By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

Tag: Mary Margaret White

Why a widely praised move to call out Trump’s toxic rhetoric may have been a mistake

The state Capitol in Jackson, Miss. Photo (cc) 2007 by Jim Bowen.

I want to push back ever so gently against the widespread praise the Mississippi Free Press has received for telling the truth about Donald Trump. As you may have heard, the ex-president was at his outrageous worst at a rally in South Carolina last Saturday, inviting Russia to attack members of NATO that in his view don’t contribute enough money to cover U.S. defense costs. “I would encourage them to do whatever the hell they want,” Trump said of his friends in the Kremlin.

Much of the media fell down on the job, giving exponentially more coverage to the special counsel’s gratuitous claim that President Biden is dealing with age-related memory problems than to Trump’s dangerously unhinged rhetoric. So the Free Press, a nonprofit news organization that covers public policy in Mississippi, decided to publish a corrective. Under the byline of news editor Ashton Pittman, the website ran a headline that read: “Trump Encourages Russia to Attack American Allies: ‘Do Whatever the Hell They Want.’” Pittman’s lead:

Former President Donald Trump would encourage Russia to attack U.S. allies whom he claims do not contribute enough to NATO defense costs, he told a crowd of supporters to cheers at a South Carolina rally on Saturday.

Now, this was all true, and the Free Press handled the story with far greater urgency than, say, The New York Times, which buried Trump’s remarks while publishing multiple stories about Biden’s alleged forgetfulness. But why was a regional news organization leading with a national story from another state?

In an editor’s note, Pittman said he was encouraged to do so by his editor, Donna Ladd, explaining: “Several major national media outlets were fumbling the ball and either ignoring those remarks or giving them less weight than they deserve. Donna said we should set an example for how national media ought to cover such extreme policy declarations, and I agreed. So we did.”

My objection to this is that there are good reasons why local and regional news organizations ought to stick with their mission. Multiple studies show that people trust local media more than they do national outlets. At the local level, we should be working to rebuild civic life and help people find ways to come together over local issues even as we are being torn apart by partisan polarization over national politics. Yes, the problem is mainly with the political right, which has become increasingly extreme during the Trump era. But the Mississippi Free Press and outlets like it should stand as an alternative not just to the toxic rhetoric of cable news (and especially Fox), but also to serious purveyors of journalism like the Times and The Washington Post.

Apparently the Free Press is in the midst of a reshuffle. According to Joshua Benton of Nieman Lab, the Free Press recently became an Associated Press subscriber and is starting a national news section. At the moment, the Free Press’ homepage is featuring two AP stories about the fallout from Trump’s remarks. I wonder if that might be a mistake, too. While it makes sense to run AP content with a Mississippi focus, I question the value of running national and international stories on a site whose principal mission is statewide news.

Another, similar site, Mississippi Today, has stuck to its knitting — and won a Pulitzer Prize last year for its coverage of a welfare scandal that implicated, among others, former NFL quarterback Brett Favre. (CEO Mary Margaret White was a guest on our “What Works” podcast in November 2022.)

I don’t want to be too critical of the Mississippi Free Press. We need more projects like it, digging in and holding power accountable in statehouses across the country. What it published about Trump was true and righteous, and stands in welcome contrast to the both-sides timidity of the national press. I’m concerned, though, that the siren call of national politics is a distraction from its main mission, and may alienate some readers who might otherwise be reachable.

No doubt some on the political right already castigate the Free Press as a tool of the liberal elite, because that’s what right-wingers do. And no, the Free Press shouldn’t pander to them. But this strikes me as an unforced error.

Update: Donna Ladd has taken issue with this post, and I write about that here. I’ve also tweaked the wording, which I explain in my new post.

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Pioneering digital publisher Howard Owens tells us about a new idea for raising revenues

Howard Owens. Photo by Don Walker and used by permission.

On the new “What Works” podcast, Ellen Clegg and I talk with Howard Owens, the publisher of The Batavian, a digital news organization in Genesee County, New York, way out near Buffalo. When I first met Howard, he was the director of digital publishing for GateHouse Media, which later morphed into Gannett. Howard launched The Batavian for GateHouse in 2008. In 2009, GateHouse eliminated Howard’s job, but they let him take The Batavian with him, and he’s been at it ever since.

The Batavian’s website is loaded with well over 100 ads, reflecting his belief that ads should be put right in front of the reader, not rotated in and out. He’s also got an innovative idea to raise money from his readers while keeping The Batavian free, which we ask him about during our conversation with him.

We’re also joined by Sebastian Grace, who just received his degree in journalism and political science from Northeastern. Everyone in journalism is freaking out about ChatGPT and other players in the new generation of artificial intelligence. Seb wrote a really smart piece, which is up on the What Works website, assuring us all that we shouldn’t worry — that AI is a tool that can allow journalists to work smarter.

Ellen has a Quick Take on Mississippi Today, which won a Pulitzer Prize for Local Reporting for stories that revealed how a former Mississippi governor used his office to steer millions of state welfare dollars to benefit family and friends. Including NFL quarterback Brett Favre! We interviewed Mary Margaret White, the CEO of Mississippi today, on the podcast in November 2022. And reporter Anna Wolfe has a great podcast about her prize-winning series.

I observe that journalism these days is often depicted as deep blue — something that liberals and progressives may pay attention to, but that conservatives and especially Trump supporters dismiss as fake news. But Steve Waldman, the head of the Rebuild Local News coalition, says it’s not that simple, and that the local news crisis is harming conservatives even more than it is liberals.

You can listen to our conversation here and subscribe through your favorite podcast app.

Mary Margaret White of Mississippi Today talks with us about journalism and southern culture

Mary Margaret White

On this week’s “What Works” podcast, Ellen Clegg and I talk with Mary Margaret White, the CEO of Mississippi Today, a nonprofit digital news outlet that has been covering the state for more than six years. The staff has a robust presence at the statehouse in Jackson and provides cultural and sports coverage as well.

Mary Margaret is a Mississippi native. She has a bachelor’s in English and journalism and a master’s in Southern studies from the University of Mississippi. She also spent almost 10 years working for the state, with jobs in arts and tourism. Her work has appeared in The Listening Post CollectiveThe New Encyclopedia of Southern Culture and on Mississippi Public Broadcasting radio.

I’ve got a Quick Take on a major transition at the New Haven Independent. Last week the indefatigable founder, Paul Bass, announced he was stepping aside as editor of the Independent. The new editor will be Tom Breen, currently the managing editor. Luckily, Bass isn’t going anywhere but will continue to play a major role.

Ellen’s Quick Take is on another big transition at The Texas Tribune. Economist Sonal Shah is becoming CEO at the Tribune in January. Shah, who has had leadership roles at Google, the White House, and other high-impact organizations, replaces co-founder Evan Smith, who is taking a role as senior adviser to the Emerson Collective. It’s a big change at a pioneering nonprofit newsroom. Smith says he’ll continue to spread the local news gospel in his new role.

You can listen to our latest podcast here and subscribe through your favorite podcast app.

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