Far away from the high-pressure, profit-margin-obsessed world of corporate journalism, four Mississippi weeklies provide their readers with first-rate local coverage. Despite their tiny staffs, they manage to find time for investigative reporting. And their hard-hitting editorials often have significant impact on public policy.
By Julia Cass
Julia Cass is a freelance writer and journalism trainer.
Ray Mosby runs the Deer Creek Pilot from his mother-in-law's former house in tiny Rolling Fork, Mississippi. In what had been the bedroom, Mosby writes take-no-prisoners editorials, in one directing a strongly worded lesson on the First Amendment to a crooked judge who said that the Pilot better not write about him again. It was titled "And what if we do, Judge?"
Waid Prather gets involved in a way an urban editor never would. When a storm downs trees and power lines, he doesn't leave after taking a photograph and gathering information for the Carthaginian in Carthage, Mississippi. He pulls out his chain saw and helps clear the road.
Jim Abbott lost friends and was publicly embarrassed at the Rotary Club when powerful white leaders objected to the Enterprise-Tocsin's balanced coverage of a racial controversy and boycott in Indianola.
Stanley Dearman and James Prince III, successive owners of the Neshoba Democrat in Philadelphia, where three civil rights workers were murdered in 1964, similarly braved anger and rejection from people they go to church with for their leadership in acknowledging the wrong and calling for justice.
I visited these newspapers last summer after a conversation with a University of Mississippi journalism professor about four Mississippi weeklies he and other experts on the state's media consider exceptionally good. I thought that these small, individually owned community papers might be a refreshing antidote to all the discouraging news about journalism plagiarism and fabrication, uncaring chain ownership, bottom-line mentality, staff cutbacks, bland product, falling circulation. And, indeed, these weekly newspapers in rural Mississippi reveal that good, enterprising journalism still goes on in the hinterlands even in the poorest state in the nation.
Mississippi has a relatively large number of weekly newspapers. The Mississippi Press Association membership includes 86 of them compared with 24 dailies, and 56 of them are individually owned, according to Carolyn Wilson, the association's executive director. The Deer Creek Pilot, Carthaginian, Enterprise-Tocsin and Neshoba Democrat, all owned and run by native Mississippians, maintain independent voices solidly rooted in a particular place.
Despite their newspapers' small size ranging from two employees and a circulation of 1,500 at the Deer Creek Pilot to 12 employees and a circulation of 7,800 at the Neshoba Democrat these owner-editors regularly hold their local officials' feet to the fire; publish investigative stories, even series; write hard-hitting editorials; demand public records; shape public policy and provide leadership during the wrenching transitions that have followed the civil rights movement.
They have more in common with the crusty old small-town newspaper publishers of days gone by, who wrote what they had to say and stuck their necks out when necessary, than with the contemporary corporate model of reflecting the community rather than leading it.
Unlike many urban newspapers, rural weeklies in Mississippi are not losing circulation primarily because they are the only source of local news in their counties. Web sites and blogs don't cover events or personalities in, say, Panther Burn or Kosciusko, and the statewide media, such as the Clarion-Ledger in Jackson and a few television stations, come to rural communities only for the big stories.
As Ray Mosby puts it, "We are the only media outlet in the world that gives a damn about Sharkey and Issaquena counties."
My trip began in the Delta, the tabletop-flat, cotton-producing, former slave-holding area of Mississippi that stretches from Memphis to Vicksburg on the western side of the state. Two of the newspapers, the Deer Creek Pilot in Rolling Fork and the Enterprise-Tocsin in Indianola, are located in this region, which has a predominately black population and is the poorest part of the state. From there, I drove southeast to Carthage and Philadelphia. These two towns, in a timber-producing area that has attracted some light industry, are more prosperous and are gaining rather than losing population.
My first stop, Rolling Fork (population 2,486), the seat of Sharkey County, was heralded by two agricultural implement companies, a building supply business, a gas station and convenience store, a tire and auto repair shop, and a few small motels and cafés. The downtown contains a courthouse ringed by retail businesses, about a quarter of them unoccupied.
