By Ellen Clegg
MLK50: Justice Through Journalism, the award-winning Memphis nonprofit newsroom committed to reporting on “the intersection of poverty, power, and policy,” is staffing up. Wendi C. Thomas, the innovative and tireless founding editor and publisher, announced on July 29 that she has hired veteran journalist Adrienne Johnson Martin as executive editor.
“As we move from startup mode to sustainability, it’s essential that our leadership bench has depth and that’s what Adrienne brings,” Thomas said in a story posted on MLK50’s website. “I am elated that she’s joining the team and I look forward to building the organization together.”
The addition of top-level editing talent is a noteworthy pivot point for any news organization, but it’s especially significant for a four-year-old startup that is positioning itself for long-term growth and impact. When Johnson Martin starts in September, MLK50 will have six full-time and two part-time editorial employees. Thomas noted on Twitter that the MLK50 leadership team is all-women, and of the top five newsroom jobs, three are held by Black women, one by a Latina, and one by a white woman. As she tweeted: “It is so satisfying to build the newsroom I always wanted to work in.”
Johnson Martin brings a broad range of media experience. She was most recently managing editor of Duke Magazine, Duke University’s alumni publication, and was part of the Los Angeles Times team that won the 1995 Pulitzer Prize for spot news for coverage of the Northridge earthquake. She covered radio, television, and film for The News & Observer in Raleigh, North Carolina, and served as associate features editor there.
“I love that I’ll have the chance to be in community with a team that knows we don’t have to live in a zero-sum world and is committed to telling the stories of those on the losing side of that paradigm — these are journalists who use their talents in service of justice,” Johnson Martin told MLK50. “What’s better than that?”
Thomas, an editor and reporter at The Charlotte (North Carolina) Observer and the Commercial Appeal in Memphis, launched MLK50: Justice Through Journalism in 2017 as a one-year project focusing on economic inequality in Memphis 50 years after the assassination of Martin Luther King. Her initial fund-raising round: $3,000 from friends and family. “I started with nothing,” she told me in a recent phone interview. “I lived off of credit cards for the first year-and-a-half while we were launching.”
As revenue from philanthropic donations grew, she paid that debt off, and set a path for growth. In 2020, Thomas won the prestigious Selden Ring Award for Investigative Reporting for a series that exposed Methodist Le Bonheur Healthcare’s rapacious debt collection policies. The MLK50 series, produced in partnership with ProPublica, got stunning results. Ultimately, the hospital erased almost $12 million in patient debt.
The Selden Ring prompted new interest from fund-raisers. But Thomas also speaks openly about the difficulty journalists of color face in raising philanthropic dollars. In fact, according to Borealis Philanthropy, which focuses on social justice and transformation, between 2009 and 2015 a scant 6% of the $1.2 billion in grants invested in journalism, news and information in the United States went to organizations serving specific racial and ethnic groups. Only 7 percent went toward projects that served economically disadvantaged populations.
“After our story published, funders that had told me ‘no’ called me,” Thomas said. “Now nothing had changed, they knew I was working with ProPublica when they told me we were risky, we weren’t big enough. This is part of why I’m so explicit and vocal about it, because people should not have to clear the bars that I’ve had to clear.”
I’ll share more of Thomas’ wide-ranging, wise interview in a future post.