FOCUS:  2022 Elections • Housing & Evictions • #MSWelfare Scandal • Jackson WaterAbortion •  Race & Racism • PolicingIncarceration

Office filled with two long walls of awards top to bottom
The combined awards for Mississippi Free Press and Jackson Free Press journalism now line three full walls in the MFP offices in downtown Jackson, Miss. Photo by Donna Ladd

MFP Journalism Had Immense Impact in 2022. Here Are Our Most-Read Stories, Staff Picks.

The Mississippi Free Press has enjoyed accolades almost from the day editor Donna Ladd and then-senior reporter Ashton Pittman decided to start reporting about the pandemic as it started in March 2020 even though MFP didn’t even have a website ready to go. They dug in, posting on a temporary site, and in less than a month the New Yorker magazine was citing and drawing from Ashton’s COVID-19 and Tate Reeves reporting.

From there, we’ve enjoyed immense growth in readers, journalistic reputation, impact and team size, even as we’ve had no staff turnover since March 2020 launch (and many of us worked together for years before that, which explains our amazing dedicated team and camaraderie). We’ve won 46 awards and honors so far for our journalism over two years for our first two years of work. And, yes, our work has made a difference in myriad ways. Impact is kind of our middle name.

In 2023 alone, we made a difference—and raised awareness about where a difference should be made. We went beyond complaining and challenged closed government decision-making, and our ongoing Trusted Elections voting-precinct investigation and mapping gave national civil-rights organizations evidence to challenge the State of Mississippi, and county precincts, to do a far better job. We exposed horrific living conditions in apartments in the Mississippi Delta that the media there were largely ignoring. A federal judge cited our Hinds County jail coverage repeatedly on the road to finally demanding improvement in the conditions of detention centers.

Of course, our Jackson water coverage continued to set the journalistic standard for the types of questions that must be asked of local, state and federal governments. And our explanatory, truly non-partisan coverage of the Welfare scandal in Mississippi put the scandal in a fuller context that helped people across the country understand the actual timeline in a way that no other news outlet has done to date.

Stories with Direct Impact in 2023

In December, the Mississippi Ethics Commission debated whether the Mississippi Legislature is a public body under the Open Meetings Act, in debating a complaint by the Mississippi Free Press and reporter Nick Judin, who was kicked out of covering a meeting of the House GOP caucus in April. Here’s our original complaint. The MFP working with the Mississippi Center for Justice and attorney Rob McDuff now plan to appeal the commission’s ruling against transparency.

Closeup of Rob McDuff at the mic in a courtroom
Rob McDuff of the Mississippi Center for Justice is representing the Mississippi Free Press in challenging a Mississippi Ethics Commission decision to declare the State Legislature not a public body under the Open Meetings Act. The case now goes to Hinds County Chancery Court. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)

A coalition of civil-rights and voting-rights groups cited MFP findings in an urgent letter to Mississippi Secretary of State Michael Watson on Friday, Oct. 14, demanding solutions to voter disenfranchisement. MFP investigations in 2020 and 2022 have revealed that the Statewide Elections Management System is not being adequately updated, resulting in thousands of Mississippians being misinformed on where they should vote.

Reporter Kayode Crown’s reporting about conditions inside Hinds County detention centers cited repeatedly in court filings raised awareness about the urgency of the conditions, which resulted in judicial-demanded jail oversight after decades of poor, dangerous conditions.

Nick Judin’s reporting in early October on an ailing apartment complex just outside Cleveland, Miss., after two deaths there affected many Mississippians in dire need: A Bolivar County Chancery Court Judge issued a 10-day temporary restraining order on Oct. 17, 2022, against the management. The order requires that residents be provided alternative housing and adequate meals until proper repairs and inspections are completed on their units.

Senior Reporter Ashton Pittman’s and freelancer Liam Pittman’s piece, “Indepth: How Brett Favre Secured $6 Million In Welfare Funds For A Volleyball Stadium,” received national attention and traffic. Ashton’s and Liam’s follow-up timeline of events related to this scandal is exhaustive and helpful.

Madison County Library System Director Tonja Johnson told the Mississippi Free Press in a Feb. 24, 2022, interview that people from across the world donated in support of the library. Photo by Nick Judin

Our Jackson water crisis investigations in 2021 and 2022 have dug deep into the systemic reasons for this ongoing crisis affecting the capital city, leading to widespread national and international news coverage, including of the history of the State of Mississippi refusing water assistance to the capital city.

