Tupelo — Not so long ago, first-class newspapers were friends of the community, limiting criticism to needs for improvements rather than condemning shortcomings. But priorities for newspapers shifted during the era of consolidation and increased competition, and the bottom line became the primary measuring stick of success.
When George McLean became involved in the 1930s with what became Tupelo’s Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal, established in 1870, he affirmed the founder’s slogan, “be just, fear not,” added a second motto, “locally owned … dedicated to the service of God and mankind,” and vowed to always honor “the good newspaper.”
“The good newspaper should be a catalyst in its community, oiling the efforts of widely varying groups to achieve a reasonably smooth, balanced flow of progress,” he wrote. “It seeks to provide coherence to scattered and sometimes conflicting objectives, enabling its community to get a better view of priorities and ways in which joint efforts may prove better than splintered activities.”
To ensure local ownership and unwavering principles guiding the region’s daily communiqué, McLean formed the nonprofit CREATE Foundation “as a catalyst for positive change in Northeast Mississippi by committing its resources to projects that will improve the quality of life for all citizens … and by helping individuals and groups provide financial support to meaningful projects.”
CREATE Foundation, which serves a 16-county region, wholly owns the Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal, along with smaller circulars Aberdeen Examiner, Amory Advertiser, Itawamba County Times and Pontotoc Progress. Billy Crews, an Ole Miss graduate who worked with McLean in community development, is the Journal Publishing Company’s longtime president and CEO.
The McLean family funded CREATE, Mississippi’s oldest community foundation in 1972, with an endowment of 100% of the stock in the newspaper. Today, the CREATE Foundation has assets of nearly $40 million, and a 25-member all-star regional board of directors.
“Mr. McLean believed there were two primary reasons it was important for the foundation to own the newspaper,” said Mike Claiborne, president of CREATE Foundation. “One, when you have a local newspaper that is fundamentally interested in making the community a better place in which to live, there’s an appropriate focus on community-building stories and ideas. The obvious second reason is, the dividends typically range from 25% to 33% of the net profit, and provide us the funding for administrative costs at minimum, and over the years, has also allowed us to give grants and initiate programs for the community.”
Retired banker Lewis Whitfield, senior vice president for regional community development for CREATE Foundation, pointed out that several years ago, shortly after Mrs. McLean died in 2000, the Journal declared a special dividend of $750,000, and her estate paid another $750,000 to the foundation, for an influx of $1.5 million.
“We’ve been using that money to build county affiliates, and we have eight so far,” he said. “For example, when Alcorn County raised $200,000, we gave them a 50% match of $100,000 for a permanent fund. They probably have a half-million in it now. Alcorn County uses the income, and we manage the money as the local board advises us.”
The CREATE Foundation has also provided $10,000 challenge grants to nonprofit organizations that raise $20,000. Big Brothers Big Sisters of Northeast Mississippi, Boys & Girls Clubs of North Mississippi, The Nature Conservancy, The Sanctuary Hospice House, The Tupelo Symphony, Tupelo-Lee Humane Society, The United Way and other nonprofits have benefited from these grants.
In 1995, Crews prompted the creation of The Commission on the Future of Northeast Mississippi, modeled after the Commission on the Future of the South, headquartered in North Carolina’s Research Triangle. “The idea was to bring together top representatives from the 16 counties, break down regional barriers to communication, and work on common problems and issues concerning economic development, workforce development and social environment,” said Whitfield. “That’s still our focal point for programs.”
CREATE Foundation administers 14 scholarship endowment funds and 14 field-of-interest endowment funds. In addition to using permanent money for endowments or unrestricted gifts, the foundation also manages advised giving funds.
“For example, someone may need to make a $10,000 contribution at year-end, and may decide to use stock and give it to five different organizations,” said Whitfield. “It’s too complicated to go through churches, for instance, where they’d have to sell the stock and split it. Through CREATE, they can donate the stock and immediately take the full deduction. We sell the stock and place the money in an account for them. Over time, they can tell us where to distribute the money.”
Through the foundation, more than 1,000 regional businesspeople have received principled management training through The Covey Institute, and high school juniors and seniors have worked in various community leadership roles through its youth-directed Northeast Mississippi Youth Foundation. CREATE has spun off other entities, such as MEGAPOP, an alliance of interested parties created to facilitate improved broadband access and education.
“We feel good about the fact that we’ve worked together for years to develop a strong community,” said Whitfield. “There are uneven spots in terms of economic and community development, but as a whole, I’m confident we’ll see this area rise in importance.”
Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynne W. Jeter at firstname.lastname@example.org.