MLK50: Justice Through Journalism announced today that it has been awarded a $2 million grant from the Ford Foundation’s Creativity and Free Expression team. 

The investment will be used to strengthen the digital news operation’s fundraising capacity and to ensure that even more community-focused, investigative reporting is available to residents for free. The grant award is the largest philanthropic gift to MLK50 since it was founded five years ago.  

“It’s hard to overstate the impact a grant of this size will have on MLK50,” said Wendi C. Thomas, the organization’s founder. “Few Black-led newsrooms have any sort of financial runway, which restricts the impact they can have in communities that need high-caliber journalism the most.

“Having this degree of financial visibility will strengthen our ability to do liberatory journalism in a state where public policy is not designed to improve the quality of life for workers, low-wealth residents, women, the LGBTQ community, immigrants and others,” she said. 

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In addition to covering the costs of growth, the Ford Foundation’s support will allow MLK50 to build the operations infrastructure to facilitate more and better accountability journalism.

“MLK50 deliberately and unapologetically tackles the ills of society that were called out by Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King: war, racism and poverty with an emphasis on poverty,” said Lolly Bowean,  program officer for Creativity and Free Expression at the Ford Foundation. 

“The reporting elevates the voices of residents that have been historically overlooked and sometimes dismissed by the mainstream media and centers the issues that most concern them. In delivering journalism that reveals the systemic causes of poverty, inequity and strife, MLK50 pushes leaders, decision-makers and even well-meaning citizens to reckon with the structures that we allow to oppress. 

“The work of MLK50 is aligned with Ford’s social justice mission, in part, because they are broadening the narrative around poverty and conducting deep investigative reporting with a goal of true equity. Ultimately, we need and want this newsroom to thrive in the long term. We are proud to make this substantial and considerable commitment so that the organization can build an even more firm foundation.”

Debra Adams Simmons and Thomas were fellows at the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard University in 2015 when Thomas began envisioning what would become MLK50. What was meant to be a one-year journalism project tied to the 50th anniversary of King’s assassination has become a vital newsroom with a singular voice that employs six journalists.

“Since the beginning, MLK50 has punched above its weight and won some of journalism’s most prestigious awards,” said Adams Simmons, who is vice president of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion at National Geographic and is an MLK50 advisory board member. “It has been a powerful force for good, amplifying local voices and revealing truths which have led to system changes that are improving life for all of Memphis’ citizens. I am beyond thrilled to see this Ford Foundation investment. MLK50 is a national model for journalistic excellence.”

MLK50’s many awards include the 2022 Reporters’ Committee for Freedom of the Press Local Champions award; first place in the 2022 National Headliner Award, online beat category; the 2021 Institute for Nonprofit News Breaking Barriers award; the 2020 Selden Ring Award for investigative reporting; first place in the 2020 Gerald Loeb Awards for local reporting; bronze in the 14th annual Barlett & Steele Awards for Investigative Journalism in 2020; first place (tie) in the 2019 Investigative Reporters & Editors contest, print/online division 1; first place in the 2019 Association of Health Care Journalists’ awards for business reporting; and the 2019 National Association of Black Journalists’ Best Practices award. 

More important than the awards is the impact, Thomas said. MLK50’s reporting on the predatory collection policies of Methodist Le Bonheur Healthcare led the hospital system to erase nearly $12 million in medical debt for impoverished patients. A separate investigation into a private equity-owned doctor’s group led the company, which contracts with doctors who staff area Baptist Memorial Hospital emergency rooms, to announce it would stop suing patients and end existing lawsuits.

Thanks to a lawsuit settlement prompted in part by MLK50’s demands for records to be made public, the Memphis Shelby Crime Commission now publicizes its donors, board meetings and executive board meeting minutes. MLK50’s reporting on the proposed Byhalia Connection Pipeline connected the activists who mounted a successful campaign to stop the project. 

“There is no doubt what MLK50 is capable of,” said Evan Smith, co-founder and senior advisor to the pioneering nonprofit Texas Tribune, who is now a senior advisor to the Emerson Collective. “Wendi Thomas and her staff show us every day. But more resources mean more great journalism. We’ll all be better for it.”

As MLK50 heads into its sixth year, sustainability is a key challenge: The organization has struggled to balance the enormous time and resources it takes to produce strong accountability journalism with solid business processes and personnel infrastructure. The Ford grant will allow MLK50 to map a long-term strategic plan as well as make key hires.

“MLK50 is an invaluable resource for the entire Memphis community,” said Beverly Robertson, former CEO of the Greater Memphis Chamber, former president of the National Civil Rights Museum and a longtime MLK50 supporter. “Their work has driven transformational change that would otherwise not have been possible, but it is critical that this work is sustained over time. That’s why I am elated and grateful to the Ford Foundation for facilitating this important work well into the future.”

MLK50 is grateful to every donor, large and small, that has supported its work along the way. In addition to the Ford Foundation, other major funders include the Surdna Foundation, Emerson Collective, Borealis Philanthropy Racial Equity in Journalism fund, the Jonathan Logan Family Foundation and the Inasmuch Foundation. 

“Earlier this month, I came across one of MLK50’s first bank statements,” Thomas said. “We had less than $5,000 in our account when the site launched on April 4, 2017. To receive our first seven-figure investment less than six years later is surreal and is a testament to the hard work of the entire team.”

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 these generous donors.

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