Mary Margaret White, CEO and executive director of Mississippi Today, discusses her journey in helping readers and philanthropy understand the value of journalism as a civic good. She shares insights on the history and growth of Mississippi Today, which launched in 2016 to fill a need for Capitol reporting and has since expanded to cover a wide range of issues, including health, justice, education and climate. Under her leadership, Mississippi Today won the 2023 Pulitzer Prize for Local Reporting and was a finalist in 2024 for an investigative collaboration with the New York Times.

White delves into the lessons learned in raising philanthropic dollars, emphasizing the importance of storytelling in fundraising and the necessity of maintaining editorial independence despite donor influences. She also highlights the need for diverse funding streams, including memberships and earned revenue, to ensure the sustainability of nonprofit newsrooms.

She also discusses the operational and legal challenges of investigative journalism and the need to balance deep dives with daily reporting. White reflects on her career in public service and how her previous roles have shaped her approach to journalism at Mississippi Today.

Episode chapters:
(00:02:57) – History and growth of Mississippi Today
(00:07:30) – Lessons in raising philanthropic dollars
(00:12:48) – Maintaining editorial independence
(00:16:21) – Diversity of funding and revenue strategies
(00:19:35) – Audience engagement and growth
(00:24:30) – Balancing investigative and daily reporting
(00:27:04) – Legal and operational challenges in investigative journalism
(00:30:30) – Insights from the American Journalism Project
(00:36:05) – From public service in government to public service in journalism
(00:39:26) – Rapid-fire questions
(00:47:29) – Media recommendations and local Mississippi highlights

Listen to the episode here:

Links:

Bio:

Mary Margaret WhiteMary Margaret White is the CEO & Executive Director of Mississippi Today, the state’s flagship nonprofit newsroom whose accountability journalism won the 2023 Pulitzer Prize for Local Reporting.

Mary Margaret joined the Mississippi Today team in 2017, one year after its launch, and was named CEO in 2020. She has presented the Mississippi Today story and the power of nonprofit news to audiences ranging from local civic groups to the American Journalism Project and the Knight Media Forum. 

She is a 2021 graduate of the Sulzberger Executive Leadership Program at Columbia University and a 2020 Fellow of the Online News Association’s Women’s Leadership Accelerator.

Mary Margaret holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Mississippi and a master’s degree in Southern Studies from the Center for the Study of Southern Culture, where she serves as an advisor. 

Born and raised in the Mississippi Delta, Mary Margaret is a lifelong Mississippian.

Full transcript:

(recorded via Riverside.fm; transcript automated via Castmagic.io, mostly unedited)

MARY MARGARET WHITE [00:00:00]:That does exemplify, I think, the journey I've had, which has been helping readers understand, helping philanthropy understand the value of journalism as a civic good, as, you know, a real integral part of our community fabric, and connecting people with things they're passionate about, whether that's children and young people or education, or, you know, mothers, and helping them see how journalism can impact the narrative around big issues that they care about, how it can better inform communities about challenges that we may be facing in a particular area. You know, we've had wonderful reporting with tremendous impact to really show how journalism can move the needle in Mississippi, and it's been exciting to me to see more philanthropy kind of perk their ears up and think about journalism and its role locally in our communities, but also in a bigger picture democratic sense. 

TIM REGAN-PORTER [00:01:12]: Welcome to the Local News Matters podcast, where we explore pathways to stronger journalism, better businesses, and healthier communities. I'm Tim Regan-Porter, CEO of the Colorado Press Association.  

This episode, I talk with Mary Margaret White, the CEO and Executive Director of Mississippi Today, the state’s flagship nonprofit newsroom. Under her leadership, Mississippi Today has grown significantly and produced powerful journalism, winning the 2023 Pulitzer Prize for Local Reporting and a finalist nod this year for an investigative collaboration with the New York Times.  

We discuss a range of topics, including the role of philanthropy in journalism, sustainability and business strategies for nonprofit newsrooms, the challenges of raising funds, the importance of storytelling, and audience engagement.  

Mary Margaret is a 2021 graduate of the Sulzberger Executive Leadership Program at Columbia University and a 2020 Fellow of the Online News Association’s Women’s Leadership Accelerator. She holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Mississippi and a master’s degree in Southern Studies from the university’s Center for the Study of Southern Culture, where she also serves as an advisor. 

And now I bring you Mary Margaret White. 

Welcome to the podcast. 

MARY MARGARET WHITE [00:02:55]: Thanks, Tim. I'm glad to be here. 

History and growth of Mississippi Today 

TIM REGAN-PORTER [00:02:57]: So why don't you start by just kinda situating us with the history of Mississippi Today and your involvement? 

MARY MARGARET WHITE [00:03:06]: Mississippi Today launched in 2016, really to fill a need for Capitol reporting in Mississippi. There was just a lack of journalistic presence at the Capitol. A lot of big issues had moved through in previous years. So the founders set out really to do just that, to create a newsroom that was creating some accountability reporting at the state capitol. And over the past 8 years, we have continued to really be, you know, the source for politics and policy news in Mississippi, but that focus has expanded to a lot of specific beat area coverage ranging from health and justice to education and climate. 

