Wendi Thomas founded a news operation in 2017 with $3,000 and a big dream: to cover poverty, power, and policy in Memphis. Three years later, she’s still there and expanding her staff.

By Peter White

MEMPHIS, TN — Wendi Thomas runs an online news operation in Memphis called MLK50. She specializes in investigations that do not endear her to the power elite there. Memphis Mayor Jim Stickland put her on his personal blacklist. She is suing him.

The Tribune talked with Thomas about producing news for the underclass. “We’re not a black publication, but we frame the news from the perspective of the most vulnerable.” she said.

Thomas came up with the idea when she worked at the Commercial Appeal, a Memphis daily. Thomas handled the paper’s coverage for the 40th anniversary of Dr. King’s assassination. She started thinking about what it would be like for a news organization to mark the 50th anniversary of Dr. King’s death.

Thomas left the Appeal in 2014, got a Nieman Fellowship at Harvard where she says dreaming was encouraged. So, she did. 

She came back to Memphis with a big idea and started MLK50 with $3000. “When we started in 2017 the goal was to examine what Memphis had done with Dr. King’s ultimate sacrifice. Rather than focus on surface evaluations we really wanted to look at why Dr. King came to Memphis, which was in support of low-wage black workers, and be critical of where we were now. How are low-wage black workers in Memphis doing? What does that community look like today?”

MLK50 focuses on the lives of low-income people and that is a pretty wide lens in Memphis where 28% of the population lives below the poverty line and 64% are African American.

“We prioritize the people who Dr. King would be centered on if he were still alive. That was the goal for the first year. And it went well because we’re still here,” Thomas said.

MLK50 did a living wage survey in 2017 and sent it to the 25 largest companies in Memphis. The idea was to find out if they were paying decent wages. 

“Many of them did not even respond. That’s a pretty big deal. Companies that represent 160,000 workers in Memphis and they wouldn’t even say if they were paying their workers enough to live on,” Thomas said.

She said that many Memphis companies give a nod to Dr. King’s legacy in public while doing exactly the opposite with their workers. Take Baptist Memorial Health Care. It runs the city’s largest hospital and is non-profit. It pays 98% of its employees more than a living wage. Minorities make up 50 % of its college student population and about 90 % are women. Baptist offers about $1 million a year in scholarships to its students. Since 2015 Baptist has hired 2,127 new workers and now has a total of 6,647 employees, the 9th largest employer in Memphis. 

Here’s the rub: between 2014 and 2018, Methodist Le Bonheur Healthcare sued more than 8,300 people for unpaid medical bills, including those with low incomes. The nonprofit hospital system, the city’s largest and affiliated with the United Methodist Church, garnished hundreds of workers’ paychecks, including those of its own employees. 

After MLK50’s series exposed the hypocrisy, Methodist stopped dragging poor people into court and erased at least $11.9 million in debts. It also announced it would boost the wages of its lowest-paid workers to at least $15 an hour by 2021.

The Profiting from the Poor series won a $50,000 prize for investigative journalism from the Annenberg School of Journalism in 2019. 

“My goal is to make a measurable and tangible difference in the lives of low income people and that is our focus,” Thomas said. 

The website banner for MLK50 says “Justice Through Journalism” in large white print in front of a background mural of black and brown faces. The next line describes what kind of stories they do: on poverty, power, and public policy.

Those are uncommon priorities. Thomas says they are not arbitrary but deliberate and while they may express a point of view, MLK50 stories are not one-sided.  Thomas said MLK50 always gives the people they are criticizing an opportunity to respond. She said they are open about their data and they are scrupulous about  fact-checking any assertions they make.

“Accuracy comes down to punctuation and grammar and making sure all your names are spelled right and your numbers are accurate. It’s about credibility so people can trust that what we’re saying is accurate. And it is a lot of work,” she said.

Are MLK50 stories slanted? Yes, but they aren’t biased the way conventional news often is. 

Thomas said you have to ask for whom does MLK50 advocate? When she worked at the Commercial Appeal the paper had one person assigned to education for all of Shelby County. Four or five reporters covered Grizzly games.  “What would be more important to the community, the Grizzlies— and I say this as a big Grizzlies fan—or public education that affects way more people? 

“So I would argue that every day in what they choose to cover and don’t choose to cover official news outlets tell you what they think is important. And what we do is more transparent: we’re saying that we are not accepting the official narrative whether that’s from the local elected officials or the police. Rather how does it affect the most vulnerable people in Memphis? How would they benefit or be harmed?”