Wednesday, August 25, 2004
I'm sitting here, OK lying here, in a humongous, brick-colored sofa far away from Jackson in the Pacific Northwest, counting my blessings about life in Mississippi. I didn't start out to wax about my good fortune, however. Truth is, we left Jackson in a flurry after putting out our biggest issue (The Annual Manual) and holding an open house for 100 people to honor our interns and young staffers (who produced the Manual). So I didn't have time to write my editor's note before we left.
I took to the sofa today with a cup of coffee and the laptop, thinking I would write something hard-hitting about dirty politics, lies and negativity—during the current news cycle, it would be easy to bang the keyboard with disgust.
But I keep looking through the screen doors at the purple flowers—something indigenous to the lush Northwest, no doubt—and my mind wanders to the images of the last few days and weeks. I think of Kit and Jessica, both new high-school grads, cornering people at the Neshoba County Fair, just after Haley Barbour's speech, to ask what they think of Medicaid cuts. I think of Jessica sitting on Kenneth Stokes' porch, and then in Ben Allen's office, asking them what can be done to help young people in the city. I think of Ayana leaving Jackson with excitement and a bit of fear for her alternative newswriting workshop in Chicago, then returning sleek in a black suit with stories about her new peers from around the country. I think of her stories about going deep into poor Chicago to interview a public-school teacher who is bringing hope and determination into her classroom.
I think of Casey, my new assistant editor, who worked so hard to learn everything she could about the alt-news business this summer. I think of her running around the open house in my SPQ wannabe tiara, celebrating her new position as "Princess Casey." I see Casey and Lynette huddled in their little office on press night, giggling and fact-checking. I think of Ken, our designer and recent grad of JSU, sneaking up to my door and putting a "you are served" sign on it and then returning to his Mac to create an amazing look for our first "Annual Manual." I think of the outrage and anger that Casey and Ken and Stephen expressed when they read my editor's note about a paper in town that gave an award to a columnist who wrote that blacks should give thanks every day for slavery.
I think of Swetha, who joined us as an intern at the beginning of the summer, a newcomer to Jackson who wasn't thrilled to be here. I think of her saying goodbye before she heads back to NYU, talking of how she now really wants to do journalism, saying she'll miss Jackson, excited that her new friend Kit will be in college in New York, too. I think of the day in early summer when the interns were gathered for the first time, and Todd walked into my office and said, "There's a rock band in the newsroom." I think of them going out in teams stalking Fondren, the Medical Mall, Borders, looking for Street Talk victims who would lend even more voices to the JFP.
There is nothing more joyous than working around creativity as it is being unleashed—whether from a school librarian who has just found her voice after all these years, and Lynette has some voice, or from all the young folks who work hard to be proud of their city and their state.
When we started the JFP in September 2002, we knew there was a serious void in the media world here that needed to be filled, wells of creativity to be tapped. We knew there were progressive thinkers everywhere we looked who needed to know about each other and hear that it was OK—the coolest thing they could do, in fact—to speak up. What we didn't really anticipate was the hunger for positive.
Save a smattering of bitter apples, people in Jackson want to feel good about their city, their state and themselves. It's tough to be from Mississippi and share in the collective inferiority complex wrought by our difficult race history and our demagogue politicians who play to our worst instincts for cheap votes. It hurts when the rest of the world mocks us, especially since we know they can be idiots, too—but, let's face it, the world tends to reflect the image that we send out. So, it's not about those idiots and what they think—or the local schmucks who call our city a "cesspool" as they try to divide its residents. It's about us, and what we're willing to do to improve our city and state, and lessen the negativity.
Of course, "positive" doesn't mean only reporting superficial news, or sugarcoating problems. From the beginning, I was inspired by something our alternative association said about a paper in Minnesota when it accepted them into the group: They love their city so much that they're willing to kick and pummel to make it better. That description, we believe, fits us to a T.
Speaking of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies, I am also grateful for all that they have done for us over the last two years. First of all, they let us, a scrappy little paper with few resources, into the group on the first try, and then into the national ad network. They gave Ayana a diversity grant to fund her news internship with us last spring, which in turn led to her getting into the exclusive Academy of Alternative Journalism at Northwestern's Medill School of Journalism this summer (partially funded by AAN). Thanks to AAN, we can also share some of the best-written and researched stories in the country (http://www.altweeklies.com)—stories that wouldn't come to Mississippi readers otherwise. Likewise, other alts are using our writers' and artists' work, giving them exposure they wouldn't get otherwise.
Perhaps most important, our AAN membership shows the world what we're doing here in Jackson, Miss., and gets our team of writers, artists and interns the national recognition and contacts they deserve. Yes, Ayana came home to us, but someday I know another alt, in another city out there somewhere, is going to lure away some of our amazing talent. When they do, I'm going to sniffle a little and wave goodbye as my mama did when I left home after college. And I'll repeat what she told me then: "Don't forget where you came from."