Driving down the picturesque Main Street of Lucedale, Mississippi you immediately get a sense of incredible stories emanating from this tiny town in Southeast Mississippi.
For the past 112 years, those stories have been told by the George County Times and its owners, the Sellers family. O.G. “Buddy” Sellers is proprietor and unofficial town historian. His grandfather started the newspaper in 1904.
Dr. Will Norton, Dean of the Meek School of Journalism at Ole Miss, and I got the royal treatment from Buddy last week when we dropped by his office.
“Let’s go get a cup of coffee,” Buddy suggested.
He took us to the Town & Country Cafe down the road where the coffee was free and the conversation priceless. We talked politics, football, World War II, community journalism and nearly everything else under the sun.
“This is a good town,” Buddy said as we drove back to his office, “a good newspaper town.”
The first stop on our two-day trek across South Mississippi was The Chronicle in Laurel where publisher Jason Niblett oversees the twice a week publication.
I had just met Jason the week before while presenting him with a number of advertising awards at the Mississippi Press Association’s Mid-Winter Conference.
Jason, like most newspaper folk we meet, is a hard worker who doesn’t punch a time clock.
“There’s always something to do,” he said. “I like that.”
Russell Turner, owner of the Greene County Herald and a fellow MPA board member, treated us to some good fried catfish during our visit to Leakesville.
After circling the courthouse in the tiny town, we met up with Russell at his office just a block away. The family paper dates back to 1898. Essentially a two-person operation, the latest edition was hot off the press with stories about a local school bus accident, supervisors raising garbage fees, the deaths of a pair of longtime public officials, and the dozen candidates vying for the coveted Distinguished Young Woman title.
Russell explained he had opportunities to leave and do other things, but was always called back to his hometown to serve his community as a newspaperman.
We drove south from there and cut across the Coast visiting the Ocean Springs Record; Blake Kaplan, new editor of the Sun-Herald in Biloxi; and Jace Ponder at the Gazebo Gazette in Pass Christian.
Mardi Gras was kicking off across the Coast with parades set for the coming week. Jace, whose office sits just a few blocks off the beach, was preparing to cover a big celebration that night.
“This is a lot of fun,” Jace said of his work at the still relatively new paper in Pass Christian. “It’s a lot of work, but it’s important.”
Will and I made our first visit to the Picayune Item where Publisher Linda Gilmore welcomed us. After admiring the giant Linotype in their lobby – the newspaper industry standard for printing in the mid 20th Century – we were treated to a tour of their facility where the daily newspaper is published.
It meant a lot to me to see the office for it was their past publisher, Tom Andrews, a past president of MPA who selected me to serve on the association’s board of directors, opening the opportunity to serve as president.
Our stop at the Poplarville Democrat timed out perfectly for lunch. I asked about a good lunch spot in the quaint little town and was encouraged to visit Scooter’s or Dimple’s. My late grandmother’s name was Dimple, so that was decided quickly. Dimple’s famous fried chicken proved worthy of the moniker.
The staff of the Stone County Enterprise in Wiggins, which is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year, were delightful as they let me wander through their historic vault – the newspaper office was previously a local bank.
Heath Walley, managing editor of the Jasper County News, was equally hospitable as he gave us a grand tour of the massive printing facility in Bay Springs.
Walley, a native of nearby Raleigh, said he graduated from Mississippi State and started a career in marketing, but didn’t feel the same satisfaction as the time he worked for his hometown paper while growing up. He was offered the opportunity at the nearby Jasper County News and said he’s now doing what he was destined to do.
“I can’t imagine doing anything else,” Walley said.
Walley’s enthusiasm for community journalism erased any road weariness Will and I were experiencing and got us excited about our next stop.
Twenty miles down the road we stepped into the offices of the Smith County Reformer in downtown Raleigh where Toni Stewart greeted us with a big smile.
“Smith County’s business institution and best source of information since 1889” it reads across the newspaper’s nameplate. Browsing through the old bound volumes and admiring the history on the walls evoked great appreciation for the significance of this newspaper in Smith County.
We concluded our journey in downtown Morton where Keisha Mason’s family had gathered around her to celebrate her new ownership of the Spirit of Morton newspaper. It was a treat for us to walk in and share in the family’s excitement.
Driving back after visiting 12 newspapers in two days, Will and I both kept reiterating how inspiring it is to see so many excited about community journalism all across the state.
“You really have to appreciate what these newspapers mean to these communities,” Will said.
I certainly do.