With the recent challenges facing the news industry, small, family-owned, Black newspapers are harder to come by. But in Jackson, Miss., DeAnna Tisdale Johnson is keeping the family tradition alive at The Jackson Advocate.
She took over from her parents as publisher and editor-in-chief in March 2020. Since then, she has led the publication to award-winning coverage and is accelerating its digital transformation. She is a Jackson native and graduated from Tougaloo College. She is also a classically trained vocalist with a master’s degree in vocal performance from University of Southern Mississippi and The Boston Conservatory.
For Women in Journalism, our Women’s History Month series, Johnson discusses her experiences growing up in the newspaper industry, her dedication to serving Black Mississippians, and how her background in the arts influences her work.
You can catch up on the entire series here.
This conversation has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.
What were your early career goals? How did you end up in the journalism field?
It’s kind of my life story. I just grew up in the environment. That’s what I did after school. A part of growing up in a certain type of field you also feel the need to have individuality, to rebel a little bit — especially when people are like, “Oh, what are you going to do when you grow up? Are you going to take over the paper?” My gut reaction was no, I’m going to do something else. I’m going to try my own path because it kind of seems like it’s placed upon your shoulders, that your path is already laid out, and sometimes, depending on your personality, you tend to rebel against that. But as I grew older I realized the importance of the written word –– how powerful that is, and wanting to continue the legacy that my dad invested a lot of his life in.
Then my goal became to continue his dream, and to make sure that we still had an African American newspaper in our community that would inform us, but also highlight our triumphs as well and the issues that are going on in our community. So first and foremost, that has been the goal.
Just looking back on my life, I’ve always had an affinity for the voice. I went to school for vocal performance, I got my masters in vocal performance. I went to Boston Conservatory. I’ve always used my voice, to heal myself and others to bring joy to myself and others. Our motto has been our motto at the Jackson Advocate, since I can’t remember, is to be the voice of Black Mississippians.
I’ve always felt a very strong affinity for using my voice. I think that translates into what we do as a Jackson Advocate being the voice of Black Mississippians. Now my goal is to continue to use my voice and uplift others.
The newsroom side of the journalism world is often romanticized, but the business aspect can be considered less sexy to some. What appealed to you about the business of journalism?
I watched my mom and dad work so hard. A lot of times, they took the “advocate” part of our name very seriously. People would come to us if they couldn’t pay a bill, or they didn’t have a lawyer for court and they felt like they were being wronged in some way. My dad would go to court with them. My mom would pay a bill. Even when, on the business side, sometimes advertisers Black balled my dad and my mom, and they didn’t have a lot of advertising dollars coming in, but they still made it. I think that’s sort of the same vein that I come through. I understand the struggle they went through to continue and maintain what we had. I give a lot of credence to my mom for sustaining us.
Another one of my goals is to help us grow. In a lot of Black businesses, and a lot of Black institutions, even on the higher education level, you see this kind of idea that you’re flying a plane while fixing the engine. We’re always trying to do so many things at once, it’s almost like we’re sustaining ourselves but not growing. I’ve been very serious about making sure that we have advertising dollars coming in, which has been a blessing for us during the pandemic. We have grown in the way that for the first time ever we have garnered grant funds.
I think a silver lining of the pandemic was that world opened up for us. I had no idea about that world of grants and how to get grants or what that will look like, but we have been very fortunate to have that world open up for us, and we’re trying to expand in that way in the future. We’ve always beem like advocates and almost run like a nonprofit, even though we are for-profit. I’ve really seriously been looking at that nonprofit side and seeing if that’s something that we really want to delve into. But to be able to garner grant funds as a for-profit has been something that has really helped us to grow over the past two years.
I’ve been Publisher since March 2020, like a week before we got our first COVID case in Mississippi. I was transitioning into the role for about a year before my mom officially retired, it was a leap year in 2020. She retired February 29, 2020, and I took over March 1, 2020. So today is actually like my two year anniversary.