Ray Mosby, 54, greeted me in what had been the living room of his mother-in-law's former house two blocks from the courthouse square. (She has Alzheimer's disease and lives with Mosby and his wife in the house next door.) From his strong voice on the telephone, I'd expected a large man, but he's a featherweight six feet tall and a mere 130 pounds with graying hair and a short beard. He wore trousers and a shirt and tie and held a pipe in his hand.
The Deer Creek Pilot is the newspaper of record for both Sharkey and Issaquena counties, which have a combined population of fewer than 9,000. That morning, Mosby was about to go to the courthouse for the bimonthly meeting of the Sharkey County Board of Supervisors. Natalie Perkins, his sole employee, had already left to go to the supervisors' meeting in Issaquena County.
The two divide all the work of putting out the paper. Mosby is publisher/editor/reporter/editorial writer/columnist/photographer and ad salesman. Perkins reports and takes photographs, does the layout and handles circulation and billing. They both deliver the Pilot to the racks, boxes and post office on Thursdays, when the paper comes out.
"I'm afraid this is gonna to be as excitin' as watchin' paint dry," Mosby warned me as we entered the meeting room in the courthouse. Sitting around a table in the small room, the supervisors three black men and two white men listened to announcements (seven trappers cut from beaver control), opened sealed bids for gravel and divided up the delinquent garbage bills for collection. The real news came in an announcement by the tax assessor that the state's valuation of the county's property had dropped by 10 percent, meaning that county taxes will have to go up next year if expenditures remain the same.
Before the meeting ended, one supervisor said he'd been talking with a guy about buying a truck for road-building that the county could sell back after a year for more money than it cost and finance it without paying interest that year. Mosby thought that sounded fishy; he leaned over to me and whispered, "Between me and the lawyer, that ain't gonna happen ."
Later, Mosby said he doesn't often intrude in government decision-making outside of his articles and editorials. "But sometimes it's useful. If I see a public body fixin' to walk down a road where I can see a land mine, I think I should tell them, 'You don't want to go there,' instead of sayin' nothing and when it blows up, report it. I'd rather prevent a problem than write about it." (See "Off the Sidelines.")
Mosby learned this approach from his mentor, the late Joe Ellis, the former owner of the daily Press Register in Clarksdale, further north in the Delta. "He did a lot face-to-face with people, saying: 'This is not going to happen here.' " Mosby grew up on a farm near Clarksdale. When he started work at the Press Register, he had just graduated from the University of Mississippi, where he majored in English.
The Pilot has won 42 first place awards in the Mississippi Press Association's annual competition since 1993, when Mosby bought the newspaper. (The paper competes with 35 other weeklies with circulations of less than 2,500.) Many prizes were for investigative stories or projects.
The most ambitious was the four-part series on a multimillion-dollar flood control project called the Yazoo Backwater Pump Project. For the 2003 series, Mosby and Perkins studied documents, reports, elevation maps and land records. Their research discredited claims by proponents, including Mississippi Republican Sens. Trent Lott and Thad Cochran, that homes in the area were being routinely flooded, and demonstrated that the primary benefit of the project would be to allow large landowners to increase agricultural production on marginal land.
The series was a huge undertaking for a small paper like the Pilot. Mosby decided to commit the time, he says, because "when it got to the point where Congress was appropriating money on a premise I knew was untrue for something in my backyard, I felt I had an obligation to look into it." He knew, he says, that people weren't being flooded, because "if they were, we would be called to take pictures, and there would be people coming to the newspaper to donate money to help them. The whole thing smelled fishy." The pump project, however, is alive and well. "My gun is too small," Mosby says.
Mosby is even better known for his editorials; his 1999 piece on the judge won the press association's special award for best editorial in the state that year. My favorite is "Do you feel lucky?" directed at the Issaquena County Board of Supervisors' 2003 plan to buy a bankrupt cotton gin in which one supervisor had an ownership interest.
Metaphorical guns blazing, Mosby called the plan a "purely pernicious act of public policy which from more than one angle looks to be as crooked as a one-eyed, spastic snow snake." If the supervisors, he wrote, "conspire, meet illegally or otherwise grease the wheels of bureaucracy" to buy the gin "in spite of the ethical fungus so obviously growing on it..somebody is going to the penitentiary, or somebody is going to pay back lots of money, or both... So what's it gonna be? Are you feeling lucky?" The supervisors didn't buy the gin.
