You can't get more Southern than Mississippi, and no place in the Magnolia State evokes more Southern heritage and culture than the Delta. It is that most uniquely Southern place with a history like no other, and the best source of that history is its newspapers.
Last week, I visited many of those newspapers with Layne Bruce, executive director of the Mississippi Press Association, and Will Norton, Dean of the Meek School of Journalism at Ole Miss.
We began our journey in Marks, just inside the Delta on the outskirts of Batesville, where the Quitman County Democrat is under relatively new management in Bill and Carol Knight who acquired the century-old paper from Josephine Fleming.
We met Bill at his new office, a former lawyer's office he renovated himself, just across the street from the courthouse. An accountant for nearly three decades with Stringer International out of Clarksdale, Bill jumped into the newspaper business wanting to try something new. The thought of operating a community weekly newspaper intrigued him.
“This has been incredible,” Knight said with a smile. “It's a lot of work, but I'm really enjoying it.”
I found his enthusiasm contagious as he shared the paper's history and the possibilities he and his wife Carol, a former advertising associate with the Panolian in Batesville, believe they can bring to fruition.
We left headed northeast to Tunica where we met Tunica Times Publisher and now town alderwoman Brooks Taylor.
I've known Brooks, a past president of MPA, for many years. She spoke of the ups and downs in Tunica that often correspond with business at the casinos, the complexities of city and county government in that setting and the loyalty of her newspaper readers.
We couldn't get out of town without stopping by the popular Blue & White Cafe. We went in for a cup of coffee, but were enticed by a menu item called the donut tower.
Two homemade donuts were topped with ice cream, whipped cream and chocolate sauce. Needless to say it was worth stopping for.
We drove from there to Cleveland for dinner with former MPA board member and Bolivar-Commercial Publisher Mark Williams at Airport Grocery. The highlight, however, was the plum jelly his wife Beverly sent home with me.
The next morning we visited with Scott Coopwood at the Cleveland Current. In addition to the weekly newspaper, Coopwood also publishes the Delta Business Journal and Delta magazine – one of the finest lifestyle publications in the South.
The highlight of the visit was actually a tour of his office, including the upstairs recording studio and guitar collection. A musician himself, Coopwood has made friends with many famous faces in the music world, such as Derek St. Holmes of the Ted Nugent band, who have reciprocated their friendship with guitars.
Scott gave me a a fabulous gift as we were leaving, “The Delta – Landscapes, legends and legacies of Mississippi's most storied region,” the book his publishing company most recently produced.
From there we hit Indianola and visited with Charlie Smith, the relatively new publisher of the Enterprise-Tocsin. Under the leadership of Jim Abbott, the paper was widely regarded throughout the 1990s as the best weekly in Mississippi. Jim, one of the most talented newspapermen I've ever known, is now over the B.B. King Museum in Indianola.
I found Charlie to be an incredibly impressive young journalist in a place bursting with editorial opportunities.
We cut across Hwy. 82 to meet Delta Democrat Times Publisher Jon Alverson where we enjoyed lunch at Jim’s Cafe in downtown Greenville and toured the large press at the DDT.
Next stop was the “Catfish Capital of the World,” Belzoni, where we found Julian Toney III, longtime publisher of the Belzoni Banner, hard at work in the family print shop with his son Jay. Stepping into the office of the Banner was like going back in time. Pictures hung on the walls of the tiny office from MPA conventions 50 years ago.
“I've hardly missed one in my lifetime,” Julian said.
Our final stop was in Yazoo City where Yazoo Herald publisher Jason Patterson gave us a tour of his offices, that are a true community headquarters. His mailroom stored large signs featuring the face of Jerry Clower for the annual Jerry Clower Festival each May.
A native Yazoo Citian, Patterson was excited to be at the helm of his hometown paper and spoke of a great passion for the newspaper business – “ink in the blood” as it's often called.
It was a trait all of the publishers we visited shared, as I've found in newspaper offices all across Mississippi. Newspapers are often described as the “fabric of a community.” I was thrilled to find on this trip so many people excitedly working hard to make that fabric even stronger.
Email Joel McNeece at firstname.lastname@example.org & follow him on Twitter @joelmcneece