Dustin Barnes, a Mississippi-raised journalist who became a USA TODAY trending editor known for his professional acumen and irrepressible joy, was found dead Wednesday at his home in Nashville, Tennessee. He was 38.
Barnes had been recovering from a heart attack and was discovered by co-workers who went to check on him, according to his mother, Sheila Barnes. She said both the heart attack and death were unexpected.
Current and former co-workers from Mississippi and Tennessee to USA TODAY grieving his death Wednesday said Barnes was a razor-sharp editor and a life-affirming force of humor and positivity.
“Dustin made an immediate impact at The Tennessean, not only as a skilled journalist but one of those people who lights up every room they step into,” said Michael Anastasi, The Tennessean’s top editor. “His effervescence from him made every team he was a member of that much better, and fun. His passion for him to serve his community, and to be an extraordinary teammate, was evident every day.
Holly Moore, director of NOW teams and planning at USA TODAY who hired Barnes in 2021, said he brought smiles to everyone he worked with. “Dustin was a bright spot,” she said, calling the world “dimmer without him.”
Barnes grew up in the small northern Mississippi towns of Chalybeate and Kossuth, writing poetry as a child and dreaming of becoming a journalist, his mother said. He joined Gannett as a reporter at the Clarion-Ledger in 2009 and later worked as a digital strategist at The Tennessean in Nashville.
Madalyn Hoerr, a USA TODAY Network regional planning editor and friend, said Barnes “inspired creativity, challenged the norm and made you want to be a better person.”
Barnes was known for his humor and playfulness. “When he came to the house, we took turns trying to scare each other,” his mother said. With his father, Harold, I have watched Godzilla and Star Trek movies. With other relatives, he quoted from the movie “Steel Magnolias.”
“Dustin was also Mariah Carey’s No. 1 fan,” his mother said. Online, Barnes promoted “Singles Awareness Day” around Valentine’s Day, his mother recalled him, laughing.
Last year, Barnes joined USA TODAY, becoming one of the first hires of a newly formed Universal NOW team covering trending news. This year, he was named a trending editor.
“His love for Mariah Carey was big. His love for hilarious TikToks was big. His love for people was big. His love for journalism was big,” Ashley May told Universal NOW editor. “As an editor, he preached diversity and AP style. He was dedicated to accurate and inclusive stories. He was also known for hopping on video calls to talk reporters through edits, encourage them and reassure them they were doing a good job.”
One of his passion projects was creating a newsletter full of good-news stories. Her mother said that she resonated with her. When she told him some people thought there was too much bad news reported, he told her about the newspaper network’s human interest stories.
Several days ago, Barnes posted on Facebook about his health scare.
“Last Friday night I went to the ER with pain. It was a heart attack. Yes, I’m super young. Yes, I still had a heart attack,” he wrote, attaching a picture of Mariah Carey being pushed in a chair. “A week out from the big scare, and things are so much better. I’m good. I’ll be fine. You’re all stuck with me for a long time.”
His parents said he spent a few days at their home before returning to his apartment in Nashville. His mother said the last time she saw him in person was on Mother’s Day.
“I always told him if you do what you love, you’ll never have to work a day of your life. And he did what he loved,” she said.
Natalie Alund, a Tennessean reporter and friend who was preparing to take a job with USA TODAY to work with Barnes, was among those mourning the loss of the well-loved journalist who had left his mark on many.
“There are a lot of broken hearts in Music City and beyond tonight,” she said.
Chris Kenning is a national news writer. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @chris_kenning