy and innovation visioning, which I adore and am pretty adept at doing.
I hope we find a news editor who wants to stay a while and perhaps grow into the top editor at the Mississippi Free Press at some point. We and our amazing boards, which we filled with heroes and role models, are building a newsroom to last far into the future to report truth, causes and solutions for our home state.
I’ll say it again: You did this. In fact, in our monthly team meetup Friday, the whole staff brainstormed our shared values and, in turn, how to communicate them well both to readers and to potential hires. We all know that our radically collaborative and mutually supportive culture isn’t for everyone. We know not everyone likes our level of shared accountability and the way all of us share priorities each day to work together better as a team, or how we work hard together to improve ways for all of us to make deadlines so a handful of people aren’t picking up slack for missed deadlines as in many newsrooms. And we know some folks roll their eyes at our open positivity and care toward each other no matter where someone sits on the masthead, or our disdain for toxicity and drama that hurt us all.
But these are our shared values, and it is what Kimberly and I have worked together for 15 years to figure out how to maintain, through our hiring and our day-to-day processes and communication. I’m proud to say we’ve learned many lessons on this road, and we are incorporating every lesson into the MFP with the full assistance and approval of our team.
This is where self-pinching really heats up. This newsroom all of you helped build by giving and sharing and reading and cheering us on is, quite literally, a dream team. And now we’re ready to add another leader to it who wants what we have to offer and to grow with the MFP as all of these amazing human beings—all leaders, to a person—have done. We are serious people, who have fun daily working to improve Mississippi for all of our people.
Please share this job explainer/story with your networks to help us find our next newsroom leader and allow us to grow even more (and for me to achieve the work-life balance we’ve helped others at the MFP achieve). This is an amazing opportunity for the right person—precisely because they will get to work with these outstanding colleagues and enjoy what we all have to give—together.
This MFP Voices essay does not necessarily represent the views of the Mississippi Free Press, its staff or board members. To submit an essay for the MFP Voices section, send up to 1,200 words and factcheck information to [email protected] We welcome a wide variety of viewpoints.