Turning The Page: The Odyssey Of A Mississippi Journalist
by Julie Whitehead
Special to BAMSouth.org
When I answered an ad in early 2000 in the newspaper for freelance writers for a new publication called Today’s Jackson Woman, I was twenty-nine years old and working at the time in a state agency in Mississippi that handled disability claims for Social Security.
For the past six years, I had hated my job. I worked with cases of people who could no longer work because of medical impairment, dealing with people suffering from cancer, AIDS, multiple sclerosis, diseases of all kinds that most people have never even heard of.
People suffering from mental illness, ranging from intellectual difficulties to schizophrenia and every other diagnosis in between. I was responsible for determining whether or not they could return to work or not, or qualified for disability payments from Social Security or not.
I was very good at the job, making decisions accurately and quickly when able. As I got more responsibility, I was given the job of doing cases that had initially been denied and seeing if the correct decision had been made. Every promotion brought more responsibility. After my last promotion, I was deemed able to work with children with mental and physical disorders—a heartbreaking part of the job for me.
Even though it was a nine-to-five job, I couldn’t leave the work at work. I thought a lot about those people with oat cell carcinoma or Marfan’s syndrome or bipolar disorder. Weird happenstances were just part of the job. My co-worker opened the morning paper to find that a claimaint had committed suicide by jumping off a bridge. I had one claimant wind up on the evening news in a prostitution sting operation and another go to jail for murdering her father. Just a day in the life of a disability examiner.
When I graduated college in 1992, I had a journalism bachelor’s and an English master’s and had been unable to find writing work. So I spent a year adjunct teaching at Mississippi State University before moving south to Brandon and taking the state job.
So when I saw this ad, I got very excited. While in graduate school, I had tried sending out queries for freelance writing but had not been successful at all. My year at the Mississippi State University newspaper supplied me with clips. So I called the number in the ad and spoke to a nice guy named David. That’s all he told me—David. He told me to send in my resume and clips, and we would see what he thought.
Soon I got a phone call to come to a downtown office in Jackson, where I scheduled the appointment for late one afternoon after I got off work. I was decked out in my best dressy suit and ready to see what future was ahead of me.
David was a very nice-looking guy, African-American, well-dressed in a suit and tie and talking on a cellphone when I knocked on his door. The tiny Nokia phone was still a status symbol at the time, the smaller the better. He came to the door and let me in and finished his call in short order.
We sat down to talk, and it soon became obvious to me through the answers I got and the handwritten paperwork and layout schemes I saw for the publication that while I knew very little about running a magazine, David knew even less, a suspicion that was confirmed a few weeks after our interview when he asked me if I would be the editor and he be the publisher/financial backer. With no experience in layout, photography, or editing, I knew it I’d blow it and blow it good.
I declined as gracefully as I could but continued working on the three stories I had proposed to him in our initial meeting. One story was about the fundraising for the first Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure being held in Jackson, and I had also decided to write a sidebar on Carolyn Shanks, the female CEO of Entergy, a large public utility company in Mississippi, who was chair of the race.
The third story was the three women now in power over the state’s largest school district in Jackson, who were superintendent of the Jackson Public School District, chair of the Jackson Public School Board of Education, and president of the Jackson Public School’s Parent-Teacher Organization, respectively.
What was amazing was at how easily people took me seriously doing these stories. All I had to say is “Hello, my name is Julie Whitehead, and I’m calling on behalf of a new publication in Jackson called Today’s Jackson Woman” and people bent over backwards to be nice to me. I interviewed people at the race’s corporate sponsors, including one Fortune 500 company. I had no trouble getting on Carolyn Shanks’ calendar to interview her for the sidebar story, and Jackson Public Schools was so nice to me once I explained what I was doing.
As soon as I finished them, I sent the stories in to David early in February and waited for the magazine to come out. After several weeks and not hearing any news, I called David’s number, only to be told that it had been disconnected.
Although I wasn’t surprised, I was more or less devastated. I had so hoped that this place would be my ticket out of my old job. But then I had an idea. I still had three perfectly good stories written. Why couldn’t I find other news outlets to publish them in?
In my naivete, I couldn’t think of anywhere else to start than the yellow pages. I found a publication called Mississippi Business Journal that looked like the perfect place for my Komen race story, with its emphasis on corporate fundraising, and a good place for the profile on Carolyn Shanks. So I called them directly.
The receptionist answered; I told that I was a freelancer looking to sell a story. Jim Laird, the editor, came on the phone. I explained who I was and asked would he be interested in these two stories I had to sell?
