I met Ashton Pittman in person in 2018 at Hal & Mal’s in Jackson. I had flown in a state reporter candidate from New York City who happened to be gay. Ashton was already freelancing some for me and the Jackson Free Press from South Mississippi, but I’d never met him. The staff gathered at Hal & Mal’s in Jackson to meet the candidate. I had invited Ashton and his husband, Liam, to drive up in no small part to answer any candid LGBTQ+ questions the candidate might have about Mississippi.
That night, my journalism partnership with Ashton and Liam began. It was clear from our conversation how much Ashton and I thought alike, how our journalistic values aligned, and how much we all cared about our complicated home state. As Ashton tells it, he and Liam started talking about the possibility that he could work more with me at the JFP. (The NYC job candidate didn’t work out. He realized Mississippi wasn’t right for him, which I understood.)
The rest, as they say, is history. Ashton first worked as a freelance reporter to see how he liked it, commuting for a while to Jackson—and then going on salary. Ashton and I started developing one of those editor-reporter relationships that are magical when you can find them—total mutual respect and dedication to quality, understanding of deadlines, and driven passion for telling the stories no one else will. Many of you know what happened that fall: He broke the story of Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith’s attendance at a segregation academy, then sending her daughter to one. That broke open a national conversation about de jure segregation academies in the South and de facto school segregation across the country.
Through Breast Cancer, Senate Races and COVID-19
I was diagnosed with breast cancer shortly after meeting Ashton that night at Hal & Mal’s. I had a double mastectomy in October 2018 and recovered at home through December before my second surgery in early January slowed me down again. I know now that Ashton’s character, assistance, unselfishness and support through my recovery—I was editing every JFP story daily from home starting a week after my surgery—helped me navigate those difficult times with minimal stress while keeping urgent journalism flowing.
Indeed, he and I both ended up on the Maddow Show and other national shows to talk about our coverage of the Senate race. (I still had icky tubes under my suit when Joy Reid interviewed me right before Thanksgiving.)
I knew then that Ashton Pittman had all the makings of being a superstar journalist—because giving more than expected is a good sign of leadership. So is being the best kind of male feminist who walks the talk daily. So when Kimberly Griffin and I decided to start the Mississippi Free Press a year later, as his star kept rising, I asked Ashton to come with us as senior reporter.
It is not apocryphal that MFP didn’t even have a website when Gov. Tate Reeves was still in Spain on vacation as COVID blew up in Mississippi. Ashton and I texted each other two days after we sent folks home from the JFP’s offices and said: “We have to report. Let’s go now.” And that was when the MFP was born, kicking up dust and attracting national attention.
Since day one, I’ve desperately needed a news editor. Folks close to us know I’ve worked three jobs to help get the MFP on its feet (editor who reads almost everything, CEO/nonprofit administrator and fundraiser to help Kimberly and Cristen Hemmins). It’s a lot of long days, and I’m not getting any younger.
A Leader Perfect for the News Editor Job
Now, Ashton is MFP’s news editor.
We’d advertised for a news editor, but our phenomenal team is particular about hiring. With most of us working together for at least four years now up to 15, we need to hire people who fit. We’re not a place for prima donnas only looking for their own self-aggrandizement. We’re not a place for tearing each other down and professional jealousy. We’re not a place where you only say “good morning” to the person you think can help your career. We’re not a place that puts up with drama.
We are a place for collaboration and respectful teamwork of anyone anywhere on the masthead. I’m sure our care in hiring and our mutual respect and expressed admiration are why we’ve had no turnover since the MFP launch.
I’d known Ashton could be perfect for the news editor job—but I didn’t ask him about it because I didn’t want him to feel pressure to do it to help me. But a few months back, he suggested trying it out, which we’ve done quietly so he could be sure. This is how, in December, I could go on a two-week vacation to the UK without editing a story. Folks, I haven’t been able to do this at the JFP or the MFP for over 20 years. I’ve edited daily on every single vacation—and one week several years back from a hospital bed.
|Since he started reporting for the Jackson Free Press in 2018 and then later the Mississippi Free Press in 2020, Ashton Pittman has appeared repeatedly on national news shows and had his journalism cited, such as this MSNBC interview by Chris Hayes on the welfare scandal in Mississippi. He has also won dozens of awards during that time.|
Since he started reporting for the Jackson Free Press in 2018 and then later the Mississippi Free Press in 2020, Ashton Pittman has appeared repeatedly on national news shows and had his journalism cited, such as this MSNBC interview by Chris Hayes on the welfare scandal in Mississippi. He has also won dozens of awards during that time.