TIM REGAN-PORTER [00:03:50]: And, you're coming off a Pulitzer last year, so congratulations on that. And so, you know, I'd say you've made quite a splash in Mississippi and beyond. Your reporting has certainly been impactful. Now one of the things that really attracted me to, you know, hear more from you was your conversation at the Knight Media Forum last year where you talked a good bit about the American Journalism Project and just what you learned and how you, you know, really learned how to become a sustainable organization. So I wanna delve into both the reporting as well as the business side and what you've learned as you brought this organization along. So why don't we start actually with how things are going on the business side and sustainability? You know, there—this year, Press Forward is really getting started, and there's a lot of interest and awareness of the role of philanthropy in news, and you've been very, that's played a big part of your life for the past 5 years. So what has that journey been like for you? 

MARY MARGARET WHITE [00:05:01]: Well, yes. Thank you for the Pulitzer nod, for our 2023 Pulitzer. We were actually a finalist this year, 2024, for an investigative collaboration with The New York Times. So, incredible to be 8 years into this in a small scrappy nonprofit newsroom in Mississippi and to receive that kind of national recognition. I'm so proud of the team we've built, and everyone here is here for the right reasons. They're here for the mission, and they're here for the work, and they're here for Mississippians, so I cannot be more proud of that. And awards like that, recognition like that, it does help with the case-making, which is often what you're doing when you're talking about journalism and philanthropy. Yeah. 

MARY MARGARET WHITE [00:05:45]: So when I started at Mississippi Today in 2017, I came a year after launch, and my job was really as a marketing and branding director. I was there to help get the name out. And I can remember being in the newsroom and hearing reporters, you know, making phone calls, calling sources, and they'd spend like the first two and a half minutes explaining what Mississippi Today was and that we were all digital and we were nonprofit, and we're at a place now where they're not having to, you know, make those explanations at the top of a call. But that does exemplify, I think, the journey I've had, which has been helping readers understand, helping philanthropy understand, the value of journalism as a civic good, as, you know, a real integral part of our community fabric, and connecting people with things they're passionate about, whether that's children and young people or education, or, you know, mothers, and helping them see how journalism can impact the narrative around big issues that they care about, how it can better inform communities about, challenges that we may be facing in a particular area, and that's been really fun and it's been you know, we've had wonderful reporting with tremendous impact to really show how journalism can move the needle in Mississippi, you know, in our case. And it's been exciting to me to see more philanthropy kind of perk their ears up, and think about journalism and its role locally in our communities, but also in a bigger picture democratic sense. 

Lessons in raising philanthropic dollars 

TIM REGAN-PORTER [00:07:30]: And so as you've developed that muscle of raising money, particularly through foundations and large donors, what are the big lessons that stick out to you that maybe others can learn from, particularly those who are new to this world? 

MARY MARGARET WHITE [00:07:46]: I always tell people that I have a background in journalism. I was more of a features writer. So I always say, like, I'm a writer, but I was a terrible reporter. I couldn't ask the hard questions. I was just, you know, not built for it, But the writing skill and the curiosity and all of those basics of journalism are such helpful tools for people working to raise money Because what you're doing is you're telling a story. You're telling the story of your newsroom. You're telling the story of your readers. You're telling the story of your community. 

MARY MARGARET WHITE [00:08:18]: And I think if you're a good storyteller, the philanthropy piece, while uncomfortable for most of us to, you know, ask for money, can come pretty naturally, maybe more naturally than you might anticipate. And the other aspect is learning that no is okay. You know, asking for money, number one, uncomfortable. Getting a no, number two, also uncomfortable, but it really just is part of the territory. You won't receive every grant that you write for, you want bring home a check from every donor that you try to cultivate, but it does give you a great opportunity to reflect on the work, to reflect on the journalism and the reporting, and, again, like, connect those dots of the impact and the way that, we see our reporting reflected in our communities, reflected in conversations at the Capitol, and that's a really good thing to share with your staff, of course, to share with funders, but, gosh, this world moves so quickly, and we barely ever stop to, like, take a breath and say, like, that really made a difference, that mattered, and it could be two years when you finally see that it made a difference or it mattered, and not all of it does. But, I do think it's a healthy practice, not only, you know, for the goal of raising funds to sustain the organization, but for the goal of, like, keeping spirits up and helping people take a moment to recognize that what they're doing is really important. 

TIM REGAN-PORTER [00:09:51]: Right. And that building that muscle of being able to tell your story is helpful really across the board. I mean, not only with, you know, large foundations and major donors, but also with small individual donors or subscribers or if you're selling advertising. Frank Mungeam made this point. Just being able to tell the story to an advertising client is an important skill and one that we often overlook. And journalists tend to be really bad at self-reflecting and being able to tell that story because it feels inauthentic. It feels too much like PR. And so how do you approach that? And do you think it's important that the person really telling the story is not in the nitty gritty? That if you can bring in, you know, a development person or an executive director who is outside of the daily grind to be able to have that distance and be able to tell it in a way that feels authentic. 

MARY MARGARET WHITE [00:10:49]: Yeah. No. I think you raise a good point about the authenticity and the advantage of having someone beside your executive editor, you know, making these pitches and writing these proposals. With that said, we are a very collaborative newsroom, and in most cases, I will interview an editor. I'll interview a reporter. I will sit down and have time with one of the section heads when I am trying to write a grant proposal, particularly when I'm writing grant reports because they know the work better than anyone. And in journalism, especially in sort of legacy news, we always think about the firewall between business and editorial and we take that very seriously. Where, you know, nothing I can do or say will influence what comes out of our editorial side, but we also understand that we need to lean on each other and we need to understand what the other is thinking, what our priorities are, where the strategy is in order to create a strong case to support the work. 

