If you happened to have been in Jackson, Miss., back in 2001 and 2002, you probably know that the Jackson Free Press, the first news publication I co-founded in Mississippi, really grew out of a monthly gathering, then at Hal’s & Mal’s, that my partner Todd Stauffer and I hosted to gather up folks for a bit of fellowship and refreshments. It was a social habit I’d started when I was in grad school at Columbia in New York City: Bring together my journalism and other old and new friends in a central location, have fantastic conversation and do a touch of low-key networking. It’s like hosting a salon, but someone else does the dishes.
It was at those early Lounges in Jackson where the idea for the Jackson Free Press first took hold. After it launched, the gatherings became the JFP Lounge, and we had a Lounge List (email list) that pulled people together and formed the core of the coveted Best of Jackson invitation list. It was, frankly, a way to build community and connection, which we all need—now even more after pandemic hibernation.
Now at the Mississippi Free Press, we’re Loungin’ again. When Publisher Kimberly Griffin and I travel, we pick a location (often the hotel’s bar or a patio nearby), and we alert local supporters and donors to head over and say hello. We buy the appetizers, and see who turns up. We’ve done Lounges in Los Angeles, Chicago, New Orleans, Starkville and Oxford, Miss., so far. We see Mississippi ex-pats as well as readers without ties to Mississippi who love MFP reporting. We always get a jolt of energy and motivation from these meetups.
But, when we were in Washington, D.C., earlier this month for the Institute for Nonprofit News conference, y’all outdid yourselves in the nation’s capital. Lounge attendees took up much of the hotel restaurant, and it was a delightful mix of folks spanning generations. Most had strong Mississippi ties; a few had none. And you kept coming for nearly five hours, even after we moved to the couches in front after the restaurant closed. I hadn’t physically met most of the people there or seen others in years.
Let’s just say D.C. readers love the Mississippi Free Press, sharing ideas, shout-outs to various writers and stories, and ideas for other potential donors. You brought friends and family to meet us. And, the best part is how much D.C. Loungers loved getting to know each other. This has always been my favorite part of our Lounges: watching people connect with someone who might just live a few streets over and then brainstorm ideas.
My absolute favorite part of this Lounge was when two graduates of Hattiesburg High School—him a young Black Mississippian now at Howard Law School, she a white woman now in the nonprofit world up there—figure out that they had both been student body president some 30-odd-years apart. Much hugging ensued and lots of pictures.
I was hoarse the next day from talking so much, and just in time to go to the Mississippi on the Mall event with one Lounger where I saw another there. But I felt wonderful because the Free Press had gone to Washington and accomplished something at the heart of who we are: introducing Mississippians to each other, whether or not you still live in our dear, often-confounding state.
It will take all of us to help Mississippi finally reach her potential. We’re here for that mission, and we invite you to join us in whatever ways we can. You can donate in any amount and thus join our Lounge List. Solutions lie in connections, and we’re here to connect y’all to each other. Let’s work together for a place we can all be proud to call home.
Oh, and we’ll be Loungin’ soon again at Hal & Mal’s in Jackson. Join us and order the Free Press veggie burger. It’s great to see they haven’t forgotten us after all these years.
This MFP Voices essay does not necessarily represent the views of the Mississippi Journalism and Education Group, the Mississippi Free Press, its staff or board members. To submit an opinion 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.