Digging Deep in Dixie

The Jackson Free Press is an alternative weekly with a Southern soul


| September-October 2008



Jackson Free Press

Former Klansman James Ford Seale, the prime suspect in a 1964 murder-drowning of two black men in Warren County, Mississippi, had long been presumed dead. But four decades later, in the summer of 2005, a team of reporters from the Mississippi alternative weekly the Jackson Free Press, a Canadian Broadcasting Corporation filmmaker, and the brother of one of the victims unearthed a bombshell: Seale was “still alive, and lives in Roxie . . . in a Winnebago-type trailer on land believed to belong to his brother.” The report appeared in the Jackson Free Press in July 2005. In January 2007, the FBI would indict Seale on federal charges of kidnapping and conspiracy stemming from the slayings.

 “Mississippians of all races absolutely must tell our own stories,” wrote Jackson Free Press editor Donna Ladd, whose investigative team, a crew of black and white journalists all under 25, all hail from her native state. The Jackson Free Press is a free newspaper that has resurrected the alt-weekly tradition of maverick investigations and cultural provocation in the heart of the Deep South. It’s an old-school “alternative.” There is little snark, no sex advice columns, no escort or tobacco ads. Started in 2002, it has cultivated an audience that includes young, white conservatives and black professionals alike, a diversity of readers uncommon in the South and practically nonexistent among alt weeklies.

When she started the paper with Todd Stauffer, Stephen Barnette, and Jimmy Mumford in 2002, Ladd was often told Jackson wasn’t ready. “They told me, ‘You’ll never do a newspaper that black people and white people will read in any significant way.’ ”

The Jackson Free Press has defied those expectations.

“They’ve figured out how to talk about those issues in a community so that they’re not black or white,” says Harvey Johnson Jr., Jackson’s former mayor. He’s been on the receiving end of both the paper’s criticism and its commendation, yet the Jackson Free Press’ readers voted him Most Underappreciated Jacksonian in 2005.

Though the Web has been the downfall of many alt weeklies, it has been a windfall for the Jackson Free Press, allowing it to saturate its market with comment-heavy blogs and even create its own reader-driven Jackson-specific wiki, Jackpedia. While some members of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies once balked at accrediting the paper because it was not as “alternative” as traditional alt weeklies, it now invites Todd Stauffer, Ladd’s partner, to speak on interactive Web design at its annual conference.

harold w. ard_7
9/8/2008 12:04:57 PM

i saw this story about Seal a little differently in the Clarion Ledger and on TV.