This Journalist Helped Eradicate Hospital Debt for Thousands in Memphis
Wendi C. Thomas, the founder of MLK50, created her own newsroom where she and her team are creating change for their community
Wendi C. Thomas, a prolific reporter and the founder of MLK50, learned the limitations of a single narrative as a child. When her father would drive her to school, they would listen to NPR together in the mornings. After the story was over, her father would turn off the radio and give his take on what happened.
“I learned at an early age that while there may be an official narrative, there’s always another story to be told or another angle to be considered,” Thomas tells ZORA. “Now, I can kind of synthesize what I knew instinctively when I was younger, which is that narratives benefit some people and disadvantage others, and systems and institutions are designed to benefit some and disadvantage others.”
Thomas uses this perspective to champion Black and Brown voices in her writing at the New York Times, ProPublica, and her own platform MLK50, a publication dedicated to covering stories on poverty, power, and public policy in Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s honor. Recently, Thomas chatted with us about what it was like to start her own newsroom, the future of journalism, and her homemade biscuits that garner marriage proposals.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
ZORA: What stories are you most drawn to or most interested in telling?
Wendi C. Thomas: I’ve always been inclined to what we might today call social justice journalism. I grew up in Memphis, which is the city where Dr. King was killed fighting for low wage Black workers who wanted to unionize, so I guess it’s been part of my consciousness for a long time.
What was planning and prioritizing like when you started MLK50?
When I started MLK50, I didn’t have a plan B. It had to work. I threw myself into it. I had this deadline, because April 4, 2018 was the 50th anniversary of MLK’s assassination so I couldn’t start in 2019, I couldn’t spend two years raising money and building awareness. I had to launch quickly and with very little resources. I started with $3,000 in donations and didn’t pay myself for a long while and ran up a bunch of credit card debt. I just saw a need for journalism that just started from a different baseline, that didn’t start with cis hetero white men as the default. What MLK50 does is, we start from the perspective that where the status quo doesn’t serve the majority of people, the systems need to be dismantled, period.
It seems like right now, many journalists are being forced to decide between being a reporter and being an activist. Have you wrestled with that question at all?
That’s a good question, but I don’t know if that’s the right question to ask. Journalism has always chosen sides. An example I like to give is how a newsroom allocates resources to covering education and how it allocates resources to covering say, the NBA. The last daily newspaper I worked at, there was one person covering K-12 education in the entire county. But if you went to a Memphis Grizzlies home game, there might be four or five people from the paper there covering it. Now, which is more important to the health of a community — the Grizzlies or public education? How newsrooms allocate resources tells the public what they think is important.
So people often say, if you center low-income people or Black and Brown people, or the most vulnerable people in the news, is that being an advocate? And I would say, no, not necessarily, and it certainly isn’t being an activist. I don’t see what I do as “activist journalism.” I don’t join demonstrations, I cover demonstrations. I don’t give to campaigns, I cover campaigns. I don’t lobby for a particular person to be voted to office, but I will tell you what the critical issues are that voters may need to consider as they go to the polls.
“What MLK50 does is, we start from the perspective that where the status quo doesn’t serve the majority of people, the systems need to be dismantled, period.”
Also, objectivity is being discussed a lot lately.
I think what has been considered objective journalism has been journalism trained from the perspective of U.S.-born, cis, white males. And that’s not objective, that’s never been objective. Memphis is majority Black, it has been for a while. So, if you are going to frame the news from the perspective of Black people, it would center Black people, period, full stop. If you look at news coverage in Memphis and it doesn’t center Black people, it’s being produced for a minority of the potential audience.
What are the challenges you’ve faced as a Black journalist writing about marginalized communities?
When I was a columnist at the Commercial Appeal, I would get threats of violence not infrequently from white people who didn’t like what I had to say. But especially now that I run my own newsroom, I don’t have to argue with anybody that we shouldn’t be covering something. I don’t think I should have had to start my own newsroom to be able to persuade people who are in control of the newsroom to do that. But it is what it is in that sense.
How would you say the field of journalism has changed since you started reporting?
I’ve been working as a journalist for 27 years now, and when I started it would have never occurred to me that I would be starting my own newsroom. Never. Because where would I have gotten that idea? With the exception of historically Black newspapers, I didn’t have any model for this. Even now, there aren’t a lot of us in this space.
How are you reimagining the future of journalism, particularly in your own newsroom?
Because I’ve started MLK50, it means I must be an optimist on some level, because you don’t do this if you think it’s impossible. On the other hand, things are not changing fast enough for me, but then nothing changes fast enough for me. We’re optimists and we’re realists and we’re skeptics at the same time. You need all three of those to be honest about what the challenges are ahead and to hold other people accountable. But if you don’t believe change is possible you don’t do this work.
“I’m less interested in trying to change people and very interested in reforming policy.”
What was the most meaningful story you’ve reported?
There was a project I did last year with ProPublica about hospital debt. I focused on the largest nonprofit system here in Memphis at Methodist Le Bonheur Healthcare, which was suing hundreds and hundreds of patients for unpaid hospital bills. In many of these cases, these patients would have qualified for charity care except that the hospital’s charity care policy was unusually stingy compared to peer hospitals across the state.
After the story ran, the hospital announced a few days later that they were going to review all their policies. And then after that, the hospital started slowly erasing people’s debt that they owed. We tallied all that up and it was $11.9 million dollars that the hospital ended up erasing. There were more than 5,300 people in the county who owed Methodist money who didn’t after our investigation was published.
That’s impactful journalism.
I don’t even know if any of them know why that happened or if they even saw the story, but it doesn’t matter, because what I want MLK50 to do is to make a meaningful, measurable difference in the lives of low-income and Black and Brown residents here, and policy change is a great way to make that happen. I’m less interested in trying to change people and very interested in reforming policy.
I imagine you’re very busy running a newsroom. How do you care for yourself?
Self-care? Who is she? I am a workaholic and it’s not healthy. When I remember to take care of myself, I play piano, do yoga, take a really long walk, or bake. I make a really amazing pound cake. And my buttermilk biscuits are divine.
Can you give us the biscuits recipe?
It’s from a recipe card in my mom’s little recipe box. I’m not sure where it originally came from, but my mom didn’t create the recipe. The secret is to use more shortening than the recipe calls for and the magic is in how you fold the dough to create the layers. My biscuits are so good they have prompted two marriage proposals — both of which I declined.