[My parents taught me] people first, we are serving the community, and that I have to keep at the forefront. But also, they taught me how to be okay with the sacrifices that you have to make, and that those sacrifices will pay off later. When I look at the things that we’re doing, I plan ahead, okay, we’re on the right track, we’re doing well, or, this month, maybe not so much. What can we do? How can we regroup to do better in the future? We might have to [make] sacrifices for a couple of months, but let’s see what I can work out so that we can get back to what our goals are. Those sacrifices pay off in the long run and you just keep on going. You keep on doing what you have to do to make sure that you can pay your employees, to make sure that you can keep bringing content and information to the community, and that’s why I say it’s people first. I look at that first before you know anything else. That’s just a part of my personality too, I look at what other people need before my own.
Do you have any role models or mentors in the journalism, publishing, or business fields or in general that you look up to?
I would definitely have to say my parents, but other than that, I think I’m learning a lot from one other publisher that is here. She just started a nonprofit news organization called The Mississippi Free Press, and I’m learning a lot about narrative storytelling journalism and solutions journalism. As I have said, my parents were advocates on the ground, they’re borderline if not actually activists in our community, fighting for the rights of Black people in addition to informing our community about what was going on.
But translating that, journalistically, as far as articles and stories that paint a really good picture of our issues, paint really good pictures of our triumphs, paint good pictures of what we should be looking forward to, and what solutions we can garner from these issues, what is working in other places and what we can do in our communities, that is something that I have been delving into over the past two years. We started a collaboration, (In)Equity and Resilience, it’s about Black women and COVID. We look at three different counties in Mississippi, and a different issue that Black women have had to face amidst COVID. This is a systemic issue — take education, for example. There have been systemic issues revolving around education, especially as it pertains to Black children in the public school system, but how did COVID widen those cracks? How did COVID expose some of those things that were happening, and how are Black women dealing with that and what are some solutions to that?
We’re also looking at crime in the county that I live in, Hinds County. I wrote a story about someone that I knew who actually died because of gun violence, and just talking about his life and how it ended, the struggles that he went through, the difficulties that he went through to get to a certain point, but how, the allure of being able to make quick money can deter someone young from achieving something different that may take a little bit more time to get money, and then led to his demise. As a newspaper, his mother reached out to us when he was a young boy, and she was having difficulties getting him in school, getting his behavior at school to be exemplary of what she thought he could do. Knowing him from being a 10-year-old boy, to a 20-year-old who was brutally murdered. Hearing that story from his mother, who had to identify him, who had to take care of him, who who washed him herself, who washed his hair after he passed away, who made sure that he had clothes he would want to wear to his funeral, and having to deal with that aftermath and that suffering and that pain from a mother. Black mothers are losing kids every day, we only have 160,000 people who live in the city of Jackson, but we had almost 160 murders last year in 2021.
The trend is going up. He passed away at the end of 2020, and there were between 140 to 150 murders in 2020. And it just went up last year in 2021. Even this year in January and February, we’ve had record numbers. All the cases seem like it’s 20-year-olds, 21-year-olds, 22-year-olds, even a 15-year-old passed away late last year. There are Black mothers losing their sons, and just looking at it from that perspective of this is a systemic issue, but how did COVID exacerbate that? How does this affect Black women in our community? So that collaboration actually has really meant a lot to me because we’re telling those stories and we’re trying to find solutions to those issues within our community as well.
I’m a new publisher. Even though I have gained a lot of experience from my parents and I grew up in the newspaper business, things evolve. Just looking at the trajectory of where I see us in the future, just looking at how we can implement solution-based stories and also looking at what a nonprofit model would look like for us. There’s a space already for the Mississippi Free Press. There’s a space already for Mississippi Today, which is another nonprofit news organization here, but what will our space be? What voice do we need to be in Mississippi? I love what they’re doing, but I also want to find what we need to be if we are to venture off into a nonprofit type of space. What do we need to highlight in our community? What is the space that needs to be filled that we can take hold of and help the community?
What advice would you give to your past/younger self when you were just starting out in the journalism industry?
