For Mississippi publisher, celebrating his newspaper is a key goal for 2011

Reality Town, a Brookhaven, MS, program to teach kids how to budget money, turned into a reality check for The Daily Leader Publisher Bill Jacobs.

In an e-mail to the National Newspaper Association board of directors, Jacobs wrote:

“Our newspaper asked to be included (in Reality Town) …. Initially, we were turned down because the … chairperson did not understand how a newspaper was relevant to what they were trying to accomplish. After some discussion, our ad manager was able to explain why a newspaper might be relevant to running a household budget. Taken for granted is the thought that first popped in my head when I learned of the discussion. My second thought was that we had some work to do in 2011 to better market our newspaper.”

This comes from a newspaper that has been the dominant source of news, information and advertising in Brookhaven, the seat of Lincoln County since 1883, and has been in Jacobs’ family since 1958.

Here’s how Reality Town works:

The local Women’s Auxiliary, in an effort to teach young teens the value of money in society, created a mock town in a local gymnasium, with booths set up like different businesses. There’s a mortgage company, real estate broker, grocery stores, insurance companies and other establishments providing life’s necessities.

Ninth graders are allocated the equivalent of a month’s wages. Those with an A average receive $1,908, while those with B receive $1,654. Those with C’s. D’s and F’s get less.

They visit the various booths and try to stretch their wages as far as possible.

“The Daily Leader has spent the last two years promoting the program, and then we decided that it was something we should be involved with,” Jacobs said. “It’s important that kids keep up with the local paper and learn why we’re a vital part of society.”

He also thought children should know that it is worth budgeting for a subscription to their local newspaper.

“At first the auxiliary couldn’t understand why newspapers should be a part of this,” he said.

Then Jacobs said he resolved that 2011 would be the year The Daily Leader would toot its own horn.

“We need to talk about how relevant newspapers are. We need to tell why we’re here and what we do,” he said.

And after years of telling his community’s story, he wants to tell his newspaper’s story, too.

“We need to let people know: Who are our writers? What are we involved in? What do we stand for? So many people take us for granted, but they miss us if we don’t come out. When the presses run late, the phone starts ringing,” he said.

Jacobs said he always knew that running The Daily Leader would be his life’s work. He was born into the family business, and his career there started well before he was even old enough to drive.

He recalled the times when he and his two brothers would insert the ad sections in the paper and then deliver them around town on their routes.

“My brothers went in two different directions,” he said. “I always knew I would come back to the paper.”

After earning degrees in journalism and business from the University of Mississippi, he ventured into the retail industry briefly.

In 1995, he bought out the other members of his family.

The Daily Leader is practically a southern tradition, tracing its roots back to pre-Civil War days as a weekly newspaper in Newton, MS, called The Ledger, according to Jacobs’ father, Charles, in a 1991 oral history interview with Bob Coke at the Lincoln County Public Library.

It all started after teenager B. Turner Hobbs joined The Ledger. When the owners moved the paper to Brookhaven in 1875, Hobbs moved with it. The Ledger eventually moved to Jackson, and is now The Clarion-Ledger.

Hobbs stayed behind in Brookhaven and converted the old Ledger’s local subscriber list to a new publication: The Leader. The weekly stayed in Hobbs’ family for nearly 60 years. Charles Jacobs bought it in 1958.

The newspaper has reported on history unfolding through the turn of two centuries and even a millennium and continues to serve its community with grit, determination and responsibility.

The Brookhaven community itself is an icon of the way the South pulled itself up by its bootstraps.

Situated 55 miles south of Jackson and 130 miles north of New Orleans, Lincoln County is largely rural. When the railroad laid tracks through the area in the 1850s, it allowed cotton production to economize the town. Eventually the timber industry joined King Cotton on the economic throne.

Today, Brookhaven has a diverse economy, and its local paper has grown from a small country weekly into a suburban daily newspaper with a circulation of more than 6,000.

The train still runs right through the middle of town; indeed, the newspaper’s street address is on Railroad Street and a recent phone interview was interrupted by the loud chugging and grinding of steel wheels against tracks and the roar of the train whistle.

Jacobs also owns a nearby weekly newspaper—the Prentiss (MS) Headlight—and he strives to keep his customers happy with both newspapers.

