Butterflies were dancing in my stomach, as Mississippi Free Press Publisher Kimberly Griffin and I pulled up at a table in a lush open-air space in downtown Los Angeles last week. It was time for the viewing party for the Institute for Nonprofit News’ 2022 Awards, and she was nominated as the Emerging Nonprofit News Leader of the Year.
When I’d arrived at the venue, Kimberly was holding court on a sofa amid the greenery, simultaneously making people laugh and making them think as she always does. She is incisive, especially about our home state; race and racism; systemic exclusion; media strengths and weaknesses; and so much more. I’ve worked alongside her 15 years now, we think, first at the Jackson Free Press and now running the statewide nonprofit MFP.
She is brilliant, and she deserves all the flowers, a lovely phrase I picked up from her.
Well, the flowers soon came as we watched the virtual ceremony. Near the end, her smiling face showed up on the screen as the Emerging Nonprofit News Leader, and I screamed, and I think she did, too. This was so big for this incredible woman from Clarke County who grew up in Jackson and now leads this exploding nonprofit news outlet, reporting truth to power, unearthing hidden history and interrogating systems that even many “progressive” Mississippians would rather be left alone.
MFP: ‘A National Leader in Nonprofit Newsrooms’
The stellar judges at the nation’s top organization for nonprofit media got it, just as they got what the Mississippi Free Press is and how we’re different when they awarded us the Startup of the Year Award last year (in large part due to Kimberly’s efforts). We heard these words on the speakers as we stopped screaming: “Developing a nonprofit newsroom, especially in a state with such diverse audiences, can be incredibly challenging, but Kimberly’s leadership has helped this startup become a national leader in nonprofit newsrooms.”
“A national leader in nonprofit newsrooms.” This acknowledgement of excellence in our home state is pure joy to a native Mississippian’s ears. You know if you grew up here, constantly taking the hits about being the “worst” and other stereotypes.
The INN judges also know that the MFP, under Kimberly’s leadership, believes in true diversity, equity and inclusion—from our boards and team to our everyday stories and source bases, to our solution-circle dialogues. And they clearly want to see other outlets do more of what we do: “Kimberly’s lifelong commitment to creating sustainable and equitable media institutions is exactly what this industry needs.”
I then heard my own words from my passionate nomination letter for Kimberly to win this award: “[She] believes intensely that our model of growing and network-mapping a radically diverse audience for our work based on our systemic-reporting approach can be an industry model. There is no better leader to build and promote this model of inclusion.”
Because here’s the thing. We’re not here to just do problems journalism, to report on corruption after the fact or just to report solutions to symptoms of the deeper causes that most media shy away from. I dubbed our approach “systemic reporting” precisely because we are creating a systems-analysis model for interrogating systems and real causes, while listening intently in what I named “solution circles” several years back. This is in direct contrast to what I call “toxic scoop culture” (hey, I really like to name things); that is old-fashioned hyper-competitive journalism that wants to be the “first” or the “only” by any means necessary.
Building Healthy Ecosystem of Outlets and Reporters
We don’t want that toxic mess. We want a healthy ecosystem of journalism outlets and reporters in the state who build on and support each other’s work (while fully acknowledging colleagues’ enterprise efforts) while holding each other accountable for both engaging in respectful collaborations and committing to ethical journalism. That means fully disclosing conflicts to build public trust and following all the rules of the Society for Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics. The public simply will not trust journalists who pick and choose what they report to support or protect friends, family or a chosen political party.
This means continual self-audits and healthy critique inside our newsrooms, throughout the ecosystem and listening to the public about how we gain/maintain their trust. This week at the Online News Association convention here in L.A., we attended sessions that embraced the idea of constant self-examination, deep listening and improvement. This is so different from the race to scoop the competition that we still see far too much of in Mississippi or the defensive tweets from editors too busy covering sports events to have these conversations. That won’t cut it.
Put simply, this work isn’t about us as individual journalists or media leaders, as Kimberly so well illustrates. It’s about constant growth and improvement and examination of broken media models and habits. We must continually not only interrogate the societal systems around us, but those inside media that work to keep the power and decision-making in our industry in the hands of a few who’ve held those reins for far too long.
And let’s be frank: Most of those hands are white and male.
Kimberly is a leader who challenges those toxic traditions, and not only in Mississippi but across the United States. The night after her award, we sat in our hotel bar and toasted her accomplishment with her Vesper martini and my Pellegrino. I reminded her of sitting in Basil’s in downtown Jackson in 2019 and the stunned look on her face when I asked if she wanted to co-found the Mississippi Free Press with me to challenge all the systems in our state to improve, from media to government. We laughed to think it was just two-and-a-half years ago when we launched with $50,000 and change and quite a few prayers. We again toasted how far the MFP—and Kimberly as a national leader—have come in such a short time.
We appreciate all of you: readers from across Mississippi and beyond; supporters and donors; and leaders of organizations like INN who understand what we’re trying to do and how it’s different and vital. We especially appreciate those of you who get why media must better serve all our people and how that requires a new kind of leadership than backroom finagling over who gets to be at the table and get the funding—much less the flowers—for the hard work of reporting the full truth and protecting our democracy.
Thank you all and, especially, my deepest appreciation to Kimberly Griffin for being on this ride by my side and keeping me laughing along the way. I appreciate you so much, partner.
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.