Being present. I mean, there used to be tons of people who came by the office, people in the community who would have conversations with my dad and my mom, but I don’t think that I was present enough to just immerse myself and what was going on. I was just a kid, so hindsight being 20/20, I would definitely just be present more and really look at what history you’re making. I think we’re never really sure that history is in the making, but it always is.
How do you feel women are represented in the business and development side of journalism? How do you think the business challenges facing the news industry have impacted the representation of women in your field?
I can say that, from my experience, there have been some times where I felt like I had to speak up. My mom, some of the best advice she ever gave me was, “No one’s going to fight for you, but you.” And they may, but you can’t bank on that. You have to fight for yourself. I have a personality that I have to speak up for myself sometimes to be heard. I think that’s what has always drawn me to voice, because when I’m on stage I’m present, people hear me, but in my normal life, I know I have to fight to be heard. When I do, I know what I’m saying is important for the community, and that is why it’s important for me to speak up. I believe that my voice has been heard in spaces even though I have had to be more vocal about it and insert myself, nobody’s just going to hand me time and space to be heard. I have to present that and it has been a good experience so far.
There are a number of women leading newsrooms in Mississippi, like the collaboration that I have between two women who are leading news organizations — that has been a great lesson for me. We have a partnership with other newsrooms through Microsoft. The other nonprofit news organization has a woman at the helm, and so you see yourself. Even if it’s not really my race that I see, I see my gender, so that gives me comfort that I will be able to voice my opinions and be heard and be appreciated. I’ve seen that over the past two years, even in our larger organization, the National Newspaper Publishers Association, there are women publishers galore. That gives me great hope and it gives me comfort to see these women who have been leading their organizations for years, because I’m the youngest publisher of that organization of over 200 plus Black newspapers across the nation. To see and learn from these women who have been at the helm of their organizations for decades is really a thing that I take pride in and they should be celebrated as well.
One of the most difficult challenges that I see now is finding the talent who wants to be attached to a smaller publication. [If] rhere’s a talented person right out of grad school, they’re not necessarily going to have a first choice of a small, local, Black-owned newspaper. They’re usually thinking New York Times, bigger giants, even broadcasting, CNN. Finding the talent that can help us reach the level that I’m trying to reach in the next coming years, [that] is willing to grow with us. Someone who has that talent, the tenacity, but is also willing to grow with the publication instead of already going into somewhere more established or well known. That’s a challenge.
What point in your career was the most difficult for you? And how did it affect the way you think about the journalism field now and how it’s going?
The Jackson Advocate was established in 1938 by Percy Greene, which I don’t know how to put it, but it’s almost something that should have never happened. If you think about 1938 Mississippi where, the gains of Reconstruction had but faded away and you had Jim Crow laws at that time, most Black people, especially in the rural communities, were sharecroppers and if they weren’t sharecroppers, a lot of them were working as maids or other blue collar jobs. Being able to start a newspaper in 1938 in Mississippi seems like almost an impossible feat, so I givekudos to Mr. Greene for starting a newspaper at that time. Eventually he passed away and his wife hired my father to be the managing editor and then a year later, my dad bought the paper in 1978. The paper is like 80 years old, but it’s been in our family for around 40 years.
One thing that I will say is that the way that the Black community in the 70s looked at The Jackson Advocate wasn’t like it was for the people during the Civil Rights Movement. Mr. Green was a spy for the Mississippi Sovereignty Commission, which was an organization that wanted to keep things segregated, so he had gained not a good reputation amongst the Black community. I don’t know his reasons for becoming a spy for this organization, but it did not gain trust in the Black community. When my dad came along, he had to reverse that stigma, reverse what people thought about the Jackson Advocate. He really came on strong, like this is what we’re doing. We are for the people, we are advocating on behalf of them, we are on the side of justice, whether you look like us or whether you don’t, we’re on the side of right and we’re on the side of justice.
Our offices were shot up by Ku Klux Klan men, you know, in the late 1980s, I was two years old when that happened. But when I was about 12, and in 1998, our offices were fire bombed, and we lost basically everything. My parents, they produced the paper in our house. We have never gone a week without publication, and that drive and tenacity that they have, even in the midst of losing almost everything, really is something that I hold dear. That challenge of having everything taken away, but still not being left with nothing. They were still left with what they had inside, and they still made it happen.
