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June 15, 2022, 9:40 a.m.
Business Models

When student loans and the housing crisis force journalists out of the business

“Is our compensation structure fundamentally unjust because we pay primarily for experience and skills, with no consideration for need?”

This piece is republished from MLK50: Justice Through Journalism, a Memphis-based nonprofit newsroom focused on the intersection of poverty, power, and policy. Its founder, editor, and publisher is Wendi C. Thomas, a 2016 Nieman Fellow.

Economic justice is central to everything MLK50: Justice Through Journalism does, not just the content we produce but in how we care for and compensate workers.

It’s right there in our vision, which echoes Dr. Martin Luther King’s dream: A nation where all residents — especially workers — have enough resources to thrive, and where public and private policy supports their success.

We center people who labor for a living, especially those who are trapped in systems that create and maintain poverty. And that includes people who work for MLK50.

How do newsrooms retain talented journalists buckling under the weight of crushing student loan debt and whiplashed by soaring housing costs? Particularly those who are BIPOC, first-generation college graduates without inherited wealth?

It’s a question I’ve been grappling with in the weeks since MLK50 reporter Carrington J. Tatum resigned. (Read Tatum’s piece here.)

Carrington joined the team in October 2020, just months after leaving Texas State University with a journalism degree and a student loan debt that now hovers around $90,000. In less than two years, he amassed an awardwinning body of work, including dozens of stories about the controversial proposed Byhalia Pipeline.

He was making it work when he had a roommate, but when the roommate left and his landlord hiked the rent by $300 to $1,700, the math no longer mathed. His best option, he concluded, was to move back to Texas and live with his mother, where his housing costs would be zero.

All this was going down while I was stuck in an Italian government detention facility after catching Covid at an international journalism conference. The stress left me unable to focus on even the simplest work tasks and the team graciously shielded me from what was happening.

But by the time I got home, his decision had been made.

Not all problems can be solved with money, but this problem could be.

That I wasn’t aware until it was too late is a reflection of my shortcomings. I bray all the time about my commitment to economic justice in all things, including compensation. I knew student loans are a millstone around too many necks and I knew rents were rising, but I didn’t know how much it was cratering a colleague’s career plans.

I feel like I failed Carrington, even though he’s reassured me I didn’t. These issues are larger than our newsroom and fixing them should not be MLK50’s cross to bear, he said.

Maybe so, but if the solutions don’t start with newsrooms such as ours, where would they start?

My salary surveys of other local newsrooms and similarly sized nonprofit newsrooms indicate MLK50 pays better than average in a city where historically, living expenses have been low.

This was Carrington’s first full-time job, and his total compensation when he resigned (which he shared in this piece) was just under $50,000. That’s above the city’s median household income of $41,900, but below the Memphis metro area’s median household income of $53,900.

Between March 2020, the start of the pandemic, and May, Memphis-area rents rose by nearly 30%, the 10th fastest metro-level rent growth among the country’s largest metro areas, according to data collected by Apartment List.

I’ve heard of rent hikes far higher than that; it’s not unheard of for a one-bedroom apartment to go for $1,600. Add in student loans, car loans, inflation, scary-high gas prices, and for too many, including Carrington, it becomes unsustainable.

Before I launched MLK50, I sought counsel from Russ Wigginton, then a vice president at Rhodes College, and now the president of the National Civil Rights Museum. His sage advice: You have a Cadillac dream, so don’t make a Pinto budget.

I thought I’d made a Cadillac budget — this year, it’s just over $1 million. But we don’t have a budget that accounts for and corrects the economic disparities that capitalism creates and maintains.

My first wildly impractical and improbable idea: Win the lottery so you can pay off workers’ student loans. But the lottery itself “preys on the poor,” as Vox explained. Low-income and Black people are more likely to play.

In the end, I’m left with questions, which as a journalist, isn’t the worst place to be.

How do you repair the damage done to some workers? How do you do that without alienating other employees who benefitted from a much more solid financial footing? Would candidates who would be bothered by our attempts at equity be a good fit?

Is our compensation structure fundamentally unjust because we pay primarily for experience and skills, with no consideration for need?

What would a salary structure that centers reparations look like? How would we sell this to funders? To donors?

If we decided to make need/debt/lack of generational wealth a factor in compensation, at what stage in the hiring process would we inquire about a job candidate’s finances? Is it appropriate to do so? And how would we ensure that that information doesn’t affect hiring decisions, while also accounting for the added expense in our budget?

What other worker economic/financial challenges are we overlooking? (We’re calculating an increase to our mileage reimbursement rate to account for $5/gallon gas prices.)

We’re talking to other newsrooms and trying to figure out what we could do now, what we want to be able to do soon, and how to get from here to there. If you’ve got ideas, let me know.

In the meantime, when the Powerball gets really big, I’ll buy a ticket or two. Wish me luck.

Wendi C. Thomas is the founding editor of MLK50: Justice Through Journalism, where this piece originally appeared, and a 2016 Nieman Fellow.

Photo illustration by Andrea Morales, MLK50.

POSTED     June 15, 2022, 9:40 a.m.
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