The Media Today

Q&A: MLK50’s Wendi C. Thomas on ‘dismantling the status quo’

June 19, 2024
MLK50 staff at Juneteenth festivals, Memphis, June 15, 2024. Photo by Noah Stewart for MLK50.

In 2017, Wendi C. Thomas—a longtime reporter in Memphis—launched MLK50: Justice Through Journalism, a nonprofit news outlet, to investigate issues of economic inequality that she saw being overlooked in the city. The site was named for the fiftieth anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination in the city, which was coming up in 2018. Initially, it was only supposed to be a yearlong project. With very little funding and a few credit cards, Thomas decided to give it a try. “I don’t advise this to anybody,” she says now.

Seven years on, her bet has paid off. MLK50 continues to cover Memphis, now with a team of full-time reporters and editors. It has produced stories that have improved the lives of residents, such as an investigation into the city’s largest hospital chain, which sued its employees for unpaid medical debts even as it neglected to pay them a living wage; after MLK50’s stories were published, the hospital changed its policies and eliminated millions of dollars of debt. The site has also covered the state of housing in Memphis and a health crisis stemming from the widespread presence of lead paint and pipes in homes throughout the city. 

Last week, MLK50 was honored at the Mirror Awards, a set of prizes awarded by Syracuse University’s Newhouse School of Public Communications to recognize excellence in media reporting; MLK50 received the Lorraine Branham IDEA Award, a special prize given to newsrooms that invest in diversity. Memphis is a majority-Black city and home to numerous immigrant communities, a reality that MLK50 has striven to reflect in its staff and reporting. The award comes as Thomas embarks on a new chapter; after seven years as the newsroom’s director, she is stepping back from that role to return to reporting full-time. 

Ahead of the Mirror Awards, I spoke with Thomas about MLK50’s evolution, its multipronged approach to covering Memphis, using the Juneteenth holiday to find out how people get their news, and getting back to reporting. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity. 

MLK50 was honored at the Mirror Awards this year. How does it feel? 

It was a complete surprise to be notified that we’re getting an award. [We’re] very honored, especially because it’s named for an illustrious Black woman journalist and the first Black woman dean at the Newhouse School. To be considered to be in that tradition is a great honor. I think the other thing that makes this award stand out is that we’re being recognized for our commitment to diversity. When I dreamed of what MLK50 could be, it was led by people of color, which makes sense, because Memphis is majority people of color. Having this commitment to make sure your staff looks like the community you’re serving, it’s something that we’ve done for the last seven years.

When you started MLK50, it was only supposed to be a yearlong project. How did it evolve into a lasting operation?

In the beginning, I did want it to be a long-term thing, but honestly I was giving myself out. I didn’t know if we’d be able to make this work and calling it a one-year project was like, Okay, you’re giving yourself a trial period, and if, at the end of the year, it’s completely blown up in your face, then you have an off-ramp. We did not have beats, because we didn’t have any full-time reporters. We had a lot of great freelancers and a lot of incredibly talented journalists, one of whom came out of retirement to help; that was our first managing editor, who was just incredible. 

A good part of the evolution is having the right people to work with at the right time. The other piece of the evolution is funding. We were finally able to raise some money. When we started—I don’t advise this to anybody—we’d only raised three thousand dollars, so it was kind of putting it together piece by piece. Then we got our first grant from the Surdna Foundation [a charity that provides funding for initiatives focused on social justice]. [One] of the many things I’ve learned about philanthropy over the last seven years [is that] money follows money. Once one foundation gives you a grant, it’s a signal to others: Oh, okay, let me take another look at them.

MLK50 staff at Juneteenth festivals, Memphis, June 15, 2024. Photo by Noah Stewart for MLK50.

As a younger newsroom, what has been your experience of reporting on Memphis through MLK50? What have been some of the challenges? 

Before I started MLK50, I was the metro columnist for the daily paper here for eleven years. I think that has made finding sources easier in some ways. But when you’re talking about this investigative work we’ve done around debt collection at Methodist Hospital or worker safety at FedEx, I think one of the challenges—one that I gladly accept—is earning the trust of the people who you’re asking to share the most intimate details of their finances and their lives with the world. We have a tip sheet we’ve developed that’s called, like, Before you talk to a journalist read this. It’s a way to intentionally address that inherent power imbalance between reporter and source—not for a spokesperson for a company or the government, but for regular folks who were working at FedEx when they saw a coworker get killed, or Black women workers that I’m meeting at the courthouse, who are completely discombobulated because they’ve been sued by this hospital. 

I think the other challenge is that local government hasn’t always been cooperative—whether it’s the city of Memphis under the previous mayoral administration, the police department, the district attorney—[they] are not forthcoming with documents, they’re unresponsive to public records requests. I have a lawsuit against the [city] of Memphis because they would not add me to their media advisory list. I don’t know if that’s unique necessarily to Memphis, but it makes it hard to do your job. 

What has the response from your readers and sources been like? 

People often thank us for explaining something that they’ve wondered about but didn’t have the resources to actually verify. I’m also thinking about some of the guides we produced around how to give yourself some time on an eviction. It was born directly out of our reporters going to General Sessions Court and watching people get evicted and having no idea how the process works. We went to different agencies around town that do legal aid on evictions and asked, like, Do you have a resource that we can share? And there weren’t any, so we created one. Our reporter Jacob [Steimer] said that it was really cool to hand it out to folks who were entering the courtroom—to watch them read it and then hear them use that language with the judge to request a continuance. 

How does MLK50 reach people?  

We don’t wait for people to come to our website. When we were writing about the district attorney race, we went down to criminal courts and talked to people with cases down there about what they knew about the race, what they knew about what kind of power the district attorney has over people’s lives. Our housing reporter, who did a big investigative series on lead poisoning and children, went out with a young, Black, community-led environmental justice group to pass out one-pagers we did about how to protect your kids from lead poisoning. 

We’re going to have tables at upcoming Juneteenth festivals—pretty much all the staff is working at some point during these festivals—and one of the questions that we want to ask is: How do people get their news? Anecdotally, it’s social media; like, I’m not necessarily tuning in to the local NBC affiliate’s five o’clock news. Most of our traffic that comes in through social media comes from Facebook. So we focus a good deal there. And then we’re also really intentional about publishing partners. So Tennessee Lookout—another nonprofit newsroom, which is based primarily in Nashville—we’ll swap stories. 

We had a beautiful piece that was written about Tyre Nichols, who was the young unarmed Black man who was beaten to death by Memphis police in 2023, on the anniversary of his death. It got picked up by the Oxford American [a nonprofit publication that covers the American South]; it’s also being turned into an audio story that will be on one of the local radio stations. Those are just some of the ways that we’re trying to get where people are.

Finally, you’ll soon be stepping down from your role as director and returning to reporting. Can you talk about this change?

The irony was never lost on me that I started this to do the kind of reporting that I wanted to do, and then was able to do very, very little reporting. I tried to do both and just about worked myself into a grave; I took a step back from most of the journalism to help run the organization, and as we’ve grown we’ve gotten more resources, but still not enough for me to go back and commit to reporting. Over the last three years, I might have written a few stories that are meaningful to me. I just feel like I have a lot more stories; I have a lot more to contribute, and actually, I think that my biggest value to Memphis is being a deeply sourced longtime resident who gets giddy in the morning about opportunities to dismantle the status quo. That’s what gets me up in the morning, not reviewing another grant.

Feven Merid is CJR’s staff writer and Senior Delacorte Fellow.