By Vignesh Ramachandran
The plan was never to launch quite that early.
It was the beginning of 2020, and a statewide nonprofit news organization for Mississippi was in the works. Two decades earlier, journalist Donna Ladd had cofounded the Jackson Free Press, a for-profit newsroom, and she was about to kick off another venture with the long-time associate publisher of that newspaper, Kimberly Griffin.
Ladd and Kimberly had recruited popular Jackson Free Press reporter Ashton Pittman to join what would become the Mississippi Free Press.
Pittman — a star reporter with deep roots in the area and more than 47,000 Twitter followers — and Ladd were texting back and forth in March 2020 as COVID-19 spread across the U.S. Ironically, Ladd and Griffin — cofounder, publisher and chief revenue officer — had attended a health disparities conference in Jackson just that month. Then the first cases emerged in Mississippi within days.
|About Mississippi Free Press
Founded in 2020, the Mississippi Free Press serves Mississippians with solutions-focused, public-interest reporting. “We are introducing Mississippians to each other through our deep accountability reporting and compelling people-focused storytelling, and by convening online and physical ‘solutions circles,’ using our statewide networks to ensure inclusivity and representation,” the outlet states on its website. The nonprofit organization is led by and staffed by many veterans of the former for-profit Jackson Free Press.
“Editorially speaking, it was very clear very quickly that our state didn’t have a plan for dealing with the pandemic,” said Ladd, who serves as editor and CEO.
Ladd and Pittman mobilized to start reporting right away. The Mississippi Free Press put up a temporary website and began publishing impactful stories about how different parts of Mississippi were dealing with a patchwork of safety regulations. People started paying attention — both across the state and country.
Mississippi communities responded with financial support. The money started coming in, and the early launch became the foundation for a solid news organization.
The Mississippi Free Press’ accelerated start proved effective on multiple fronts.
The journalism immediately served the state at an uncertain time when Mississippians needed reliable information most. “We had to just hit the ground running,” said Griffin. “The pandemic was pivotal for us because it allowed [us] to show up front that we’re going to give you accurate, responsible information — we’re out the gate with urgent information that will keep people alive.”
The outlet launched with just over $50,000, mostly from one individual donor — a shoestring budget that Ladd said she was used to. “‘You prove yourself and then you build’ is just kind of the philosophy that we’ve had as entrepreneurs,” Ladd said.
Cofounders Ladd and Griffin had worked together at the Jackson Free Press for many years, and shared a vision for a sustainable financial future. Along with reporting powerhouse Pittman, they also had a director of giving, Cristen Hemmins, on board.
They had anticipated having more time to plan the fundraising approach. But Griffin said the community immediately stepped up: “Mississippians both in-state, expats, people across the nation, Mississippi-adjacent, non-Mississippi folks really invested in us.”
Fortunately, the organization had a fiscal sponsor in place to accept the swell of individual contributions — everything from $10 to $500 to $1,500 — while the infrastructure caught up. “In the beginning of the Mississippi Free Press, we had people who started recurring donations with no expectation of anything,” Griffin said. “I created a membership program out of necessity, not out of a plan.”
By 2021, the Mississippi Free Press had established itself with that early momentum. The reporting led to more financial support. A blockbuster series of stories about a University of Mississippi email scandal had made waves in the region; a professor on campus even started donating all his textbook royalties to the newsroom.
The second year saw a three-year donor commitment from a foundation, and additional foundation relationships coming via INN’s NewsMatch program, which also yielded multiple recurring donors.
“The good thing about nonprofit news is that it allows you to create partnerships with people who have shared vision,” Griffin said, noting topics like fair elections and health equity. “There are so many ways for foundations to plug in, and they are really beginning to understand the importance of transparency and ethical local media.”
The organization also was selected as one of 30 journalism outlets for the Facebook Journalism Project’s accelerator program, which allowed the team some breathing room to create a membership program.
“A lot of nonprofit publications with a national footprint start with five investors putting in a half-million dollars or a couple million, which gives them great launching power and staying power and sustainability,” Griffin said. “What we’re really working on now is sustainability and growing fundraising every year. So it’s challenging when you started frankly behind, monetarily, with people that you share the same ecosystem with.”
Mississippi Free Press settled on the baseline for recurring membership at $10 a month, or $100 a year. Members get exclusive access to conversations with newsmakers and supporters like Aunjanue Ellis, as well as writing talks Ladd and other writers lead.
Readers are sold on journalism that dives into systemic causes from a diverse newsroom that reflects Mississippi: “Because if you don’t look like who you report on, then what are you doing?” Griffin said.
Inclusion as a focus also extends to broadening the donor base. One of the core goals of the organization, Ladd said, is to unlock a new philanthropy network.
“We are out there looking for women who don’t traditionally give to media,” Ladd said. “We’re looking for Black donors, we’re looking for people of other ethnicities and races, we’re looking for younger people.”
Griffin says the outlet targets readers no matter their net worth. “They are contributing the way they can. Some people have $50,000. Some people have $5. Some people can’t do anything right now, but they’re going to keep reading. So everybody’s got a job here. My job is to find out, are you at capacity.”
Mississippi Free Press holds two large fundraising campaigns each year — one in the spring and another around the NewsMatch campaign.
