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Deer Creek Pilot Editor and Publisher Ray Mosby talks about the ups and downs of owning and operating a weekly newspaper in a small community.
Justin Sellers/The Clarion-Ledger

Ray Mosby writes with the subtle charm of a bulldozer: Loud, straight ahead and willing to push through all of the muck and mud.

“I never want anyone to finish one of my (editorial) columns and not know where I stand on an issue,” he says.

Which, of course, means that his editorial columns as editor and publisher of The Deer Creek Pilot weekly newspaper in Rolling Fork often make readers and those he writes about fighting mad.

So imagine Mosby’s heart rate on the gray, winter day when an extra large man parked his pickup in front of the newspaper, climbed out and said, “Boy, I want to talk to you.” He was wearing a flannel shirt and overalls.

Mosby stared at the man’s arms. “They were bigger than my waist,” he recalls.

“There are a lot of folks out there who think you ain’t nothing but a son of a b—-,” the man told Mosby. “But can’t a single one of them call you a liar.”

That was all he said.

“I’d never seen him before, and I’ve never seen him since,” Mosby says. “That was about 1995, a couple of years after me and the bank bought the paper. I had come in here from the Clarksdale Press Register and applied the principles of a daily newspaper to the weekly. Every week I had a ‘real’ front page that consisted of news and a ‘real’ editorial page that offered opinion. Folks around here weren’t used to that and I was wondering if the paper was going to make it.

“For some reason, that man’s words assured me it would.”

Affecting lives

Mississippi, a state with 82 counties, has 89 weekly newspapers.

Most do not have a wordsmith as talented as Mosby, who twice has been voted by his peers the winner of the Emmerich Award, which honors the state’s best editorial writer.

But there is a common thread among the weeklies.

“We want people to know what’s going on and how it’s going to affect their lives,” says Emma Crisler, editor and publisher of the Port Gibson Reveille. “People will come by the paper and ask, ‘What’s happened this week?’ They’re still excited about what’s coming out in the paper.”

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A hot topic recently has been the ever-changing route of the U.S. 61 bypass.

“That will impact a lot of people and businesses around here,” Crisler says. “It’s a story we will cover to the end.”

Crisler, a former English teacher who jokingly gives her age as 105, took over as editor when her husband, Ed, died in 1998. Her husband’s grandfather had been sole owner of the paper starting in 1898.

Scott Boyd, 58, editor and publisher of The Beacon in Macon, says his paper’s role in Noxubee County is simple: “We’re here to inform and educate the public as much as possible, and to document history as it happens.”

The Beacon, which has a circulation of 2,801, also is the place people call or email when research has left them at a dead end.

“I had a woman from St. Louis call me and say, ‘I think I’ve finally figured out who my biological dad is.’ She told me his name and asked if I’d ever heard of him. I said, ‘I sure have.’ She wanted a copy of his obituary. I called the (local) funeral home, found out when he died, looked up his obituary and sent it to her.”

Weekly papers chronicle good news, too.

“I’d like to have a positive story on my front page every week if I could,” Crisler says.

So would Boyd, who was furious after learning a subscriber said at a public forum that the biggest problem with Noxubee County was that The Beacon “prints nothing but negative news on its front page.”

Boyd confronted the woman after hearing about it. She stood by her statement.

“I went back to the office and pulled a copy of every paper from the previous 12 months,” he says. “I took a Sharpie and highlighted what I considered to be positive news. It turned out that 78 percent of the papers had a good news story on the front. I bundled them up and mailed them to her. Never heard a word, but I proved my point.”

Mosby says his readers are eager to read the local news — unless it involves them. “I had a woman call and ask, ‘Why did you put my child’s name in the paper?’ I said, ‘Why did your child rob the liquor store?’ ”

Beyond words

Mosby, 66, has enjoyed a long love affair with words.

He starts each column with a quote that relates to his chosen subject. It might come from a Faulkner novel, a favorite poem or a rock ’n’ roll song. He even quotes himself on occasion.

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While the newspaper industry has struggled in recent years, Mosby has never fretted much about the Pilot’s well being. Its circulation is 1,450 across Sharkey and Issaquena counties, which have a combined population of approximately 6,400 and rank among the poorest counties in the state.

“But guess what? ESPN isn’t going to tell my readers the score of the high school girls basketball game. CNN is not going to tell them what happened at the board of supervisors meeting,” says Mosby, whose daughter is editor of a weekly paper just outside St. Petersburg, Florida. “To me, the smaller the community, the more vital the community newspaper is.”

After 23 years in Rolling Fork, he has earned the respect of his neighbors.

“We’re friends with him, enjoy reading him but we will tell him when we don’t agree with something he wrote,” says Melissa Thomas, 57. “But a lot of times, I’ll be reading him and think, ‘Oh, boy, he’s stirring some folks up today.’ “

“I think everybody who lives here should be required to read Ray’s newspaper,” says Meg Cooper, 55. “He tells us the things going on that we need to know about. That’s the main thing I appreciate. But Ray is so much fun to read. You meet him and think ‘He doesn’t seem like the kind of guy who would really go after somebody in an article. Not Ray.’ But when he thinks it’s called for, he does.”

There was a time when Mosby’s actions were far stronger than his words.

For 12 years, the people of Rolling Fork watched him care for his wife, Phyllis, as she battled Alzheimer’s. She died in August 2013. He also buried both of his parents earlier that year.

But through it all, every single week, Mosby published The Deer Creek Pilot, with the help of associate editor Natalie Perkins.

“It’s a strange thing, but I’m pretty sure I’d only been to Rolling Fork once in my life — for a football game when I was in high school — before I bought the paper,” he says. “Somehow, I knew that if I came down here and gave them a real newspaper, things would eventually work out.

“I guess you can say they have.”

Contact Billy Watkins at 601-961-7282 or bwatkins@jackson.gannett.com. Follow @BillyWatkins11 on Twitter.