“Sure,” he said. “We’re always looking for new writers.”
Immediately I was elated. But no matter how much I was trying to be smooth, the rest of the conversation was a textbook case in how green I was at this work. We had to work out what file format to send the story in since I didn’t have Microsoft Word on my ancient computer, and I had to give him my husband’s email since I didn’t have an account of my own.
Another local publication, named Parents and Kids, looked promising for my school story. Calling there was the same experience all over again. “You’re new at this, aren’t you?” the editor Carol Taff finally said while I talked with her.
I admitted I was. By this time I was talking to her on my brand-new Nokia during my lunch break at work. No one could have been more clueless than me at that point, no matter how self-assured I was trying to be.
But clueless or not, my first freelance story was published in the Mississippi Business Journal in April 2000. I got $100 for it. I was ecstatic and took myself out to eat for lunch with the money as a reward to myself.
I couldn’t think of what else to do except to start coming up with more stories. I thought of one for Mississippi Business Journal on how hikes in minimum wages simultaneously raised childcare costs on working women. I also contacted The Clarion-Ledger, the biggest newspaper in the state with headquarters in Jackson, to see if they took freelancers. I was forwarded to Annie Oeth, the statewide editor, and sent her my clips as well since I didn’t have a story ready. My first story for that publication was about the upcoming season for the Meridian Symphony Orchestra in 2000-2001. I got $50 for it and took myself out to lunch again.
Slowly but surely I fell into a routine—I did my state job and on my lunch break, I interviewed people for my stories. Nights after my four-year-old and one-year-old went to bed I would write stories and research ideas online to propose to my three editors.
Late in 2000 I discovered a brand-new publication called Planet Weekly at a local stand outside an organic food co-op in Jackson. When we were there to pick up a copy, which was one of the few places in Jackson that carried it, my husband said, “This is a hippie-looking kind of place.”
“Well, I think it’s a hippie-looking kind of production,” I replied.
After studying a few issues, I realized that while they had regular book reviews, their reviewer only did fiction. I decided I’d propose a nonfiction book to review. After perusing the offerings at Amazon, I ordered a book on post-feminism called Killer Woman Blues and called the editor, Sean Johnson. Sean was quite the character--he was the same age I was and operated the paper out of the basement of Hal and Mal’s, a local bar. You got to the office via a hand-cranked elevator. He was a libertarian conservative who led crusades against the status quo leadership in Jackson and had a particular dislike for the mayor, Harvey Johnson.
He was interested in the review, and I published my first book review shortly thereafter in January, 2001. Read a book and get paid to write about it? Was I dreaming? Was it even possible to have a better job than this one?
My friend Mary Jane and I were out to lunch when that issue hit the streets. We saw a guy reading the Planet Weekly the next table over. “Do you think he’s reading your article?” Mary Jane said.
“I don’t know,” I said. “Maybe so.”
“Isn’t that exciting?!” Mary Jane exclaimed.
It was. It so certainly was.
Getting braver and braver, I solicited a job to review Willie Morris’ posthumously published book Taps for the largest lifestyle magazine in the state, Mississippi Magazine. It published in May 1, 2001. By now I had started submitting an article a day somewhere in the state. From uncredited 350-word briefs to feature articles in magazines, my work was growing steadily, and soon I was making just about enough to replace the take-home pay of my regular paycheck.
In January, 2001 I had resolved that if I kept up the pace I was going at, I was going to quit my job once my now-five-year-old started kindergarten and write full-time. I would keep my two-year-old in the half-day day care and work from home when she was in school and simply be at home when she wasn’t. I had received a “Dilbert” comic-strip tear-off calendar for Christmas and had written down the number of days until I could quit my job on July 31 on the back of each sheet. Each sheet torn off was a day closer to freedom.
My moonlighting was an open secret at my job. I never used the work computers to conduct journalism business, I used my cellphone for interviews, and I kept up with all my casework very capably. But everyone there read the Clarion-Ledger and saw my name in it with increasing frequency. If asked, I simply said my family needed the extra money I was bringing in. Many people there worked another job in their off-hours, so that explanation satisfied most of them.
But at some point in June 2001, my supervisor called me into a meeting in a stairwell at the office, away from prying eyes and ears. We sat on the dusty stairs of the fire-escape hall.
“Are you planning to stay here?” she asked me.
“No ma’am,” I said.
“When are you leaving?” she asked.
“August first,” I said. I was near tears. I thought I was about to be fired.
“When were you going to tell me?” she asked.
“Mid-July,” I said. “Two weeks’ notice.”
