Making a Difference with Solutions Journalism in Mississippi

At the nonprofit Mississippi Free Press, Kimberly Griffin and Donna Ladd connect problems with possibilities.

Donna Ladd and Kimberly Griffin (courtesy Todd Stauffer)

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When you look at the articles in the 15-month-old nonprofit digital news outlet the Mississippi Free Press, you can’t help but feel a surge of can-do optimism.

In a state that has been derided for decades for racism and poverty, the headlines here reveal a story of vibrant diversity: “Mississippi Native Uses Dance as a Way to Address Equity and Access” describes a dancer, Ellice Patterson, who founded a dance company that “focuses on inclusion, equity and possibilities, rather than barriers and limitations.” Assures another headline, “Pipeline Cyberattack: State Leadership Calls for Calm, say Gas in ‘Abundant Supply’ in Mississippi.” Declares a third, “Jackson, Baltimore Art Museums to Focus on Great Migration in Ambitious 2022 Exhibition.”

“What we do is ‘solutions journalism,’” says Kimberly Griffin, 49, who is the co-founding publisher of the digital publication, which was launched in March 2020, right at the start of the pandemic. By “solutions journalism,” she’s referring to a form of the craft, practiced now around the country, that is “based on connecting problems with possibilities.”  For Griffin and her team of Mississippi-based journalists (white and Black and Latinx, male and female), that means, for example, “Instead of reporting  there’s a problem with sedentary lifestyle in Mississippi, you talk about the solution: Is it more walking trails? More sidewalks?”

Griffin co-founded the paper with Donna Ladd, after they’d worked together on a similar venture, The Jackson Free Press, which Ladd has owned for 19 years. Aside from the fact that the two co-founders are both female and native Mississippians, they are from family backgrounds so different, virtually no other state but this one could account for that fact. Griffin grew up in a middle-class Black neighborhood in Jackson — “kind of a bubble but very aware that I would encounter racism,” she says. Her mother, a school teacher, had a master’s degree, as did her father, a school principal. Griffin attended a mostly white college, Mississippi University for Women. She experienced a more subtle form of  racism than what Mississippi featured in the past:  “When you’d come for a [temp] job they were surprised you were Black.”

Mississippi Free Press co-founders Donna Ladd and Kimberly Griffin
Donna Ladd and Kimberly Griffin wearing cowboy hats at a fundraiser for the Mississippi Children’s Museum in 2013 (courtesy Todd Stauffer)

Ladd, who is 59 and white, grew up in Neshoba County, which is the location of the murders of three voting rights workers in 1964. Her father was an alcoholic with mental illness who didn’t get past third grade. Her mother had no education at all, but was a secret integrationist with a big heart. ‘’We moved from rental house to rental house and didn’t have indoor plumbing until I was in first grade,” Ladd recalls. Her mother picked cotton to make ends meet. Ladd made her way to Columbia University (where she was recently given a distinguished alumna award) and came back to her home state to help change it. She accomplished much of that by co-founding, in 2002, the Jackson Free Press, which has a message of diversity and equity. Its mission is to transcend partisanship and divides, and not fixate on the “horse race” of partisan politics.

Armed with a degree in journalism and public relations and seeking that same mission, Griffin walked in the door of the Jackson Free Press 13 years ago and soon became sales director and then associate publisher. “We wanted to change the perception and narrative of our capital city — the one that haunted Jackson: how ‘dangerous’ it was. And we succeeded,’’ Griffin says. Adds Ladd, “Kimberly and the Jackson Free Press were an immediate fit because our goals were aligned. From the start we were focused on what is now called DEI — diversity, equity, and inclusion — and Kimberly really helped us solidify and magnify our efforts. As a businesswoman, she connected the JFP with advertisers that most media started by white people do not get. She was a real partner.”

Awards the Jackson Free Press has earned over the years.
The Award Wall at the Jackson Free Press (courtesy Donna Ladd)

The two partners — the Black woman from the middle class urban background and the white one from the dirt poor, cotton picking one — are continuing their mission at the Mississippi Free Press.

The publication, which carries the same name as the civil rights paper co-founded by Medgar Evers, is strong on women. ’’Most of our board of directors are women,’’ Ladd says. They recently profiled five Black women — including a single mother of four — who have run or are running for office in the state, each for a unique reason. “Our mission is to tell Mississippi stories about all of Mississippi, including our LGBT folks, our indigenous folks, our Vietnamese community, which often gets overlooked,” Griffin says. “We want to continue to grow our donor base outside of Mississippi — and to grow a community that understands that good journalism is essential to democracy.”

When COVID gripped the nation in March 2020 and made any office operations difficult, the MFP actually started publishing ahead of its scheduled launch date because “it was clear that [the state wasn’t] getting demographic information broken down by race, and we wanted to report on something essential that was being obscured: that Black women were getting affected at twice the rate of any group and no one was really talking about it,” says Griffin. They loudly pushed for that information to be released.

The publication was also recently a finalist for the Ancil Payne Award for Ethics in Journalism for a three-part story uncovering a problem of systemic racism in the University of Mississippi’s journalism department, a story that Griffin is “super-proud of,” she says. Published last summer, it broke news that a prominent white Oxford, Mississippi real estate developer said, while pointing his phone’s video camera  around a university-adjacent street full of African American students, “ Goddamn, this is literally like being in the Congo jungle.” In another email he called Black female students “Black hookers.” In thousands of emails and documents that the reporters found through whistleblowers, “the records often speak to the fearful climate that the sources (who asked for anonymity for fear of reprisal) described,” the article stated. “Repeatedly, the emails show sexist, homophobic and racist remarks that went unchallenged in interpersonal communications — unless those remarks became a public-relations issue,” in which case they were countered or PR-mollified by an administrator. Tim Gleason, director of the Ancil Payne Award, commented, “This is a story with a lot of legs, and it keeps on going.”

The two co-founders hope that, in the coming year, they will continue to raise outside revenue for their mission, which, as Griffin says, “is to tell the stories of many more Mississippians, who have been routinely written out of the state’s narrative. Black, indigenous, LBGTQ, Latinx, and white: we are reintroducing, and in some cases, introducing Mississippians to one another.”

Featured image: Donna Ladd and Kimberly Griffin (courtesy Todd Stauffer)

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