MLK50: Justice Through Journalism is among 16 news organizations across the country that will share $2.3 million in grants from the Racial Equity in Journalism (REJ) Fund at Borealis Philanthropy, the organization announced Monday.
The REJ Fund, a donor collaborative launched in September 2019, seeks to bolster the reach and sustainability of news organizations led by people of color so they can bring timely and important news to communities underserved by traditional media. It is housed at Borealis Philanthropy, which helps to connect grantmakers to organizations that meet their mission.
“The COVID-19 global pandemic and the sometimes overwhelming stream of information makes clear the need for trusted news sources that prioritize the needs of underserved communities, who will be among the most impacted,” said Craig Newmark, founder of craigslist and Craig Newmark Philanthropies, a donor to the REJ fund.
“During times of crisis, critical resources, supplies and attention are mostly aimed at the advantaged. The Racial Equity in Journalism Fund will bolster a strong, diverse, and independent media sector serving the public interest, at a time when communities of color need these outlets the most.”
MLK50, founded in 2017 in Memphis by award-winning journalist Wendi C. Thomas, is a nonprofit, digital publication focused on poverty, power and public policy — issues about which Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. cared deeply. The idea for the publication came during a 2015 Nieman Fellowship at Harvard University, Thomas said, and when she returned home, she began raising money to launch it by April 4, 2017.
The idea: to chronicle the year leading up to April 4, 2018, the 50th anniversary of King’s assassination, through the viewpoints of people King would have focused on if he were still alive — underpaid workers, immigrants and other marginalized people in America’s second poorest city.
Thomas works with an all-women-of-color leadership team of a managing editor, a senior editor and a visuals director. During the pandemic, MLK50 has been chronicling the impact on the lives of workers through their own words.
The inaugural REJ grant winners all serve audiences who have been historically underserved by mainstream media, including black and Latino people, Native Americans, immigrants, refugees, rural communities, and poor and low-income people.
“The value of our voices in media has nothing to do with fairness or the abstract concept of ‘diversity.’ It is about the survival and the legitimacy of the national media landscape,” said Michael Harriott, senior writer at TheRoot.com and co-founder of VerySmartBrothas.com.
“When our voices are excluded from America’s narrative, it means, by definition, the world only knows one side of every story. This is about more than equity. It is about accuracy.”
Grantees are also expected to use support from the REJ Fund to identify how to make their business models more sustainable in the long-term, such as to hire development staff, conduct advertising experiments, or implement membership models.
The fund’s donors include the Ford Foundation, Craig Newmark Philanthropies, Democracy Fund, the Google News Initiative, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the News Integrity Initiative at the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at CUNY and the American Journalism Project, which is also a funder of MLK50.
Thomas, working in partnership with ProPublica’s Local Reporting Network, has won several awards for the “Profiting from the Poor” series, which exposed the aggressive debt collection practices of Methodist Le Bonheur Healthcare and led to reforms. On Monday, it was announced the series won the 2019 Investigative Reporters & Editors Award in the Print/Online Division I category. The award recognizes the best in watchdog journalism.
Earlier this year, the series won the prestigious 2020 Selden Ring Award for Investigative Reporting presented by the University of Southern California Annenberg School of Journalism; first place in the business category in the Awards for Excellence in Health Care Journalism, presented by the Association of Health Care Journalists; and was a finalist for the 2019 Scripps Howard Awards.
This story is brought to you by MLK50: Justice Through Journalism, a nonprofit newsroom focused on poverty, power and policy in Memphis. Support independent journalism by making a tax-deductible donation today. MLK50 is also supported by the Surdna Foundation, the Racial Equity in Journalism Fund at Borealis Philanthropy, Southern Documentary Project at the Center for the Study of Southern Culture, the American Journalism Project, the Community Foundation of Greater Memphis, and Community Change.