MARY MARGARET WHITE [00:11:51]: So that, I think, is a really essential part, is making sure that you've got good lines of communication between your fundraising team or someone in my role, executive director/CEO, and the editorial leadership. And that requires a lot of trust building and, you know, that all goes back to management and, you know, interpersonal working relationships and all those fun things that come with any job, but the trust piece is really important, and I'm really lucky to have a really strong editor in chief with Adam Ganucheau and a great leadership team that knows that I am gonna have their best interest in mind. I would never put their work or the integrity of our journalism at risk, and that's been really helpful. Not everyone has that, and it does take time to build those, you know, those sorts of working relationships, but it's worth the work you put into it. 

Maintaining editorial independence 

TIM REGAN-PORTER [00:12:48]: Yeah. And to that point, you know, I know particularly in newsrooms where philanthropic dollars are fairly new, some journalists have concerns about funders dictating the shape of the editorial. How would you address those concerns? 

MARY MARGARET WHITE [00:13:07]: Journalists are naturally skeptical. Right? So they're, you know, they're always, there is always the question of that. But we've done a great job, I think, since, you know, square one to ensure that we are not allowing any sort of influence from funders or from outside stakeholders or sources to influence the editorial work. And a really good example of this is that we had support from a foundation that helped underwrite a particular reporting position. It paid for, like, part of the reporter's salary, and we reported without fear of favor, you know, on some of the interactions that that foundation had had, you know, in Mississippi. And our grant wasn't renewed, you know, and that's—we, you know, we're connecting dots. We kinda think it might have had to do something with the reporting. But with that said, it's okay, You know? Like, it's okay for them not to renew. 

MARY MARGARET WHITE [00:14:07]: We can, you know, try to find that support in other places. We can lean on our membership program. We can find new dollars hopefully to make up for that. But with that said, the reporting is primary, and if we lose a funder because of it, it wasn't a good fit to begin with. And so we want the values of our organization to align with that of anyone who's supporting us, and we've been really lucky that, you know, the support we have received from foundations and from philanthropy generally has not come with a lot of strings. 

TIM REGAN-PORTER [00:14:41]: Part of that firewall is also just diversity of funding. Sarabeth Berman made this point that even if you're predominantly relying on philanthropy, don't be reliant on 1 or 2 funders. You need that diversity. Do you have conversations with funders to try to set an expectation that, you know, you are not influencing editorial, or does that not even come up? 

MARY MARGARET WHITE [00:15:02]: You know, and, honestly, I've not had to have that conversation in quite some time. The philanthropy that I've, you know, been fortunate to deal with, people like the American Journalism Project just intrinsically understand that this is not a pay to play field that we're that we're all working from. So that has really not been a major issue for me. Now, you know, it's interesting. I listened to your interview with your most recent guest and they were speaking a lot about earned revenue. And I think earned revenue is a really interesting animal because, again, you know, these are paid placements on your site, but we are still thinking about value alignment. And we don't allow political ads like most nonprofits, but there are certain companies or certain initiatives that just aren't a good fit for us. So having that conversation can sometimes be uncomfortable. 

MARY MARGARET WHITE [00:16:01]: And, you know, we wanna bring money in the door and it's hard to turn, you know, dollars away, but at the same time, we're always answering to the reader. And when you have a question mark, you always think to yourself, how would the reader react? What would our audience think of this? And that's usually where you find the right answer. 

Diversity of funding and revenue strategies 

TIM REGAN-PORTER [00:16:21]: And how do you approach diversity of funding, not just with foundations and large dollar donors, but, you know, with your readers and any other avenues that you explore? 

MARY MARGARET WHITE [00:16:32]: Sure. Membership has been a really important part of our funding pie for probably the better part of the last 7 years, 6 or 7 years. And that has just been so gratifying because our membership program has continued to grow year over year. We were north of $400,000 last year in membership funding, and the number of members who support Mississippi Today are by and large Mississippians. So, you know, the number is significant towards our budget, but it's also significant towards the reassurance that we're getting it right. We're reporting stories that people aren't finding other places, that they have become to rely on, you know, our journalists and that's, like, really been tremendous. We do most of that through newsletter strategies, through email solicitation. There's, of course, calls to action on our site, and we have a texting line that we use to bring in donations. 

MARY MARGARET WHITE [00:17:33]: There's a lot of, you know, variation in the way we bring members through the door, but the newsletter is, of course, the most important piece of that puzzle. Earned revenue has been hard and we actually have someone now who is part of our larger network of newsrooms. Deep South Today is our parent company, and we now have a lot more shared services at that parent company. One of those being a person who is dedicated to earned revenue, meeting with clients and, you know, people in the for profit or and nonprofit space, paying clients, and that has been really awesome. I have learned a lot. The primary thing I've learned is that I was underselling everything I ever sold, which was never a whole lot, but all of that to say it's been cool to work with this woman who has a background in traditional legacy media and see how she comes to this work, which is is values driven and we're never gonna have the, you know, CPM and page numbers and all of that that, you know, some of these bigger publications do, but I really have learned a lot about, you know, how what all goes into that recipe for success. 

TIM REGAN-PORTER [00:18:49]: You see that as a growing piece of the pie? 

