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Oct. 18, 2017, 10:45 a.m.
Reporting & Production

“Fierce urgency of now”: This year-long project aims to fill the gap on inequality reporting in Memphis

“Memphis is a microcosm of what’s going on in a lot of urban centers around the country. It’s an extreme example of what happens when things go wrong and and aren’t fixed for a long time.”

April 4, 2018 marks the 50th year after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. April 4, 2018 is also a bookend for MLK50, a digital journalism project centered around the issues of economic justice in Memphis, where King was assassinated in 1968.

The year-long effort to address a yawning opening in the city for accountability reporting on labor and economic inequality and the persistent under-representation of black voices in major local news outlets is the work of Wendi Thomas, a longtime Memphis journalist and former columnist for the daily paper The Commercial Appeal (and 2016 Nieman Fellow). In the first half year of its existence, MLK50 has broken news that’s propelled Memphis into the national spotlight: In an impromptu interview in August, Memphis Grizzlies head coach David Fizdale told Thomas he supported the push to remove Confederate monuments in Memphis and thought President Trump’s “both sides” rationalization of Charlottesville was “disgusting.”

The site’s core mission, however, has been to reframe the public conversation in Memphis itself. A recent critical piece about a new boutique hotel development pointed out that “only eight of the 65 new jobs created by a new Overton Square hotel project will pay more than $30,000 per year and 45 will pay so little that the workers will almost certainly qualify for food stamps.” A collection of essays, photography, and video marked the one-year anniversary of a massive July 10, 2016 protest that shut down the major bridge in Memphis over the Mississippi. Thomas, who grew up in Memphis, sees the city of 653,000 as “a microcosm of what’s going on in a lot of urban centers around the country,” and hopes MLK50’s work will lead to substantive policy discussions about economic and racial inequality.

She’s candid about the challenges of funding such work. Good journalism, fairly compensated, isn’t cheap. Of the $200,000 she’s raised so far, 60 percent has come from sources outside Memphis.

“If you’re a business that’s profited from paying workers poverty wages, why would you give me $20,000 so we can write a series about companies paying living wages and compile a list of businesses who’re associating themselves with a city-wide MLK50 commemoration but aren’t paying their workers a living wage?” she told me. “The people who stand to benefit most from this kind of accountability journalism are the people who are least likely to be able to afford to pay for it.”

I talked to Thomas about wearing both the fundraiser and editor hats, the “non-negotiable” of paying contributors fairly for their freelance work, and the “fierce urgency of now” for the kind of reporting MLK50 has been trying to sustain.

Shan Wang: You’re running this project on your own, which means fundraising, reporting and writing, editing and commissioning stories, and all the budgeting and hiring. You’re about halfway through. Can you walk me through what you’re still hoping to get done on all those fronts before next April?

Wendi Thomas: I grew up here. I was a columnist here for 11 years, focusing on economic justice and inequality, viewed through the lens of how the people who are the most marginalized are affected. So my list of ideas is a mile long. If you could see the Google spreadsheet of ideas I have of things in the “coming up” column, there’s no way I’ll be able to get to a fraction of them by the time the project ends in April. I’m going to just keep doing what I can for as long as I can, in hopes of shifting the public conversation on issues around jobs and wages, power and wealth.

I’ve been able to create the job I would’ve liked to have, and maybe I’ll be able to replicate in some other setting later. You see some of these issues covered on a much grander scale with ProPublica, or The Marshall Project. I wouldn’t put myself in their company, because they’re amazing and I’m just trying, but I am trying.

There’s a lot of low-hanging fruit in Memphis. Like most mid-sized cities, the local newspapers’ ability to really probe is hampered by rounds and rounds of layoffs. It’s a miracle they’re able to put out a paper in any form at all. The ability to do accountability journalism, to just dog the hell out of an issue, is constrained. It doesn’t mean those issues went away. It just means the public generally doesn’t have an idea what’s going on.

Wang: Where do you draw the circles when it comes to “the public” — people who live in Memphis, people who once lived in Memphis but live elsewhere, a more national audience with an interest in Memphis as a sort of case study?

Thomas: Memphis is a microcosm of what’s going on in a lot of urban centers around the country. It’s an extreme example of what happens when things go wrong and and aren’t fixed for a long time. It’s the poorest large metro area in the nation.

