When my co-founder Donna Ladd invited Reena Evers-Everette to have dinner in the fall of 2019, she wanted to ask the blessing of the daughter of Medgar Evers to start a statewide newsroom with the same name as a Jackson-based paper her father had co-founded in the 1960s. Reena’s response was immediate: “Yes! Do it!” But the woman who would become our first advisory board member said something else, too: “But don’t let the Jackson Free Press die; the community relies on it.” Donna and I have thought about those words often over the last two years.
Reena was referring to Black Mississippians who had grown to trust the Jackson Free Press since it launched in 2002. The JFP’s target market was the capital city and its suburbs; it was a weekly newspaper named in homage to the original MFP. It has an immense reach and has won over 100 awards with huge impact for its size and resources through the years. It built a base of dedicated readers in and far beyond Jackson, and a reputation for both excellence and fearless journalism on topics other state media reported on superficially if at all. It also hosted the most diverse and inclusive events, including its annual Best of Jackson party, that this area had ever seen to that point.
When I moved back to Mississippi after living in Dallas for a few years, I was astounded to see a tri-county, locally owned paper with people that looked like me on the cover and in the masthead. I was grateful for a newspaper that lifted up Black joy and resilience as well as solutions to problems like crime and violence rather than sensationalism. All of that is exactly why I asked to join the JFP in 2007 as sales coordinator and, ultimately, became the associate publisher directing advertising and revenue. This was journalism my city and my state needed.
Both Donna and I agreed with Reena in 2019 that we wanted the JFP and its service and legacy to continue, even as costs of newsprint and the shrinkage of print advertising was making it harder than ever. Neither of them could have known that night in BRAVO! that COVID-19 would soon destroy local newspapers like the JFP across the nation as it gut-punched and closed key local advertisers who still understood the benefit of good print journalism. I was directing advertising at the JFP when the pandemic hit; I saw and felt this first-hand.
But, under publisher and co-owner Todd Stauffer, the JFP hung on as long as it could, even as Donna and I followed our strategy to launch the statewide nonprofit Mississippi Free Press early just as the pandemic devastated our state so it could ask the hard questions about the what and where of COVID-19 safety efforts and whom it impacts the most. In March 2020, Ashton Pittman was the only reporter, Azia Wiggins was our assistant, and Cristen Hemmins was in place to help fundraise. Still, our impact was immediate.
Helped by COVID relief funds and loans, the JFP never laid off anyone, while the MFP, over the last two years, gradually hired amazing and dedicated staff members from the JFP both to keep great people employed and because they are the best journalism team in the state. Even though the JFP did important COVID-19 reporting in 2020—led by now-MFP reporter Nick Judin—it stopped printing and picked up its racks in 2021 and finally stopped publishing its popular daily newsletter or any new stories online in late April 2022.
At least publicly, it looked like there would be no way to honor Reena’s 2019 request. But we and our board refused to give up the dream of preserving—and leveraging—the Jackson Free Press’ 20 years of work to help grow this nonprofit journalism and its impact.
Now, I can officially reveal to all of you and Reena that the Free Press band is getting back together in the best possible way. Let me explain.
Bringing Together Free Press Journalism
I’m announcing today that the Mississippi Journalism and Education Group, the 501(c)(3) that has operated the Mississippi Free Press officially since November 2021—before that the Community Foundation for Mississippi was our fiscal sponsor, and we maintain a fund there—has acquired the journalism assets, archives and intellectual property of the Jackson Free Press.
This means that the capital-city “newspaper” that turns 20 in September is now the second news publication under MJEG’s nonprofit media umbrella. It’s actually the third MJEG journalism project, to be precise. The Community Foundation already handed the fiscal keys to the award-winning Mississippi Youth Media Project over to MJEG, which anticipates a future relaunch of the amazing youth journalism training program that Donna started as a W. K. Kellogg fellowship project in 2016. YMP has been on hiatus during the pandemic.
I’m happy to announce this big JFP news after a deliberative and careful process where I’ve been working with the MJEG board and our stellar and patient tax attorney to facilitate this asset transfer, which as publisher and director of revenue, I know will help strengthen and grow the reach of the MFP and our other MJEG projects. The acquisition does not include Jackson Free Press, Inc., or any debts and obligations of that private company. Former JFP publisher and co-founder Todd Stauffer is still the principal in JFP Inc., which he says will pivot fully into a digital-services company as he begins the process of changing its name to Changemaker Media Services now that this transfer of journalism assets is final.
JFP co-founder Donna Ladd recused from our board of director’s consideration and discussion of the acquisition because she was co-founder and still owns a minority-share stock in JFP Inc. I don’t own nor have I ever owned stock in Jackson Free Press, Inc., and my full focus is on serving our communities as Reena urged us to do through both MFP and JFP publications.
Since March 2020, although it has been a bit confusing to readers, the two news organizations have operated as separate entities. We knew from the beginning of the MFP that it could be helpful to acquire the Jackson Free Press archives and intellectual property as a way for our nonprofit group’s publications to take full advantage of its networks, files, work product and more—not to mention its deep and dedicated reader base. Of course, we also hoped to preserve 20 years’ worth of amazing journalism and history to serve more readers.
In addition, the JFP asset acquisition includes many items beyond the journalism product that make me, as the publisher and revenue director, very happy. The big one for a growing nonprofit statewide news organization is the email list for the Jackson Free Press (which is at least five times the size of the MFP’s to date). That means we can explain this development to dedicated JFP readers and invite them to opt to continue getting the MFP Daily and other Free Press journalism.
