A nun put a bible in my hand when I was six years old and told me it was the truth – the word. Wayne Weidie put a newspaper in my hand when I was 14 and told me it was the truth – the word. I believed Wayne and he gave me more guidance in our brief relationship than any member of the clergy ever did.
“Never abide folks who tell you everything is all right,” he told me. “Be part of the truth. And go to Mississippi State.”
He taught me that the voice of a community is seldom heard in City Hall; the soul of a city is never a ghost behind the mayor’s chair. The local newspaper is the closest thing to both. Why? Because even the people who despise and abhor the local paper will sit and read it just like ones who love and adore it. That’s the interrelation among the people, the word, and the truth.
I worked for that community paper all through school and even managed to get pieces in when I was in college at Mississippi State. Came home a few years later and my mentor James Ricketts said I was ready for the big time – a job at a daily. He said I should talk to Dan Davis over at The Mississippi Press: a man he considered a stalwart defender of the truth – the word. It only took a few weeks and I successfully embarked on an 18-month assignment as “The Reason Dan Davis Drank Beer with Mylanta Chasers.”
There are volumes of what I learned in that newsroom that occupy an entire wing of my mind. Deciphering Jackson County politics was easy. Figuring out how to handicap the over/under at the courthouse took less than a week. Learning how to see through the masks worn by judges and sheriffs and district attorneys came so simply and I felt like a real reporter when I was beating the polished floors in that unctuous palace of law. It was that newsroom that made me feel small.
It smelled like hangovers and cheap carpet cleaner every morning. It felt like getting thrown INTO a bar by a bouncer while being told you were too “stupid for the street” and that was one of the myriad reasons I kept a flask in my suit coat pocket at all times. I may have had Jackson County’s legal system clocked but I didn’t know a thing in that newsroom.
Oh, you want to chase the truth? Go ahead after you get me the Monday enterprise that was due 15 minutes ago. That started my journalism education. Day nine. Already in the weeds. You want to crack the veneer of the Sheriff’s Department? We’re behind you, kid, just get it together and learn the grind. And show up early because on time is late. Metro doesn’t even know your name and is already mad about your AP interpretation. Copy desk took your employee photo and put it on a dartboard and the deaf straw boss in the press room learned how to say “Forget You” when he heard you got hired. You better learn fast and figure out what real journalism is or you won’t last a day. Forget the popularity contest, new-shoes, Natalie won’t even look you in the eye until you come up with an old crab that makes her laugh and that big man sitting behind you yelling “SPORTS” every time he answers the phone thinks if you are half as bad a newsman as you were a sportswriter, we might be in line to win whatever the opposite of a Pulitzer is. This isn’t the Ocean Springs Record with five day-deadlines. This is the real world. This is the daily. This is the Mississippi Press. We are a COAST paper and our coverage doesn’t stop at the bridge – maybe, ok, fine, sometimes. We are the voice of this corner of Mississippi. This is the big time.
Columbia, Northwestern, Syracuse, USC, even Millsaps – all those hallowed halls of journalism education could not cram into a four-year degree what I learned in 18 months in the Mississippi Press newsroom. Those savages eviscerated my pride and dissected my hubris and slowly helped me reassemble myself. I entered as a reporter and left as a journalist.
Above all else, I learned that being a part of a community newspaper is a gift. It’s a box seat in the theater of everyones’ lives. When the show is over, one can either defend them with the truth or offend them with the word, and more often than not, it has to be a delicate balance of both. That ability is not taught in a college lecture hall. Walk into a newsroom, pick a desk, open a fresh page and whether you are prepared or not, a confederacy of media legionnaires with coffee stains on their ties and nicks on their heels will begin your education. That’s the truth – the word.
Raines Rushin worked at The Mississippi Press in 1996 and 1997 as a major crimes/courts/investigations reporter. He currently resides in Houston, TX and operates a Crisis Management and Investigations firm.