MARY MARGARET WHITE [00:18:52]: I do. I am very optimistic about it, and we've done a very good job of establishing certain sections of Mississippi Today as really the go to source for news in that area. So one good example is health. We've got a four-person health team that is really covering big stories around hospital closures, mental health, the list goes on. And so that's opened the door for us for a lot of companies in the healthcare space who understand that we have a loyal and dedicated reader that's, you know, very much engaged with the issue of health, and so I see a lot of opportunity to grow there, not just in the healthcare space, but in others as well. 

Audience engagement and growth 

TIM REGAN-PORTER [00:19:35]: That's very much related to, built upon and dependent upon your audience and, you know, having a growing and devoted audience. And, you know, you are focused really on accountability reporting. You're not doing certainly any clickbaity type things. You're not even doing, I think, you know, real cultural feel-good stories or, you know, some of the nuts and bolts that a lot of legacy media depends on. So how do you approach audience and getting people to, you know, getting sufficient scale, but also getting that stickiness and getting them to really depend on your reporting and to visit you often. But you also I know, you know, for a long time, I was actually the south region editor [at McClatchy], so Biloxi was one of my papers. And so I know we used a lot of your content in The Sun Herald, and so you distribute it through other partners as well. But how do you approach audience and branding and growth in that area? 

MARY MARGARET WHITE [00:20:40]: That's a really good question, and it is one that is ever changing. We have a dedicated audience team that was at Mississippi Today. And when we kind of grew into this sort of larger organization, which I can share a little bit more about, our audience team also grew. So our head of audience is a woman named Lauchlin Fields, and she has really, I think in so many ways, led the industry on thinking about audience and engagement and growth. And what they do is they practice it, what they call a full-funnel approach. So it's, you know, bringing in casual readers and then taking them through this journey that creates a more loyal readership. It's also interesting because this year, particularly, we've seen some dips in our readership. Our social referrals are down, and we see that reflected in our page views, but our number of recurring readers are up. The time on the page is up. 

MARY MARGARET WHITE [00:21:41]: So, getting away from the vanity metrics and into the ones that matter, I think is important. And it's something that can be a little hard to swallow when you see the lines jumping on the page in directions you don't love. But I do trust Lauchlin and her team, and I am assured that we're continuing to move in the right direction. One thing that I'm really focused on is continuing to grow our number of Mississippi readers, just making sure that if our, if our number of readers is growing that that is, like, in proportion with, you know, people located locally here in Mississippi. So we've done that, we've grown our readership through a lot of different strategies that—I mentioned text messaging earlier, which I still think is a really key strategy, SMS, particularly for rural states like Mississippi. We have also leaned-in to TikTok and to YouTube and other sort of video player formats and played around with how we can take a seven-part investigative series and, you know, break that down or offer that visually to a younger reader. And that's been exciting. It's been really fun to see the team repackage some of our stories for Instagram and to see the reaction there. 

MARY MARGARET WHITE [00:23:01]: So I will say that, like, one thing that I mention a lot is that we were, I believe, one of the first digital only publications in Mississippi, and that has a lot of advantages as I'm sure you've talked through with many guests. But one of the things that I think has been most advantageous is that we've had the ability to be nimble in how we think about distribution and how we can play around with different ways to bring readers onto the site, and we've been able to pivot when things, you know, maybe haven't worked out like we had hoped and in most cases at a pretty low expense. 

TIM REGAN-PORTER [00:23:44]: How big is your editorial team? 

MARY MARGARET WHITE [00:23:46]: I think we have about 16 people on the editorial team right now. We're bringing in about 3 fellows and 2 interns, over the summer, so we'll probably have a 20 plus newsroom, in a matter of weeks. 

TIM REGAN-PORTER [00:24:00]: I think that's a lot of growth because when I was, you know, working with The Sun Herald, I think the number was much, much smaller back in 2017, 2018. 

MARY MARGARET WHITE [00:24:09]: Yeah. Yeah. This is, I think this is a good size for our newsroom. Of course, we all have ambitions to have more reporters in different parts of the state and, you know, the list goes on, but this feels like a really good size. We do have some priority areas that we'd like to staff up on, but I think this is a good size for Mississippi Today. 

Balancing investigative and daily reporting 

TIM REGAN-PORTER [00:24:30]: And I'm wondering, do you work with the editorial team, particularly when you were smaller, but it's still an issue, I assume, even at 16, on sort of the mix of content and the frequency. You know, I was just watching the piece on PBS NewsHour, and Anna Wolf, I think, said that that piece that she won part of, contributed on the Pulitzer Prize. I think she said she worked on that off and on for 5 years. So, you know, some of these investigative stories are really deep dives and take a lot of time. As a team, how do you balance outputs and, you know, frequency with readers? 

MARY MARGARET WHITE [00:25:09]: Yeah. So the output has been, like, a challenge since day one. I can remember being in board meetings in early years and really, like, you know, going back and forth, back and forth with this with board members and with editors, and so I think that we have come to find a really good rhythm. I got a report this morning that we published 46 stories last week. And the way that we've been able to do that is we do have reporters on the team like Anna Wolf who are doing investigative work, and we're creating that space for them to do that work. But we also have reporters on the team who are doing more sort of, you know, day in, day out reporting, not necessarily breaking news. It may be a little more enterprise in scope, but we have managed to find a rhythm, to find a cadence. No one has a quota. 