Fighting business erosion has been a battle since the economy tipped downward in early 2008. Now he senses an upswing, which started late in 2010.

“One major retailer has come back into print strong,” he said. “Small retailers are still lagging behind, but they recognize the reach we have as a community newspaper, and they have started reviewing rates and contracts. We are seeing print come back stronger than what we have been led to believe,” he said.

Throughout the downturn, Jacobs did not layoff any staff, but he also did not fill empty positions that occurred because of attrition.

“I did review newsprint prices and I tightened up the newspapers,” he said. “I watched my pennies and my dimes and I was able to stay profitable, with smaller margins.”

The Daily Leader’s content is also online, and he plans to develop a full, paid online edition soon.

“But we still have folks who like to hold the paper,” he said. “My two daughters, who are in college, say that if something is printed in the newspaper it’s more real because someone made the choice to put it there and get it printed.”

While he sees news in print as having more value than online, he acknowledges there is room for both versions.

During a recent ice storm the newspaper posted a list of school closings and other ongoing developments online.

“This information was well received. It wasn’t hard to access the information; they could get it from their mobile devices,” he said.

Yet he recognizes the perils in getting too reliant on electronics.

“The standard newspaper is the most reliable way to get news, if someone’s battery dies over the weekend, it’s no longer about immediacy,” he said.

Community service, no matter how it’s shaped, gives Jacobs great pride. Whether it’s finding ways to keep his readers informed of ice storms and other breaking news electronically, or helping his advertisers promote their next big sales, nothing makes him prouder than helping the youth in his community with their education.

He’s especially proud of a program designed to reward high school students for studying advanced coursework.

“The Mississippi Scholars program reaches out to ninth graders to encourage them to take meaningful courses in school, such as economics instead of basket weaving,” Jacobs said. “It is designed to raise ‘B’ students to ‘A’ students.”

The newspaper has been involved in fundraising efforts, and has increased the local component of this statewide program to $100,000 in local scholarships awarded. More than 500 students were recognized at a recent banquet.

“We helped spearhead the project in our community, and the entire community is excited about it. Finding volunteers to feed 500 kids at a banquet is not easy, but they are eager to help,” he said.

In his oral history, Charles Jacobs described covering Brookhaven during the years of the early Civil Rights movement, and the changes at his newspaper, going from letter press to offset printing. By 1991, the paper was starting to become automated. Wal-Mart had arrived in Brookhaven and was starting to win the price war with many local retailers.

Today, after 128 years serving Brookhaven well, the paper continues to evolve, and it’s time to let people know about it, Bill Jacobs has determined.

He’s out of his comfort zone though.

“We need to be more open to what our newspaper does, but it is the nature of the beast, that we don’t like to promote ourselves,” he said.

Even a 128-year-old newspaper has to stay on its toes.

© Teri Saylor 2011

Teri Saylor is a journalist living in Raleigh, NC, where she is editor of VYPE High School Sports Magazine and works as a freelance writer with a column in two community sections of the Raleigh News & Observer. You can reach her at terisaylor@hotmail.com.

Newspaper Name: The Brookhaven (MS) Daily Leader.

Owner/Publisher: Bill Jacobs.

How old is the newspaper? The Leader was founded on Feb 22, 1883.

Circulation: 6,500.

Frequency of Publication: Daily, Tuesday through Friday afternoons and Sunday morning.

Do you own your own press? Yes.

List some top goals for 2011: To become better at marketing ourselves to our readers and advertisers.

What are you most proud of? Our efforts and emphasis over the years on education, its impact on the quality of our community education system and the related impact on the economy of our area. The founding and building of the Mississippi School of the Arts—a state-funded residential school for junior and seniors who excel in the arts.

What is your newspaper’s most distinguishing characteristic? Independent ownership since 1883.

My newspaper’s biggest challenge: Dealing with the fact that because of technology, we are no longer the only option for getting the word out.

How do you view your newspaper’s role in your community? Maintaining our credibility in a mobile world, that sometimes seems more interested in speed than factuality and accuracy.

What we love to hear from readers: When we do it right.

What we hate to hear from our readers: When we do it wrong.

One thing we’d never change: Our dedication to our community.

Phone: 601-833-6961

Websitewww.dailyleader.com

E-mailbjacobs@dailyleader.com

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