By James Higgins
As a teenager, growing up on a small family farm drew Royce Swayze to journalism. Years later, journalism brought him to the largest city in the country.
Swayze, 22, was born in Jackson, Miss., and grew up in Yazoo County — locals refer to it as the “zoo” — a town of less than 30,000 people based along the Yazoo river. By navigating the trails and riverbeds near the family farm where he grew up, Swayze developed the exploratory spirit that would eventually lead him into reporting.
“There’s no one really around you, so you have to go out to explore to have fun,” he said. “I developed my own inquisitive personality, asking questions.”
Swayze got his start in earnest in high school, a place called Manchester Academy, after the administration cut funding for the student newspaper. The paper hadn’t been very good the first place, he said. With only 36 students in a graduating class, no one had shown enough interest.
Undeterred, Swayze opened his own operation. After the high school newspaper was discontinued, he started a newsletter covering local news, learning the basics of design and editing on the fly.
“People thought it was kind of crazy, you know, [they’d ask] what are you doing,” he said. “It was kind of a one man show, with an advisor.”
The stunt paid off. On the strength of his newsletter, Swayze earned his way into his next gig, at The Yazoo Herald, circulation 5,000. That paper, run by an award-winning husband-and-wife duo, gave Swayze the opportunity to put his curious nature to work writing features on local residents.
In 2013, Swayze graduated high school and moved out of Yazoo County, headed to Oxford, Miss., to study political science and French at The University of Mississippi. Over the summers, he worked at the Clarion-Ledger, the largest newspaper in Mississippi.
His general assignment reporting deepened his appreciation for community news. Swayze wrote about events that mattered to locals: As a USA Today College Contributor, he covered the student movement to remove the Mississippi state flag from the University of Mississippi. In 2016, he wrote a story for the Clarion-Ledger about the competition between local catfish farmers and their international rivals — a story that was picked up by the Associated Press. Also in 2016, Swayze covered the trial of Felix Vail — the oldest cold case ever solved.
According to the news director of the Clarion-Ledger, Steven Ward, Swayze’s contributions extended beyond the traditional bounds of the newsroom.
“A talented writer and reporter, Royce also excelled at utilizing the digital tools of our industry,” Ward said in an email. “[W]hether it was creating and posting videos and photo slide shows or using analytics to figure out what was best for our audience.”
After graduating from Ol’ Miss in May 2017, Swayze headed to New York City. A business reporting intern with the Dow Jones News Fund, Swayze will work for Health Data Management, a media company focused on reporting on healthcare news.
It will be Swayze’s first time with a specialized assignment — as well as his first time away from community news.
“Any time you cover anything in journalism, you’re always, constantly learning. And that’s what’s incredible about it,” he said. “I’d like to learn more about covering a specific topic or industry.”
Swayze said the debate over the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act — nicknamed Obamacare — made it a particularly exciting time to cover the healthcare industry.
When he was younger, Swayze would walk the old trails near his home that the early settlers to Yazoo County traveled on, located only feet away from the city’s modern main roads. He’d wonder about all the changes that had been wrought over the course of the last century and a half. Even the riverbeds, Swayze said, couldn’t stay put in all that time.
Where many only saw only old trails or riverbeds, Swayze saw questions waiting to be answered. Swayze plans to apply the same curiosity to his reporting in New York City.