MARY MARGARET WHITE [00:26:06]: That's a, you know, a traumatizing carryover from an another era that we just aren't going to implement here, but we have been able to create a rhythm, and I wish I could give you, like, the exact formula, but, we all know we need to keep the site fresh. We need people's eyes, like, coming back to the site and that, of course, requires fresh content and that mix of having folks who are dedicated to investigative and people who are doing more, you know, sort of daily reporting has been helpful. Now with that said, I would imagine that almost everyone on staff has at least one larger project that they work on throughout the year, so we do want to make space and time for people to be able to challenge themselves, to dig into a certain story, to really spend some time doing some long-form reporting because it seems that we attract, those a journalist with a, you know, a desire for that kind of work. 

Legal and operational challenges in investigative journalism 

TIM REGAN-PORTER [00:27:04]: And that type of work for journalists and newsrooms that are new to this or even for those who are coming from larger organizations where you have a lot of infrastructure, I'm not sure everyone understands the heavy lift that it is, not just in terms of the reporting, but also organizationally and the the legal liability. I mean, you're I think you're involved in a lawsuit right now. Larry Ryckman from the Colorado Sun was telling the story about when he was at the AP. You know? He had, you know, a subject start complaining and threatening lawsuits, and a former attorney general gave them a call. And, you know, they were quick to back down. But when you're at a small, you know, nonprofit, you don't have those kind of resources. So what has that been like to manage just the operational and legal realities of doing serious investigative work? 

MARY MARGARET WHITE [00:28:00]: Well, unfortunately, I'm afraid it comes with the territory for anyone doing serious investigative work or any kind of accountability reporting right now, But it is hard. It's hard, and I'm very grateful that we have, you know, been smart about getting good media liability insurance and, you know, being well insured, but, you know, that only goes so far. So it is, it's really, it really is scary. But with that said, these types of lawsuits are intended to chill the coverage, and we have to remember that it is because of our mission and because of our dedication to mission, I should say, which is to shine light in dark corners that we find ourselves where we are in terms of litigation. So with that said, it is important to have a good hygiene check as a nonprofit organization and make sure that your i's are dotted and your t's are crossed and you've got the right sort of policies and you're reporting, you know, to the states and the feds, you know, accurately and all of that, But there are a lot of great resources out there for nonprofit newsrooms, particularly. I think, specifically about the Reporters Committee For Freedom of the Press. They're such a tremendous service organization for newsrooms. They provide legal support, not to the level like we need with our litigation right now, but they offer that pre-publication vetting. 

MARY MARGARET WHITE [00:29:33]: They've even started a service where they'll match you with a pro bono law group to review, like, your advertising contracts. So I think that there are a lot of, there are a lot more resources for the business side, for the legal side, for those of us in these spaces than there were 5 years ago. 

TIM REGAN-PORTER [00:29:53]: Yeah. We did recently did a survey of some of our newsrooms, and the number that don't even have media liability insurance is frightening. Even if you're not doing investigative, I mean, some of the angriest subjects I've ever seen have been restaurant owners who didn't like your review. And, you know, fortunately, they weren't litigious, but, you know, it's a risk if you don't have that support and that insurance. 

MARY MARGARET WHITE [00:30:16]: Absolutely. Well, the business management side is difficult. I mean, you've really gotta, you kinda gotta be good at a lot of little things to make it all work, which can feel overwhelming at times. 

Insights from the American Journalism Project 

TIM REGAN-PORTER [00:30:30]: Yeah. Absolutely. That's a good segue to talking about your experience with AJP, which is, you know, I referenced the Knight Media Forum conversation. And, you alluded just how enlightening and maybe even transformative going through that process with them was. So talk a little bit about what you learned on that journey and that maybe other nonprofit leaders, you know, don't come into it with that knowledge. 

MARY MARGARET WHITE [00:30:59]: Yeah. Absolutely. Well, quite frankly, you know, for many years, I was the only person working on the quote, unquote, business side of Mississippi Today. So I was, you know, hired to do marketing and branding, soon, you know, got into the fundraising space and was writing grants and talking to major donors, but also managing our board and trying to sell ads and, you know, also ordering the coffee and, like, emptying the garbage. So AJP coming in and really saying, you guys are putting out a great product. Mississippi needs Mississippi Today. We see the potential in this newsroom, but what you're doing right now is completely unsustainable. There is no way that you can operate at this level for much longer if you don't build more infrastructure and more capacity on the business side. 

MARY MARGARET WHITE [00:31:55]: It's really good to have someone from the outside sometimes tell you these things. Right? Like, you wanna do it all. You care about the mission and the work. So with their support, we were able to bring in someone to focus on fundraising, someone, you know, to focus on audience engagement, on that membership element of what we were doing. And that allowed me, I think, to really hone my skills in the journalism and philanthropy space to really think more about building the case for support, to think more strategically about where we needed to grow and, you know, what sort of support we could find to support, what sort of support we could find to grow, you know, in areas like health care. We had just come out of well, we got our AJP grant in 2020, so we were, like, at the height of the COVID lockdown when that relationship first began, and hiring was really hard. But, also, AJP came along, and they said, okay. COVID is this crazy thing. 

MARY MARGARET WHITE [00:32:59]: No one knows what to do with, but we know we need to think through contingency budgeting. Tim, contingency budget budgeting, I would have never I wouldn't have thought about that. I mean, I don't have a finance background, and that was tremendous. I mean, it really helped us save in 2020. We were more organized, you know, on the finance side than perhaps we would have been. We were already planning for 2021. So those kinds of things, like, really helped us grow as an organization. It made me think a lot more about hiring and recruiting and the way we write job, you know, job descriptions. 

