JACKSON, Miss.—The Mississippi Free Press received further recognition of its three years of news coverage during the prestigious Izzy Award ceremony on April 27.
The Park Center for Independent Media (PCIM) presented the Izzy Award to the Jackson-headquartered statewide news outlet in a virtual ceremony from Ithaca College in New York.
The award lauded “outstanding achievement in independent media” and is named after I. F. “Izzy” Stone, the dissident journalist who launched I. F. Stone’s Weekly in 1953 that questioned government deception, McCarthyism, the Vietnam War and racial bigotry.
Judges of the Izzy Award cited the Mississippi Free Press’ in-depth coverage of the water crisis in Jackson and the racist University of Mississippi donor scandal, as well as the women-run newsroom’s dogged demands for public access to open records and the systemic inequities from COVID-19 that hit Black women harder than any other group, including Black men.
“The Mississippi Free Press is an impressive argument for the importance of local nonprofit news,” the judges recently said. “Its fearless and empathetic reporting exposes racial and economic fault lines that go back centuries, vividly exposing how they shape politics and power in Mississippi in the 21st century.”
The judges were Raza Rumi, director of PCIM; communications professor, author and media critic Robert W. McChesney; Linda Jue, editor-at-large for the investigative news site 100Reporters and contributing investigative editor for palabra, the innovative news site of the National Association of Hispanic Journalists; and Jeff Cohen, retired journalism professor and founding director of PCIM.
The Free Press provided extensive and leading coverage of the drinking water disaster in Jackson when the capital city’s water mains collapsed in the face of unusual freezing temperatures, despite a $200-million investment in repairs. The series intimately captured the effects on local families and exposed a catastrophic failure of coordination among elected officials.
Additionally, the Free Press was the only news outlet that reported a tranche of emails between donors and University of Mississippi officials, rolling out a startling news-breaking series that pulled back the curtain on how the university coddles a network of monied alumni, offering them outsized access and influence even in the face of open expressions of racism and homophobia. MFP has worked to expand public access to open records, filing complaints with the state ethics commission to fight for access to state legislative caucus meetings.
Kimberly Griffin and Donna Ladd founded the Mississippi Free Press, named for a Civil Rights Movement newspaper Medgar Evers and a diverse team ran from Jackson in the 1960s. Evers’ daughter and MFP’s first Advisory Board member, Reena Evers-Everette, gave her blessing in 2019 to start a fiercely independent, statewide nonprofit newsroom honoring the original courage of the Mississippi Free Press and with the same name.
The aggressive news coverage has increased readership and reach since the outlet’s beginnings, Publisher and Chief Revenue Officer Kimberly Griffin said: “Mississippians need more and better news coverage of local issues than ever before. Our goal is to increase news coverage even more this year.”
Editor and CEO Donna Ladd said the newspaper’s mission is to improve and expand local news while representing and including more Mississippians than any journalism outlet here has ever done. “In 2023 see and beyond, we will be covering all 82 counties because our mission is to uncover the causes of systemic inequities across Mississippi and then do solutions journalism about ways the people of our home state can work together to address challenges. Our target readership isn’t just the usual suspects.”
The Mississippi Free Press first published right as COVID-19 hit Mississippi in 2020, with about $50,000 in startup funds and star reporter Ashton Pittman (now MFP News Editor) publishing viral reporting on a temporary website to hold the governor accountable for confusing, patchwork safety efforts.
The New Yorker and others quickly cited his reporting—and since then the inclusive MFP team has drawn continual national attention, with immense and regular impact for truth-to-power reporting and unflinching contextual journalism. The MFP also draws immense individual donor support across Mississippi and the nation. “Our funding base are the people,” Ladd said. “You won’t find a more inclusive reader and donor base in our state, or many states.”
MFP’s staff—most brought up in Mississippi—is building off what Ladd, a white Neshoba County native, and Griffin, a Black Clarke Countian who came of age in Jackson as schools were re-segregating, built together for 13 years at Ladd’s weekly Jackson Free Press. JFP exposed truth other outlets wouldn’t touch for 20 years, challenging corporate and chain media like The Clarion-Ledger on poorly reported issues like “jackpot justice” (coverage of tort-reform legislation designed to help create the state’s one-party supermajority), and challenged revered leaders’ legacy and actions when others wouldn’t.
“We mean it when we say we are truth-to-power journalism,” Ladd said. “That means all along the political spectrum.”
After acquiring JFP’s journalism assets and archives in 2022, the Mississippi Free Press took the ball and ran even further, winning 49 journalism awards since its opening day in March 2020. The Institute for Nonprofit News named the Mississippi Free Press Startup of the Year in 2021.
Meantime, this women-run outlet still challenges corporate media (and now chain nonprofits consolidating newsrooms) to stop horse-race coverage, disclose significant conflicts, report systemic/structural racism and violence, challenge sacred Mississippi cows, do tedious democracy work others don’t, and engage deeply in issues that matter to diverse Mississippians across 82 counties.
This year’s Izzy Award is shared by nonprofit news outlets The Lever and Mississippi Free Press and journalists Carlos Ballesteros for uncovering police misconduct and immigration injustice, and Liza Gross for exposing damaging manipulations by the oil industry.