Nick Judin’s coverage of attempts to censor LGBTQ-related materials at the Ridgeland Library and follow-up reporting led to international attention, as well as a campaign to raise more than $100,000o initially withheld from the library for displaying the materials.

Staff Favorites 2022

We invited MFP team members to share their favorite 2023 story—their own or one from another team member—and here are their choices:

Cristen Hemmins, Director of Giving: One of my favorite outcomes of MFP journalism in 2022 was Ashton Pittman’s journalism being cited in an amicus brief to the Dobbs SCOTUS case by 223 Members of Congress, from a 2021 Mississippi Free Press abortion story, here (page 13).

Dozens of Mississippians like those seen here protested against the state’s six-week abortion ban outside the Mississippi Capitol on May 21, 2019. The law, which includes no exceptions for rape, took effect in September 2022 following the U.S. Supreme Court’s June 2022 decision reversing Roe v. Wade. One family, whose identity was undisclosed, anonymously told WAPT that they had to travel to Illinois in order to help their teen daughter get an abortion after multiple men raped her. Photo by Ashton Pittman

Kimberly Griffin, Publisher and Chief Revenue Officer: Nick Judin’s work on the Sunset Village apartments because it likely saved lives.

Kinoshia Guyton and Gloria Jordan stand outside their units in Sunset Village outside Cleveland, Miss. on Oct. 15. Days after Nick Judin’s reporting, a temporary restraining order helped keep them in nearby motels while repairs were finished on their apartments. Photo by Nick Judin

Laurel Isbister, Operations Coordinator: Torsheta Jackson’s BWC solution piece, “One Crop At A Time: School Farms Target Food Insecurity, ‘Supermarket Redlining,'” had a lot of great information. I am volunteering with a local group in order to build a community garden, and I was interested to find out more about what other groups have done. It was encouraging to read about people who are working to change difficult trends.

From left: Marcus Washington, Paul Curry and Sanquez Lyles participated in the agricultural program at Wingfield High School in Jackson, Miss. They helped grow produce in campus gardens that helped the football team buy new uniforms and equipment and to provide team meals. Photo by Jeff Gibson

Kristin Brenemen, Creative Director: Our Jackson water coverage has been topnotch this year.

Tamiko Smith is responsible for her husband Otis’ home hemodialysis. The Jackson water crisis threatens the treatment that keeps him alive. Photo by Nick Judin

Nick Judin, Infrastructure Reporter: Aliyah’s piece on mothers building solutions against gun violence was incredibly powerful. This is solution journalism at its finest and most urgent.

Azia Wiggins, Deputy Editor of Voices and Systemic Reporting: I thoroughly enjoyed working with both Duvalier Malone and his husband Dr. Adrian Mayse to highlight their powerful and inspiring love story. It’s very important to me for Black men in Mississippi—no matter their age, sexuality/sexual orientation or status—to feel seen, valued and intentionally represented.

Duvalier Malone (right) and his husband Dr. Adrian Mayse (left) reflect on their collective journey in love as they celebrate 13 years together. It is also the anniversary of Malone’s first published column where he came out to the world in response to the discriminatory “Mississippi Protecting Freedom of Conscience from Government Discrimination Act” passed in 2016. Photo courtesy Duvalier Malone

I also loved Aliyah Veal’s music piece published in Feb. 2022,‘No, I Can’t Lose’: Mississippi Rappers Pass Mic, Change Narrative At Jackson Indie Music Week.” It’s encouraging as a fellow Mississippi creative to witness the progress towards positively changing the narrative in Jackson while putting on for the capital city. This piece showcases new rap artists and gives readers a glimpse of young creatives unifying to spotlight one another. It uplifts our unique flavor, our culture and is a tangible representation of, “Yes, Jackson is predominantly Black, alive and thriving,” and how we can tell our own stories our way.

At 2022 Jackson Indie Music Week’s rap concert, Akeem Ali and choreographer Javadric Kelly dressed in 1970s style to perform songs as Ali’s rap persona, Keemy Casanova. Photo by William Lindsey / Courtesy of Jackson Indie Music Week

Nate Schumann, Deputy Editor of News and Features: I have multiple stories from 2022 that I deem very important and representative to who the MFP is as a publication:

Ashton Pittman relayed the story of a young, queer educator who was threatened with job termination for answering a student’s question about her sexuality when asked. This article encapsulates the struggles that LGBTQ+ Mississippians undergo, particularly in but not exclusive to the workplace, for simply existing—regardless of whether those discriminatory practices spit in the face of federal law.