MARY MARGARET WHITE [00:33:41]: So in almost every aspect, whether it was, you know, HR or design thinking or fundraising or financial management, AJP gave us, like, as I sometimes say, like, a mini master's degree in nonprofit news management. 

TIM REGAN-PORTER [00:33:59]: And you mentioned hiring and bringing on a development person specifically. And I, you know, I talked to a lot of publishers and nonprofit leaders. And even outside of this industry, finding a good salesperson is difficult. Finding a good fundraiser is difficult. So what have you learned about trying to find the right fit and the right person to drive that revenue? 

MARY MARGARET WHITE [00:34:21]: Well, what I've learned is that the kind of fundraising we're doing in journalism and the kind of sales that we're doing in nonprofit media are unlike any job that any fundraiser or salesperson has ever had before. We mentioned earlier, you know, we're not selling advertisers on clicks, you know, it's not impressions based. Even though we've had great growth, that's just still not the, you know, the dataset that we're working from. And similarly, a lot of fundraisers, at least in our area, have come from, like, larger sort of national fundraising roles, so they might work for the American Society of whatever x y z. So they're accustomed to working from really large databases. They've got long, you know, long history of donors that they can try to grow. So this is a lot more grassroots and even though we have come so far in terms of educating donors, there is still a lot of work that has to be done to help people understand why they might give philanthropically, charitably, to a newsroom. So I think really being honest and straightforward on the front end about the challenges that one might face working in this space. It's just absolutely critical. 

MARY MARGARET WHITE [00:35:50]: But there is also I mean, it's so rewarding. You know? You get to work with really smart people who are always learning, and, you know, it's incredible to be a part of this team, but it's just hard work. 

From public service in government to public service in journalism 

TIM REGAN-PORTER [00:36:05]: Prior to Mississippi Today, you were the tourism development manager at Mississippi Development Authority, and you were at the Mississippi Arts Commission before that. What have those experiences and positions taught you that you've been able to bring into your role at Mississippi Today? 

MARY MARGARET WHITE [00:36:26]: Yeah. So I had 10 years almost in state government before I came to Mississippi Today, and I have always known that I wanted to build my career in public service. So naturally, working for the government was the way to do that, you know. But in my first job with the Mississippi Arts Commission, I was the state's folk arts director. I was basically the state folklorist, so I was getting to utilize a lot of my journalism skills in that job, doing oral histories, taking photographs, and traveling across Mississippi and meeting the most amazing and wonderful people. I was also administering a grants program. I was also writing grants to the National Endowment For the Arts, and we were constantly creating and developing public programming that, you know, helped connect artists with business skills or with one another, you know, it was a myriad of things. So that was such a formative part of my career because it really did help me to make friends all over Mississippi, and to really understand the complexity and the beauty of this state and to see firsthand the challenges that people have in their hometowns day in and day out. 

MARY MARGARET WHITE [00:37:41]: And then from there, I moved into kind of a similar role but with the state tourism office where I was really helping tell the Mississippi story. And the story that we were telling was, of course, a rosy one of, you know, blues music and, you know, really good food and art and literature, but we also were telling a harder story, and that was the Mississippi Civil Rights story. And we established a marked trails program that commemorated significant sites, civil history—civil rights history sites across Mississippi. And for me that job was one that was really getting me back to sort of my roots as a journalist and and, you know, telling multiple sides of a story and and getting back to some of the nuanced history of Mississippi, but it was also, you know, it was much more of a traditional government job in that I learned a lot more about business relationships and bureaucracy and how to manage up and manage down and manage left and right. So they were great jobs, and I'm so grateful and really appreciate all of my colleagues who are still doing that work. But I did begin to sense that if I wanted to follow my calling in public service and really make an impact in Mississippi, that I needed another opportunity. And I was actually home on maternity leave when I heard about Mississippi Today, and I thought to myself, like, that's where I need to be. This is nonprofit. It's mission driven. It's journalism. And about a year later, I was able to join the team. 

Rapid-fire questions 

TIM REGAN-PORTER [00:39:26]: Well, now it's time for the rapid fire segment, and the questions are quick, but your answers don't have to be. So the first question is compared to a year ago, are you more or less optimistic about the future of local news, not just at Mississippi Today, but more broadly? 

MARY MARGARET WHITE [00:39:47]: No. I am really optimistic about local news. The University of Southern Mississippi, which is in the southern part of the state, just received a $3 million grant from the Scripps Howard Foundation to start a local community news, newsroom, there in Hattiesburg, and I've had, you know, sort of a nice bird's eye view of that process. And they're gonna do awesome work, in a part of Mississippi that, like, needs more coverage, so, like, I'm so pumped up about that and excited to be a partner with them. We're seeing tremendous support of the journalism school at the University of Mississippi. They're about to kick off a new center there for journalism innovation and advocacy, and our Mississippi Press Association is just tremendous, and they're doing great work with publishers who are in local communities and, like, really doing the important work of covering their city halls and, you know, everything happening locally, with, you know, the resources they have. And my hat is off to every Mississippi newspaper editor or publisher because that is tough but critical work. So I do feel really optimistic. 

MARY MARGARET WHITE [00:41:04]: I, you know, have my eyes wide open a year, as compared to a year ago, to what challenges can come, but I know that I hear from readers every day that say, what would we do if it weren't for Mississippi Today? Like, thank you for asking the hard questions. And I think they're gonna stay with us, and they're gonna make sure that we can continue to produce this great quality reporting. 

