Profile 2020: Mary Margaret White is leading Mississippi Today during journalism's digital ageBy BRYAN DAVIS PUBLISHER,
Mary Margaret White has been around storytellers for most of her life.
Growing up in Drew during early childhood, she already had a knack for the written word, and as the town’s shops began to close during the 1980s and 90s, more people began to congregate at her father’s Main Street gift and appliance store.
And that is where she first began publishing stories.
“After the local bakery closed, my dad set up this dining room table that was for sale at the store, in the back, and every afternoon, he would make a pot of coffee and stock the refrigerator with cokes, and all of the old folks from around the community would come up to the store and have an afternoon cup of coffee and visit,” White, who now serves as Executive Director for the digital news publication Mississippi Today told The E-T in an interview. “I started creating my own little newspaper on the copy machine. I would copy things out of my Highlights magazine and draw pictures. I called it the coffee news, and I would distribute that to our regulars every now and then.”
The daughter of Tommy and Sandra Miller, White still remembers when there were several businesses open on what was then a bustling Main Street in Drew, but she also remembers when stores began to shutter, including her father’s.
The family would move to Greenwood, and she finished high school at Pillow Academy
From there, she went straight to the University of Mississippi and began pursuing her passion of writing.
“I loved journalism,” White said. “I knew I wanted to do print. I was a columnist for the DM (Daily Mississippian).”
During her sophomore year, White said the university marked the 40th anniversary of the school’s integration.
“That’s when the school really started to embrace the civil rights story at Ole Miss,” she said.
White became even more fascinated with the role journalism played in the civil rights struggle.
“I became very engaged in that story that I really had known very little about,” she said.
This inspired her to also pursue Southern Studies.
“I got really excited about oral history,” she said. “That really allows you to go deeper in an interview than just the five Ws.”
White earned a master’s degree in Southern Studies with an emphasis in oral history and documentary film work.
After graduation, she got the opportunity to go to work in public relations at the Nashville International Airport, but it wasn’t long before she was called back to serve her home state as the folk life director for the Mississippi Arts Commission.
“It opened the door for me to get back to Mississippi and really start working with Mississippi stories again, which is what I had cared about,” White said.
Eventually, White would go on to work for Visit Mississippi, managing cultural tourism in the state, which included the Blues Trail, the Country Music Trail and the Civil Rights Trail, among others.
She also dove in to culinary tourism.
“That was something I was really excited about, because everyone knows that we have the best food around,” White said.
White would eventually host a couple of radio shows, Next Stop Mississippi and the Mississippi Arts Hour.
White said that she was on maternity leave after having her first child, Weezie, when she heard about Mississippi Today.
“I thought to myself, this is the next thing for me,” she said. “This is the type of an organization that can really help move Mississippi forward. I do believe that. I believe truth telling and accountability that a free press really inspires can really change the trajectory of our state.”
Mississippi Today was launched in 2016, and it is a digital-only non-profit news site that focuses on deep dive journalism, covering everything from human interest stories to state and local government.
One region in particular, that has been the focus of a lot of Mississippi Today’s coverage, is White’s home in the Delta.
“I think everyone in this newsroom understands the importance of talking about the very unique and special issues the people in the Delta face,” White said.
As executive director, White is primarily focused on the organization’s branding, strategy and business model.
Part of that growth is through partners in print media.
“Our print partners are essential to our success,” she said.
White said that all Mississippi Today stories are available for local newspapers and other print publications to use for free, with attribution.
She said the model provides a bureau of sorts for other news outlets throughout the state.
White is married to Barry White, and they have two daughters, Weezie, 3, and Dorothy Parks, 1.