Mosby is pleased with the many awards he's won but says that stories he wrote when he first came to Rolling Fork didn't take much effort, because years had gone by with no one covering City Hall and the Sharkey and Issaquena county governments.
"We just started reporting what was going on," Mosby says a popular and well-connected tax assessor who was double-dipping and charging the county more than he should have, for example, and elected officials steering business to friends instead of using sealed bids. County and city government then were run by a group of white men "a good-old-boy network," Mosby calls them and his reporting caused "much gnashing of teeth."
Occasionally, readers have cancelled subscriptions and businesses have pulled advertisements when angered by something Mosby has written, although generally they return after a while. The other editors reported the same phenomenon. Mosby said he considers the potential financial impact when he knows he is about to do something that will be controversial. "At the same time, I absolutely believe you cannot do this running scared. I have agonized over the choice between the financial and the editorial, but I can't remember coming down on any side but the editorial."
By now, judging from interviews with officials and residents, Mosby seems to have become a valued community member. Lynne Moses, a lifelong resident of Sharkey County involved in many civic affairs, says that when Mosby began reporting on government meetings and wrongdoing, people "thought he made that stuff up" because such revelations hadn't been reported before. She thinks the Pilot has "made people more aware. It hasn't made our politicians any smarter but I think more cautious."
Mosby agrees that county government now is cleaner. "I don't care if you're a bad newspaper. The fact that you're a newspaper and cover a board meeting and write what happens has a Lysol effect. It's gonna kill some germs whether you're sprayin' real good or not."
Forty miles north and east of Rolling Fork, Indianola, the seat of Sunflower County, lies in the heart of the Delta and was a fountainhead of Southern opposition to integration and black empowerment. The White Citizens Council was formed here in 1954, the beginning of a movement of "massive resistance" to school desegregation that spread throughout the South. Sunflower County is also where Fannie Lou Hamer sharecropped until she was kicked off the land for trying to register to vote and where Emmett Till was brought to be killed after whistling at a white female store clerk in a neighboring county.
The county's newspaper, the Enterprise-Tocsin, supported the council's goals and printed the addresses and phone numbers of the parents of young "outside agitators" students who came to Sunflower County during "Freedom Summer" of 1964.
Jim Abbott is of the same generation as those "agitators." That summer, after his sophomore year at the University of Mississippi, he was in Greenwood, his hometown 27 miles from Indianola, helping his civil engineer father prepare a county map. At the courthouse, he saw some of the students bringing black people in to register to vote. When Abbott graduated, he joined the Army Reserves and served in Vietnam. There, he says, a three-week stint on night guard duty with a black soldier from a Chicago ghetto altered his racial consciousness. "He told me about sleeping in one bed with his nine siblings and how they arranged themselves so as not to cut off the circulation of the younger ones. It was so sad. One night he said something that seared into me: 'You'll go back to Mississippi, get a good job, join the country club, have a good life. Not me. I'm just going back to the ghetto.' "
When he returned to Mississippi, he went back to the University of Mississippi for a second undergraduate degree, this one in journalism. In 1970, at age 26, he got his first job editor of the Enterprise-Tocsin, which had been purchased by a group of Indianola businessmen.
In describing the Enterprise-Tocsin as one of the state's exceptional weeklies, Ralph Braseth, assistant journalism professor and director of student media at the University of Mississippi, said that Abbott "has to walk a lot of tightropes" as the white owner of a newspaper in a majority black county (70 percent) with a repressive racial history. "I don't know how he does it, but he has developed credibility with both races," says Braseth, who has visited the newsrooms of almost every newspaper in the state.
"I guess I've been pushing the envelope from day one," says Abbott, who is now 61, with a full head of thick gray hair. We spoke in the newspaper's office in a storefront building in downtown Indianola (population 12,066). On one wall are the plaques for the Mississippi Press Association public service awards the Enterprise-Tocsin won in 2002 for a series on conditions at the local jail and in 2003 for stories about illegal video slot machines that were gouging the poor. The sheriff either was overlooking the machines or worse.
