AUSTIN, Texas—Last Friday night in the capital city of Texas, the Mississippi Free Press got a shout-out from the stage for its substantive explanatory welfare/TANF scandal timeline and concise explanatory coverage as the 2022 Lion Publishers Awards opened. MFP would then win first place for community engagement (medium/large revenue tier) for our systemic-reporting prototype project in Lion’s annual journalism contest at the Independent News Sustainability Summit.
Publisher Kimberly Griffin accepted the award on behalf of the “(In)Equity and Resilience: Black Women, Systemic Barriers and COVID-19 Project” team, which also includes DeAnna Tisdale Johnson, publisher of the Jackson Advocate, Mississippi’s oldest Black newspaper.
“I’m very impressed with this project, how it was created, the focus and the potential impact,” one Lion Awards judge wrote. “With a thorough and organized approach, the Mississippi Free Press has been able to build trust with the community and then offer a platform for them to share the specific challenges they face every day.”
‘Systemic Reporting’ and ‘Solution Circles’
What the MFP/JA team calls the “BWC Project” for short is a prototype of MFP’s approach to what our editor has long referred to as “systemic reporting.” That is, we dig deeply into the historic causes of today’s inequities in specific Mississippi counties across a variety of “Mapping Mississippi” focuses.
Over time, after reporting the causes and specifics of the embedded inequities that create barriers to progress in communities facing historic discrimination, our team reports out potential solutions after deep listening about what the community wants and needs, both in interviews and in solution circles.
The BWC Project approach includes in-depth reporting by mostly Black women journalists to explain the roots of today’s inequities to a diverse readership, believing that a wider understanding of the actual causes is the only way to inspire real and lasting solutions across divides.
The BWC Project team has hosted a series of what we named “solution circles” for Black women with only Black team members (Kimberly, DeAnna, Deputy Editor Azia Wiggins and MFP Board member Wendy Shenefelt) facilitating to explore and reveal causes and solutions for inequities that COVID-19 magnified and spotlighted among Black women and their families.
‘Unearthing and Naming the Systemic Racism’
To date, the BWC Project has published deep-dive systemic packages about Noxubee County (with freelance reporter Torsheta Jackson and Editor Donna Ladd focusing on public education) and Hinds County (with Reporter Aliyah Veal and DeAnna focusing on violence and public safety) with a health-care package coming soon from Azia Wiggins about Holmes County. All work appears on the BWC microsite designed by Creative Director Kristin Brenemen with photography by Acacia Clark and illustrations by Robin Martéa.
The Society for Professional Journalists’ southeastern U.S. Diamond Awards gave a first-place award to the BWC Project earlier this year as Best Special Section (Microsite). Torsheta, Donna and Kristin also were finalists for both the Diamond Education Reporting award and the Garrick Feldman Community Journalism Award for their Noxubee County BWC Project work focused on public education.
“The strength of Torsheta and Donna’s BWC Project is in its approach,” one of the SPJ Diamonds judges wrote of the work. “They returned to the roots of community journalism—listening to the people and honoring their experience. The stories dug into the community’s past, unapologetically unearthing and naming the systemic racism that still plagues Black women in Noxubee County today. But possibly the best contribution of this work—they know there’s more reporting to do, and they aim to continue to do it.”
Vital to the MFP’s systemic-reporting approach is often-brutally honest reporting about long-time systemic efforts to embed white supremacy and its outcomes into Mississippi’s counties for generations to come, which is very seldom taught inside or outside Mississippi. For instance, in the Noxubee focus on education inequity, Torsheta and Donna discovered and revealed little-known history about white vigilante groups, including white community leaders, terrorizing both Black and white educators, including killing a Black woman principal who was an ancestor of one of their current sources. In addition, they did a deep-dive on the history and effects of segregation academies in Noxubee County and beyond.
Likewise, Aliyah Veal’s overview of Hinds County’s cycles of crime and violence included the history of white terrorism and segregation in the capital-city region, which has suffered severely from white flight and disinvestment, resulting in repeating cycles of poverty and crime that are hard to overcome.
‘A National Leader in Nonprofit Newsrooms’
In a September awards ceremony, the Institute for Nonprofit News named Kimberly Griffin as the Emerging Nonprofit Leader of the Year and Azia Wiggins as a finalist for Nonprofit Newcomer of the Year, based in no small part on their work with systemic reporting, solution circles and the BWC Project.
The INN judges added about Kimberly’s leadership in September: “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.”
In this year’s Lion Awards, reporter Nick Judin was a finalist for his breaking, substantive and impactful reporting on efforts to restrict access to LGBTQ books, including threats to withhold funding, at the Ridgeland, Miss., library. Kimberly and Director of Giving Cristen Hemmins were finalists for the Revenue Campaign of the Year.
In the 2021 Lion Awards, reporter Ashton Pittman was a finalist for the Investigative Reporting Award for what judges called his “impactful investigative series examining racism at the University of Mississippi”
(see interactive UM emails timeline/reader’s guide here).