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How a Mississippi news site declared the national local
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Feb. 12, 2024, 2:20 p.m.

How a Mississippi news site declared the national local

“Frankly, the nation’s media may well be talking and thinking too much about the need for someone to ‘save journalism’ when all of us should be laser-focused on doing the work that may well save democracy.”

On Sunday, millions of Americans — not to mention millions more around the world — gathered to watch two great teams battle. Only one could end up on top, of course, but each side had its share of vocal fans rooting for their side and denigrating the other.

I’m speaking, of course, of the ur-conflict between Team Biden-Is-Really-Old and Team Trump-Invites-Russia-To-Invade-Our-Allies. Specifically, the debate over which should be considered the bigger news story and thus get more attention from the nation’s press.

For those blissfully unaware: On Thursday afternoon, a special counsel’s report on a documents investigation went out of its way to describe President Joe Biden as a “well-meaning, elderly man with a poor memory” who forgets key dates. Many observers considered that a bit of a partisan low blow, but whatever one thinks, it led to a wave of renewed media interest in Biden’s mental capacity for a second term.

Then, on Saturday, former president Donald Trump held a rally at which he told a “sir” story — usually a good indicator the story is imaginary1 — in which he dresses down the unnamed leader of a NATO ally. Trump says he told this leader the United States would not defend his country if it were invaded by Russia because it did not pay as much of NATO’s budget as Trump wanted them to. “No, I would not protect you,” Trump said he told the leader. “In fact, I would encourage them” — Russia — “to do whatever the hell they want.”

These were two newsworthy events! Those on Team Biden-Is-Really-Old took an early lead as news outlets gave blanket coverage to the age issue. (Despite, as countless people pointed out, that both 81-year-old Biden and 77-year-old Trump have had plenty of forgotten dates and mixed-up names between them.) Media critics, mostly on the left, derided cable news chyrons like “IS BIDEN’S AGE NOW A BIGGER PROBLEM THAN TRUMP’S INDICTMENTS?” and a sea of site-leading headlines. (Judd Legum counted 33 stories in The Washington Post and 30 in The New York Times between Feb. 7 and 10 on the special counsel’s claims on Biden’s memory issues. Those 30 Times pieces carried the bylines of 28 different reporters and columnists. Meanwhile, Trump’s NATO comments didn’t make the Times’ Sunday Page One.)

Meanwhile, it took a bit longer for coverage of Trump’s threat to European allies to evolve. Part of that, it should be said, can be attributed to timing. The Biden story broke on a Thursday afternoon; the Trump one broke on the Saturday before the Super Bowl. And another part, no doubt, is that the past decade has left some in the media numb to Trump’s outrageous comments and made-up anecdotes, both of which tend to come in bulk. (The Washington Post counted 30,573 “false or misleading claims” during his four years in office.)

Here’s how Margaret Sullivan, the celebrated former New York Times public editor and Washington Post media columnist, put it:

Biden’s advanced age is, granted, far from ideal for a president seeking a second term, even the very effective president that he has been. Yes, he’s old; and, never a gifted public speaker, he makes cringe-inducing mistakes. It would be great if he were 20 years younger. His age really is a legitimate concern for many voters.

But for the media to make this the overarching issue of the campaign is nothing short of journalistic malpractice.

That’s especially the case when Trump is poised to take down American democracy, starting on Day One, and when he has been criminally charged 91 times in multiple states, including for trying to overturn the legitimate 2020 election. Also, he’s old and gaffe-prone himself…

Is there no one at these major outlets who is capable of taking a step back and exercising some judgment?

Which is what made the weekend decision of a publication down in Mississippi so interesting.

The Mississippi Free Press is a nonprofit digital outlet in the state’s capital, a spiritual successor to the alt-weekly Jackson Free Press, long a prominent left-of-center voice in the conservative state. The Free Press typically writes about, you guessed it, Mississippi, a place with no shortage of stories. But seeing the Biden and Trump coverage Saturday, editor and CEO Donna Ladd started “getting flashbacks” to 2016 coverage that foregrounded Trump-friendly narratives, she told me. “I was mortified all over again to see that national media outlets were not leading with his very dangerous words.”

So she texted news editor Ashton Pittman with an idea: Why not write up Trump’s NATO comments and make them the lead story on the Free Press site?