I'd been greeted at the door by Abbott's wife, Cynthia, who runs the office. "Oh, and I vacuumed this morning and swept up outside," she told me. Another woman helps with the ads and handles circulation (about 6,000) and billing. The paper's news reporter, David Rushing, is an Indianola native who has worked for the paper off and on for 33 years. A stringer does feature stories for the second section.
I arrived at the Enterprise-Tocsin on a Thursday, the day the paper came out, and Abbott and Rushing had time to talk. "Don't come on a Tuesday or Wednesday," Abbott warned. All the papers I visited have a similar weekly rhythm. Although news is unpredictable, Mondays are the meetings days for county and city government. Tuesday is usually a writing day and the day the feature section is prepared. Wednesday is the deadline the final production day before the paginated pages are uploaded to the various daily newspapers that print them. On Thursday, delivery day, and Friday, the editors and writers work on longer enterprise or investigative pieces, in addition to routine newsgathering and photography. Taking photos of awards ceremonies and other festivities produces goodwill that is an important counterbalance to the unpopular stands these weeklies sometimes take.
Interestingly, the first racial controversy Abbott created involved a photograph. Three weeks after he started work at the Enterprise-Tocsin, he took a photo of the cheerleaders at the all-white private school, created when school desegregation became inevitable, and ran it on the front page. The next week, he ran a similar photograph of the cheerleaders at the virtually all-black public high school. "They were so thrilled about being in the paper, they'd rehearsed 10 poses," he says. The day the paper came out, he went to a steak supper for auxiliary lawmen at the invitation of a family friend and member of his church. Behind the building he was surrounded by a group of men who told him, " 'We don't want niggers on our front page, do you understand?' More men came up and said, 'Yeah!' I was exactly 12 months back from Vietnam and I wasn't that scared." On the way home, he told his host what had happened. "He said, 'Stick to your guns. Don't let them run you off.' " They didn't. Ten years later, in 1980, Abbott and John Emmerich, the owner of the daily Greenwood Commonwealth, bought the Enterprise-Tocsin, each with a 50 percent interest.
The racial battle lines have changed over the years, and Abbott has kept up with them. In 1984, he and his wife and three other couples sponsored a landmark Indianola social event: a biracial garden party in honor of native son B.B. King.
In 1986 came what Abbott called "the most painful story we ever covered." After we toured the county's racial history monuments the site of a firebombed "freedom school"; the small, brown, wood home, now for sale, where the Citizens Council held its first meeting; the old barn where Emmett Till is said to have been beaten to death Abbott and Rushing talked about the two-month period in 1986 when black supporters of a black candidate for school superintendent organized a boycott of the town's businesses. They were protesting the majority white school board's appointment of a white superintendent to serve as head of a school district with 93 percent black enrollment.
"It was the last gasp of the old guard," Abbott says. In his view, the wealthy planters who'd dominated the school board wanted a superintendent they could control even in a virtually all-black system because the district includes land surrounding the city, and the school system has the power to tax it. "Then, too, they were accustomed to control and didn't want to give it up."
The boycott of businesses was very effective, and "nerves were frayed to the nth degree," Abbott says. He and Rushing wanted to write fairly and give both sides their due. They attended meetings of the Concerned Citizens group that led the boycott and quoted the statements of its leadership. Abbott wrote editorials urging communication and a biracial resolution to the crisis rather than "fighting '60s battles again."
Reporting both sides may sound routine, but historically the Enterprise-Tocsin and many other Southern newspapers did not present the experiences and points of view of the Fannie Lou Hamers or of the students, ministers and others who came south during the 1960s.
"I was bumping heads with folks I've known all my life and loved," says Rushing. "People who were close to my grandparents told me, 'They'd be ashamed of you if they were alive.' " Abbott says he lost friends and a few advertisers, got angry phone calls in the middle of the night and was publicly embarrassed by a speaker at the Rotary Club.
As I listened to Rushing and Abbott describe the personal fallout from their coverage, it struck me that the editor-publishers of these small-town weeklies face ethical decisions at least as difficult and perhaps more emotionally wrenching than those faced by editors at big-city dailies. Probably the major difference between editing a weekly in a small-town compared with a daily in a city is intimacy. You know or know someone who knows or is related to the people you write about, including those in the police blotter. And if the same person is the ad salesman and the editor, there is no institutional wall between the business and editorial sides. When the publisher and editor are one and the same, the "publisher" belongs to the Chamber of Commerce and Rotary Club whose actions the "editor" may need to criticize.
