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May 5, 2020

How MLK50 is serving Memphis amidst COVID-19

Our colleague Lea Trusty recently chatted with Wendi Thomas, founder, editor, and publisher of MLK50, a Memphis-based nonprofit news outlet focused on economic justice, about how her organization is continuing to serve the community during the current pandemic. Lea, who coordinates the Engaged Journalism Lab, and Wendi have met on the journalism conference circuit, and Democracy Fund proudly supports MLK50 through the Racial Equity in Journalism Fund. Below is a lightly edited recap of their conversation, originally published on EJ Lab.

Lea Trusty: For most of the world, we are living in unprecedented times. What is the role of media in a moment like this, specifically community media?

Wendi Thomas: I think journalists already knew we were essential to democracy, but the pandemic has brought into stark relief how essential we are. Readers must be able to count on journalists, particularly those in community outlets, to bring them reliable info — everything from community testing sites to where folks can get free meals.

MLK50 knew early on that we weren’t going to be able to cover breaking news. But what we could do and are doing is making sure we’re bearing witness in this moment to the lived experiences of those who are the most affected. Memphis is the second poorest large city in the nation. More than 40% of workers here make less than $15 an hour. If the national economy is taking a hit, low-income people in Memphis — who are disproportionately people of color here — are being drowned.

While we may not have a large staff or resources to be in PPE covering everything in the street, we’re continuing to connect with people and filling the niche we always have, which is serving the most vulnerable communities.

LT: How are you staying connected with your communities, and what are you hearing from them about their information needs?

WT: We’re hearing from workers who are concerned they aren’t getting the PPE they need or worried their employers aren’t being honest. We have a digital canvasser who’s been collecting tips on workplace safety and have gotten dozens and dozens from those efforts.

Oftentimes what people tell us isn’t a clear-cut violation. But there is a lot of fear. People don’t know, and when people don’t know, they assume the worst-case scenario. I’m glad that people turn to us, and we’re trying to stay as responsive as we can with the hopes that this will lead to a story when it’s the right time.

Last week we published one of our first pieces about Memphis-area distribution centers that have had multiple workers — more than 20, according to one employee — who have tested positive for coronavirus. PFS, which ships nonessential items such as Pandora bracelets and Chanel lip glosses, wasn’t providing workers with PPE or doing temperature checks for weeks. PFS has since started offering protective equipment — but gloves, masks and temperature screenings are optional, which is truly incredible.

We’re also currently paying workers $200 for first-person essays. We’ve always paid guest columnists $100 for their essays; we want to honor the value of people’s time by paying them. I thought, this is an easy way to put money in the hands of people who are struggling right now. It’s a very small thing — $200 is not going to solve anyone’s problems — but it’s something. It’s a way for us to be in solidarity with workers at this moment.

A scene outside of Regional One Health Medical Center in early April. Photo by Brandon Dill.
A scene outside of Regional One Health Medical Center in early April. Photo by Brandon Dill.

LT: What are some operational pivots you’ve made, or wish you could, to meet the changing needs of this moment?

WT: We’ve had to scrimp on a lot because of our size, but there are a few things I wish we could have invested in earlier. For example, when we bought our company cell phone, we bought the cheapest one possible. Now I wish we purchased an easier one to use. We aren’t using a paid Slack plan, which means our archives are limited to 10,000 messages. As we partner with more news outlets, I’m watching that available message archive disappear. Funders are asking, “What’s your expense reduction contingency plan?” But we were already lean.

Funders are asking, “What’s your expense reduction contingency plan?” But we were already lean.

My managing editor has the Adobe Creative Cloud Suite, so our budget doesn’t even reflect all of our actual expenses because we’ve been personally subsidizing them. So, to say to cut what isn’t even counted is tricky.

LT: Has this moment brought anything new to light around equity in media?

WT: Because MLK50 is fiscally sponsored, I’m a contractor rather than an employee. I didn’t take out any loans when I started MLK50. We just did it. Now the fact that I don’t have a business lending relationship with the bank means it’s nearly impossible for me to get any Paycheck Protection Program loans. It’s like I’m being penalized for doing something within my means. It’s a quirk of the system that doesn’t consider the most vulnerable.

MLK50 has always been small and scrappy. We didn’t have much margin for error before, and now we have none. There are four core members of our team, and if any of us were to get sick, I think the site would have to go dark. There aren’t many redundancies built into our structures. It would’ve been nice to have the bandwidth to put those systems in place before this. I think that’s a lesson for founders and funders: That a struggle story isn’t necessarily noble.

I think that’s a lesson for founders and funders: That a struggle story isn’t necessarily noble.

There is a tendency for funders to be reluctant to be early adopters. Sometimes, their approach is: “Let’s wait and see how it goes.” But we could’ve built some of these core processes with $40,000 a year ago. I guess it’s also a lesson for me. I’m a journalist by training, so I put my head down to do the journalism. If I could have cloned myself — or better yet, hired a development or operations manager — we could have done more to bolster the organization.

LT: We know COVID-19 has created economic challenges for many industries, including journalism. What do outlets need, especially hyperlocal ones serving historically marginalized communities, to weather this storm and continue serving their audiences?

WT: MLK50 has been really lucky. We’ve gotten support from AJP, and now Borealis, to address bandwidth issues. We’ve gotten funding to hire for at least one position, maybe two. But now I’m wondering if I’ll be able to secure funds for these positions next year. There is also a need for consultants who can support us on things I would’ve done in a normal time. There is a real gap between having the resources and being able to use them because of labor and time-intensive work in between.

One good thing that’s come out of this is a greater interest in collaboration amongst local news outlets. We wrote a story with Commercial Appeal and Memphis Business Journal on hospitals that have had an influx of coronavirus patients. We also published a piece that focused on racial disparity in COVID-19 infection and fatality rates in Shelby County. We had that idea on Wednesday, and we published by Friday afternoon. That was only possible because we shared resources and labor. Collaboration increases our shared capacity at this critical time and builds relationships for the long term.

Collaboration increases our shared capacity at this critical time and builds relationships for the long term.

I think it’s important for small publishers to look for opportunities like that. I also think it’s important for communities to see that kind of solidarity between news outlets.

Journalists are on the frontlines of the pandemic every day, bringing us essential information we need to stay safe during COVID-19. They need our support on #GivingTuesdayNow, a global day of giving and unity on May 5 as an emergency response to the need caused by the pandemic. Find a newsroom at NewsForGood.org