That challenge of living with that and seeing how they deal with that situation, how could I give up on anything? It’s not an option, even though sometimes it gets difficult and challenging, especially during COVID. Even growing a staff, we have added two new staff members due to the grant that we received. Most of our staff have been with us for 20 plus years, so it was almost like a well oiled machine once I arrived. But, I have other visions for us growing our digital and social media. We have a new logo, we have a new website, we have a lot of new things that have happened within the timeframe of two years. But with that comes challenges of training a new staff and making sure that everybody is on board with the vision that you have, and how do we obtain that, how do we meet those goals, especially with what has already been established? Those challenges of just getting on one accord and making sure that I’m a good manager, that I explain things correctly and that everybody understands what the vision will be and [what] we’re working towards. To me, this is about the people, and I know that everyone wants to eat, everyone wants to provide for their families, but above all I want people to work with us who have the heart to inform the community [and think] this is a greater purpose.
That’s why I say it’s a for-profit organization, but it’s almost run like a nonprofit because we have a purpose like this. We have to make money, we are a business. But above that we do this business, we make the money so that we can provide a service for the community, we can inform them and highlight the issues in our community, the love in our community. We just did a story — it’s the fourth year of doing it — celebrating Black love during Black History [Month], and it usually comes out around Valentine’s Day. We’ve had a couple who were together for 70 years, we had a couple who were together for 50 years. We celebrated a younger couple who had been together almost 20 years but still they got married really young. And then we did another couple who’ve been married for 20 years, but they got married a little later in life. To hear these stories of love in our community — and not just the good times, but what they had to struggle with and what they learn from each other and what they teach their children. That’s just one story, but it’s important and it’s impactful for our community in my opinion. Those are the things that I try to keep in mind, that above all else, this is a passion, you have to have a passion for the people.
Women often face a number of unique challenges in professional settings. What are some challenges you faced in your career and are there any sacrifices you’ve had to make that your male counterparts may not have had to?
When my mom used to tell stories like, “Oh, I had you and then I went right back to work. I had you and you were on my lap as I was working at the computer,” or different things like that, I didn’t understand just how much of a sacrifice it is to be like a woman and a mother at the same time. I have been married for almost seven years and my husband and I really want to start a family. But where’s the time? So I have to make time and I have to not work so hard that I can’t do the other things in my life. I had to cut myself off and say this is it. Because I have to live. I think that women in journalism sacrifice a lot of time with their loved ones and family and just doing stuff that they love because of being just engulfed in what we do. I’m getting to the point where I’m like, okay, I have to have a life outside of this, and I think that’s one of the biggest challenges and sacrifices.
And even on the business side, there was a meeting with an advertiser, and I couldn’t go because it was production. I know this is important because they are advertisers and I really am grateful for their support, but I chose making sure that our paper was to the printer on deadline instead of having dinner. The dinner is important, but to me it was more important on production day to get the paper out. I had to set times for myself to stop working, just love and enjoy something. Do something for yourself. I said earlier that my personality is to put people first, that’s just me. So I must put myself on the back burner, and I see that in other women journalists. There’s so much work to be done that you kind of sacrifice other parts of your life for the work.
I feel it’s on my shoulders not just because of my family, but because of a greater legacy of being a Black woman. We’re always expected to be strong, and people exhibit that strength in different ways. I think that I have more of a quiet strength. It’s not the kind where you see it on the surface, it’s where you look back and say, “Oh, wow, how does she continue through that.” I think a lot of us exhibit strength in different ways, and it’s imperative because of the way society has looked at us. It’s imperative for us to exhibit ourselves in a certain way so that we break stereotypes — that is a burden in its own right, to have to be conscious of how you’re portrayed or how you’re coming off because of what stereotypes or beliefs that other people have. You want to be true to yourself, but you also want to break the chains of racism and you want to break the chains of all the stereotypes and you want to break the chains of oppression and you want to do your part. You can’t do it on your own, but doing your part, what does that even look like? Sometimes that’s a burden on Black women to try to do that.
