Smells Like Team Spirit | Jackson Free Press | Jackson, MS

Smells Like Team Spirit

When interns show up at the Jackson Free Press, they come through the door a tad nervous, hoping to get some sort of experience. They have a foggy idea that they might be picking up coffee and lunch for the people doing the real work. They'll get to watch, and hopefully pick up a hint or two about the journalism business, while calling us "ma'am" and "sir."

Er, no. JFP interns, quite literally, do everything. We ask them to do nothing we won't do ourselves and, more vitally, we ask them to do a whole lot of stuff we professionals do—like writing pieces, going into all parts of the city (and state) to do interviews, investigative research, planning issues (like this one, the intern-generated guide to Jackson), organizing and styling fashion shoots, and on and on.

Our philosophy is that you learn by doing. And re-writing. And doing some more. No doubt, our interns end up a bit tired. One of them told me, with a big grin, that she had never worked so hard in her life.

She now has an impressive portfolio started. She's lost her fear of picking up the phone, or walking up to strangers to ask them what they love about Jackson or what they think of reviving a civil-rights murder case.

I'm also hoping she has a hunger in her belly to be the best. That's one of those little things we like to teach here—that any one of us, regardless of background, ethnicity, school, economic situation or home state, can be among the top in our field and win awards. Our work can matter to people.

But we don't get there by having low standards and self-esteem, or by being self-conscious and pretentious. We must push ourselves "beyond our comfort zone"—a challenge I give them in intern workshops, and words I'm thrilled to hear they now use themselves, alongside other JFP workshop phrases, such as "what is the next action?" or "I need to actively listen." And I almost feel sorry for uptight office places they might shake up in the future after being around our very open way of discussing diversity at the JFP.

"Page 3 is too black" or "Page 3 is too white" might be something they hear our kick-butt managing editor, Maggie Burks, pop out of her office to announce. Sugarcoating is not something we dig in these digs.

Our interns—regardless of background, public school or private, rich or poor—tend to have one thing in common: They want to mix it up with all sorts. They want to challenge the status quo. And they may not want to talk about diversity all the time, but they sure do expect to see it around them.

I used to worry about how I could be such a busy editor/writer/teacher, and still have time to train the interns who pass through. Indeed, there have been periods when I didn't have nearly enough time to give to interns who worked here. But this summer—when we had 11 interns, past and current, at one point—I fully realized something: They are not here to learn from me; they are here to learn from each other, and every staffer here. And they are here to teach and motivate us.

As the JFP years have passed, I've become enamored with the "team approach" to running a company, and this summer we really applied it to this incredible bunch of college interns (not to mention the group of high-school "associates" who used our offices as a base for a media-literacy project all summer; more on that in a future issue).

I knew I couldn't divide myself into multiple pieces to help each of them daily. So I decided to formalize two things: I had all the interns sign up for in-depth projects they wanted to work on and, second, I scheduled weekly Thursday workshops in which we would talk about everything from libel defenses to narrative structure, the perils of passive writing to parallel-parking hints. (I like to tell journalists: Know how to parallel park; learn to drive a stick; and swab down with alcohol after reporting in the woods to kill chiggers.)

After one of the interns asked us to set up an intern blog for them to write about their JFP experiences (in Jackblog at, I figured out they really liked the workshops. But here's the thing: It wasn't me they liked coming to see, as much as sitting with the entire group around the table in the JFP classroom sharing fears, war stories, successes. And they really liked that former interns, like Luke Darby and Jessica Kinnison, dropped in to share experiences and projects.

This team approach permeated everything they did. Whether on their ongoing team projects—this Jackpedia, the Freedom Summer narratives, "the Cold Case Unit" (they want CCU t-shirts), assisting the media-literacy associates, doing media-diversity research for alt papers nationwide, helping set up JAHSPA (check out Jessica's article), this group really embraced the concept of teamwork. I know they learned more from each other than they did from me. And I love it.

I'd often walk through the newsroom—which has three desks, and one of those belongs to Assistant to the Editor Sage Carter-Hooey—and see seven or eight people working on various projects. Often, two sit elbow-to-elbow at the desks with their laptops; another might be in a random chair, desktop in lap. At first, I felt guilty; we certainly need more chairs, desks, computers, phones.

But then it dawned on me that any of them could go work in the classroom, which has 12 chairs around a long table and wireless access, and sometimes did. But they want to be crammed in like synergistic sardines—between Sage on one end, and Maggie's office on the other. That's where the action, and the interaction, lies. Far be it from me to argue.

