Over here at the Oren Dunn City Museum, Sihya Smith and I enjoy researching how Tupelo, in its 150-year history, developed into the state leader through progressive thought and action. Right along with the All-America City, the Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal has stood to lead, not reflect the Tupelo Way – The Tupelo Spirit.
The catalyst behind Tupelo’s growth rested in the passion and energy of a man who purchased Tupelo’s nearly bankrupt newspaper on June 1, 1934. George McLean did not have degrees in communications or reporting or journalism. He had myriad ideas. He began his long career at the Journal’s helm by building a team: people with the intellectual capacity to do the job, people who could work as teammates, and people who believed in community building.
These people, and many who followed, practiced community journalism, where readers and the community became participants as much as those journalists who worked in the newsroom. McLean led the way in the community – networking with the area’s merchant class leaders, taking long hours to meet with educators in the community, visiting with farmers and industrial workers. He got to know his readers on a personal basis. And when he could not meet with them personally, he urged them to write on topics that interested people in their circles.
A bankrupt newspaper began to grow stronger because the community grew stronger. The secret? Engagement.
Yet, McLean did not rest on his laurels as a successful businessman. He understood that as the poorest fare, so do the merchants, the bankers, and others. Through the development of Lift, Inc., the Rural Development Corp., the Community Development Foundation, and CREATE, he brought together individuals with varied backgrounds, beliefs, and politics for a stronger voice overall, believing that local people would have the wherewithal to gather and take on local issues. McLean’s way was not divisive, as evidenced by his calling on leaders of both races to come together. McLean’s way was not to attack or practice “gotcha” journalism, but to show the inadequacies of a particular position or policy through explanatory reporting. Yet his editorial page – filled with local opinions and letters – sounded the clarion for his values – teamwork, service, education.
Nobody is perfect. Those who remember McLean certainly can recall his impatience and his temper. He was a product of his time, as are so many of us who look back on history. Sometimes, his choices seemed less than stellar. But he also realized the value of working toward a solution that benefitted those who in past history had not had a voice in their own self-determination.
As we think about the past and how it relates to the future of Tupelo, the Tupelo Way, and the Tupelo Spirit, perhaps we should ask the question: Are we working as community? Are we supporting the education of our people? Are we maintaining the standard of “service to God and mankind?”