Mississippi paper gets support after being blasted for gay marriage story

Laurel (Miss.) Leader-Call owner Jim Cegielski says he knew he’d get some hate mail and angry calls when he decided to put a gay wedding story on the front page of his Feb. 7 issue. “The majority of people in Mississippi oppose gay marriage,” he tells me, “but we didn’t know the reaction was going to be as vicious and hateful and as widespread as it was.” (The story was about two women — one with stage four brain cancer — getting married. It was the first known gay wedding ceremony in Laurel.)

“In the first week, before the backlash to the backlash, the calls were 100% negative,” says Cegielski. Two advertisers pulled their ads and 40 people canceled their subscriptions. (The 7,500-circulation paper is published Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays.)

On Monday, though, the newspaper started getting love-bombed when a Mississippi college student wrote about the “hate-filled” reaction to the piece.

“Our phones have blown up ever since,” says the Leader-Call owner. “We’ve probably had 400 phone calls and 99% of them have been supportive.” The paper has added a new advertiser — a dog grooming business in Hattiesburg — and 100 new subscribers, almost all of them outside of Mississippi. (The Leader-Call website has blown up, too. It crashed earlier today and tech support was working on it as I chatted with Cegielski.)

“It was a kid from the University of South Mississippi who made this thing go viral,” says the 49-year-old publisher. (Later in the interview he identified the “kid” as Ashton Pittman, a blogger who is majoring in journalism, politics and French at USM.)

“He really is responsible for this thing happening. I believe he’s the one who got Rachel Maddow to blog about this.” (Actually, she tweeted it.)

Pittman, who has friends at the Leader-Call, tells Romenesko readers: “I decided to blog about it because I hoped I could get a few of my readers to send in a few thank you’s and maybe even gain them back a subscriber or two after they lost 15. I had no idea they’d start getting new subscribers from all over the country and even as far as Australia.”

The student-blogger explains the Maddow tweet: “She tweeted that on [Tuesday] Feb. 19. I’m not sure how she got wind of the story, but the day after I posted the blog, I woke up to a text. I was going to read it and doze back to sleep, but I saw, “OH MY GOD, Rachel Maddow just tweeted your blog!” I shot straight up and, well, by 10 a.m., my blog already had its single biggest day ever. My biggest day of traffic before was a few weeks ago, when I hit a mere 1500. On that day, it hit 5,500 visitors.”

Last Saturday, Cegielski ran some negative letters about the marriage story and posted his defense of it. “Before this went viral, we were trying to let it die down. We had made an editorial decision to run the negative letters and let this thing go. But we can’t do that now. In this Saturday’s paper I’ll address the outpouring of support we’ve received from the rest of the country.”

* Newspaper owner defends gay marriage cover story (yahoo.com)
* Hate-filled backlash after paper reports on gay couple’s wedding (deepsouthprogressive.com)
* Read what people are writing on the Leader-Call’s Facebook page