The inspiration for this year’s domestic print and grand prize winner of Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Journalism Awards might be summed up by a single sentence: No one can truly understand America until they understand the South. That insight, first shared with USA Today Regional Network Editor Michael Anastasi, eventually grew into a collaborative, breakthrough project involving more than three-dozen journalists in multiple states. Anastasi details the behind the scenes efforts involved in creating a multi-part piece which critically examines the legacy of the Confederacy and its influence on systemic racism today, as well as what’s on tap next for his talented team.
Editor’s note: This is the first in a multi-part series examining the reporting and writing efforts of the 2021 RFK Book and Journalism Award Winners.
Q. Can you provide a glimpse into the planning behind "The Confederate Reckoning"?
A. A project like what we eventually called "The Confederate Reckoning" had been rattling around in my head for some time. I’m from the West. Before I became the executive editor in Nashville, I had never lived in this region of the country. Someone wisely told me that no one can truly understand America unless they first understand the South. As a journalist and leader, I committed myself to doing just that but it is much easier said than done. As I progressed through this journey, I realized just how many people who live not just here, but elsewhere in the U.S., lack basic information let alone a sophisticated understanding of how things came to be. Surely, with our reporting network located across the South, we were uniquely positioned to try to do something about that. National publications can parachute in, and do amazing work, but if we’re doing our jobs right, that should be no match for journalists who are embedded here, some for all of their lives. While we had already begun some work, notably on another project called “Hallowed Sound,” when the debate over Confederate monuments erupted, we knew we had to respond to the moment. At that point, (Commercial Appeal Editor) Mark Russell really took over. While I provided the vision and initial ideas, Mark Russell made it happen by turning that into an actual plan with owners and deadlines. And of course he brought his and the team’s own ideas to make it better. Under Mark’s leadership, we turned the first installment in a month. But soon after we finished, we realized we had just touched the surface, which led to subsequent installments including the second published in December.
Q. How were reporters and stories and multimedia coordinated across five states? What adjusting had to be required due to COVID? How many journalists in all contributed to the project and what kind of diverse group were they?
A. The way we have structured the Network in the South, which I oversee, made coordinating this project relatively straightforward. Our leadership team meets every day and over time that forges strong relationships. We all know what each other is doing and collaboration is a foundational strength for us. We are better when we work together and we do that in a variety of ways each day, including providing each other with ideas and other support. We have regionalized planning and production teams and many of our leaders have regional roles. Though imprecise, one analogy might be to think of federal and state government. Our individual newsrooms are states and have a great deal of autonomy and their own leaders, ideas and goals. The region is the federal government. It provides the capability to cooperate and coordinate at scale, especially when we are executing company or regional strategy. When we do projects like these, I name teams and team leaders. Those teams, no matter where those individual members sit, function as though they are in the same newsroom. We utilize the same techniques to cover breaking news in addition to doing enterprise and investigative work. Our teams, made up of journalists from throughout our region, covered for instance several major hurricanes that impacted the South in 2020.
For this project, we had 34 journalists who played a significant role, though many others likely touched the content in some way. Eight were diverse (including Mark and two other project editors) and that percentage roughly reflects the diversity of our newsrooms in the South. As you may know, our company Gannett has made a commitment to reflect our communities by 2025. We are on track to make that happen.
During the reporting of this project, our company, like all others, was dealing with the impacts of COVID. For starters, we had to make sure we covered that story very well. To be sure the pandemic is an international and national story, but at its core it is an intensely local story. Despite the rhetoric at a national level over the media, communities turn to us for reliable information on what’s happening in their towns and we saw that reflected in extraordinary readership numbers. So covering the pandemic rightly consumed many resources. Moreover, though, as our company managed the economic impact, we went through a roughly five-month period of rotating furloughs that impacted most of our journalists. It stretched staff and it stretched leadership. I mentioned several hurricanes that happened in 2020. We also had a major tornado disaster in March 2020, local and state elections, a bomb that blew up in downtown Nashville on Christmas Day, and Nashville was the host of the final presidential debate. I couldn’t be prouder of the work achieved.
Q. Do you feel at all that this project tested or strengthened your papers' readership, or caused your papers to be viewed in a new light? What were some surprises along the way that you learned through these deep dives into education, wealth disparity, housing discrimination and poverty?
A. The main thing that surprises me is just how many people lack even cursory knowledge or understanding of the reasons why the Civil War was fought, Reconstruction, Jim Crow, Lost Cause mythology, and the Civil Rights history and how these seminal periods of our country’s evolution directly impact the world we live in today, including these areas you raise. Take redlining. The vast majority of adults in this country know nothing about it, let alone the undisputed impact it continues to have on every single city in the U.S. today.
Although there were a handful of readers who responded to this work with predictably negative commentary, there weren’t many. And they’re not our future. The big picture is we need readers who aren’t currently engaged with us, and that especially means subscribing, doing so. They expect exclusive, in-depth, smart journalism they can’t get anywhere else. Our project fits perfectly within that. We don’t have room for me to share all of the positive responses we got, but there was one that was a particular favorite and was mentioned in our entry. Here it is:
I am 75 and grew up in Jackson, Mississippi, and never went to an integrated school, with the single black student admitted to Mississippi State in my senior year being the only exception. In graduate school at the University of Texas, I can’t remember a single black player on Darryl Royal’s football team. I have never considered myself a racist, but every now and then, I uncover a belief in the corner of my mind that needs to be changed. Some of those have come from stories in the Advertiser.
Q. Can you provide any insight into what to expect in the next installment of the series?
A. Our third installment of "The Confederate Reckoning" was published in mid-July. Its focus was on children and families. Here’s how Mark introduced the work.
This installment was smaller in terms of number of stories, but more deeply reported and I think more focused.
We went to Philadelphia, MS — site of the murder of three Civil Rights workers in 1964 and today led by its first African American mayor. We reported from New Orleans how that city’s bountiful tourism industry perpetuates wealth disparities. We demonstrated how unequal school funding remains in Mississippi and schools remain segregated in Memphis. And, finally, how hunger remains pervasive in a North Carolina town surrounded by farms.
Will there be a fourth installment? We’re pondering a few ideas, though we’re also focused on a whole lot of other journalism as well. That includes the second installment of Hallowed Sound, mentioned earlier, which is an exploration of the Black experience through music. Check out what we’ve done so far.