She sighed. I did not feel sorry for her. She had once told me that the only way I was ever going to leave that job was “if they blew me out from behind the desk with dynamite.” It wasn’t a statement about my dedication to the work—I had once told her that there was not enough money printed by the mint to compensate me for what I did in that job. It was just a statement about how little choice she seemed to think I had in the matter.
Now here I was, about to start on my new life. No remorse at leaving at all.
“If you give me your notice now, I can go ahead and reduce your caseload,” she said.
“That’s not necessary,” I said. “I’ll be fine.”
On July 31, 2001, after my good-bye lunch I packed up my desk and headed out to my new life. I had two weeks before my oldest started school, and I had big plans for my career. I had never been happier in all of my life as I was with that office building in my rearview mirror for good.
By that point, I was writing for seven different publications and had enough leave time to get another paycheck at the end of August, which turned out to be providential.
A month passed. My oldest daughter started kindergarten, and on September 11, 2001, I got a call from my husband from his office before I took my two-year-old to school with news that he thought he heard that a plane had crashed into the World Trade Center in New York. I said, “You mean a prop plane or something?”
“Yeah. Turn on the news and see what’s happened,” he said.
So I turned to CNN and saw the screen filled with smoke and the remains of one of the towers.
My two-year-old said, “Watch PBJ, Mommy! Watch PBJ!” (PBJ was the name of her favorite cartoon at the time.)
You know, I thought, that’s not a bad idea right now. So I turned it on to her show until it was time to take her to school. As I rode her there, I tuned in to an easy-listening station that was the only one on the dial playing music—everyone else was running a newscast.
By the time I got home and turned to CNN with National Public Radio playing in the background, the second plane had crashed into the south tower, making it obvious that this was no accidental happening.
Around lunchtime, I woke up as if from a trance the TV had put on me and thought, I need to do a story. But what? I finally called my Clarion-Ledger editor Annie and said, “Any story that’s going undone while you all work on this one, I can do. Just let me know.”
She said she would. Later that day I had to go out of the house and deliver a meal to a couple in my Sunday School class—my Mississippi Business Journal editor Jim, when I called him, put me on assignment to watch out at gas stations on my way and see what they were charging for gas and to look out for any violence. Thankfully, I did not see any.
But 9/11 sucked all the oxygen out of the room for the kind of feature stories that I did. I did finally do my own 9/11 stories—one in particular I remember is one on the difficulties local disaster nonprofits had coordinating work and donations with their sister agencies in New York City. But it was a good month before I would write regularly again.
By then, I had earned my editors’ confidence and did feature stories on everything from extraordinary people to performing arts to food, to religion to gardening. At my peak, I was working for ten different news organizations and making around $20,000 a year after taxes and expenses—a cell phone and an internet connection—one $100 story at a time.
I had made a name for myself in the area and won an award from the Mississippi Press Association for my first foray into political reporting, a series in 2005 I did on people under forty making a difference in Mississippi politics. Those stories were a blast to do—I interviewed everyone from the twenty-one-year-old Democratic mayor of Greenville, Heather McTeer Hudson, to Joe Nosef, who at that time was legal counsel to Governor Haley Barbour and is now head of the Mississippi Republican Party. I interviewed legislators, campaign operatives, and new media gurus who held positions of real power in both parties and in media. I was so very proud of my plaque from MPA and wowed by the awards ceremony I got to attend.
Looking back I can see signs of slipping—I started to think nothing could go wrong for me. I rarely made mistakes, but when I did, they were doozies. (I once reported a local symphony organization had scored a $50,000 grant when it was actually only $5,000. Other arts organizations cried foul to the granting agency, who called my editor.)
What should have tipped me off was my work on the religion beat I was doing. I found incredible stories but was a cynical reporter—I took the easy way out of reporting on personalities rather than on their religious experiences. I had contempt for people that didn’t return my calls. How dare they blow me off like that?
Truth of the matter was, I was a food writer who didn’t cook much beyond microwaving, a home and garden writer who couldn’t clean house, and a religion writer who wasn’t close to God anymore. My ability to function was deteriorating. I didn’t realize it, but I had been riding a wave of mania that culminated in a major depression after I started covering one of the biggest stories of my career—Hurricane Katrina.
Even though we were over 150 miles inland, the storm was strong enough to be a Category 1 hurricane when it hit us. We had spent the weekend listening to news of this monster storm that had already crossed Florida as a Category 2 hurricane. I had lived in Mississippi all my life and knew what hurricanes could do. The first one I remember was Hurricane Frederic, which pushed all the way into north Mississippi when I was nine. After that had been Elena in 1985 and Andrew, the last big one to come through north Mississippi after devastating Florida in 1992.