Juggling hats and balancing involvement with objectivity take decisiveness, ethical surefootedness and a thick skin. Like Mosby, Abbott says he'd be "less than honest" if he didn't admit to worrying about retribution for some of the paper's stories. "But because we're dedicated to accept the challenge of controversy and publish a newspaper that's trusted by all in our community, we won't hold back due to economic threats or petty things like getting the cold shoulder from people." Anyway, he adds, "I think most people here are proud of their newspaper and understand that we strive to promote the well-being of Sunflower County. "
He takes great satisfaction in the way the school controversy turned out. Without bloodshed, the school board bought out the contract of the new white superintendent and appointed the black candidate, Robert Merritt, who turned out to be an excellent superintendent, Abbott says.
In a 1996 article in the Western Journal of Black Studies, three journalism professors, who'd conducted interviews and analyzed the Enterprise-Tocsin's coverage of the crisis, praised Abbott for his courage in aggressively covering the conflict and not yielding to pressure. They credited him with helping lead public opinion toward a positive resolution. "The case deserves to be studied by all newspapers as a shining example of racial tolerance and sensitivity that can be given impetus by our country's community press," the article said.
Today, more African Americans hold public office in Sunflower County, and the Enterprise-Tocsin has just as aggressively held them accountable in cases of wrongdoing as they have done with white officials. An ongoing story over the past two years involves the first black woman elected to a countywide public office as tax assessor/collector who embezzled more than $100,000. "Some people in the black community told us we were writing too much about her, said that since she was the first, it made them look bad," Abbott says. "But the main thing is, people trust the newspaper."
Sunday afternoon, just as Hurricane Dennis was making landfall in July on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, Waid Prather, editor and associate publisher of the Carthaginian, headed to a meeting at the Leake County emergency management office across the courthouse square from the newspaper in downtown Carthage (population 4,600). Already rain was coming down and the wind was beginning to pick up. Prather wore a rain jacket over his shirt and jeans and L.L. Bean boots.
Inside a paneled meeting room, law enforcement people and representatives of the county's volunteer fire departments and ambulance services coordinated plans for their activities should Dennis' overland path cross their county in east-central Mississippi. Prather took notes and photographs. He knew everyone there and not only because this is a small community. Prather, 52, a friendly, energetic man who sports a handlebar mustache, has made it his business to try to get to every fire, accident scene and other emergency to take pictures and write a story and help out if need be.
In the course of his journalistic work, Prather helped search for a missing child in the Pearl River swamp and went to so many fires one summer during a bad drought that the firemen got together and gave him a fire retardant suit. On an accident scene one night, he says, he learned that a MultiTool (a collapsible pair of pliers with screwdrivers, knife and saw blades, files, wire cutters and other tools folded inside the handles) is a good journalistic tool.
"The guys were in tight quarters trying to pull a local woman's body out of her mangled car. The windshield wipers were going and music playing on the radio and I could tell it was bothering them. I popped out the MultiTool, which I bought to use in my yard, reached under the hood and cut the battery cable." On another occasion, he used the tool to crimp the gas line of a wrecked car that was fueling a fire on the median strip.
That Sunday when I left, Prather had his scanner on and his camera and chain saw in his truck, expecting downed trees and power lines. Not much happened; Dennis took a more easterly path across Alabama. (Hurricane Katrina, though, struck Mississippi six weeks later, and Prather put his camera and chain saw to good use. Trees were down on virtually every road in the county and no one had power for several days. The Carthaginian used a generator to power a few computers and managed to get copy to the printer in Hattiesburg, which then also lost power and had to send the pages to another printer in a town with electricity. The paper came out on Thursday, as usual, though it was "bad late," Prather says. The office of the Neshoba Democrat, in neighboring Philadelphia, did not lose power; Prince, the owner, opened its doors and phone lines to two other area papers so they could publish that week.)