TIM REGAN-PORTER [00:41:33]: Does AI fill you with more hope or dread when it comes to journalism? 

MARY MARGARET WHITE [00:41:37]: To put it plainly, I feel hopeful about AI. I don't ever want to see anyone replaced by AI, but there is a lot of drudgery involved in this work that I think AI can help with. And, you know, as a friend was saying the other day, we were having a similar conversation, we are already using AI so much in our day to day jobs. We just don't call it AI. Maybe maybe generative AI, I'd give you a different answer. But I do, I do feel optimistic. I have a lot of learning to do, Tim. Lot of learning to do. 

MARY MARGARET WHITE [00:42:18]: So ask me that in a year, and I may have a different answer. 

TIM REGAN-PORTER [00:42:21]: Alright. Messy desk or clean desk? 

MARY MARGARET WHITE [00:42:24]: Oh, it's a dis, it's just a destroyer. It's like a bomb went off in here. It's, I'm so embarrassed. 

TIM REGAN-PORTER [00:42:32]: I'm not sure I've had a clean desk answer to that question yet, so you're definitely not alone. 

MARY MARGARET WHITE [00:42:37]: That's good. 

TIM REGAN-PORTER [00:42:39]: Do you have a favorite piece of advice you like to give or that you've received? Life advice, journalism related, whatever. 

MARY MARGARET WHITE [00:42:46]: I mean, I always say, like, I take my work very seriously, but I try not to take myself too seriously. 

TIM REGAN-PORTER [00:42:54]: Is there a piece of common advice or conventional wisdom that drives you crazy and it's wrongness or oversimplification? 

MARY MARGARET WHITE [00:43:02]: Keep the main thing the main thing because they're all pretty important. I don't know. I—that's a good question. That's a really clever question. I generally tend to feel that advice is not always incredibly helpful, but listening is more so, and helping people talk through their own thoughts or frustrations or feelings about a certain thing can actually be more useful than any clever phrase. 

TIM REGAN-PORTER [00:43:36]: In this sort of, this digital age, we hear a lot about failure, fail fast. We still don't like to talk about it, though. Do you have a favorite failure of yours, something that was instrumental in learning or just putting you on the path you're on? 

MARY MARGARET WHITE [00:43:52]: I have a lot of failures. Thinking of a favorite is a fun way to think about it. But I do think, like, what I mentioned before, for a while, it would really kinda, you know, hit me hard if I, you know, spend a lot of time writing a grant or trying to, like, cultivate a donor and it just didn't manifest. And, you know, I would perhaps maybe go back over all those details, what we could have done better, what I, you know, maybe, you know, didn't do right. And I have learned that that's really just part of the process. It's not personal, and it may just may not be the right time. It may be the wrong ask, and that's been a, I don't know if that's exactly failure, but that's been a hard lesson to learn. 

TIM REGAN-PORTER [00:44:43]: Being an executive, nonprofit work, journalism, investigative journalism, butting heads with the state, all of these can be extremely stressful and exhausting. What do you do to maintain your sanity and keep a sense of balance? 

MARY MARGARET WHITE [00:44:59]: I pull a lot of weeds. I like to work in the yard, and that's my zen spot. It's just like pulling weeds and dividing plants and moving things around, that is really, really a good thing for me. But I'm also a mother of 2 young children, so I'm very grateful for that because were it not for my kids, I think I would work a lot more than I already do, and my balance would be even further off. So while it is hard to be a mom, a working mom, or a working dad, or a working parent, I think your kids also naturally bring you a sense of, like, levity and balance because you gotta with them. You gotta be present when you come home. 

TIM REGAN-PORTER [00:45:48]: Yeah. Do you have a time saving hack that, your favorite time saving hack? 

MARY MARGARET WHITE [00:45:56]: Let's see. That's a great question. I love your rapid fire questions. These are so fun. I honestly, and, maybe a lot of people do this, I pick up the phone. I make a lot of phone calls. If something, if I begin to write an email and it is taking me a long time and I am overworking that response, I just pick up the phone. It usually saves me a lot of time. I usually get things accomplished much more efficiently. And, you know, in these days, where the only time you talk to someone, you're on Zoom, a phone call is really appreciated. 

TIM REGAN-PORTER [00:46:33]: Interesting. I like that. 5 years out, what does wild success look like for Mississippi Today? 

MARY MARGARET WHITE [00:46:41]: Yeah. 5 years out. So it's 2024 now. That will be almost 2030. You know, I think that we'd like to have a little bit larger of a newsroom. There are some certain desks that I'm really excited about trying to find support for. I think there is a world where we start doing some arts and culture work. I think there's a world where we start focusing more on the city of Jackson, the capital city where we live and love. We want to double down on our education reporting. So if we can accomplish those 3 issue areas, staff them up in the right way, and really see the reporting make impact like we've seen in other areas, I will be very, very happy. 

Media recommendations and local Mississippi highlights 

TIM REGAN-PORTER [00:47:29]: And then final question, Do you have 3 to 5 pieces of media you can recommend? And these can be entertainment or news related, books, podcasts, movies, TV shows, whatever? 