What ways has being a woman has been advantageous or helpful to the way you approach your work?
I don’t know if it’s because I’m a woman, I was talking to my friend the other day, and I was so glad that I have an artistic training. I think going back to when they say, don’t take music out of schools or art out of schools. I realized how important that is as I grow older because it really builds something in your character you just can’t take away. I think it is because I go in the practice room, and I practice until I get it right or to where it is up to my level and I don’t stop until it’s there. You could call that perfectionism, but I think it’s just performance. Athletes have it as well. You know, they practice. The whole story about Kobe [Bryant] when he won the championship and he went back to the gym, that is the mind of an athlete. That is the mind of someone who practices for the optimum performance. Artists do that too, whether you are a pianist, vocalist, or a violinist. And I have that mindset. I have peers, coaches, teachers who say, This is good, that’s not good. They don’t mean anything bad by it, but they’re telling me what I can improve upon. I take that and I go back to the practice room, and I practice for the optimum performance.
I think I took that over into what I do for the paper, and we come up with something every day, whether it’s social media, whether it’s a news article, so that we can have a product that comes out to the people every Thursday, and we work for the optimum performance. I don’t know if that is a credit to me as a woman, but I think my artistic training really helped me to want to have the best product out there and continue to work, troubleshoot and strive to be what my goal is.
I think is a part of why I haven’t given up. There are days that are hard, you want to take a break. I haven’t taken a break or vacation. I think my husband and I celebrated our six year anniversary and we went for one day to Atlanta during the pandemic. I haven’t, except for that, taken a vacation or anything like that. It’s just work, work, work. I am looking for that time where I can just really take some time off and enjoy a different country or experience. But I know this sacrifice now will pay off later. I really hope that people understand that whole mentality a little bit more. I think we’d all be better off if we have some of those characteristics. That’s why I like going back to how they say music is so important in schools. It really does teach you that character. Because when you come across someone who may not have that same work ethic, it’s hard to implement that because they haven’t grown up doing a score or being in an audition, they haven’t had that training. I think we all would be better off if we had some of it. If we play one sport or play one instrument, we can at least have some of that work ethic and character building. As we go about our life, I think it really goes far.
Do you mentor other women? What’s your approach to mentorship?
I really want to do it. I haven’t gotten the chance to do that often. We have had interns and so I have tried to implement some of that with our interns, but I really would like to have a mentee that is really interested in journalism. I’m maybe too early in what I’m doing to be able to give a lot of great tips to someone, but I hope to have that in the future that kind of mentor/mentee relationship with people who want to be in this field or want to be in other fields but still feel a connection to journalism or media. The way that I want us to grow is really to be a multimedia company, to not just do print, but be digital. We are trying to branch over into TikTok and have a TikTok correspondent. I want to have more original content where we do documentaries or docu-series. We have two podcasts, we have a weekly and then we have one that’s coming out about Jackson infrastructure issues. We want to do another one on the history of redistricting, which will come out later this year. We’re like delving into those types of things, and it hasn’t really been done in Mississippi. I was researching about, different news organizations that have serialized podcasts here, there are weekly ones, where they’re talk show podcasts, but there aren’t any serialized ones that just talk about one subject, story, or issue and delve upon it, so we’ll be spearheading that here. There are creative ideas that I want to implement in the future so that we have really a creative team that comes up with content branching out into entertainment as well. I want us to really be a multimedia company within the next 10 years. That’s my goal.
In what ways do you think business changes can lead to cultural changes within the industry? How do you see yourself taking advantage of these changes to create a more equitable environment for women in journalism?
We’ve always had that kind of model [where] we’ve almost run like a nonprofit, even though we’re for-profit. I think we’re almost like a family, we understand that people have lives. We understand that people have other things that they do outside of the newspaper, and so we try to support those things and we try to cultivate those things. We want people to gain skills that will, in effect, help us. We’ve never been a rigid type of company. We’ve always understood that for the company to grow, people have to grow, and that is the ecosystem that we have. The community is a big part of what we do.