The next morning of my visit, Prather was at his desk early, planning the week's edition. Prather, whose father was a milkman in Jackson, got hooked on journalism at Hinds Junior College in Raymond, Mississippi. He went on to become a reporter and then editor of a number of Mississippi newspapers, most of them weeklies. A short stint as publisher of a chain-owned Texas newspaper made him eager to return to Mississippi and to individual ownership.
The Carthaginian (circulation 5,300) is owned by John Keith, 41, the third generation of the Keith family to own the paper going back to 1907. He handles the business side of the paper and happily delegates editorial matters to Prather, backing him against all critics. When he came into Prather's office to say good morning, Prather told the story of a man who came into the newspaper threatening to whip Prather's behind for writing about him. "John told him, 'If you're gonna whip somebody's tail here, you'll have to start with mine.' "
"This guy felt he was above everybody else," Keith says. According to the owners of the papers I visited, some people insist that because their families are important, the paper should not print anything negative about them, particularly arrests of their children. All said they make no exceptions, but Keith has the best response. "I tell 'em my daddy put my brother, his own son, on the front page when he broke into a drug store."
Keith hired Prather 11 years ago when Mildred Dearman, the managing editor, broke her hip. A wisp of a woman, Dearman, 82, now comes into the paper three days a week to write editorials and handle community news. While smoking a cigarette on the loading dock at the back of the building, she described doing every job on the newspaper ladies' club news, taking photographs, ad sales and layout, news reporting since she started in 1960. "She has a job here as long as she wants it," Keith says. The Carthaginian has three employees, including Dearman and Prather, on the editorial side, two in advertising, one-and-a-half in production and a bookkeeper.
According to Prather, his mentor, W. C. "Dub" Shoemaker, former owner of the Star-Herald in Kosciusko, liked to say, "When you run a newspaper, you own the community. I don't care who the sheriff or board of supervisors are. It's yours to take care of. You defend it, you criticize it, you do what needs to be done."
Prather uses the personal pronoun in speaking of Leake County and its institutions. Describing the upcoming week's paper, he says, "I've got a big story this week about my hospital. It got out from under a huge million-dollar liability. The hospital might make it yet, and I need a hospital if I expect my county to grow." Asked about city and county government, he says, "I worry about my county board of supervisors not so much for larceny as for being concerned with the roads in their own districts and to heck with the rest of the county. In the city, I worry more about the aldermen getting caught up in personal and petty politics than dipping into the till."
He sometimes uses his weekly column to criticize officials and occasionally the citizenry for what he considers their wrong-headedness, shortsightedness or small-mindedness. Other times he uses it to praise people or institutions for actions benefiting the community.
Prather's strongest recent campaign has been on behalf of Company A of the Mississippi Army National Guard, which is based in Carthage. When it was called up in 2004 to go to Iraq, he says, "I saw it as an opportunity for our community to do something together. These were our guys. I wrote that we should make sure they knew they would be missed. The community responded far beyond anything I could imagine" with a prayer service, a huge ceremony, speeches and people lining the roads all the way to the county line, carrying signs saying, "We love you," as the buses passed by.
When the unit left for training in the Mojave Desert in California, Prather persuaded Keith to finance a trip to join it for five days. He wrote a series of stories on what the guardsmen experienced. Prather wanted to follow them to Iraq but says he couldn't spend that much money or time away from the paper. Now, he runs the Baghdad weather below the masthead each week. (Soldiers and Guard units in Iraq are big stories in the other weeklies as well; Mosby's editorial criticizing the white community in his counties for not attending a sendoff party for the mostly black Guard unit prodded a number into lining the road to wave goodbye when the guardsmen actually left.)
Unlike the Pilot and Enterprise-Tocsin, whose social news correspondents have died off and not been replaced, the Carthaginian still runs short columns sent in by a dozen correspondents Prather calls "country cousins," who are paid with a ham every Christmas. I read aloud an item in a column from the tiny community of Morris Hill relating that R.D. Rivers had gone to a hospital in Jackson to get a stent in his heart.
