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

Tag: Mississippi Today

Peter Bhatia tells us about the Houston Landing — including the turmoil at the top

Peter Bhatia

On the new “What Works” podcast, Ellen Clegg and I talk with Peter Bhatia. Bhatia is a Pulitzer Prize-winning editor who is now chief executive officer of the Houston Landing, a nonprofit, non-partisan, no-paywall local news site that launched in spring of 2023. He has also been editor and vice president at the Detroit Free Press, from 2017-2023, and served as a regional editor for Gannett, supervising newsrooms in Michigan and Ohio.

His résumé includes helping lead newsrooms that won 10 Pulitzer Prizes. He is the first journalist of South Asian heritage to lead a major daily newspaper in the U.S. He has also been involved in some recent controversies, and, as you’ll hear, he doesn’t shy away from talking about them.

In Quick Takes, I talk about an important press-freedom case in Mississippi. The former governor, Phil Bryant, is suing Mississippi Today over its Pulitzer Prize-winning series on a state welfare scandal that got national attention and even managed to touch former NFL quarterback Brett Favre. Bryant says he needs access to Today’s internal documents in order to prove his libel case, and a state judge has agreed. Mississippi Today has decided to take the case to the state Supreme Court. It’s a risk, because it will set a precedent in the Magnolia State — for better or worse.

Ellen highlights an interview with Alicia Bell, the director of the Racial Equity in Journalism Fund at Borealis Philanthropy. Bell talked to Editor & Publisher about her upcoming report on what it will take to build a thriving local news ecosystem for BIPOC communities across the country. Her estimate: it will take somewhere between $380 million to $7.1 billion annually to truly fund BIPOC journalism across the U.S. That’s a big number, but Borealis is a pioneer in this space, and it’s important research as national efforts like Press Forward roll out.

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

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Mississippi Today fights a judge’s order to turn over internal documents

Former Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant. Photo (cc) 2016 by Tammy Anthony Baker.

The nonprofit news organization Mississippi Today has filed an appeal with that state’s Supreme Court rather than turn over internal documents sought by former Gov. Phil Bryant, who’s suing Today over its Pulitzer Prize-winning investigation into a state welfare scandal.

It’s a high-stakes gamble: Mississippi recognizes only a very limited reporter’s privilege protecting journalists and news organizations from being ordered to identify anonymous sources and from producing documents. A lower court went along with Bryant, who argues that he is seeking evidence he needs in his attempt to prove that he was libeled by Today and its publisher, Mary Margaret White, a past guest on our “What Works” podcast. Today’s editor-in-chief, Adam Ganucheau, writes:

The Supreme Court could guarantee these critical rights for the first time in our state’s history, or it could establish a dangerous precedent for Mississippi journalists and the public at large by tossing aside an essential First Amendment protection.

As readers of Media Nation know, the U.S. Supreme Court, in its 1972 Branzburg v. Hayes decision, ruled that the First Amendment does not provide for a reporter’s privilege. Nevertheless, 49 states offer some form of privilege either through a law or a ruling by state courts. The sole exceptions are Wyoming and the federal government itself. (The latest efforts to create a federal shield law are currently stalled in the Senate.)

The reporter’s privilege in Mississippi, though, is extremely limited — so much so that Ganucheau doesn’t regard his state as having any privilege at all. The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press lumps Mississippi in with a group of states that have the lowest level of protection for journalism, including Idaho, Utah, Iowa, Missouri, Virginia and, sadly for us New Englanders, Massachusetts and New Hampshire.

In RCFP’s guide to the reporter’s privilege, Mississippi lawyer Hale Gregory writes that “there are no reported decisions from Mississippi’s appellate courts regarding the reporters’ privilege, qualified or otherwise,” but that several court orders by the state’s trial courts have recognized “a qualified privilege.”

Mississippi Today has emerged as a vital source of accountability journalism in our poorest state. Currently it’s partnering with The New York Times on an investigation into a county sheriff’s department that has already led to prison sentences for six deputies who tortured two Black men in their custody, and that could lead to a federal civil-rights lawsuit.

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Pulitzer congrats to Lookout Santa Cruz, featured in our book and podcast

Ken Doctor (via LinkedIn)

Congratulations to Lookout Santa Cruz, a digital local-news startup that on Monday won the Pulitzer Prize for Breaking News Reporting. The site was recognized for its reporting on a January 2023 flood and its aftermath. In the words of the Pulitzer board, Lookout Santa Cruz published “detailed and nimble community-focused coverage, over a holiday weekend, of catastrophic flooding and mudslides that displaced thousands of residents and destroyed more than 1,000 homes and businesses.” Here’s what Lookout Santa Cruz had to say about winning the award:

We reported quickly and carefully, vetting often scattered and confusing facts, making sure we got out the accurate news and information essential to individual and community decision-making. We documented in words, images and videos what people from the reaches of San Lorenzo Valley to Pajaro to Capitola were experiencing. We called on President Joe Biden to visit beleaguered South County as well as jaw-dropping coastal damage. We did what we always do, but at warp speed and still made sure that our deep reporting work got its usual double edits by our experienced, diligent editors.

Ellen Clegg and I looked at the Santa Cruz news ecosystem in our book, “What Works in Community News.” The region is served by two digital startups — Santa Cruz Local, originally a for-profit that launched in 2019 and that converted to nonprofit status after our book was finished, and Lookout Santa Cruz, a for-profit public benefit corporation right from the start. (A public benefit corporation is a for-profit that is legally required to operate with a public service mission.) We’ve also offered more depth on the two news organizations through our podcast, interviewing Santa Cruz Local co-founder Kara Meyberg Guzman and Lookout Santa Cruz founder Ken Doctor.