I also liked watching lightbulbs come on—like when I shared what the Mississippi Sovereignty Commission was. None of them—regardless of race or school—had learned about the taxpayer-funded spy agency that had targeted anyone who supported race integration not so many years ago. But once they knew, they became obsessed. I'd walk through the newsroom and see one or another intern (especially Matt) bent intently over a "sovereignty report" on their laptop, proving that they, indeed, do care about our history and how we got where we are.

As these interns depart, the staff is in mourning to see them go. My memories are plenty: Maha Mohamed's eyes as she listened to the wrongly imprisoned, but finally free, Cedric Willis tell the workshop what good journalism is and why it matters. Marquez Forrest's glowing face, and his gratitude at discovering Bayard Rustin's words and the Freedom Riders he interviewed. The impeccably styled Stephanie McGrew dressing our mannequin in the [Fly] room for a shoot. The cool intellect of Sophie McNeil as she bounced into my office showing yet another investigative gem she had found in the Archives.

Riding to Southwest Mississippi in the Camaro of Lauren Beattie - the-redheaded-wit who likes to drive as fast, and probe the past as deeply, as I do. Eating boiled peanuts and looking for an executed man's grave with our Oregon girl Lisa Anderson as she learned that good journalism is as dark as it is light.

The innocent smile of Natalie Clericuzio who turns in sports pieces written with the confidence of a 50-year-old cigar-chomper. The revolutionary spirit of Matt Caston who, I pray, learned this summer that he has company in his disgust with, and quest against, injustice. And, finally, Ward Schaefer, the determined young teacher from D.C. who has a hunger to do good journalism no-matter-what, and to learn how no-matter-how-hard.

Thank you, class of summer 2008, for being remarkable and inspiring. Go change the world. We'll keep the light on for you.

Previous Comments


Ms. Ladd from what I see and read here and elsewhere about you, you have an excellent attitude and personality for a teacher. Students like people who make them feel comfortable (aka special) and who still remember how they felt when they were young and in their places. You seem to have grown wiser but not arrogantly or distance as you grew older - a wonderful outlook and way of being. Too few teachers, leaders ,et al, are brillant and blessed enough to get in or stay in this place or frame of mind. I loved my teachers who made me feel close to them or a comrade of them but who could also teach me the craft of their subject matter without hesitation or shorcuts. You apparently have energy and zeal that continue to abide deeply within. No one can possess these attributes and show them powerfully without having an attendant love for people and the task at hand. And no one can do all of this without great drive and dedication to a cause greater than merely making money. Hang on in there! You're doing a wonderful job. The lovers far outweight the haters and the haters don't really matter. As the young folks like to say, "just shake the haters off and keep on pushing."


You know that I'm inspired and motivated by haters, Walt. Me and Michael Phelps. ;-)


That Michael Phelps is something to behold. His swimming is amazing. Talent alone can never overwhelm or impress me. I saw him in many interviews afterward and he showed grace, character, intellect, knowledge, and great appreciation for his mother and the forerunners in various sports. He also talked about music of various kinds, most especially hip hop, and the boy doesn't seem to be the typical diseased-type of golden boy that America has a history of propping us. I'm used to seeing great talents but not the combination of such talent and so many other great things including drive, being grounded and a worldview bigger than self and and his surroundings. Baltimore is one of my favorite towns. Been there probably 20 times or so. Glad to see him put Baltimore on the worldwide map. He reminds me a little of another especially gifted white boy named Larry Joe Byrd. I hated the Celtics but adored Byrd's talents because he did eye-defying things on a daily basis when most had started to beleive a white boy couldn't do it. I played basketball regularly back then and was often rolling on the floor laughing at Black folks trying to explain Byrd's play in the NBA. By the time he came along the league was nearly dead and he and Majic, my favorite player of alll times, saved the league. Brothers would say Byrd isn't that good or as good as the brothers. I would then say how do you explain all those damn point, assists, rebounds, wins, et al, he consistently gets. The answers were quite humorist to say the least. Hopefully, Phelps will keep his head on straight and refuse to let money or evil people seduce him away from the good he seems to clearly be. He's absoulely the boy who couldn't or wasn't supposed to, but did anyway. When those of us win who aren't supposed to according to forecasters, pundits and others who want to play God, a great thing happens.


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