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22 Years of Free Press Truth-telling in Mississippi

Twenty-two years ago this month my co-founder Donna Ladd and her life partner and my former boss and mentor Todd Stauffer opened the Jackson Free Press. The two landed in Mississippi right before 9/11, intending to stay for six months so Donna could work on a big reporting project. Donna, a Neshoba County native, had left Mississippi the day she graduated from Mississippi State University, vowing never to return, but the universe had other plans.

Donna and Todd, along with Stephen Barnette, another Mississippian who wanted to see a better Jackson, started the Jackson Free Press with a few simple goals in mind: to stop the sensationalizing of underrepresented communities; to help bridge social and knowledge gaps between community across race and class lines; to counteract the narrative that Jackson was a war zone; and to prevent folks from running to the burbs for dining and events.

And so began a paper that served the capital city and all its people. They even put the first-ever Best of Jackson awards ballot in the first issue of the JFP—then launching one of the city’s biggest (and most diverse) annual parties that celebrated local businesses and people. The news coverage went beyond headlines and instead asked what’s actually going beyond sound bites and examined systems.

At some point about 13 years ago, my play sister, as we say in the Black community, held up the paper and said: “These are your people; you should go work for them.” I was coming off a long illness and figured I had nothing to lose. Over the years, I went from part-time to full-time to associate publisher. And I learned what it takes to do essential journalism that serves the entire community and builds the kind of inclusive support bases that elude most U.S. newsrooms.

During the last several years of our existence, it became harder and harder to sell print ads as the for-profit news industry changed. We were far luckier than some in our world because capital-area folks still liked the feel of newsprint in their hands, so the decline in print revenue was slower, giving us time to plan our next act.

Then in mid-2019, Donna came to me with an idea. She and I would start a statewide nonprofit newsroom doing more of what we’d done at the Jackson Free Press, uncovering solutions to Mississippi’s systemic issues. (And Todd could return to his own national career after serving his adopted state well for two decades.) Frankly, I didn’t think much of the idea at first, but she explained that we would be able to pay our dedicated folks decent salaries–and that’s all I needed to hear. Our loyal team deserved this, and the entire state needed a new kind of journalism that bridges gaps and doesn’t shy away from causes of embedded inequities and division.

Between March 2020 and May 2022, the two publications operated separately. We eventually brought over our entire staff and our nonprofit, the Mississippi Journalism and Education Group, eventually acquired the JFP journalism assets, mailing lists and trademarks. Then this summer Donna, along with Melishia Grayson and Imani Khayyam, relaunched the Mississippi Youth Media Project with support from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation and now Microsoft in our newsroom.

So here we are celebrating entering our 22nd year of Free Press Journalism—officially starting on Sept. 22, Donna’s mother’s birthday. It’s been a wild and rewarding ride that we couldn’t do without you, so cheers to us and all our readers and supporters. Join us on Sept. 22 for our first Free Press Giving Day to help grow, and pay, this amazing team even more.

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The Mississippi Free Press is a nonprofit, nonpartisan 501(c)(3) focused on telling stories that center all Mississippians.

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