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Opinion | In Memphis, Journalism Can Still Bring Justice

NASHVILLE — Wendi C. Thomas launched MLK50 in 2017 as a one-year project to make the 50th anniversary of the assassination of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. a time to consider the current state of economic justice in the city where he was murdered while advocating for a living wage.

“Underpaid black workers and their plight drew Dr. King to Memphis more than 50 years ago,” Ms. Thomas said in a phone interview last week. “That’s why he was here. And while I wouldn’t say that Memphis has made no progress, it’s hard to fathom that Dr. King would be proud of where we’re at.” It is a city where almost 28 percent of the population lives in poverty, and that number is growing.

Ms. Thomas was under no illusion that simply telling the stories of underpaid workers, immigrants and other vulnerable Memphians would sort out the economic issues that make it so difficult for them to emerge from poverty. “The city has made a commitment, a commitment, to low-wage industries, which means low-wage labor, which means systems that exploit, for the most part, black and brown workers,” she said. But telling their stories was a start. Three years later, her one-year project is still going strong.

Educated in Memphis schools, Ms. Thomas is a veteran journalist with more than 25 years of reporting and editing experience at daily newspapers in Indianapolis, Nashville and Charlotte, N.C. For 11 years, she served as a columnist and assistant managing editor at The Commercial Appeal in Memphis. By the time she’d completed a year as a fellow at the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard University, she had both the knowledge and the experience to build a newsroom from scratch.

What she didn’t have was funding. In the beginning, for weeks on end, she worked 16- and 18-hour days, living off her credit cards while creating a news source unlike any other in Memphis. “We unapologetically exist to dismantle the status quo where it doesn’t serve low-income residents in Memphis, the overwhelming majority of whom are black,” Ms. Thomas said. “We’re not a black publication, but we frame the news from the perspective of the most vulnerable.”

Ms. Thomas’s investigative series on predatory debt collection by a nonprofit hospital system affiliated with the United Methodist Church, the largest hospital chain in the Memphis area, revealed that these hospitals sued their own low-income employees for failing to pay their medical debts. In other words, a faith-based hospital system both failed to pay its employees a living wage and sued them for being unable to pay their bills. To add insult to injury, workers’ health-insurance policies did not cover care at rival hospitals with more generous financial-assistance policies.

In the three years since MLK50 launched, the publication has grown to include a managing editor, a visuals director and a senior editor, and it hires a range of freelancers, all of whom are paid. Thanks to large grants from the American Journalism Project and the Racial Equity in Journalism Fund at Borealis Philanthropy, Ms. Thomas is now poised to expand her nonprofit newsroom to include a development director and an operations manager. A full-time Report for America corps member will join the team, as well.

MLK50’s most recent recognition is a $72,420 grant from the Facebook Journalism Project to cover the coronavirus pandemic with a focus on Memphis’ most vulnerable citizens. Working in collaboration with other local media outlets — the Memphis Flyer, High Ground News and Chalkbeat Tennessee — MLK50 will use the funds to develop a text-messaging system to help disseminate crucial health information to people in areas of the city with limited internet access.

Despite these achievements, the office of Memphis’s mayor, Jim Strickland, has refused to include MLK50 on the city’s the media-advisory list, through which officials communicate with journalists. In a lawsuit against the city filed earlier this month, Ms. Thomas argues that her exclusion from the list is both unconstitutional and a transparent act of retaliation for MLK50’s critical coverage of the mayor’s office. Ms. Thomas stands by her reporting. “They may not like what I write, but it’s not wrong; it’s not factually incorrect,” she said. “My ethics and my commitment to fairness and accuracy are impeccable.”

Such losses are particularly acute in places where no other media outlets are covering news that affects poor residents and where the government is not working on their behalf. And Memphis does not hold a monopoly on that combination of circumstances. “The South tends to have lost more papers, and have more counties without newspapers, than any other place,” Penny Abernathy, a professor of journalism at the University of North Carolina, told The New Yorker’s Charles Bethea earlier this year.

Wendi Thomas is as cognizant of these trends as anyone, but her experience as the founder of MLK50 gives her a perspective that offers hope: “We’re in a moment where the future of journalism can look really grim, but it’s also a moment when we can reimagine what we do,” she said.

That hope is tempered by an awareness of economic vulnerability: “You have more time and more bandwidth to dream when you’re not worried about where your next paycheck is coming from,” she noted. “But if we can find some space to imagine what’s possible, maybe we could make more progress in making our communities fairer for the people who have been pushed to the margins.”

Margaret Renkl is a contributing opinion writer who covers flora, fauna, politics and culture in the American South. She is the author of the book “Late Migrations: A Natural History of Love and Loss.”

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