Digging Deep in Dixie

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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.

While the investigations into the Klan have given the Jackson Free Press national attention, it’s the paper’s city hall coverage that has built a loyal following. “Any cover with the mayor on it doesn’t stay on the stands more than a day,” says Ladd. Mayor Frank Melton was elected in 2005 with an unusually aggressive get-tough-on-crime platform that included the mayor personally patrolling the streets. In September 2006, the Jackson Free Press broke the story that the mayor and a team of young men broke into a privately owned and occupied duplex and demolished it with sledgehammers. In July, Melton was indicted on federal civil rights charges.

The paper’s coverage of Melton has shown that the Jackson Free Press is just as dogged to expose the roughshod excess of the city’s black political establishment as it has been in its pursuit of unsolved civil-rights-era killings from the state’s legacy of white demagoguery. But taking on city hall and former Klansmen is a precarious business in a town where everybody seems to know everybody.

“Mississippi isn’t a state, it’s a club,” says former city council president Ben Allen.

As some alt weeklies consolidate, gutting their investigative teams and replacing them with a consumer’s-guide crowd of hipster-urban transplants, the Jackson Free Press has run 50 yards in the opposite direction, digging up dirt on city hall, taxpayer fraud, and public schools while writing for an audience of longtime city dwellers. In doing so, it has begun a dialogue between blacks and whites, conservatives and liberals, that Ladd has been waiting for most of her life.

Ladd left Mississippi in 1983, after she graduated from college, because it lacked a creative, progressive community. She spent nearly two decades as a writer and editor for publications including the Village Voice and the Colorado Springs Independent before returning to Jackson in 2001. She and Stauffer wrote a business plan for a new alternative newsweekly to cover the city of Jackson, and the Jackson Free Press was born. “It was the closest to a real religious experience I’ve had,” says Ladd. “If there was ever a force outside myself forcing me to do something, it was this paper.”

Reprinted from the Next American City(Spring 2008), a quarterly reporting on the front lines of urban innovations. Visit it online at americancity.org.

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