Reporter's Notebook

West Point, Mississippi
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Resources from James and Deb:  Organizations doing work in the field of local renewal
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How a ‘Communiversity’ Works

The new headquarters of the Communiversity, in the Golden Triangle of Mississippi, shortly before its opening
The new headquarters of the Communiversity, in the Golden Triangle of Mississippi, shortly before its opening Courtesy of East Mississippi Community College

Here’s a difference between the world of national politics and that of public problem-solving at the local and regional levels. Four or five years ago, I would have had no idea of this. Now I notice it practically every day.

In national politics, terms like partnership or collaboration are hard to utter with a straight face, or a non-sinking heart. At best, they can seem boring or (damning with faint praise) “worthy.” At worst, they seem like euphemisms for sweetheart deals or favor-trading.

In Washington I can feel the attention draining from the room whenever someone mentions “public-private partnerships”—or if Deb and I discuss some new cooperative project we’ve seen for advanced-manufacturing training in the South, or the reuse of abandoned buildings in the Midwest. The narcotizing effect is like that of the term infrastructure, back before “Infrastructure Week” became a bitterly joked-about term in Washington.

Yet in so many communities we’ve visited, everything about these collaborative efforts—finding the partners, dividing the labor, sharing the blame and credit, sustaining the relationship—has seemed not simply important but actually interesting.

Consider this analogy: Anyone studying World War II knows that part of the story is the titanic drama of the battlefield. But another important part is the elaborate backstairs strategy of collaboration and coalition building. This involved: how Churchill dealt with FDR, how both of them dealt with Stalin, how the U.S. government worked with private industrialists to turn Depression-racked America into the “arsenal of democracy,” how Eisenhower and Montgomery and Patton and MacArthur worked with and against one another, and so on.

Similarly: The movie Lincoln and the book Team of Rivals were built on the drama of Lincoln holding a political coalition together so that Union forces could advance on the battlefield.

Stalin, Roosevelt, and Churchill in Tehran in 1943. What they did in the conference rooms had a big effect on what happened on the battlefields. (U.S. Signal Corps via the Library of Congress)

Today’s local-level partnerships obviously lack the world-historical immediacy of these wartime struggles. But the link between process and result is similar: people paying attention to the mechanics of how they work together, to increase the chance of reaching their goal. And the stakes can be very high: reducing the human toll of opioids or homelessness; expanding opportunities for people the modern economy has left behind; improving schools and policing practices; and on down the list.

Let’s take this back to Mississippi. This post is a an update on a project in the Golden Triangle of the state—the ambitiously industrializing northeastern region including Columbus, West Point, and Starkville—which exemplifies a commitment to collaboration that other regions could usefully study.

David Halberstam works at his office in New York City on May 14, 1993
David Halberstam works at his office in New York City on May 14, 1993 Mark Lennihan / AP

In 1981, the writer David Halberstam published a memoir in Esquire magazine, with the headline “Starting Out to be a Famous Reporter.”

At the time Halberstam was well-known enough that the story’s title would have seemed both mildly self-mocking and accurately descriptive. He’d come to national prominence while still in his 20s through skeptical and award-winning New York Times reporting from Vietnam. His book about the making of the Vietnam War catastrophe, The Best and the Brightest, which was published in 1972, was hugely influential and popularized a phrase that has endured nearly 50 years later. (Although I have seen enough recent misuses of the phrase “best and the brightest” to need to point out that Halberstam was using it derisively. It was the impeccably credentialed smart guys around John F. Kennedy, and then Lyndon Johnson, who took the nation to disaster in Vietnam.)

Reporters David Halberstam (left), Malcolm Browne (center) and Neil Sheehan in Vietnam in 1964 (Horst Faas / AP)

Every few years after that, Halberstam turned out a thick, usually best-selling book. For instance, The Powers That Be, about the rise of the journalistic establishment in the  20th century (parts of which ran in The Atlantic), or The Breaks of the Game, about pro basketball. He kept going at full speed, into his early 70s, until his shocking death in a car crash 12 years ago, while being driven by a graduate student after a university event at UC Berkeley.