The MJEG acquisition also includes full access to the JFP news publications’ social-media channels to cross-promote our expanded suite of publications. At nearly 38,000, JFP’s Twitter following alone is more than twice that of the younger MFP, and its Facebook following is close to five times larger. All of this dramatically multiplies our nonprofit’s potential reach overnight as we invite all of the followers to engage in all our publications.
The bottom line, which is my job as publisher, is that combined Free Press journalism products in Mississippi can report more causes in more places on the way to solutions for all Mississippians by using every tool we can effectively gather into our toolbox to grow readers, reach and our donor support base. It also helps us create more jobs.
An Office Ready for Action
There’s more. The Mississippi Free Press signed a lease in Capital Towers to take over the fabulous open JFP newsroom starting in January 2022. Although with our hybrid and statewide model, fewer staffers will be on site daily in downtown Jackson—within walking distance of about every state, county and capital-city government HQ and courthouse you can imagine—the inspiring JFP workspace will be a gathering place for trainings, retreats, meetups, brainstorm sessions, lunches, and meetings with sources and donors. And during summers, it can easily convert into the training newsroom for Youth Media Project student journalists. (They had their own newsroom next door before the pandemic; now the same space can work for both.)
Plus, the office came to MJEG stocked and ready for journalistic, community-building and fundraising action.
MJEG now owns 20 years’ worth of office furniture, equipment, computers, printers, copiers, monitors and other electronics, supplies and a packed room of event-hosting necessities from rolling carts, beverage machines, cases of bar napkins and cups, multiple folding tables and chairs, portable speakers, podcasting equipment, several fridges, huge party coolers and trash cans, and boxes of seasonal decor for about any reader/donor event you can think up. We also own all the JFP racks and boxes should the board decide to print the newspaper again, even if only in news-desert areas of the capital city (one thoughtful suggestion to date).
We can’t wait to use our event-hosting skills and new resources to support our nonprofit journalism soon with the best celebrations around. If you know, you know, and probably have pictures.
I’d also like to clarify that the acquisition did not include the Best of Jackson trademark, resources and website. It is not up to us what the future of that popular annual tradition will be—so don’t ask!—but Donna and I are sure to think up a new yearly party tradition for MJEG that rivals the epic BOJ shindigs that all of you can fight for invitations to—just give us a little time. There’s also been talk of a “MFP Chick Ball.” Stay tuned.
Tell Us How JFP Should Proceed
Just so we’re clear, we haven’t decided exactly how we’re going to proceed with JFP journalism assets. We intentionally have waited until the acquisition was complete, and now we’re enlisting our board, editorial and revenue teams to brainstorm ideas, as well as surveying our readers and social followers for what you want to see us do. We welcome your thoughts and plan to host a solution circle soon to hear your ideas for the next 20 years of the JFP and the rest of our journalism efforts.
We know two things right now. The Jackson Free Press website draws high organic search traffic, and we hope to preserve historic JFP archives on a more attractive website than JFP Inc. as resources allow.
Second, we want to quickly repackage select award-winning “classic JFP” coverage into user-friendly and visually pleasing interfaces. Examples might be gathering up JFP’s 2011 Personhood reporting, COVID-19 coverage by Nick, Kayode and other JFP folks, criminal justice and preventing-violence archives, and Donna and the team’s riveting Frank Melton and Dee-Moore murder investigations, which led to trials for a dangerous mayor and prison for a former Klansman.
We also welcome your suggestions on JFP classic coverage you’d like to see repackaged and highlighted. I suggest you send archive ideas to Creative Director (and 13-year Free Presser) Kristin Brenemen who will oversee that work. She’s at [email protected]
It’s All About Free Press’ People
Now, about our superstar team. They clapped and cheered when we announced at our virtual monthly staff meetup Friday that MJEG now owns JFP journalism assets. They are really excited about this development. They knew vaguely that it might happen, but agreed to keep it under wraps as we figured out if it was actually possible and how to do it correctly.
Our entire team weathered the constant questions and confusion about the state suddenly having two Free Press publications that weren’t part of the same company. And this remarkable, supportive team has grown through this pandemic, including through gradual transitions away from the JFP since MFP’s March 2020 launch. In the meetup Friday, they were vocal with their pride over helping build a women-founded media nonprofit that now oversees three journalism projects.
“You made this happen,” Donna told them. And they did with hard work and dedication to inclusive solutions-driven journalism we all want to do across the state where the vast majority of us grew up. We also know and respect each other—this growing team (with no turnover since March 2020 launch!) has worked with both Donna and me for an average of several years each. We’re very fortunate.
Finally, my hat is off to our readers at the MFP as well as all those years when Donna and I were back at the JFP producing essential capital-city journalism. She and I are such a good team because we love and believe in this state and her people. We’re so stubborn in that belief that we’ll do whatever work and collaboration needed to serve as a kind of challenger brand of journalism here that helps lift all our journalism boats. We know how to gather and train a great team with the same goals, and then work side-by-side to build a very special media organization and journalism ecosystem for Mississippi.
But you make it possible through reading, sharing, recommending, suggesting, cheering and giving what you can to support Free Press journalism. We pledge to you that this growing stable of journalism products will be a model for state and national journalism for many years to come.
We’re so excited for this next step in our journey. Thank you for joining us.