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June 27, 2016, 12:30 p.m.
Business Models

Mississippi Today, backed by an NBC exec, aims to be the Texas Tribune of its undercovered state

“Proportionally, we hope to do just as well.”

Mississippi has one of the thinnest statehouse press corps in the United States. In 2014, there were just four full-time reportersone for every 741,824 Mississippians — covering the state government in Jackson.

That’s why Mississippi Today, a nonprofit site that launched in May, is trying to bring more muscle to the coverage of government and politics in the state.

The site has some boldface-name backers, led by its founder, NBC News and MSNBC chairman Andrew Lack, whose family hails from Mississippi. With an 11-person newsroom based outside Jackson, the nonpartisan site has backing from supporters on all sides of the political spectrum.

“We report the facts and we hope to dive deep into subject matter so that we can fully provide context to readers, but we leave it up to them to make their own decisions after they have read and digested the information we provide,” said Mississippi Today coeditor Dennis Moore, a former USA Today editor.

Moore and coeditor Fred Anklam Jr., also a USA Today veteran, said Mississippi Today has an operating budget of more than $1 million and is fully funded for the next two to three years as it looks to build its readership and create a sustainable business model.

The site has a solid base of support from well-known Mississippians, including former Netscape CEO James L. Barksdale, prominent trial attorney Richard “Dickie” Scruggs, and former Mississippi governors Haley Barbour (R) and William Winter (D).

“The money to get us going was all raised before we published a word,” Anklam said. The site started a wave of fundraising on May 2, and since its launch party, it’s raised more than $100,000 in individual donations. “People are giving [anywhere from] $5 a month to $5,000 for a year, chiming in where they feel they can contribute,” he said. “It’s exciting to see the kind of support coming in.”

Mississippi Today also received $250,000 grants from the Knight Foundation and the Ford Foundation. (Disclosure: Knight also supports Nieman Lab.)

In order to continue to grow, the site plans to follow the lead of The Texas Tribune, the Austin-based nonprofit that’s considered among the gold standards for nonprofit sites, by attempting to build a diverse mix of revenue streams via individual memberships, major gifts, foundation grants, site advertising, and sponsored events.

The Texas Tribune, however, has a few obvious advantages that Mississippi Today does not. Texas (population 27 million) is a lot bigger than Mississippi (population 3 million), and sponsors and advertisers want to reach the Tribune’s influential audience. There were 1,847 registered lobbyists in Texas in 2015, one group that has a professional interest in what’s happening in Austin and would be likely to read — and potentially support — the Tribune. By contrast, there were 438 registered lobbyists in Mississippi last year.

Texas also has the second-largest state economy in the U.S. It produced $1.59 trillion in economic output in 2015, according to the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis. Mississippi, by comparison, had a GDP of $107.1 billion.

In 2015, the Tribune brought in $2.7 million in corporate sponsorships. So far in 2016, it’s raised $1.8 million from sponsors such as PepsiCo, which has spent $110,000 sponsoring Tribune events, and AT&T, which spent $80,000. It has nearly 40 reporters.

Of course, the Tribune has grown substantially since its launch in 2009, and since Mississippi is a smaller state, Anklam and Moore said they don’t expect to become Texas-sized anytime soon. They are optimistic, though, that they will be able to attract corporate sponsors and members: “Proportionally, we hope to do just as well,” Anklam said.

Will Norton Jr., the dean of the University of Mississippi’s journalism school and a Mississippi Today board member, said he believes there is enough interest in the state to support the site’s public interest mission.

“We have poor education in Mississippi, but this is a way for people to learn,” Norton said. “How do you bring computers and broadband connections to as many different places as possible? That’s one of the challenges for a state like ours. At least [with Mississippi Today], the decision makers will be hearing information and can pass it along.”

Mississippi Today was in development for several years. The site’s parent, Mississippi News and Information Corporation, was incorporated in October 2014 and gained nonprofit status in March 2015. Lack had been thinking about launching the site even before that (his great grandfather Jacob Alexander was the mayor of Greenville in the late 19th century) and he wanted to use his experience as a news executive to launch a news site in his home state.

Lack was hired to run NBC News last year in the wake of Brian Williams’ suspension. (He’d previously run the news division in the 1990s.) He declined multiple interview requests, but directed me to his friend John Huey, the former Time Inc. editor-in-chief.

“[The Mississippi Today team] is committed to aggressive, responsible journalism, diversity, and all of the things that aren’t present in Mississippi without them,” Huey told me. “It’s very much a passion project for Andy.”

Most of Mississippi Today’s staff members — including Anklam and Moore — have roots in the state. The site has assigned reporters to focus on topics such as state government, education, and courts and the legal system, though it also has general assignment reporters.

“A lot of it comes down to resources,” Anklam said. “We don’t have to cover local activities, such as fires, murders, and zoning — which a lot of the local media covers well. We are able to concentrate on a more focused area of coverage that allows us to dive deeper into some of these subjects.”

Mississippi Today has already shared a number of its stories with other local news outlets, allowing them to republish its original reporting. It’s in discussions with Mississippi Public Broadcasting and another local TV station in Jackson about collaborating. And it plans to work with state universities to offer students internships.

As time goes on, Mississippi Today plans to continue to experiment and add new features. Anklam said he’d also like to try more video and mobile-focused ways of storytelling.

“That’s what’s fun about it: There aren’t any rules, really,” Anklam said. “Having worked for a big corporation, you know what the parameters are, and the mission statement comes from above. [Here] we developed the mission statement. We are modifying our approaches on a week-to-week basis.”

Photo of the Mississippi state capitol by Visit Mississippi used under a creative commons license.

POSTED     June 27, 2016, 12:30 p.m.
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