We have community leaders who help us with different things that are going on. If they have something that’s going on, or an issue that they need us to know about, they’ll reach out to us. We want to be a part of what they have going on or what they’re doing because it’s really important that we have that connection with community leaders. Even elected officials, if there’s something going on at the legislature, I can call up one of our senators and say, “Hey, is there anything that we need to be aware of?” or “Is there anything that we can get out to our readers?” Those are the types of relationships that you build and then cultivate over time. I think it’s very fluid. It’s not rigid, and we kind of want to have that relationship with the people who read us and who we connect with.
[In terms of business changes,] the way that our website was before wasn’t sustainable, it was almost like it was just a PDF of our newspaper. You couldn’t necessarily share links to social media and different things like that. It was a way for us to be digital, but it wasn’t sustainable. We did a complete overhaul so that you can share links on social media, and we came up with a newsletter that we can share through email and people can sign up through our website. Like I said, we have podcasting and we have a digital version of our newspaper. We’re looking toward how we can build those digital subscriptions. Coming up with more original content, docu-series, documentaries, more entertainment down the line, which will be a different branch of what we’re doing, will help sustain us through subscriptions as well.
My mom is a very creative person and I was just blessed to have that passed down to me, so I have so many ideas of what I want us to do. Even publishing books and things of that nature, we can do that. Having an online library that’s dedicated to Black literature and Black nonfiction, that’d be really cool if I can get funding for that, because there isn’t a place where you can just go and read Black folk stuff. We have a lot here just in Mississippi, with writers who are here and really current right now, like Kiese Laymon. I think that’d be interesting. I want to see that — a whole library, just school of Blackness. That’s sort of where I am, building that for the future.
Part of that is hiring more women, looking for women who have some of that raw talent that can be cultivated. There’s so much that women, Black women specifically, have to say and they’re so very talented. They deserve to be compensated for their knowledge and their talent on par with what Black men get, on par with what white women get, and on par with what white men get. Equal pay has been an issue that we’ve highlighted as well. I think that’s a big part of it, to make sure that we’re highlighting and supporting Black women and just women in general and what they want to achieve. That will be a big part of our growth. Even when we were building our website, I wanted to make sure that I included women who were in tech in that process. I’m always looking for women who are in their respective fields and how we can collaborate and do things together.
What do you hope for the next generation of young women entering the journalism field? What would you like that space to be like?
I just really hope that we know that we can have our own spaces and not compete with each other, but build on what our talents are for a better community, for a better world. I struggle with finding certain words, but I don’t know the impact of Black leadership, and I’m trying to find that out within our community. Our redistricting podcast will be about the history of redistricting and Mississippi. One of the people who was at the forefront of that was Senator Henry Kirksey. Hehelped change the trajectory of Black leadership in Mississippi. He’s the reason why we had our first Black mayor who was Medgar Evers’ brother, Charles Evers, in Lafayette, Mississippi. He’s a reason why we have as much representation as we do have at the Mississippi Legislature on the Senate side and on the House.
The city council is fighting with the mayor over a garbage contract. But what is it all for? The push for redistricting in Mississippi [was] in such a way that Black leadership, that Black representation could come to the forefront. We have that, and why is it not working for us? We have it on every level in the capital city of Mississippi, and it’s not working for us. That is one thing that I want us to avoid as women, as Black women: the conundrum of power over purpose. For us to work together, to build something sustainable, to build something great, but not let power get in the way. That is my hope. Being able to work with women and Black women becoming journalists and becoming leaders in journalism is that we understand that purpose. It should be at the forefront of everything.
We’re seeing it now, that the purpose of us having this Black leadership was that we will have Black representation and Black growth and Black social programs and Black everything, that we will be represented. But it’s a struggle thing for us now because of power. I don’t want that to happen to generations that are coming up, who want to be in journalism as the landscape is changing, that people feel like they’re losing power, or feel like they don’t have power. We look at the purpose of what we’re doing this for because if you don’t have purpose, you get corrupted