By: Joe Strupp
At The Clarion-Ledger in Jackson, Miss., Jerry Mitchell’s recent honors for revelations about the 1964 deaths of three civil rights workers actually date back to legwork that began in 1989. That’s when he caught the film Mississippi Burning, which was based on the story of their murders.
After seeing the movie, Mitchell dug into the case, and nearly a decade later he found documents related to the killings and other similar crimes. His big break came in 1998 when a transcript of an interview with Sam Bowers ? former imperial wizard of the White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan ? indicated KKK leader Ray Killen’s central part in the murders (Killen was convicted last year).
“I had developed sources and they began to leak me information from those files,” recalls Mitchell, a staffer since 1986. For his efforts, Mitchell won a George K. Polk Award and garnered a finalist spot in the Pulitzer’s beat-reporting category this past spring.
Says Executive Editor Ronnie Agnew, who has run the newsroom for three years, “We have made it a priority to do First Amendment journalism.”
But Mitchell’s success is just one part of the Clarion-Ledger’s 2006 Pulitzer experience. Cartoonist Marshall Ramsey, who spent last year creating biting cartoons on everything from the war in Iraq to the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, also earned a finalist nod this spring ? his second in four years.
Both men credited the paper’s willingness to back up their controversial efforts and for giving them room to explore tough issues. “I have a great editor,” says Ramsey, citing the support of Editorial Director David Hampton. “He pushes me and he wants cartoons that mean something.”
Mitchell agrees, noting his ability to follow the Killen story for nearly two decades: “I had carte blanche for whatever time I needed to do it. It says a lot about the paper, that it has been able to take this [case] and can give us this time.”
Then there is Publisher John Newhouse, who joined the paper just two days before Katrina struck. The former publisher of Town Talk in Alexandra, La., Newhouse (no relation to S.I. Newhouse) arrived in Jackson on Aug. 27 and spent the next five nights sleeping in his new office. Despite widespread power outages, the paper’s generators kept electricity flowing while the daily printed continuously, he recalls. Newhouse then provided an in-house day care center, free gasoline, and three meals a day for each of the paper’s 450 employees during the two weeks after the disaster. “We also took papers and distributed them free down on the coast,” he adds. Since the hurricane, Newhouse has seen the staffs grow at the paper’s niche publications.
Mitchell says the improvements in reporting and employee treatment are even more impressive given its reputation in the 1950s and ’60s as a publication of little quality and great racism. He cited former Editor Rea Hederman’s leadership upon becoming editor in the 1970s with starting a transformation.
“It had been called the worst newspaper in the U.S. back then,” says Mitchell. That change continued in 2003 with the hiring of Agnew, the Clarion-Ledger’s first black executive editor. Agnew adds, “I have tried to bring back a serious commitment to investigative reporting.”