Lookout Santa Cruz is a high-profile, well-funded project that received $2.5 million in startup money from the likes of the Knight Foundation, the Google News Innovation Challenge and the Lenfest Institute for Journalism. Doctor, a former executive for a former newspaper chain, Knight Ridder, spent years writing about the business of news for publications such as Nieman Lab and his own blog, Newsonomics, which is now on ice.

Doctor’s entry into the Santa Cruz media scene was not without controversy. As we wrote in our book, “Another competing media outlet, the alternative weekly Good Times, greeted Lookout with a blast, claiming that Doctor was benefiting from the ‘false narrative’ that Santa Cruz was a news desert. Doctor responded by calling that ‘the greatest free publicity that we could ever get.'”

Guzman, too, expressed a bit of pique over Doctor’s arrival, telling us that she and her business partner, Stephen Baxter — unlike Doctor — had struggled to raise the money they needed to start Santa Cruz Local after leaving Alden Global Capital’s Santa Cruz Sentinel, though over time they were able to attract some money from Google and Facebook and build a viable business. Guzman described Santa Cruz Local’s mission as providing deep accountability journalism of local government and other institutions, while Doctor said Lookout Santa Cruz was aiming to become the “new primary news source” at a time when the Santa Cruz Sentinel was fading away.

Lookout Santa Cruz is also intended as the first in a series of Lookout Local sites. Maybe the Pulitzer will give Doctor’s project the prominence it needs to start building out his idea.

Two finalists of note

Lookout Santa Cruz was one of three projects profiled in “What Works in Community News” to receive Pulitzer recognition on Monday, though it was the only one to make it into the winner’s circle. Here are the organizations we followed that earned finalist recogition:

  • Mississippi Today, in Local Reporting, for a collaboration with The New York Times that offered a “detailed examination of corruption and abuse, including the torturing of suspects, by Mississippi sheriffs and their officers over two decades.” We interviewed Mississippi Today CEO Mary Margaret White on our podcast in November 2022. (Mississippi Today’s Anna Wolfe won a 2023 Pulitzer for her coverage of official corruption.)
  • The Texas Tribune, in Explanatory Reporting, for a collaboration with ProPublic and “Frontline” that reports on “law enforcement’s catastrophic response to the mass shooting at a Uvalde, Texas elementary school and also for documenting the political and policy shortcomings that have led to similar deadly police failures across the country.” The Tribune is the subject of a chapter in our book.

Courage recognized

When we think about courageous journalists, what usually comes to mind are war correspondents. But courage can be found closer to home, too — as in the case of Lauren Chooljian and her colleagues at New Hampshire Public Radio, who were subjected to frightening harassment and daunting legal challenges while they were reporting on “corruption and sexual abuse within the lucrative recovery industry.” For their efforts they were recognized as a finalist in the Audio Reporting category. And here is a New York Times story (free link) on their ordeal.

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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.

Pulitzer notes: The Globe’s harrowing story on child abuse is named a finalist

Photo via

The word “harrowing” is an overused cliché, but it’s exactly the right word to describe Janelle Nanos’ story about an adult survivor of childhood sexual abuse, published by The Boston Globe Magazine last summer. Nanos’ 11,000-word account of Kate Price’s long quest to learn the truth about what had happened to her was a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize in feature writing; this year’s Pulitzers were announced on Monday.

Price remembers being raped by her father — possibly starting when she was as young as 3 — and being pimped out to other men who he would contact via CB radio. She has spent her adult life trying to nail down the details, and by the end of the story we learn that she’s succeeded in coming about as close as she’ll probably ever get to proving that her memories are real.

Nanos, a reporter and editor for the Globe’s business section, has been following Price for 10 years and is currently expanding it into a book. The personal tone she takes is handled deftly, enhancing the narrative by making herself part of Price’s journey. Her story also helps puncture the argument, still made in some circles, that claims of childhood sexual abuse are not to be believed because memories of such abuse are not reliable.

More from the Pulitzer announcements:

• Anna Wolfe of the nonprofit news organization Mississippi Today was one of two winners in local reporting for her coverage of former Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant, who directed that state welfare money amounting to millions of dollars be given to family members and friends, including NFL quarterback Brett Favre. I mention this because Mary Margaret White, the CEO of Mississippi Today, was a guest last fall on the “What Works” podcast that Ellen Clegg and I host.

• Ukraine was the subject of several Pulitzers, including the prestigious public service award, won by four journalists for The Associated Press for what the Pulitzer board called their “courageous reporting from the besieged city of Mariupol that bore witness to the slaughter of civilians in Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.” The New York Times won the international reporting award and The AP photo staff won for breaking news photography. The Times’ Lynsey Addario’s photo of an entire family that had been killed while they were trying to flee the suburb of Irbin, perhaps the best-known image of the war, was a finalist in breaking news photography.

• The Los Angeles Times won the award for breaking news reporting for revealing the existence of an audio recording in which several city officials are heard engaging in bluntly racist speech, leading to follow-up stories and resignations. It’s a worthy winner in any case, but I mention it because of a similar recent story in McCurtain County, Oklahoma, where several officials resigned under nearly identical circumstances.

The big difference: The Los Angeles audio was leaked anonymously to the Times, whereas the Oklahoma audio was captured by the McCurtain Gazette-News, whose publisher-reporter left his recorder behind after a meeting ended because he suspected that officials would continue to discuss county business in violation of the open meeting law. That, in turn, has led to a dispute over whether the Gazette-News broke the law by making a secret recording.


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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