The program at Millsaps College April 15 was "The Future of Newspapers: The Clarion-Ledger's Pulitzer Prize 30 Years Later." The question: Can newspapers still convey big ideas?
In spring 1982, former Gov. William Winter had just finished a legislative session where his Education Reform Act failed for the second straight year. Then he heard The Clarion-Ledger hired a new executive editor--the chairman of Tennessee's Republican Party, Charles Overby. The Democratic governor thought the news couldn't get any worse.
Fortunately for Winter, Overby shared his vision for education reform. That summer, he set out to find answers to Mississippi's education problems. For six months, two of Overby's best reporters, Nancy Weaver Teichert and Fred Anklam, traveled around the state to find out what ailed the schools. The investigation spawned 51 stories and 27 editorials in 24 days during a legislative special session.
Lawmakers--some of whom had appeared in the C-L's "Hall of Shame" for blocking education reform--changed their votes to require public schools to offer kindergarten and adopt compulsory attendance regulations. Winter got his landmark education legislation.
It was a victory for the governor, a win for the paper (Overby displayed the 1983 Pulitzer Prize for public service at Monday's panel) and a triumph for Mississippi.
Could it happen again? Perhaps, but it would be harder in today's world of newspaper cutbacks and vitriolic political divides. "We constantly talk about the greater good," Brian Tolley, executive editor at the C-L said at Millsaps. "That is our mission. We have fewer people, but we talk constantly about what stories we're going to do. We've had to let go of some things (to provide) quality, contextual information."
Ronnie Agnew, the Ledger's former executive editor and now executive director of Mississippi Public Broadcasting, said he's not willing to give up trying to recreate the kind of journalism that happened 30 years ago. "Newspapers can get people talking about things, and newspapers can set the agenda unlike any other media source," he said. "... I'm ready to fight."
Rick Cleveland, director of the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame and Museum, former sports columnist and father of Jackson Free Press reporter Tyler Cleveland, was not as gung-ho. The economics of the industry is a big stumbling block, he said. Of the five papers he grew up reading, Cleveland said, two no longer exist and another, the New Orleans Times-Picayune, prints only three times a week.
"My hometown newspaper, The Hattiesburg American, has a 'for sale' sign in the front yard. That hurts." Cleveland said. "I'm real worried about the future, and I think the future for newspapers is in community ownership ... local ownership that cares about the community and not about pleasing stockholders."
We couldn't agree more.