Community service and newspapers go hand in hand. That aspect of journalism came into focus with the recent announcement that The Sun Herald of Biloxi won a Pulitzer Prize for community service. It is only the third newspaper in Mississippi to win the prestigious honor. The gold medal was awarded in 1941 to the Delta Democrat-Times for editorial writing and years later to a Lexington newspaper that is no longer published.
Ross Riley, editor of the Delta Democrat-Times in Greenville and former sports writer at The Sun Herald, can boast that he’s worked for two prize-winning newspapers. With or without awards, he feels community service is a good thing.
“It’s important to serve the community where we’re located. There’s more need than just putting in the news that someone robbed the ‘double quick’ and took $15,” he said. “The things we’ve done don’t rise to the level of what The Sun Herald did in extraordinary circumstances, but they are a way we meet the needs here.”
He cites two recent examples of service to the Greenville area. Ten days before last Christmas, the local Salvation Army let the newspaper know the service organization was well short of having the funds required to meet community needs.
“We put something on the front page every day for 10 days, featuring some phase of the work they do along with a box showing the funds collected. We also wrote editorials about it because we wanted everyone to have a good holiday,” Riley said. “They ended up with well more than their goal, and we felt it was a direct correlation to our helping them. There was a huge outpouring from the community.”
The 10,000-circulation daily paper also stepped up to the plate when the local animal shelter asked for their help to save 25 to 30 animals. Space at the shelter had run out and the animals were scheduled to be put down at the end of the week. With plenty of front page exposure, all animals were adopted by the end of the week.
At the Press Register in Clarksdale, editor Peter Williams feels community service is incredibly important.
“Unfortunately, we don’t do as much as we would like,” he said. “We do focus on education because it’s so critical to everything that happens in a community.”
The Press Register plays more of a supporting role for efforts of groups working to boost education in the area. Currently, the newspaper is writing editorials to help a volunteer organization trying to raise $1 million for local schools.
v“I also encourage people to volunteer as tutors in the schools,” Williams said. “I worked with the same child for four years and it opened my eyes to the need for volunteering.”
The Pulitzer gold medal was awarded to The Sun Herald for its valorous and comprehensive coverage of Hurricane Katrina, providing a lifeline for devastated readers, in print and online. The newspaper did not miss a single day of printing a paper in spite of many obstacles and pitfalls.
Marketing services director John McFarland says that accomplishment was due to good planning, dedication of employees and assistance from other papers in the Knight-Ridder family.
“Our plan always assumes that we will get a paper out. We update it every year and renew our agreement with other newspapers that will help us get it out,” he said. “On the Friday before the storm we sent a team off to our sister newspaper in Columbus, Ga., because that’s part of our plan.”
With confusion everywhere, transportation failure, no water and no electricity, putting out a newspaper was indeed a challenge. For the first five days after the hurricane, The Sun Herald was printed in Georgia and delivered to Biloxi. Donated food, water and medical supplies came with the newspapers.
“After the storm, our service was different but we had the opportunity to do something only we could do. We were not knocked off the air like TV and radio,” he said. “We were telling the Mississippi story to the world online, but the people here needed information and they were not able to go online. The first sign of normalcy is to hold a newspaper in your hands. Psychologically that means a lot. We got the papers out any way we could.”
Delivering the papers was a challenge with 68,000 homes destroyed and streets and highways impassable. Racks were not the solution as many businesses were destroyed. About 12,000 papers were taken to Red Cross shelters each day. People stood on street corners handing them out and rode through neighborhoods distributing them.
“Community service is important. That’s what we are and what we do,” McFarland said. “On a normal day we do it by providing accurate information and giving it to readers in a convenient way, a convenient package at a convenient price. We are all proud of the paper but realize that our best contribution is really ahead of us.”
Katrina is the biggest thing the newspaper has ever faced because of situations never encountered before. The staff had to deal with contamination, running an unofficial day care for employees, finding places for people to stay, maintenance for the building and cooking — all while many were dealing with huge personal losses.
“We went several days before we could account for all the employees. That’s a very scary situation, and we knew we had to tighten up on that,” McFarland said. “We have gone through our disaster plan with a fine-tooth comb.”
Publisher Rickey Mathews said, “There couldn’t be a better honor than to be recognized by some of the best newspaper people in the country saying that we have been a reflection of our community; the pain, the joy, the unbelievable agony and everything that comes with that. We will arise from this terrible situation.”
Editor Stan Tiner said the prize is dedicated to the people of South Mississippi and that they will not be defeated by Katrina or anything.
Contact MBJ contributing Lynn Lofton at email@example.com.