Former Pearl River Central High School art teacher Catherine Bass told the Mississippi Free Press that, after coming out as pansexual to her students in September 2021, officials in the South Mississippi school district reprimanded her and warned that she could be fired if she openly shared her orientation again. Photo by Ashton Pittman

Dustin Cardon’s expansive research into the railroad industry highlights the commonalities Mississippi cities who owe their economic success to trains share. The sources he interviewed show that hobbies and special interests can keep Mississippi history alive, as they continue to celebrate trains to this day.

Museums and other institutions celebrating Mississippi’s far-reaching railroad history have opened in different parts of the state over the years. Here, a child attends Rail Fest, a festival in Meridian where train enthusiasts gather to share in their passion through model-train displays and other features. Photo courtesy Meridian Rails Historical Society

Sherry Lucas’ feature story spotlighting a Ridgeland-based stained-glass artist demonstrates that Mississippi remains a birthplace of talent. The fact that renowned author Neil Gaiman reached out to Rob Cooper directly to commission his services and shared our story on his public Facebook page (earning 8.2k likes in a single day) shows that Mississippians’ reach can go global.

Rob Cooper (pictured), a Jackson-based stained-glass artist, received a commission from award-winning British novelist and comic-book writer Neil Gaiman to create a window for the latter’s London home. Cooper completed the project in 2021. Photo by Lucie Cooper

Lukas Flippo’s deep dive into photojournalist and editor Bonny Parham resurrected a treasure trove of Amory, Miss., history and genuinely helped me feel as if I had personally known this since-departed pioneer of women powerhouses in Mississippi.

The Amory Miss Hospitality Pageant on June 21, 1962. Photo by Bonny Parham / courtesy Amory Regional Museum

During his internship, Lukas attended a Jackson-based “queerceañera” wherein a trans woman celebrated her womanhood among supportive friends and other LGBTQ+ allies. The Latin American tradition typically excludes women like Li Ann Sanchez, but this article shows that organizations in this state aspire to break down those barriers and help Hispanic and Latin American Mississippians unashamedly live their most authentic lives. Intern Z’eani Furdge shot video for the piece as well.

Li Ann Sanchez approaches her court of maids of honor and chamberlains on Saturday, June 25, 2022, in Jackson, Miss. Sanchez, a Mexican and Indigenous trans woman, was the guest of honor at the Immigrants Alliance for Justice and Equity “Queerceañera,” an LGBTQ reclamation of a traditional Latin quinceañera. Photo by Lukas Flippo

Donna Ladd, Editor & CEO: In addition to every piece listed above, Ashton Pittman’s three-part deep-dive into Christian Nationalism, the push for dominionstic theocracy and a reveal of the actual authors of the anti-abortion laws in Mississippi that overturned Roe vs. Wade was outstanding, urgent and impactful. Until that series, very few media outlets in the country had touched this elephant in the American room. Ashton explained this reality brilliantly in the series, which seeded many follow-up stories across the nation as well as corrected false media narratives in the state false reporting that state legislators had authored the legislation. Very, very important work.

I love everything that culture reporter Aliyah Veal writes, but I’ve really appreciated her work expanding cultural understanding “beyond Black and white,” as we often put it. Her feature in 2022 on Choctaw elementary students performing tribal dances was delightful and education (and Acacia Clark’s photos were perfection). And of course, every column Roger Amos writes about his people and culture is outstanding and informed by history. The one about the Choctaws and the three murdered civil rights workers in 1964 in our home county was breathtaking work in 2022.

A line of boys in girls in colorful fancy dress
Pearl River Elementary students perform traditional Choctaw dances and songs at the 2022 Spring Festival on May 10, 2022. The annual festival celebrates the spring season and end of school year and returned this year after a COVID-19 hiatus. Photo by Acacia Clark

Kayode Crown’s criminal-justice work—every single piece—is outstanding and goes further and deeper than I’ve ever seen happen in Mississippi media go. His recent deep-dive piece on the life-imprisoned Glen Conley, who claims his innocence, has a new and riveting surprise in every section. And his piece on the police killing on 15-year-old Jaheim McMillan on the Gulf Coast raises vital questions that still haven’t been answered.

Of course, every single story in our award-winning and ongoing “(In)Equities and Resilience: Black Women, COVID-19 and Systemic Barriers” project is outstanding. Freelance journalist Torsheta Jackson’s work on education inequities in her home county of Noxubee is really setting the standard for and helping us think about our upcoming Education Inequity Solutions Lab across Mississippi. And Aliyah’s BWC work on causes and potential solutions for Hinds County violence is essential journalism in a time when finger-pointing takes the place of violence solutions both inside and outside Mississippi media organizations.