The lessons that can be learned here, and the challenges we’re facing, are applicable everywhere. Our primary audience is Memphis residents who care about the city. Memphis is 63 percent black, 70 percent of color. In a city of 653,000 people, that’s a sizable audience right there.

A few years ago before I started my project, there were people demonstrating outside the daily paper here, saying they felt the coverage wasn’t nuanced or thorough about the black community. I don’t see myself as a black digital outlet, but we are focused on people who are marginalized, and in a city that’s majority black and very poor, that ends up being people of color.

Wang: How do you make sure the people you are trying to reach are reading your work?

Thomas: I bribe people — ha. No. So this is where I think replicating this project in another city is tricky. Since I was a columnist for 11 years, I had a built-in audience. Every week I’d probably get tagged in 20 to 30 posts asking me, “Did you see this?” “Did you see this?”

At [the Online News Association conference] this year, Facebook offered to help merge my public Facebook profile with my public Facebook page. But it would mean people couldn’t message me documents. So I can’t do that, because that’s how people reach me to give me tips.

We have partnerships with other publications here in town, including the black newspaper, the Tri-State Defender, and another digital publication called High Ground News. I just published another piece this past week with Injustice Today, which includes a newsletter produced by the Harvard Law School’s Fair Punishment project. I’m working on a project with ProPublica that I can’t really talk about yet. I’ve been on local TV talk shows. I’m leaning heavily on the network I have.

That’s the risk with this kind of work. I started an initiative ten years ago here in Memphis called Common Ground. I had so many wonderful community leaders and partners, but it really was my passion project. How do founders who have the audience through their own personal networks then transfer that audience in a smooth way? People follow me, they listen to what I have to say for better or for worse, but still, getting them to shift their loyalty and trust to a new publication altogether is tricky.

Wang: You’re going to start doing a regular radio segment with the public radio station there, right?

Thomas: So I began every day with Morning Edition. Every day. This was part of my ritual. But in a city that’s 63 percent black, why weren’t there regular black voices on the daily radio segments? If an alien turned on the radio station and was asked to get the demographics of Memphis, they’d assume there were no black people in the city. But people were asking, why was the station still airing Car Talk reruns? Could it be an opportunity to add the Reveal podcast, which has a black voice at the helm?

I asked this question, and man, this was one just waiting to be asked. It let loose a wave of responses.

The upshot of all this discussion is that we’re going to do something with the station tentatively titled “MLK50 Moments,” where we’re talking to people who were around in 1968 during the Sanitation Workers Strike and where we are 50 years out.

It’s a great opportunity and one that wouldn’t have been possible without what Martin Luther King would call the “fierce urgency of now,” this immediacy created by the 50th anniversary on April 4, 2018. April 4, I guess, is both the carrot and the stick.

Wang: I wanted to make sure to get your take on the challenges of funding this work, since you’re both raising the money and doing the journalism, and your best options for funding might come from more national sources but the site’s focus is specifically Memphis. How do you navigate that?

Thomas: One of my non-negotiables from the start was that we were going to be able to pay contributors competitively — better than competitively. Most freelancer rates are embarrassingly low. We pay our contributors better than any other local news outlet, to my knowledge, and better than some national outlets, based on my own experience freelancing.

The total budget for the project is $300,000 for the year, and we’ve raised about $200,000 of that. Of that $200,000, about 60 percent has come from out of town.

There’s the issue that of the people in Memphis who do have the money, they benefit from things staying the way they are. If you’re a business that’s profited from paying workers poverty wages, why would you give me $20,000 so we can write a series about companies paying living wages and compile a list of businesses who’re associating themselves with a city-wide MLK50 commemoration but aren’t paying their workers a living wage?

I wrote a story about a white developer who is the nephew of the man who was the mayor when King was killed, about the family’s inherited wealth, and how it came from exploited black labor in their laundry business. A donor who had early on made a verbal commitment wanted to pull her money. I spent an hour, hour and a half compiling a point-by-point, fact-based memo to make the case again. Her point was that this guy was a good guy. My point was, his goodness isn’t the issue — he could be a lovely person and still have benefited from exploited labor.

There are institutions now I’ve been told would likely give to the project. But I also know I’m working on an investigative piece on some of those businesses. When you’re running editorial, and also fundraising, those internal conflicts arise. I can’t go to those businesses and ask for money. I feel dishonest, knowing what I’m working on. In a perfect world, I could have a clearer delineation.

