Donna Ladd: Reporting Her Face Off in Mississippi

Editor’s Note: This is the second in a series of “How I Got That Story” interviews featuring the winners of the 2005 AltWeekly Awards. First-place entries are collected in the book “Best AltWeekly Writing and Design 2005.” Donna Ladd is the editor-in-chief of an alt-weekly that she co-founded three years ago in Jackson, Miss. Although the Jackson Free Press is one of the smallest papers in the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies, it has had an impact greater than its size would predict.

In a city that is 71 percent African-American and 29 percent white, the paper is especially devoted to covering issues of race. Ladd stays in steady communication with readers between print editions through her blog.

Ladd’s article, "Alleged Victims,"  won a first-place 2005 AltWeekly Award for Feature Story. It’s an account of a Catholic couple, Dorothy and Francis Morrison, who were crushed by the discovery that the priest they’d considered a cherished family friend had molested all three of their sons.

Where did the idea for this story come from?

I was interested in this problem and in the way it had been covered — as a news story that focused on a lawsuit, one that didn’t have a human feel at all. A year before I published "Alleged Victims," an attorney for one of the Morrison brothers had told me about the story. I was so busy with the Free Press that I talked to another writer and asked him to do a piece about it. But he started doing a more traditional story, not really a narrative story. Then, some months later, I bumped into one of the brothers, and he started talking to me, and it was such an amazing story that I just had to do it.

Tell me more about the way the mainstream press covered the story and what you did differently.

They had covered it in such a reticent fashion. They didn’t want to offend the archdiocese, and they were just scared. In fact, other media in other cities, like The Boston Globe, had done more on this case as part of their coverage of the Catholic priest scandal than the local media here had done about this story. The press here in Jackson just didn’t seem to understand, or care, what the Morrisons had gone through. I titled the story "Alleged Victims" because that’s what the press here kept referring to them — as "alleged" — when that wasn’t the issue at all. It’s not in dispute whether they were abused; the court case is over whether they can sue the church for covering it up.

At what point in reporting this story did you realize that it was going to be worthy of a long-form format?

It was when I first talked to the mother that I knew that it could be a wonderful long-form story. And then I met the middle son, Thomas, and realized that the story was all about the father, who was haunted until his death by his failure to stop what had happened to his boys. The story had the perfect natural drama and progression, and all these moments of suspense.

Tell me about the research, writing and reporting process.

I reported the story over a six-month period of time. I was busy running the newspaper so I was spending a lot of time with the family — both here and in New Orleans — on weekends and in the evenings. When it came time to write this story, it just came out because I had lived it for six months. I knew so much about it that it just naturally came out in the narrative form; I just had to get out of the way of the story.

How did you gain the family’s trust?

I told them right off the bat that the only way I would do this story is if they didn’t hide anything from me. I told them I wanted to paint an honest portrait of them, that they couldn’t just tell me the parts to make them look good. That made them trust me more than anything else. The Republican son in Texas was the most reluctant to participate at first, but when he realized that I was willing to spend literally hours and days with each of them to understand the entire story, that took away any doubts that he had as well. His story ended up opening the piece.

What was public reaction to “Alleged Victims” like?

The public reaction was one of my favorite parts of this story. I can’t tell you how many middle-aged, upper-middle-class white men came up to me with tears in their eyes and told me how much the story had touched them. It spoke to an audience here that hadn’t paid us much attention before then.

What is your background as a journalist?

Well, I’ve been a journalist of some form for about 15 years. I’m kind of self-taught. I have always been drawn away from daily media and wanted to do a longer-form journalism. I’m from Mississippi, but I lived in New York for a while and was involved with a lot of small papers in New York, writing mostly about social justice issues. I moved to Colorado and helped start an alternative newspaper there, The Colorado Springs Independent. Then, from 1999 to 2001, I was in the mid-career program at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism and writing for The Village Voice.

Then I decided to move back to Mississippi, and we started this crazy newspaper. We put out 15,000 copies a week, and our black readership is only 3 percentage points less than our white readership. Overall, our readership is 51 percent non-white and 49 percent white. Business-wise, it’s going well. People here like good writing and reporting.   

How do you feel about the critics who say that this genre of long-form journalism is dying and that any story can be boiled down to a thousand words?

Bullshit. If this sort of journalism can be done in central Mississippi and has a readership that cuts across race, age and economic background, it can be done anywhere. When we started out, we were doing a mixture of soft and hard news stories. The harder stories are the ones that people really pick us up for — the hard covers really go a lot farther than soft covers. We put Trent Lott on the cover in a dunce hat in our fifth issue and expected some sort of backlash, but people of all ideologies thanked us for our "courage." Now, by the end of the week, two days after our issue hits the street, everybody in town is talking about the cover story.

It’s just wrong to say that people don’t want to read good, interesting, detailed writing that draws them in and gives them information the mainstream media do not. This paper is meaningful past the point of what we put on the page. When you’re from Mississippi, where there is so little progressive thought in the media, putting out a paper like this is kind of a community effort. There are plenty of readers and advertisers here that wouldn’t let us go out of business if we tried.

Who are some journalists whose work you admire?

I’ve been inspired by a wide variety of writers. Susan Orlean — I’ve learned a lot from reading her, and I’ve heard her talk at writers’ conferences about narrative writing. Willie Morris, Rick Bragg, Tracy Kidder, Fox Butterfield, Alex Kotlowitz, Nick Lemann, Anne Fadiman. I learned much about good storytelling from The Autobiography of Malcolm X, and Anne Moody’s Coming of Age in Mississippi is a remarkable book: the storytelling and the simplicity of her writing. She didn’t beat people up with the technique.

What advice would you offer to other writers attempting to master this craft?

Don’t be a slave to what you think the story will be about when you start; let the story become what it is. Also, report your face off, and then put your notes to the side and let the story inform you. Trust yourself and trust your writing. Give the narrative train space to move forward. And this I learned this from Sam Freedman at Columbia — you need good basic storytelling with lots of details, and then you earn the right to show off with your writing a bit. Sometimes you have to cut the good scenes; they can’t just be there for the sake of making you sound like a good writer. They have to serve a purpose. And listen. Just be willing to take the time to listen and to give your undivided attention to people.

Erika Beras is a 2005 fellow of the Academy for Alternative Journalism. She is currently a student at the Columbia School of Journalism in New York.

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