Monday, March 27, 2023

Joel McNeese: Watchdog Of The Calhoun County Journal

Photo by Celia Hillhouse
Photo by Celia Hillhouse

The Calhoun County Journal, the Meek School of Journalism and New Media, and the Student Media Center have separate histories, but the people involved have created a powerful foundation for each to succeed.

Joel McNeece runs the Calhoun County Journal. McNeece got his start after the chair of the journalism department at the University of Southern Mississippi, the late Art Kaul, encouraged him to change his major after reading a paper he had written for a class.

When asked about the role of the Calhoun County Journal in the state, McNeece explained that it is more specific to the county.

“We are the newspaper of record, the recorders of history, the storytellers,” McNeece said. “The only shared medium that captures the most important moments in Calhoun Countians’ lives, we are the peoples’ watchdog for their local government, their only source for detailed, timely news and information about their home county. It’s a responsibility we don’t take lightly.”

Not only is McNeece busy running the Calhoun County Journal, but he also spends his days as the president of the Mississippi Press Association.

“My typical workday is the same as any other journalist — working to cover all the news in my county,” McNeece said. “As MPA president, I have to make time to study issues within the industry, seek opportunities to promote our industry, which often involves speaking to various organizations, including high school and college classes, and reach out to other newspaper publishers and government leaders to address a variety of issues that impact newspapers of all sizes.”

McNeece admits to having help from an insider with his MPA position — his wife, Lisa Denley McNeece, a University of Mississippi alumna, former MPA president, and daughter of journalist S. Gale Denley.

“I get insight and advice from my wife about everything on a daily basis,” McNeece said. “I take a lot of pride in her accomplishments as a past president of MPA, and the same holds true for my late father-in-law S. Gale Denley, who not only is a past president, but also in the MPA Hall of Fame.”

Lisa McNeece was president of MPA in 1999, “before social media, right about the time email was just catching on,” she said.

Lisa and Joel met in 1998 at a Mississippi Press Association newspaper convention in Biloxi.

“He was working for another newspaper at the time,” Lisa said. “We married the next year, which was during my MPA presidency. The issues we faced during our terms are so different.”

Lisa has a special connection to the Meek School, the Calhoun County Journal and the Student Media Center. It is more than being a graduate of the university, she said.

“My dad started teaching journalism at Ole Miss in the early 1960s, when I was a couple of years old,” Lisa said.

She spent a lot of time in the journalism department throughout the years.

“I audited some journalism classes at Ole Miss when I was a teenager, while working at our family newspaper at the same time,” Lisa said. “I graduated with a degree in journalism in the early 1980s. Will Nortonwas one of my instructors. I was an adjunct professor at Ole Miss for a few years, several years ago, teaching newspaper management. I occasionally am asked to speak to a class, which I gladly do.”

Lisa said that journalism is her life, and that it is all she has ever known.

“I grew up stuffing newspapers, collecting basketball scores from coaches, taking pictures and developing film, all in my pre-teen years,” Lisa said. “My grandfather started the Calhoun County Journal in 1953, so I was lucky to work with my grandparents and now my sister and husband. I have seen a lot of changes throughout the years, but I have learned to embrace them all — digital cameras, desktop publishing, social media. It’s a challenge to keep up with all the changes that come our way, but that’s what makes it exciting.”

Lisa’s father, S. Gale Denley, helped start the Calhoun County Journal at 17. His wife, Jo Ann Denley, worked as manager for 28 years.

“I am a graduate of the university, and all three of my children have degrees from there,” Jo Ann Denley said. “(Journalism) has been my life, and I would still be working if I had not reached, or more than reached, retirement age.”

Lisa explains what the connection of the Journal and the Meek School currently has, and has had, on her life.

“The Calhoun County Journal is basically a three-person operation with my sister, husband and me,” Lisa said. “I have written a weekly column since 1981, designed all of the advertising, done the bookkeeping covered meetings and ball games, taken out the garbage, et cetera.”

As far as the relation to the school, she said, “I keep in touch with many of the students I taught, one of whom works for us during football season. Around five years ago, this student was visiting at our newspaper office and we got him to teach us Twitter. I love reading the alumni magazine and especially special publications produced by students.”

S. Gale Denley made a major impact on the University of Mississippi and has had a great deal of influence on the journalists he taught and the ones in his family. They are all honored that the Student Media Center was named in his honor.

“My dad taught journalism at Ole Miss for 35 years,” Lisa said. “(With the Student Media Center) named after him, I can’t tell you what that means to my family and me.”

Jo Ann Denley agrees.

“I think it is highly appropriate, because his students meant everything to him and he worked side by side with them long, hard hours,”
Denley said. “He also fed those who did not have the money for meals. Incidentally, we gave no money for the SMC. It was a tribute to my husband’s dedication.”

Joel McNeece shared a special connection with Denley.

“My personal connection to the S. Gale Denley SMC is my father-in-law. He was the greatest teacher I’ve ever known,” McNeece said. “I learned more about community journalism and the responsibilities that come with it sitting at his kitchen table than in any classroom. His legacy at Ole Miss carries on today through the [Daily Mississippian], radio and TV stations, and all aspects of the SMC. It’s something I take great pride in.”

With the amount of guidance that McNeece received from Denley, he has a bit of advice for young journalists who want to be successful. He encourages a start with knowing the importance of reading and writing.

“To become a better writer, you have to write a lot,” McNeece said. “I find a lot of inspiration in reading the work of other great journalists. Secondly, getting a broader view of the journalism industry, which weekly papers can often provide most effectively because it exposes you to so many different areas.

“It thrills me to see such skilled students coming right out of college,” McNeece said. “The Meek School doesn’t just produce graduates, it produces journalists. I think it’s so important that we, as journalists, stay involved with the school, and the school with local newspapers like ours.

“We know what we need for students to be able to do when they get jobs, and we can communicate that to the administration. It’s very important, to me, to keep up with the Meek School. I like to know what’s going on such as special projects, new staff, et cetera.”

“Journalism is such a rewarding career,” Lisa said. “We are literally recording the history of the county we live in. I embrace the changes and challenges in the print media industry.

“And that’s one more reason the relationship between our industry and the Meek School is so invaluable. We have experience to guide these young journalists, but more than that, we can learn so much from them.”

Leah Gibson is a senior, broadcast journalism major from Starkville, Mississippi.

The Meek School Magazine is a collaborative effort of journalism and Integrated Marketing Communications students with the faculty of Meek School of Journalism and New Media. Every week, for the next few weeks, will feature an article from Meek Magazine, Issue 4 (2016-2017).

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