Departing Jackson, Mississippi, headed south on Interstate 55, you will see signs for McComb, Mississippi — a small town along the interstate just shy of twenty miles north of the Mississippi-Louisiana line. While the signs leaving Jackson might be large, if you blink driving past McComb, you might just miss it.
With just over 13,000 residents, the city of McComb is a remnant of a town once boasting a vibrant local economy and bustling downtown. Now, today, with a crumbling main street, shuttered businesses, and a school system with a graduation rate lower than the state average, it is hard to imagine this tiny dot on the map could boast a successful and highly functioning local newspaper.
Despite the current landscape, the city’s newspaper, the Enterprise-Journal, continues to be a beloved local institution — though there are the occasional quips from more conservative community members claiming it has “become too liberal of a paper.” But it is all in jest as Jack Ryan, Publisher and Editor of the Enterprise-Journal has been in McComb for over thirty years and is highly trusted by the community he serves.
This trust and credibility have proven useful as the United States continues to mitigate the spread and navigate the impacts of the novel coronavirus, COVID-19. Residents in McComb, and across Pike County, rely on Ryan and his staff to deliver the latest developments on COVID-19 and on the direct effects the virus has had on the city, county, and region.
Part of this trust is rooted in the fact that the Enterprise-Journal — founded by Oliver Emmerich when he bought and merged the McComb Enterprise with the town’s other paper in the 1920s — has stayed under the ownership of the Emmerich family, who are well known and trusted across Mississippi, but especially in the southwestern region of the state. The other component of this trust comes from Ryan and his staff’s ability to take a keen interest in their community and weave local stories into topical coverage.
When I spoke with Ryan, he placed emphasis on engaging people with stories that matter to them — saying this is ultimately what will drive newspapers forward and continue to gain credibility with their audiences so the trust is already in place when events such as a global pandemic hit.
“I think that the opportunity that newspapers have, going forward, is engagement. There are many ways to do it. We report on people — there’s a million peoples’ stories to tell,” he said.
But it is not just the Enterprise-Journal recognizing the important role its reporters and trust with the public play during the COVID-19 pandemic. On March 28, 2020, the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Agency (CISA), part of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS), issued a memorandum detailing the identification of essential critical infrastructure workers during the nation’s COVID-19 response.
This was big news for journalists across the country because of one sentence that specifically stood out.
“Workers who support radio, television, and media service, including, but not limited to front-line news reporters, studio, and technicians for newsgathering, and reporting, and publishing news.”
This means that CISA clearly defines news media as an essential business during the pandemic.
Josh Stearns, Director of the Public Square Program at the Democracy Fund, recently wrote an opinion piece published by WBUR, Boston’s NPR station. His piece further made the case for why local journalism is so important — now more than ever.
“The COVID-19 pandemic is not just a public health crisis. It is also an information crisis (some are even calling it an ‘infodemic’),” writes Stearns. “That’s why how we respond to, repair, and rebuild local news will shape other issues we care about as we recover from this crisis,” Stearns writes.
It is up to local news outlets to continue to carry the torch throughout this pandemic and into the next set of challenges we face — both collectively as a nation and in our own local communities. Individuals across the United States are reliant on their small-town papers for coverage of all kinds — from local kitchen table issues to weather updates to high school sports. We are not going to see coverage of a family business closing on the main street or pictures of the local high school homecoming game or stories about others in our communities dealing with COVID-19 in the New York Times. It is the responsibility of local journalists to tell the stories that make the heartbeat of small-town U.S.A. — as the Enterprise-Journal proudly states, “the one newspaper in the world most interested in this community.”