Quietly, NBC's news chairman has been the key person behind Mississippi Today, an online news site that has been operating for three years. It is one of several experimental approaches to journalism seeking traction during a painful time of retrenchment for local news.
Why Lack? And why Mississippi? Although Lack never lived there, it's where his mother is from. His great-grandfather was the mayor of Greenville, Mississippi. When the 71-year-old executive considered some charitable endeavors, he was drawn south and considered buying a newspaper until becoming intrigued by the pioneering Texas Tribune's success.
"Non-profit, digital-first journalism was beginning to fill a void as the newspaper structure that so many people depended on was starting to erode," he said. Lack is listed as Mississippi Today's founder and has sunk $1 million into it. He helped secure a broader funding base before the site's 2016 launch; the Ford Foundation is the biggest backer with three grants totaling $1.8 million, according to the Foundation Center. James Barksdale, former Netscape CEO and a Mississippi native, is also a major supporter.
Nineteen newspapers in Mississippi consider themselves dailies, yet only four publish seven days a week, said Ryan Nave, Mississippi Today's editor-in-chief. Seeing that the number of reporters covering state government was down to a handful, the site initially made that its main area of concentration.
"We just want to provide something that is unique and special, a little deeper and with a little more texture than other media that is just breaking news," Nave said. "We're focusing on explanatory and investigative journalism, and not trying to copy what other people are doing."
Mississippi Today wrote last week about an administrative error that left the state without enough money to give raises to public school teachers, and how some welfare money instead goes to a college scholarship program benefiting middle class families. One article, done with the help of another non-profit news site, ProPublica, was about how poor Delta residents are among the most likely to be targeted for a tax audit.
Health care coverage has been a strength, said Will Norton Jr., dean of the University of Mississippi's School of Journalism and New Media, and member of the Mississippi Today board of directors. In an industry where diversity is often an issue, both Nave and his managing editor, Harvey Parson, are black. Four of the 12 listed reporters and photographers are minorities. Lack sees it as a teaching lab for young journalists.
Mississippi Today has broadened its base by hiring two of the state's best-known media figures: sports columnist Rick Cleveland and cartoonist Marshall Ramsey, who also hosts a public television show.
"They have in some ways supplanted the other, more established news entities," said Sid Salter, longtime editorial page editor at the Clarion Ledger who now works at Mississippi State University. "But because they're digital-only in the least-wired state in the Union, it limits their influence. There are still a lot of people who, when you say 'Mississippi Today,' they say 'who? What?' I expect that to diminish."
Critics have sought to tar Mississippi Today with two words that are epithets to many, saying it is run by liberals and outsiders. Some Republicans, including Gov. Phil Bryant, refuse to return calls from its reporters.
While Lack's involvement is known to insiders, the role of a New York-based chairman of a national news division isn't emphasized in Mississippi, Norton said. "He doesn't want to be seen as the major player," he said.
Lack describes his Mississippi Today role as "kibitzer-in-chief." Nave said he's frequently calling with ideas; some are good, and with others Nave relies on his Mississippi expertise to direct Lack's enthusiasm elsewhere. He sees Lack's influence in invitations, like when Nave spoke at a summit run by the Paley Center for Media and the Columbia Journalism Review in New York.
"People who need access to Andy are a little bit more open to having a meeting with us," Nave said. "I know I've been in meetings I would not be in if Andy had not set it up." While there are successes — the Texas Tribune and ProPublica spring to mind — there are still questions about the long-term viability of an operation based on financial contributions in an industry long dependent on advertising revenue until that largely collapsed. Norton said Mississippi Today needs to make itself a vital part of the community, perhaps by sponsoring and hosting events.
The site also publicizes its work by letting other news organizations use its stories. "We're not competing with everyone," said Lack, who praised the Clarion Ledger for its local coverage. "I'm not competing with the Clarion Ledger. Maybe I can help them be better."
Lack's passion and investment have set up Mississippi Today for success, said Jennifer Preston, vice president of journalism for the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. Her organization has given it $300,000 in grants, according to the Foundation Center. She said it would be important if more national news figures could show a similar leadership and commitment to local news.
Extra attention being paid to the financial problems decimating local news has given Lack reason for optimism. "You're beginning to see an understanding that local news is a public responsibility that is central to a working democracy, and it's core to the good health and life of every community," he said.
The Associated Press' Jeff Amy in Jackson, Mississippi and Randy Herschaft in New York contributed to this report.