Wang: There’s been a lot of messaging in the industry around going to loyal readers and relying on loyal readers and getting loyal readers to pay for the journalism they care about, you only have to answer to your readers. Doing events for them, putting together membership programs, making them feel like they’re part of a community, getting their sustained financial support. And so on. There’s not a way to make that work in your case?

Thomas: Who of our audience can afford to pay to read our work? I’m not sure how many can afford it. The people who stand to benefit most from this kind of accountability journalism are the people who are least likely to be able to afford to pay for it.

My social media manager has worked on a campaign to get people to donate $50 to support MLK50, which has been wonderful. I would never knock anyone for any donation. It can be a dime, and it’s a show of your faith in our work, and I value that.

We did a big package this summer, probably the biggest collective work we’ve done so far, around the one-year anniversary of the largest act of civil disobedience in Memphis history, when more than a thousand mostly black young people shut down the bridge over the Mississippi river in July 2016. We had audio, we had video, we had some powerful storytelling on our site. We’re proud of the work my team did. But again, I need to be able to pay contributors fairly. At $50 a donation? You’d need hundreds just to pay for that one package, and that’s not even including my own time.

I’m not sure I see a practical way forward without ongoing financial support from philanthropy. It ends up being more financially beneficial to ask people who’ve already given to connect me to other people, to nurture those relationships that might in some cases result in a $10,000 check after an hour-long conversation that can cover a single project. I could have an event, and maybe get a third of that. And then it’s time taken away from creating the actual content.

Wang: Do you find other Memphis outlets have taken notice of your work and their own coverage has shifted? “Oh shoot, Wendi just broke this, why didn’t we look into it?” Or local institutions that have responded immediately with policy changes, to stories you’ve written?

Thomas: There’s a local theater here that’s been showing Gone with the Wind for the past 34 years. I started a conversation on social media about whether it made for the theater to continue showing the movie. Within an hour, I’m getting emails from the chairman of the board of the theater inviting me to a conversation.

It’s been a challenge for me to straddle the line between activist and journalist here. I’ve been a journalist for 25 years and that’s the work I’ve been trained to do. But people want to invite you to conversations where they want you to help them think through changing policies. I almost always decline. It’s not my job to decide. It’s a result of not having a strong tradition of accountability journalism in the city. Someone doing what I’m doing in New York would not be immediately asked to come decide on a policy change.

So, the president of that theater told me ultimately they weren’t going to show the movie anymore. I broke that story, and it was written up everywhere in national outlets. And of course, I got messages from angry people who think I was personally responsible for that decision.

Recently I was able to get an exclusive interview with the head coach of the Memphis Grizzlies on his stance on the Confederate monuments. I happened to be meeting with him for another reason. He was fired up, he had CNN on in his office a day or two after Charlottesville, he wanted to talk about it. Of course, the team’s PR had no idea I was even in the arena. The sports columnist of our local paper’s news site had transcribed my entire interview. That story went national, too.

Wang: Have you partnered with national outlets to try to get pickup outside of Memphis, to raise the profile of your project or to get the attention of bigger potential donors? Do these considerations shift the lens of your coverage from very local-focused, to trying to appeal to a wider audience?

Thomas: We’ve written a lot about the Confederate monument, which is definitely a national issue. I was up late last night editing a story and up late this morning watching livestreams of a meeting in Athens, Tennessee, where the city was asking a state commission to give them a waiver so they could remove Nathan Bedford Forrest monument in the city. I’ve pulled over to talk to you in my car just now and if I look out my window I can see that monument. I can see the police surveillance tower they put up in the park. I don’t know who that’s to protect.

We’ve been writing a lot about companies that pay their workers a living wage. To mem this is a national conversation — you have the national fight for a $15 minimum wage, you have cities across the country passing local wage ordinances. At this moment when a lot of eyes nationally and internationally are on Memphis as the MLK50 anniversary approaches, it’s good to be in this space.

Ultimately, my goal with this is to dismantle the status quo. How likely is that to happen in the remaining five and a half months? What we can do is make sure this draft of history that journalists create is accurate and complete and centers the people who are at the grassroots, and is not just the narrative you might get from the city and its elected officials. What are the people closest to the issues saying?

Photograph of protestors linking arms taken by by Andrea Morales, for the MLK50: Justice Through Journalism project. Used with permission.

POSTED     Oct. 18, 2017, 10:45 a.m.
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