We woke up early Monday morning. The storm began hitting the Jackson area around 9 a.m. with scattered rain. It had already made landfall with the eye coming over Diamondhead, Mississippi at around 1 a.m. as a Category 4 storm. The standard of comparison for how bad a storm is in Mississippi before Katrina had always been Hurricane Camille, a category five storm that devastated the Gulf Coast in 1969.
When the weatherman for the local NBC affiliate said that the rain at 9 a.m. reminded him of the rain Jackson had received once the eye of Camille went over the area, I knew we were in for trouble once Katrina came to our area at a forecasted 1 p.m. Reports were filtering up by word of mouth that Katrina had devastated south Mississippi already—relief vehicles were moving “at the speed of a chainsaw blade” as Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour put it later in a news conference the next day.
Once the storm hit that afternoon, we lost power but oddly enough still had phone service. I called my parents in north Mississippi to let them know we were all right and that the storm had moved on. We were without power for a week, and the children were off school for about the same time. The devastation in our town was obvious to us the next morning, and we could only imagine what it must have been like further south.
I stayed at home with the children and attempted to work on stories related to the storm. Most of the time I watched the kids as they tried to find ways to amuse themselves in the heat for we had no air conditioning. They did art, some of it depicting scenes around us of the storm damage. We listened to a battery-powered radio all day that was keeping up with news around the area and occasionally playing country music.
Every story I did for the next few months somehow tied in to Katrina. I interviewed a coastal author that had written a book fictionalizing Hurricane Camille who told me he wished the book had come out before Katrina to remind everyone how devastating such storms were. One of my stories was a review of a collection of books for Mississippi Magazine that featured some of the beautiful coastal homes that had been destroyed in the storm. Other stories included information about local relief efforts in our area for people who had evacuated further north only to find they weren’t safe there. And I did a scathing article in late October about a local church doing a “hell house” exhibition for Halloween that featured a reenactment of the storm in one of its horror rooms.
My productive high crashed as surely as Katrina’s winds did the trees around our house. I couldn’t write with the facility I had before; stories were easy to find now but hard to write. Depression came that later morphed into a severe breakdown which finally was labeled bipolar disorder in 2006, making sense of the series of depressive episodes I had throughout the years as well as the high rate of production I had been on throughout my freelance career.
After spending night after night for five years filing my articles, just about all of them accurate and usually timely, no longer could I face daily deadlines with any sense of proportion. Each one was a crisis instead of an opportunity. Now I was afraid to write, afraid that my weakness would become public and that my creativity was gone forever.
I wanted to leave journalism before anyone found out why. But I resolved not to quit until after I finished a series of stories I had contracted for before my breakdown—profiles of each of the fifteen community colleges in Mississippi. Doing that series symbolized the kind of trouble I was having now—each story was written to a formula of History, New Developments, and Student Quotes I used in each 750-word piece. In my weakened state I researched only those mini pieces of information and stitched together a bit of a story on one before moving to the next.
Letting it all go—the food writing, the religion stories, the book reviews—was devastating. I had wanted to write for newspapers ever since I was eight years old. Now I was walking away from the best job I had ever had.
As I slowly recovered over the next few years, I watched my old newsrooms be emptied by cost cutting measures. I mourned the loss to the community of some of the region’s best writers be sidelined by layoffs, buyouts, and retirements across all print media—magazines, newspapers, business publications—everywhere I had written before was cutting back on pages of content, shuttering special sections, and generally losing the battle with the internet as a competitor for news, advertising dollars, and other areas that had long been the domain of print media.
I finally saw an opportunity to return to the newsroom in 2019, when Jerry Mitchell began his nonprofit investigative news organization, Mississippi Center for Investigate Reporting. Many of my former colleagues had gone to similar operations around the state, and I saw an opportunity to work on the mental health beat for Jerry Mitchell.
I sent him a Facebook message as soon as his news went live—I said I would love to work with him on the mental health beat. His response? “Get back to me in six months.”
Funding was tight even six months later, but I came on board in August on a freelance basis and with no illusions of making my living in news gain. But I was writing about a topic of personal importance and making a difference and getting paid a bit per article—and at this stage of my return to writing, that’s enough.
(Julie Whitehead lives and writes in Mississippi. She holds BA and MA degrees from Mississippi State University and is earning an MFA in creative writing from Mississippi University for Women).