On one hand, Donald Trump’s latest iteration of “Russia, if you’re listening” had nothing to do with Mississippi. On the other, though, it has everything to do with Mississippi, which, with a single unfortunate exception in the 1860s, has been part of the United States for a couple of centuries. As Pittman put it on Twitter after publishing the 413-word played-straight story: “We may be a local Mississippi outlet, but this is important. It should be leading every newspaper in the country.”

The reaction was overwhelmingly positive — at least from the corners of the internet where you’d expect it to be. “It’s cool, but a bit infuriating to be praised for having the courage or whatever to do the obvious thing and lead our site with this kind of news,” Ladd said. Traffic spiked (“So many people are hungry for media just telling the damn truth without dancing around it”) and so did donations, with “a steady stream of donations from new donors since the story went out.”

The Free Press is embarking on a grant-funded site rebuild (with Newspack) and there’ll be a new section for national news added in the process. The site recently subscribed to the Associated Press wire, primarily to have access to AP’s coverage of the Mississippi legislature (which Ladd called “the best in the state”) and reduce duplicative efforts. But that access to AP can now also help seed national content on the site.

Still, local coverage of Mississippi issues will remain the overwhelming focus, and don’t expect the Free Press to riffing on every wild sentence out of Trump’s mouth. “We don’t rage-bait readers and certainly aren’t going to try to start,” Pittman told me. “Too many national publications over the years have had a symbiotic relationship with Trump where they give him exposure (warranted or not) and he gives them clicks.” Decisions on what to cover will be based “on the stakes, on whether we think major national outlets are meeting the moment, and on whether we have something we can uniquely add as a publication based in Mississippi,” he said.

Back in pre-internet times, it was utterly normal for national and local news to reach someone from the same source. The same daily newspaper that told you about last night’s city council meeting also delivered headlines from around the world, cobbled together from wire services and (sometimes, at the papers with the most resources) their own correspondents. Sitting down to “watch the news” in the evening meant spending half an hour with an anchorman in New York and then another with his local analogs. That was because distributing news was very expensive — requiring huge printing presses or broadcast towers — and bundling the local and global made economic sense.

It was the web’s splintering that broke that model. It’s driven a few national outlets — mostly The New York Times — to new heights of ambition. And it’s left local news outlets in crisis, lacking both the revenue and the audience interest needed to thrive. The result looks something like a power-law distribution, with a few massive national outlets followed by a seemingly infinite long tail.

One place to see this local-national fracture is in the rapid decline of Washington bureaus, once the nexus of local concerns and national issues. So I was heartened to see that Ladd and the Mississippi Free Press are using their viral boomlet to raise money to fund a Washington reporter to cover Mississippi issues.

“The first plan [publisher and chief revenue officer] Kimberly Griffin and I wrote for the MFP included a D.C. reporter (whether full-time, shared or contract), but we’ve been too busy building the local team to circle back to it” until now, Ladd told me. (They expect to have eight local reporters on staff by summer.) The Washington reporter would focus on policy stories, fact-checking, and investigations; depending on resources and other issues, they could work only for the Free Press or as a shared resource with similar newsrooms in the Deep South.

To state the obvious: Running a single short story on a Mississippi news site doesn’t change much in the world. And plenty of those who liked it were cheering for partisan rather than editorial reasons.

But we Americans are staring at nine long months of campaign coverage — of a profoundly heightened need to balance the relative importance of stories. What journalists choose to focus on matters, even in the news industry’s maimed state. Our profession’s fundamental act — the chance to say “hey, this is important, you should pay attention” — isn’t reserved to a few offices in Manhattan and Washington. The voice can come from Mississippi too.

“Frankly, the nation’s media may well be talking and thinking too much about the need for someone to ‘save journalism’ when all of us should be laser-focused on doing the work that may well save democracy,” Ladd said. “I rather think that will save our industry more than anything else right now.”

Photo of a Mississippi rest area off I-55 North by formulanone used under a Creative Commons license.

  1. CNN’s Daniel Dale in 2019: “I’ve fact-checked every word Trump has uttered since his inauguration. I can tell you that if this President relays an anecdote in which he has someone referring to him as “sir,” then some major component of the anecdote is very likely to be wrong.” ↩︎
Joshua Benton is the senior writer and former director of Nieman Lab. You can reach him via email (joshua_benton@harvard.edu) or Twitter DM (@jbenton).
POSTED     Feb. 12, 2024, 2:20 p.m.
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