Of course, team members rave about Ashton’s leadership. So today, I’m announcing that Ashton Pittman is taking over the direction and editing of daily news coverage. I will focus on in-depth editing of systemic and other long-form stories. I will help him, and he will help me as needed. Our fabulous deputy editors Azia Wiggins and Nate Schumann and digital editor Dustin Cardon round out the editing team as 2023 dawns.
Oh, and if you’re a donor and/or MFP VIP member, pat yourself on the back for Ashton’s and other team members’ steady pay increases since 2020, which we will continue doing because these folks so deserve “all the flowers as soon as possible,” as Kimberly might put it. You know it. We know it.
Kayode: Supportive Leader and Shoe-Leather Reporter
I’m also announcing another promotion today. Kayode Crown is stepping into the senior reporter position that Ashton is vacating. You read his work, you know how great it is, and his work ethic is unparalleled. But you may not know how amazing Kayode is as a person. I feel this as his editor.
You may know that Kayode was an editor and a reporter back in Nigeria. (He’s the only MFP team member who didn’t grow up in Mississippi or live here as a long time as an adult). His wife is an academic at Jackson State University. When he first came to the JFP, he was looking for a part-time gig—but not reporting. Believe it or not, he came on board as a calendar listings assistant. But when a reporter left for a job in another state on short notice, I asked if he’d like to try out the city reporter position. He said yes.
Kayode started covering Jackson in the shoe-leather way I’d wanted for years. Let’s say Northeast Jackson is not the center of the capital city he blanketed, talking to residents about issues most outlets never notice. He embraced narrative non-fiction writing and soaked up the advice I offered. (Seriously, Kayode may be the quickest study I’ve ever worked with.) Then like most of the JFP staff, he transitioned over time to the MFP, for a while working half the day for one and half for the other until MFP could afford to hire them full-time. He and others on the staff did that because they wanted to be part of this team. They were invested in our mutual success.
Like Ashton, Kayode is a leader. He is supportive and generous with team members and me, sometimes making me blush when he thanks me for something in staff meetings. (Leaders, especially women, too often get ignored for praise and gratitude. That is not the case with this team, including from these remarkable male colleagues.)
‘That Experience Will Be Good for Me’
I need to shout out another of the men at this women-run publication, too. You’ve probably heard Nick Judin is a ProPublica Local Reporting Network journalist for the next year. He suggested that Kayode take Ashton’s place as senior reporter, and he’s so right. Kayode is excited to cover this session of the Mississippi Legislature as Nick steps away from that beat because, as he said, “that experience will be good for me.”
That is Kayode right there: always wanting to learn. And he’s right. The time I spent covering the Mississippi Legislature in the early years of the Jackson Free Press two decades ago was invaluable to my work as a Mississippi journalist and editor.
Having these two men in these roles is good for all of us. Culture reporter Aliyah Veal—a quietly brilliant superstar from Jackson who went to New York City for a master’s in journalism and then brought it home, as I did—gave me her ringing endorsement of Kayode in the heightened leadership role. “He deserves it,” she said.
I’ll stop gushing now. I want to thank all of you for your support, donations, testimonials, messages and shares. At the Jackson Free Press, we did amazing journalism for nearly 20 years, but I never had a reporter team larger than three people (usually two), and we’ll have at least six on the ground across Mississippi by July 2023.
And I’ve never had a news editor who can fill my shoes, and take the coverage to a whole new level, like Ashton Pittman can and will.
We are blessed, as we Mississippians like to say when life is good. Seriously, thank you for ensuring that the MFP keeps growing and doing the journalism this state and our people deserve. Happy new year, friends.
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 sources fact-checking the included information to firstname.lastname@example.org. We welcome a wide variety of viewpoints.