"I know," Prather says. "It's riveting. But it beats the stew out of who Madonna is sleeping with today. Nobody around here cares. But the guy with the stent in his heart, folks know him, and they're worried about his health. They'll read this and think, 'Oh, he got a stent. Maybe he'll be okay.' "
The New York Times' curtain-raiser for last summer's trial of an aged Klansman for the June 1964 murders of three civil rights workers began: "It is just a fork in a country road, with nothing to mark it but a retired newspaper editor named Stanley Dearman, standing there with a slight tremor in his stout frame, saying, 'This is where it happened.' "
The dateline was Philadelphia, Mississippi, seat of Neshoba County, where James Earl Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner were killed by Klansmen with the complicity of law enforcement and the support or silence of the citizenry. The story has been told many times by the national media and by Hollywood in the movie "Mississippi Burning," a fictionalized account of the infamous crime that put the mark of Cain on this town.
Less known is the story of the role of two owner-editors of the Neshoba Democrat Stanley Dearman from 1966 to 2000 and James E. Prince III from 2000 on in leading residents of the community to an acknowledgment of the wrong and a call for justice. Especially in small towns with a single local media organization, the publisher of the newspaper can be a powerful force, part of the unelected leadership that often includes the banker, school superintendent, owners of the largest industries and businesses, ministers of the leading churches and heads of the important families. In Dearman's view, a newspaper owner is the most independent of all.
"I put the Neshoba Democrat in the heroic category," says Sid Salter, a longtime Mississippi newspaperman who writes a column for the Clarion Ledger. "Stan and Jim carried the torch to get the case reopened, which was not a popular stand. Nobody in Philadelphia gave a damn what the New York Times had to say, but when the local newspaper started pushing for a grand jury, that had impact."
Former owner Dearman, 73, lives in a pleasant, sunny house on the outskirts of Philadelphia (population 7,303), 25 miles east of Carthage. We sat and talked in a kitchen filled with jars of blueberry preserves his wife had just made. He says he has lost count of how many reporters from around the world he has led to that fork in the country road over the years. This was part of his effort to keep the story alive during the many years local residents did not talk about what happened.
A native of Meridian, an hour away, Dearman worked at the newspaper there after graduating from the University of Mississippi. He says that when he began running the Democrat in 1966, two years before he bought it, he didn't want to have anything to do with the civil rights case. "It happened before I got here, and I had other things to do." Still, the more he talked with people and asked questions and thought about it, "It sort of took possession of me in a way that's hard to explain."
In 1989, when the 25th anniversary was coming up, Dearman decided that the community should have a memorial service. The standard attitude in town was: Why bring all that up again? He wrote an editorial saying that the media would be in town regardless and the community could let outsiders define them, or they could define themselves. Dearman talked to then-Mississippi Secretary of State Dick Molpus, who contacted other state leaders, and Dearman initiated a coalition of local people who "wanted to show another face of this community, not the brutal, ugly face of 1964."
In an effort to learn more about the victims, Dearman interviewed Carolyn Goodman, Andrew's mother. "The only thing we knew about them was their names. I wanted to find out what they were like," he says. Dearman thought Goodman expressed herself so beautifully that he ran the entire interview in transcript form. The newspaper in 1964 had published no personal information about the three. They were "so-called civil rights workers" or "civil righters" usually in quotation marks.
In 1989, the current owner, Prince, was working at a newspaper in Alabama when his Neshoba Democrat arrived in the mail. Prince, who was born in Philadelphia three months before the murders, had worked at the Democrat during high school and edited the school paper at Mississippi State University.
The image he had of the three civil rights workers was that "they were agitators who had no business coming here," he said in an interview in his office at the newspaper, a former funeral parlor a few blocks from the courthouse square.
Dearman's interview with Goodman "put a face on them for me. I wasn't much older than Andy at the time I was reading the article. I was moved by the way his mother described him. He was athletic. He loved dramatic arts. He was a peaceful person who cared about people. That was a turning point for me, and I decided I had to be in Philadelphia for the memorial service." He left Alabama and worked at the Democrat over the summer.
The memorial service was "a profoundly changing experience for me," Prince says, especially when Molpus, the secretary of state, apologized to the family members. Dearman says he was disappointed at the local turnout; he'd hoped for a thousand but instead there were about 200. "But it got things moving. It got people thinking."
Over more than 30 years, Dearman covered everything from corruption on the county hospital board to each year's biggest tomato to the remarkable development of industries, casinos, hotels and golf courses by the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians. In the late 1990s, he began to think about selling the newspaper. He was contacted by a chain but would not even consider an offer.
