How Martin Luther King Jr.’s vision inspired the Memphis newsroom MLK50

Demonstrators re-enact the 1968 sanitation workers strike to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in Memphis, Tennessee on April 4, 2018. (Luke Sharrett / Bloomberg / Getty Images)

In April of 2017, Wendi Thomas launched a one-year journalism project to mark the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. As the sole reporter of MLK50, she set out to examine economic and racial progress in Memphis, Tennessee, where King was murdered while supporting a strike by Black sanitation workers.

Four years later, MLK50: Justice Through Journalism has grown into a fully developed nonprofit digital newsroom with eight employees and a budget of more than $800,000. Its rigorous investigative projects — which tackle housing, medical debt and criminal justice reform — have led to major policy overhauls in a majority-Black city where one in four residents live below the poverty line.

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In 2019, Thomas produced a groundbreaking series with ProPublica that revealed how the largest hospital system in the Memphis area was suing their own employees for unpaid medical bills. “Profiting from the Poor,” which won the prestigious Selden Ring Award for Investigative Reporting, forced the Methodist Le Bonheur Healthcare to raise workers’ pay and erase nearly $12 million in medical debt for more than 6,500 patients, who are mostly poor Black women.

“We’re aligned with people that Dr. King would be aligned with if he were still alive,” Thomas said. “This story did exactly what you want journalism to do, which is to measurably change people’s lives.”

Thomas spoke to NBCU Academy about the press’ responsibility to advocate for people on the margins of society, the challenges of building a newsroom from scratch and her hopes for MLK50 in the near future. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

NBCU Academy: You launched MLK50 to report on the state of economic justice in Memphis, the country’s second-poorest large city. How did you come up with this vision?

Wendi Thomas: I got the idea for MLK50 in 2008, when I was planning the coverage of the 40th anniversary of Dr. King’s assassination for a daily newspaper in Memphis. After I left the daily paper in 2014, I ended up doing a fellowship at Harvard’s Nieman Foundation, where I got to incubate what would become MLK50. I took the right classes there to develop a business plan. When I came back to Memphis the following year, we got ramped up pretty quickly. I wanted us to look at what MLK sacrificed. We launched on April 24, 2017 with the idea that it would be a one-year project. But things went really well. Readers and funders responded. The rest is history.

At the time of the launch, you wrote, “We won’t react to the news  —  we will respond to it.” What’s the difference between these two approaches?

Most news organizations are writing for more of a general audience but also aren’t trying to anger anybody or take sides. What makes us different is that we’re aligned with people that Dr. King would be aligned with if he were still alive. That’s people of color, immigrants, the undocumented and women. That’s Black people specifically. It’s anybody who’s been marginalized for any reason. We’re not writing for developers or business owners. We’re writing for workers. When you approach the news from that way, hopefully you’ll get stories that are more focused on the people who are being affected by public policy and less on the people who are writing public policy.

MLK50 has a managing editor, a visuals director, several staff reporters and a network of freelancers. And you recently hired a new executive editor. How did you build a full-fledged newsroom at a time when local news is dying?

It started with just me and I was very unpaid. I didn’t become a full-fledged employee until last June. I’m a veteran of daily newspapers in Indianapolis, Charlotte, Nashville and Memphis. Starting MLK50 has turned out to be an opportunity to create the kind of newsroom I would have wanted to work in. What that looks like in practical terms is that the team looks like the community we’re covering. All the leaders on our team are women. The team on the whole is majority people of color. I hope we’re fostering a collaborative and candid environment. All those things are different from the legacy newsrooms I grew up in.

But hiring is still a challenge — Memphis is not a destination city for a lot of people. It’s a challenge to convince younger people why they’re going to get more opportunities in Memphis than at a bigger legacy publication on the coast.

In the past few years, you’ve been spied on by the Memphis Police Department and removed from the mayor’s media list. You’ve often had to sue to gain access to information about public agencies and elected officials. How have these experiences shaped your relationship with authorities?

Anybody who tries to disrupt the status quo is not going to win a lot of fans among the status quo. We understand the traditional role of the press is to be the advocate for the underdog. The Black press has historically played that role. While we don’t consider ourselves a Black publication specifically, we do lean into that tradition. People who are in power often don’t want to share information in the way that they should. Organizations like the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press have represented me in different media access lawsuits. One was against the city of Memphis for refusing to put me on its media list. The city changed their processes directly following the lawsuit, so we consider that a win.

MLK50’s ambitious reporting is fueled by foundation grants and partnerships with ProPublica and local media outlets. Can this collaborative route be the future for local investigative reporting?

If you look at the explosion of nonprofit newsrooms, I definitely think that can be the way forward. Journalism should be treated as a public good and philanthropy should support it as such. While I subscribe to many publications with paywalls, there’s just a democratizing effect of being a nonprofit newsroom and providing your content for free. Being a part of ProPublica’s Local Reporting Network allowed me to work with their top editors and gave me access to their research and data teams. We did some incredible work together. There’s no way MLK50 could have afforded the software to even do the data crunching that led to the story on Methodist Le Bonheur Healthcare Hospital’s debt collection practices. Having that partnership was very critical and gave us a huge boost at a time when we were young and needed it.

Last May, MLK50 and three other local news outlets launched a pilot text-messaging system to provide information about Covid-19 to people with limited internet access. How has technology changed the ways in which news can be delivered?

Even though replying to texts and fielding story ideas by text is not how you traditionally do journalism, it’s really just the same practices and tactics. Journalism, at least how I was taught in J-School, was very top-down — you’re getting information from authorities and telling it to the masses. Taking questions from the public and giving it back to the public is a much more progressive approach to the news. You’re interacting more directly with readers. I wish we had more bandwidth to experiment with that. For all the good things about digital media, I do think equity is still an issue. With a newspaper, someone might leave it on the bus for you to read. No one’s going to leave their laptop for you to read.

Earlier this year, you wrote that you’ve “worked harder in the last four years than I did in the prior 24 years of my career.” What kind of emotional and physical toll has this enterprise taken on you?

Being a newsroom founder is basically like being a startup founder without the prospect of making millions of dollars. I would not recommend starting a newsroom by yourself. There were times that I was working 18-hour days for weeks on end. I’ve cried more in the last five years, sometimes tears of joy, usually tears of frustration. There are a lot of conversations these days about work-life balance. I did not have any balance. I don’t have kids, I’m not partnered in any way. Both of those made it easier to work as many hours as I have, but this can’t be the price of entry to news entrepreneurship. The industry has glamorized how much hard work we put in, but that’s just an elitist, ableist construct of what someone’s contribution should be.

What should we expect to see from MLK50 in the coming year?

I want to continue dismantling the status quo. We’re looking at elections for District Attorney and judges. I’m looking forward to how our coverage is going to steer the civic conversation on this. Too often critical election coverage doesn’t examine what’s possible. It’s a lot of: “Here’s candidate A and candidate B. Which one do you want?” I want something more about: “What could a progressive prosecutor do in Memphis? What would those values look like? What would those policies be?”