“You have to figure out how to do [fundraising] and do it well. Find your community — find people — that share a common vision and believe in what you’re doing,” Griffin said. “We’re not going to put up a paywall, because we are trying to help alleviate news deserts.”
In 2022, the focus has been on growing major donors — large donors defined as $5,000 and higher, as well as mid-range donors at $1,000 to $4,999.
Over the first two years, the Mississippi Free Press built on the Jackson Free Press’ success and lessons, which had provided the Jackson community with local, independent, inclusive news for two decades. As a for-profit news model became increasingly unsustainable, COVID-19 was dealing a final blow, even as pandemic assistance funds helped avoid layoffs of staffers there. Over time, Jackson Free Press journalists were welcomed into the new organization, which was a separate entity at that point. Any staffers who wanted to join the new endeavor could do so as the MFP raised enough funds to hire them, so much so that almost the entire current editorial team at the Mississippi Free Press is from the Jackson Free Press.
Ladd had always prided the Jackson Free Press on never choosing to lay anyone off, even when budgets became tight. She and her partner there went without paychecks at those tough moments. “I am so driven by not laying anybody off,” Ladd said. “One of the most meaningful things has been to be able to hire the folks from the Jackson Free Press and pay them more. They deserve it.”
The Mississippi Free Press has steadily increased salaries to significantly surpass those at the Jackson Free Press.
“My goal for our membership program was always to be able to pay somebody’s salary,” Griffin said. “As of 2023, membership support does more than pay for a reporter’s salary, and the goal looking ahead will be for for more staff members’ salaries as well.” Sustaining the team of committed journalists is part of Griffin’s message about the value of membership.
What began as just two-and-a-half paid employees in the beginning (not including Ladd, who was unpaid in the initial months) has grown to 14 full-time employees including six full-time reporters, one part-time employee, five contractors and a variety of freelancers — and the team is now interviewing for a development director and a state reporter, both full-time positions. The leadership team is hoping to hire a managing editor in the next year or so. Ashton Pittman stepped into the news editor role in January 2023, and a business manager came on board in spring 2023.
|Mississippi Free Press’ team grows each year:
2020: 5 contractors by the end of the year
2021: 9 full-time employees by the end of the year
2022: 12 full-time employees, 2 part-time employees
2023: 14 full-time employees, 1 part-time employee, 5 contractors
Griffin and Ladd are proud to have had minimal turnover since March 2020 as of Feb. 1 with most employees working with them from four to 13 years. “It’s an amazing team that cares and supports each other,” Ladd said. Every current team member grew up in Mississippi.
In May 2022, the informal transition became formal in other ways. After a careful board-led process, the Mississippi Free Press acquired the Jackson Free Press’ journalism assets, name, archives and office.
“The MFP and JFP were separate organizations until this point, and it was a bit confusing to readers,” Griffin said in a statement at the time. “We now extend a formal invitation to our JFP readers to join us on the MFP journey. As Mississippians, we know it’s important our state has robust journalism in the capital city and statewide. We hold fast to the mission that Mississippians deserve accurate, in-depth reporting that seeks solutions through deep reporting and listening to our communities.”
The acquisition immediately led to new donations, a combined email list that quadrupled in size and a wider social media following — stories can be cross-promoted. “Those stories that we’re putting out there every day are now getting a lot more potential reach,” Ladd said. The Mississippi Free Press account has 22,700 Twitter followers, while the Jackson Free Press has about 39,000, the largest nonprofit and local media following in the state.
The move was also a way to leverage and retain readers who have been supporting local journalism for decades. (Jackson Free Press Inc. remained an independent digital services company, soon changing its name to Changemaker.ms, and did not pass on any debt during the asset acquisition.) Jackson Free Press subscribers were given free membership to the Mississippi Free Press’ MFP VIP Club.
In addition to 20 years of story archives, the Mississippi Free Press now has the physical offices of the Jackson Free Press and all the physical assets inside. Ladd said the space and supplies will allow them to host big events down the road.
What to do with the Jackson Free Press archives is a big question, and Ladd and Griffin are considering it strategically. There’s a legacy of trust and award-winning journalism to uphold; they now are planning a new, combined website where Jackson Free Press archives will become an active part of the site. This will include repackaging and promoting some of the big story series from the past in a format that is more searchable and inviting. As a nonprofit, the Mississippi Free Press is also removing old political endorsements in the site transition. Additionally, the organization plans on asking community members what they think should be done with these new assets, perhaps in a solution circle.
“We’re so stubborn in that belief that we’ll do whatever work and collaboration needed to serve as a kind of challenger brand of journalism here that helps lift all our journalism boats,” Griffin wrote in an announcement. “We know how to gather and train a great team with the same goals, and then work side-by-side to build a very special media organization and journalism ecosystem for Mississippi.”
As it continues to grow sustainable revenue streams, the Mississippi Free Press faces unique challenges and opportunities — some of which are related to its diverse leadership and geographic location.
Ladd and Griffin are bullish about the future of the Mississippi Free Press and journalism in their state. “We actually believe the way forward for Mississippi and towards solutions is to actually get Mississippians, expats and people who care about us to believe that a better Mississippi is possible for all our people,” Ladd said.
As the stories of Mississippi continue to unfold, the organization will keep building its donor network across the state and country. “It takes work because we have to overturn those stones and find the people and connect with them — and help them believe as we do that good change is possible,” Ladd said.Back to top