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Sept. 23, 2021, 10:57 a.m.
Business Models

The Mississippi Free Press launched early to cover the pandemic, but aims to be in nonprofit news “for the long game”

“If you seem to be an organization that’s only concerned with large donors and large foundations, you’re probably only concerned with one type of reporting.”

On the Mississippi Free Press’ birthday, publisher Kimberly Griffin headlined her summary of what the new nonprofit news organization had been up to in its first year: “Telling the truth, shaming the devil in Covid times.” She explained:

It was not our plan to start the Mississippi Free Press in March 2020 as the pandemic began. Our team dropped the first MFP stories the week of March 15 because, quite frankly, we had little choice. Covid was in our state, and our state didn’t have a plan. We reported on the hodgepodge of mask ordinances across the state, the need for equitable responses, our state’s first Covid death, and demanded data by race and gender. The soft launch, as we’d termed our plan to start the MFP, morphed into a full-blown media outlet with a packed Covid-19 archive pretty much overnight because the times called for it. The MFP was all of three weeks old when The New Yorker featured our Covid-19 coverage.

… I challenge you to find any Mississippi news outlet that’s covered our Covid crisis as thoroughly and with such urgency and impact as this one.

The Mississippi Free Press, cofounded by Griffin and executive director Donna Ladd, is currently a fund at the Community Foundation for Mississippi and on its way to securing its own nonprofit 501(c)(3) status. The news organization has already received support from W.K. Kellogg FoundationLocal Independent Online News (LION) Publishers, Institute for Nonprofit News, Facebook, and 975 individual donors.

This isn’t Ladd’s first time founding an independent news organization in Mississippi. When she and her partner Todd Stauffer moved back to the state and launched the ad-supported Jackson Free Press in 2002, there was plenty of room for improvement.

“We had a daily newspaper with an atrocious racist past … We had two historically Black newspapers and then newspapers that covered white parts of town,” Ladd said. The Jackson Free Press ran “on a shoestring” but was proud to be “distributed in every ZIP code and every part of town,” Ladd said.

Ladd, who has written about her mother’s illiteracy, was a club DJ, a law school drop-out, “all kinds of things” before she landed on journalism. She hails from Neshoba County, where three civil rights workers were abducted and murdered. Ladd was three years old at the time, but only learned about the killings when she was 14 and, then, only through a made-for-tv movie. Ladd considers the moment the origin story of her career.

“That’s what put me on the journalism path — and when I say journalism, I mean truth-telling,” she said. “I believe our young people have the right to know the truth and our history and how we got here.”

She’s still on the path, but said her experience at the ad-funded Jackson Free Press and conversations with nonprofit newsroom founders convinced her that now was the right time to start something new. So Ladd launched Mississippi Free Press with Griffin, a longtime colleague at The Jackson Free Press. (Stauffer still runs the Jackson Free Press and though they’re sure they don’t want to sell the paper to a corporation that would turn it into “a crappy newspaper,” they “know the industry has changed” and are “thinking very seriously” about the newspaper’s next steps.)

The Mississippi Free Press covers the entire state, and has published an award-winning multi-part investigation into systemic racism at the University of Mississippi — including in its journalism department — and solutions to a medical debt crisis, alongside arts coverage and a fun look at a creative Lego fan exhibition. Ladd shared some of the newsroom’s coverage plans and a map of the many counties they hope to cover given the opportunity (and funding) to realize their ambitions.

One thing is clear: the pandemic remains a — if not the — story. Though the Delta variant’s spread has slowed, the state’s intensive-care capacity remains “effectively zero” as hospitals grapple with the fall-out from “weeks sky-high viral transmission” and Mississippi remains No. 1 in Covid-19 deaths per 100,000 residents. As Griffin wrote in her publisher’s note, covering the disproportionate effect of Covid-19 on Black women was an early focus (including a collaboration with DeAnna Tisdale-Johnson at the Jackson Advocate) and the publication isn’t about to let up.

From the beginning, MFP has put diversity at the center of its mission; both cofounders stressed that they see including voices and faces that reflect Mississippi as critical to its ability to become sustainable as a nonprofit news organization in the state.

The diversity commitment is also reflected in its donation messaging (“MFP seeks to sustain the most diverse and inclusive statewide media outlet in Mississippi. Please donate today to support solutions journalism in the state!”) and staffing of its 10-person team, plus freelancers and other contributors.

“I think your donor base reflects your team and also reflects your coverage. If I don’t see you covering me, that’s not a news source for me,” Griffin said. “I think if you look at our staff and you look at our coverage you can see why” MFP is getting donations from a diverse group of Mississippians, she added.

Though she spends plenty of time chasing major donations and working on campaigns like NewsMatch (which brought in more than $100,000), Griffin said small-dollar donations are about more than just the funds they collect.

“If you seem to be an organization that’s only concerned with large donors and large foundations, you’re probably only concerned with one type of reporting,” she said. “I think having small donors, especially from our community, makes them feel empowered and a part of the team. We really stress ‘give what you can’ and people really do give what they can.”

I asked Griffin if there was anything else she thinks people should know about the Mississippi Free Press. She shared some of the highlights from the newsroom’s impact reports but stressed that their real impact, if they’re successful, will be felt most by those in state.

“We are solutions journalism–based; I think that is so important to highlight,” Griffin said. “We don’t parachute in with the flashiest headline we could find. We really do have a long game with the people and the communities we cover.”

Sarah Scire is deputy editor of Nieman Lab. You can reach her via email (, Twitter DM (@SarahScire), or Signal (+1 617-299-1821).
POSTED     Sept. 23, 2021, 10:57 a.m.
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