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Newspapers: You never forget your first

I was well into college and working on a degree in biology when I decided I wanted to go to work in the newspaper business.

Specifically, I wanted to go to work for Boone Newspapers, the company that owned and continues to own my hometown newspaper. At the time I made that decision, I was on my second of three summer internships at that hometown paper, The Natchez Democrat.

I changed my major, which meant an additional semester before I could graduate, but I wound up with a degree that emphasized marketing and management. Three days after I graduated, I was at work with that company, with which I’ve spent 34 years now. With Boone, I’ve made newspapers four states.

From the very start, I enjoyed everything about working at a newspaper — the urgency, the deadlines, the camaraderie, and the connection with the community.

I’ve always loved knowing about things before others. And goodness knows I love to tell people what I know! I’m not very good at keeping secrets. Maybe that just makes me a gossip. I think it’s made me a pretty good journalist, too.

My first story of any consequence was during my time working in the newsroom while in college. My first job at the paper was to pick up police reports, which in those days — the early 1980s — meant a trip to each police department and sheriff’s office in our coverage area to read through the police blotter. I’m sure those don’t exist these days.

While I was in the Natchez Police Department, I noticed things going from calm to chaos quickly, though I couldn’t tell exactly what was happening. Officers began running in and out of the building; everyone was hurrying around, shouting at each other. One police captain grabbed me, corralled me in an empty office and told me to stay put and closed the door.

I gathered from bits and pieces of conversation that someone bad had happened at the Adams County jail, at the time located next door to the police department in Natchez. I used the phone in that office to call back to the newsroom and seek advice from my editor, who told me to keep my ears and eyes open, learn as much as I could about what was going on and to get back to the office as soon as possible.

Turns out, a man named Jarvious Cotton, who had been indicted for the murder of Robert “Blue” Irby, a popular young student and athlete in Natchez, had escaped from his jail cell.

Irby and several friends were gathered outside the city auditorium in Natchez on March 12, 1982, where the annual Natchez Pilgrimage Tableaux was being held. Irby and his friends were approached by several men, one of whom brandished a gun and demanded money. Reports allege those men got about $21 from Irby and his friends, and when the men turned to run away, Irby ran after them. One of the men turned around and shot Irby dead. It was a crime that had Natchez reeling.

Following his escape, Cotton remained a fugitive for about five years until he was apprehended almost by accident in New York. His fingerprints were taken when arrested for marijuana possession in a New York subway, and officers discovered he was wanted in Mississippi.

Still, Cotton was not returned to Natchez quickly. The state of New York fought his extradition for more than a year.

Cotton was eventually returned to Mississippi, where he pled guilty in return for a life sentence. Cotton served some time in Parchman, but was paroled. He was living in the Clarksdale area, last report I saw.

I have no idea how many stories I’ve written since that one in Natchez during college, but you always remember your first.

Today begins the 75th observation of National Newspaper Week. This week, the staff of The Vicksburg Post will bring you stories as part of our National Newspaper Week celebration, like the one in today’s newspaper on how we go about producing our newspaper.

Our industry needs this week. We’ve been beaten up in recent years. Newspapers, specifically, community newspapers need to toot our own horn, reminding our readers and advertisers that newspapers are still the best vehicles for communicating. The Vicksburg Post — our combination of print newspaper, website and social media interaction — in this community is without a doubt the best and most efficient way to get any news or advertising message to the people of Vicksburg and Warren County.

Jan Griffey is editor of The Vicksburg Post. You may reach her at 601-636-4545, ext. 123, or by emailing jan.griffey@vicksburgpost.com.