David Halberstam had been a model to me, and a generous and forgiving mentor over the years, as I noted when hearing the news of his death. I first met him in the late 1960s, when I  was editor in chief of the college newspaper and a group of conservative alums were trying to wrest control of the paper from our “irresponsible” student hands. Halberstam and the late J. Antony Lukas led an alumni counter-movement that held them off. As I noted many decades later, when Halberstam died:

He had his excesses—he was strapping and big, “an honest six-three” I think he wrote in one of his books about sports—and with his deep, dramatic, sometimes self-dramatizing voice he could look and sound like a clean-shaven Old Testament God. He was aware of and liked the effect, I think.

But he had a very, very big heart, and with The Best and the Brightest he changed our business. I still remember the day when, as a graduate student in England, I got my sea-mail copy of Harper’s with Halberstam’s long story “The Programming of Robert McNamara” on the cover. I read it all, standing at the mail box, and I thought: This is what journalism is for. (I also thought: Aren’t magazines great! And: I belong back in America.)

One of the tales I’d heard from David Halberstam over the years was about his very first reporting job out of college. This was the one he described in his 1981 Esquire piece: as 21-year-old cub reporter for the smallest daily in Mississippi, the Daily Times Leader of West Point.

Why this tiny paper? Halberstam says in the piece that as soon as he graduated he planned to go to Jackson, Mississippi, and work with a civil-rights minded editor named Tom Karsell, at a paper there. The two had met in Halberstam’s last year in college, when Karsell was a Nieman Fellow at Harvard and Halberstam was managing editor of the student paper, the Crimson. But by the time Halberstam got to Mississippi, Karsell couldn’t offer him a job. What next?

On the fourth day, as humiliating visions of returning to Cambridge in the old Chevy mounted, Karsell called. There was an opening on the paper in West Point, the Daily Times Leader. West Point was a small town, and the paper’s circulation was around 4,000. I would be the one reporter on the staff. He gave me the name of the Times Leader’s editor, a man named Henry Harris, and his phone number; Harris was expecting my call.

… I was terrified by the idea of going to a small town in a state like this, where I knew no one. I thought for a long time of how alien it would be; then I remembered how I had told all my friends I was going to spend the year working for a small paper in the South, and this, God knew, whatever else, was a small paper in the South.

He also recorded his encounter with his new management, specifically Beulah Harris, co-founder of the paper and mother of the then-editor:

She often came in on Saturday afternoon to look around, to make sure that everything was in order, and, if nothing else, to wash the floors of the newsroom … She was a small, heavily powdered woman; she was fearfully hardworking and equally devoted to her Baptist faith. “You’re David, aren’t you?” she asked.

I said I was.

“I don’t think I’m ever going to learn your last name,” she announced.

I said that was all right.

Then she smiled and said, “The Lord Jesus Christ sent you here.” I, descendant of many centuries of illustrious rabbis, a line only recently broken by two or three generations of American renegades, looked at her in stunned surprise. “Of course He did,” she said. “Why else would you be here?” I could not argue, and with that, we became friends.

I never visited West Point while David Halberstam was alive, but over the past five years I have been there many times. Mainly this has been to write about business changes in the city and the surrounding “Golden Triangle” area of Mississippi, which also includes Columbus and Starkville. The big modern blow to West Point happened a dozen years ago, when the city’s dominant employer, a major meat-packing plant run by Sara Lee, closed for good. This removed 1,200 jobs from a city whose population was roughly 12,000. The big modern hope has been the arrival of Yokohama Tire, whose decision to come to West Point I wrote about here, and whose subsequent news I’ll discuss another time.

Old advertisements in downtown West Point, Mississippi, not far from the office of the Daily Times Leader newspaper (James Fallows / The Atlantic)

But recently Deb and I were back again, and while walking through downtown West Point I did a double-take when I saw the office of … The Daily Times Leader! It was in a different, smaller location from the one Halberstam had described in his memoir. But I thought: I have to go inside and ask.