Two Black women wearing TLC tshirts pose in the center of a small room wallpapered in newspaper pages
Shawanda Readus and her daughter celebrate a recent birthday. The single mother in Noxubee County struggled to educate her daughter and twin sons at home for more than a year during the pandemic because she had to work outside the home. Plus, her home did not not access to broadband internet access or enough computers, leaving her children to use phones as hotspots. Both Readus and one of her sons also contracted COVID-19. Photo courtesy Readus family

Freelance journalist Grace Marion did amazing work on myriad topics including a series on the fight to build a mosque in Horn Lake, Miss., but my favorite piece was a long-form story on the racial dynamics around what parks in Batesville, Miss., get funded and which ones don’t. Her shoe-leather public meeting coverage is unparalleled in Mississippi. We hope she returns after grad school at Berkeley. Grace’s detailed coverage of the murder of Jay Lee in Oxford is unmatched.

Of course, you must read every single piece our award-winning columnist Leo Carney writes. He uses his knowledge, network, historic connections and compassion in a way that every single columnist should do. More voices like Leo’s is needed in American journalism. Oh, and he breaks national stories like the Harvard reparations controversy.

Mississippi Ku-Klux in the disguises in which they were captured, 1872. Library of Congress
Mississippi Ku-Klux members would sometimes be captured for their violent actions, such as these men in 1872, but white juries often would not convict them. Prominent leaders James Z. George, L.Q.C. Lamar and Edward Wathall helped Klansmen accused of killing 116 Black people beat charges in a Lafayette County courtroom, where Lamar caused a violent brawl against an opposing witness. Courtesy Library of Congress

Finally, I’m also very proud of the work we published in the Mississippi Race Violence Project, which we hope to do far more of in 2023. Jerri Bell’s long-form piece on the Clinton Race Massacre is substantive and shocking; Grace Marion’s on the lynching marker’s resolution in Oxford is human and caring; and Dickie Scruggs’ column calling for a marker for the courthouse yard lynching of Lamar Smith in 1955 was urgent and honest. And my own most meaningful work of the year, while difficult to research and write and read, was my long-form piece on decades of white terrorism against Black education in Noxubee County—and a deep-dive feature on Lamar Smith and the lynching/massacre tradition in Brookhaven and Lincoln County.

I also urge you to read my explainer on segregation (and Mennonite) academies in Noxubee County and beyond and the devastating effects on integrated and equitable public education. And watch our MFP Live interview with Ellen Ann Fentress about segregation academies.

Top 12 Most-Read Stories in 2022

Retired-NFL player Brett Favre, seen here during an induction at the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2016, pushed for millions in funding for a volleyball stadium at the University of Southern Mississippi in Hattiesburg, Miss. The long-form piece, by Ashton Pittman and William Pittman, was our most-read piece of 2022. AP Photo/David Richard
  1. In-Depth: How Brett Favre Got $6 Million In Welfare Funds For A Volleyball Stadium by Ashton Pittman and William Pittman
  2. Ex-GOP Gov Candidate Calls For ‘Firing Squad’ For Trans Rights Supporters, Political Foes by Ashton Pittman
  3. ​​Mississippi Welfare Scandal Timeline: Brett Favre And The Volleyball Stadium by Ashton Pittman and William Pittman
  4. ‘You Should Be Grateful:’ Thee Jackson State University Is Perpetually SWAC by Dr. Arianna C. Stokes
  5. Black FedEx Driver Says White Men Chased, Shot At Him During Deliveries by Ashton Pittman
  6. Ridgeland Mayor Demands LGBTQ+ Book Purge, Threatens Library Funding by Nick Judin
  7. 12-Year-Old Incest Victims Should Birth Dad’s Child, House Speaker Gunn Says by Ashton Pittman
  8. Gulfport Police Kill 15-Year-Old Jaheim McMillan, Prompting Search For Answers by Kayode Crown
  9. ‘Do Not Drink The Water’: Jackson Water System Failing For 180,000 People by Nick Judin
  10. Wicker Calls Black Woman Supreme Court Pick An Affirmative Action ‘Beneficiary’; White House Responds by Ashton Pittman
  11. Texts: Gov. Reeves Talked To Brett Favre About Using State Funds For Volleyball Facilities by Ashton Pittman
  12. ‘A Wrong Never Righted’: Court Upholds Mississippi’s 1890 Jim Crow Voting Law by Ashton Pittman

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