"From what I've seen happen in other places, they try to squeeze out every cent they can and rotate publishers and editors in and out whose primary concern is their own upward mobility. They don't take a heart-and-soul interest in a town." Prince, who by then owned a newspaper in suburban Jackson, "was dedicated to the profession and the town," and Dearman sold him the paper in 2000.
For the 40th anniversary of the civil rights workers' deaths, in 2004, Prince got together with Leroy Clemens, the local NAACP chapter president who had worked with him at the Democrat. They formed another coalition to plan an event. This time, almost all of the town's leaders signed on. There was no organized opposition, Prince says, although there were people who grumbled and disapproved. Meetings were cathartic and led to a formal call for justice by the group. "We thought, 'How can we move on when we haven't dealt with the past?' " Clemens says. "A ceremony would be empty without a call for justice."
In January, a grand jury indicted Edgar Ray Killen, 80, a Klansman, for directing the killings. After a trial in the Neshoba County Courthouse in June, Killen was convicted of three counts of manslaughter and sentenced to 60 years in prison. Prince brought in extra help for the trial coverage. The paper ran day-by-day coverage of the trial on its Web site (neshobademocrat.com).
"The trial was televised, but I wanted our readers to know exactly what happened in the courtroom and what the evidence was," Prince says. "We had a former mayor who said on the stand that the Klan was a good thing. People needed to know that. They needed to read about it in our paper." He says he was surprised by the fear people, especially the elderly and potential jurors, felt as the trial began. He believes the conviction "is finally lifting the cloud of fear from our community."
Dearman says his stance on the murders cost him some readers and advertisers, but "I have felt so strongly about certain issues I didn't give a damn if I lost every subscription I had." The flip side of editors personally knowing the people in their stories is that the people in the community know the editors. Those who disagreed with Dearman knew him as an individual. He couldn't be stereotyped or dismissed as readily as the remote editor of the "liberal" New York Times or the editor of the "conservative" Washington Times.
Dearman's retirement party, held at the local library, was crowded with people who celebrated his service to the community. "It was the whole town," Prince says. "All the leaders were there, plus people in work clothes who'd obviously come from the factories and lumber mill." Among those who came and spoke was Carolyn Goodman.
The weeklies I visited make most of their money from display and classified advertising, with the remainder coming from circulation and the legal advertising they receive as their counties' newspapers of record.
None of the publishers insists on a particular profit margin. The Carthaginian earns about a 15 percent profit, Keith says. Prince says the Neshoba Democrat's margin is "higher than the national average." The average for weekly newspapers is 17.09 percent, according to a 2004 survey conducted by the Inland Press Association.
In Indianola, which has lost population and businesses, Abbott is concerned about the financial impact of a Wal-Mart Superstore, with a grocery section, scheduled to open soon. "We've already seen the loss of a supermarket ad we've had for years. Of course, we now have cellular phone ads we didn't have before." The Enterprise-Tocsin profit margin exceeds the national average primarily, Abbott says, because he and his wife do much of the work.
Rolling Fork, which also has experienced decline, is far enough away from the larger towns of Greenville and Yazoo City to maintain a fair number of local businesses. At the same time, some stores in Greenville and Yazoo City advertise in the Pilot in hopes of persuading Sharkey and Issaquena county people to come shop there. Fred Miller, president of the Bank of Anguilla, says that the bank and some other local businesses advertise in the Pilot in part because "we think it's important for the community to have a local newspaper."
Mosby laughed when asked about his profit margin. "Knock on wood, we are able to make a few dollars, more each year over the previous one. I honestly don't know what the margin is. We don't have a resident bean counter. If I get the bills paid and have some money left over, I'm tickled." If the paper had more revenue, he went on, he could hire more people and produce a better product. He'd love to have another staffer to ride around and take photographs and to write features and cover sports.
We were sitting at the large table in his mother-in-law's former dining room. Mosby took a puff on his pipe and added, "Hell, we do the best we can with what we got. We're not tryin' to win a Pulitzer Prize. We're just tryin' to put out the best country newspaper we can. I think that's elevated enough."###