MARY MARGARET WHITE [00:47:42]: Oh, yeah. Sure. Absolutely. Well, I just went to a concert, a small concert in our neighborhood by a guy named Kurt Vile, and he's like grunge meets Jon Prine, and I highly recommend a Kurt Vile show. Very entertaining, an incredibly impressive collection of guitars, just a great performance. The second piece of media I would recommend is the Gulf States Newsroom, and that is a product of NPR where reporters are based here in Mississippi and Louisiana and in other parts of the Deep South, and I think they're doing some of the best audio reporting around. I'm really impressed by their work and really glad to have them as part of our local news ecosystem. And then, I'm not giving you any news recommendations. 

MARY MARGARET WHITE [00:48:35]: I'm sorry. My last recommendation is for a photo book called Thank You, Please Come Again by a woman named Kate Medley. She's a Mississippi native, but has spent the last 10 years documenting the very diverse food culture in American gas stations, particularly in the Deep South. And with those are these beautiful essays that accompany them that really help us think about place and identity and a changing American South. 

TIM REGAN-PORTER [00:49:10]: And I'm gonna add one final question, actually, because I hadn't really thought about this. But as you talk about place, that's an important piece of local news that sometimes we overlook. So if I'm visiting Mississippi, what are some places or foods or, you know, what would you say not to miss for people who don't aren't familiar with Mississippi? 

MARY MARGARET WHITE [00:49:31]: Oh, I love this question. So if you are visiting Mississippi, start your trip on a Monday, and come to Jackson, Mississippi, and plan to be at Hal and Mal's, which is an iconic restaurant and music venue in downtown Jackson. Plan to be there around 8 o'clock, and all you need is a $5 bill, and that's it. Because it's $5 to get in. That money supports the Central Mississippi Blues Society, and you will experience, hands down, one of the coolest blues jams of your life. It is real-deal Jackson Soul Blues, and there's probably nowhere else on the planet that you can have a musical experience like this. There's also great food, hot tamales and, you know, gumbo and all of the, like, Mississippi favorites. That is one experience that I would put my money on, for anyone of any walk in life. 

MARY MARGARET WHITE [00:50:35]: Doesn't matter how old or young. It's just a really good time. You'll come away with, like, 6 new best friends too. Also, when you're visiting Mississippi, I'm kinda stuck on Jackson, but I yeah. If you go down to the Mississippi Gulf Coast, the Walter Anderson Home and Museum is a tremendous visual arts experience and one that's really focused on the flora and the fauna of the Gulf Coast and all about Walter Anderson, who was a madman but a prolific artist. And it's a really well curated, beautiful experience. Lots of ways to kinda get your hands dirty with the art as well, and that's super cool. And then lastly, in Clarksdale, Mississippi, there is a canoe company called Quapaw Canoe Company. 

MARY MARGARET WHITE [00:51:26]: And with Quapaw, you have the opportunity to paddle the Mississippi River in a hand-hewn canoe and spend the night on a sandbar and eat really good food, meet interesting people from all over the world, and really see America from a very different vantage point. So those are 3 really cool things that you can do in Mississippi. 

TIM REGAN-PORTER [00:51:53]: Well, thank you for that. That's a, I'll have to keep that question now. Well, thank you for your time. This has been great. 

MARY MARGARET WHITE [00:51:59]: Alright. Well, thank you so much. Have a great week. 

TIM REGAN-PORTER [00:52:05]: Thank you for listening to the Local News Matters podcast. Never miss an episode by subscribing in your favorite podcast player and sign up for our newsletter at lnmpod.com

And thanks to our production partners at Pirate Audio. Pirate Audio believes every community deserves great things to listen to, and they're on a mission to help local newsrooms reach their communities via audio. If you're interested in starting a podcast or need production support for an existing one, let me know, and I'll be happy to connect you.  

If you have guest recommendations, others doing interesting and innovative work in local news, let me know through the contact form at the website, lnmpod.com.  


Past guests on the
Local News Matters podcast include: Amy Kovac-Ashley (Tiny News Collective), Michael Shaprio (TAPinto), Kenny Katzgrau (redbankgreen and Broadstreet), John Garrett (Community Impact), Shannon Kinney (Dream Local Digital), Larry Ryckman (The Colorado Sun),  Frank Mungeam (Local Media Association), Kelly Ann Scott (Alabama Media Group), Sara Lomax and S. Mitra Kalita (URL Media), Elizabeth Hansen Shapiro (National Trust for Local News), Mike Rispoli and Richard Young (via When the People Decide), Sarabeth Berman (American Journalism Project), Rabbi Hillel Goldberg and Shana Goldberg (Intermountain Jewish News),  Lyndsay C. Green (via The Journalism Salute), Rashad Mahmood and Mark Glaser (New Mexico Local News Fund), Christian Vanek and Barbara Hardt (The Mountain-Ear), Dan Grech (BizHack), Zack Richner (Easy Tax Credits), Tracie Powell (Pivot Fund), Dan Oshinsky (Inbox Collective), Linda Shapley (via What Works), Yehong Zhu and Jake Seaton (Zette, Column), Charity Huff (January Spring), Joaquin Alvarado and Dave Perry (Aurora Sentinel), Steve Waldman (Rebuild Local News), Maritza Félix (Conecta Arizona), Michael Bolden (American Press Institute), Jeff Roberts and Corey Hutchins (CFOIC, Colorado College), Eve Pearlman and Erica Anderson (Spaceship Media), Jennifer Brandel (Hearken, Democracy SOS), Corey Hutchins with Bay Edwards, Todd Chamberlain and Raleigh Burleigh (Sopris Sun).