Primer: Can Nonprofit Newsrooms Save the South?


In today’s news landscape, national and international stories often overshadow the issues that profoundly impact our local communities. However, through investigative reporting and comprehensive state-focused projects nonprofit news organizations are reshaping this narrative, one story at a time. 

Next week, the Overby Center will explore how southern nonprofit news organizations play a pivotal role in bridging the information gaps left by traditional media outlets, in the Center’s first panel of the fall semester, featuring Marlon Walker from the Marshall Project, and Andy Lack, former NBC News chairman and founder of Mississippi Today. The event starts at 5:30 p.m. in the Overby auditorium and is open to the public. A generous reception and open bar will follow. 

In the meantime, here is a deep dive into how Southern nonprofit newsrooms such as the Marshall Project and Mississippi Today have emerged as indispensable sources of information and insight.

The Marshall Project, established in 2014 by Bill Keller and Neil Barsky, operates as a nonpartisan, nonprofit news organization that aims to generate and sustain a nationwide sense of urgency about reforming the U.S. criminal justice system. Their approach involves using journalism to positively influence the system’s fairness, effectiveness, transparency, and humanity. There is a consensus across political lines that reform within the criminal justice system is urgently needed. Through their investigative reporting, The Marshall Project has shed light on the persistent racial and economic disparities within the criminal justice system. These disparities burden taxpayers with significant costs annually and harm those incarcerated and many working within the system. Despite their ill-preparedness, challenges like mental illness, addiction, and poverty often confront law enforcement, courts, and prisons. 

In a recent article titled “What Federal Judges’ Rulings Reveal About the Memphis Police Tactics,” the Marshall Project exposed how federal and state judges consistently found that Memphis police conduct illegal searches. Over the years, five judges have ruled that law enforcement officers violated individuals’ constitutional rights during traffic stops and encounters with pedestrians. The organization also provides visibility to proposals and critiques from the criminal justice community. It aims to serve as a model for other media outlets in their coverage of criminal justice matters while emphasizing fairness and responsibility.

Another Southern nonprofit news organization making a significant impact is Mississippi Today, founded in 2016 by former NBC chairman Andy Lack as a statehouse watchdog. Starting with a focus on Capitol coverage, Mississippi Today has expanded its scope to cover various topics beyond politics and policy. These include education, public health, justice, environment, equity, and sports. Today, Mississippi Today stands as one of the largest newsrooms in Mississippi, illustrating that free, nonpartisan news serves as an antidote to apathy and a crucial tool for ensuring government accountability.

In one of their recent articles, “‘These are not good numbers’: Thousands more Mississippians, kids dropped from Medicaid,” Mississippi Today sheds light on a concerning development. In August, over 16,000 Mississippi residents were removed from Medicaid as the state conducted its first review of rolls in three years. The end of federal regulations preventing disenrollments in May triggered this process. Since June, a staggering 68,626 individuals have been disenrolled, with a significant portion, 79%, losing coverage due to paperwork issues rather than ineligibility. This could potentially affect eligible beneficiaries; most disenrolled are children. The ongoing unwinding process strains the state’s healthcare infrastructure, putting many rural hospitals at risk of closure.

Southern nonprofit news organizations like The Marshall Project and Mississippi Today serve as society’s watchdogs, uncovering stories with the power to drive positive change. They hold institutions accountable for their actions and provide a platform for voices that might otherwise remain unheard. Through their comprehensive state projects, they delve into the complex web of issues affecting local communities, ranging from education and healthcare to criminal justice and environmental concerns. These organizations empower citizens with knowledge, foster civic engagement, and ultimately fortify the foundation of democracy.