We’re hard-pressed to think of any journalism in the U.S. these days that is better than ProPublica.

The nonprofit media outlet produces investigative journalism that is always hard-hitting, relevant, and reliable.  It was founded in 2007 and only three years later, it became the first online news source to win a Pulitzer Prize.  Since then it’s won three more Pulitzers, three Peabody Awards, two Emmy Awards, five George Polk Awards, and more.

Unquestionably, it takes its journalism seriously, and it approaches relationships with leading journalists around the country with equal seriousness and thoughtfulness.

Last week, it named Wendi Thomas and her nationally-recognized MLK50: Justice Through Journalism project as one of 14 partners who will participate in the second year of the ProPublica Local Reporting Network, a funding program that supports investigative journalism at the local level.

Making A Difference

ProPublica’s mission is “to expose abuses of power and betrayals of the public trust by government, business, and other institutions, using the moral force of investigative journalism to spur reform through the sustained spotlighting of wrongdoing.”  It’s the same standard that the news organization applied to the awarding of its Local Reporting Network, which selected 14 for the Local Reporting Network from 215 applications from 43 states, District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico.

With her MLK50 journalism project, Ms. Thomas has concentrated in her reporting on shining a light at the intersection of power, privilege, public policy, and poverty with a distinctly Memphis focus.  MLK50 managed to report some breaking news, take deeper dives into the forces behind events, and deliver explanatory journalism about public policies that perpetuate economic injustice and poverty.

“While the past year has seen yet more cutbacks at local news organizations, the ProPublica Local Reporting Network has been a bright spot nationally,” said ProPublica senior editor Charles Ornstein. “We couldn’t be happier with the accountability journalism produced by our inaugural class and are excited to pursue another year of investigative projects with moral force.”

“Being an entrepreneur in local news, especially as a black woman, can be a very lonely experience,” said Ms. Thomas.  “This (selection) connects me and MLK50 to the preeminent investigative outlet in the nation, and in turn, it connects the journalists I work with to this prize-winning powerhouse.  Memphis journalists don’t get these opportunities, so I’m humbled to be the conduit.”

Hitting The Ground Running

Ms. Thomas looks to build on the record of her MLK50 work that coincided with the 50th anniversary of the murder of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in Memphis.  In the process, she was regularly quoted by the national media about the state of affairs in our community today while driving provocative conversations and issues to the front burner that are often kept ignored and unilluminated.

The ProPublica grant to MLK50: Justice Through Journalism is crucial to the financial future of the project, and Ms. Thomas’s vision is “to secure enough funding to be able to hire fulltime journalists and feel confident that we can continue the work for the foreseeable future.  The talent – most of them people of color and women – is here in Memphis.  They’re ready to go.  With enough support through donors and our readers/constituents, the MLK50 team can continue to do some seriously status quo disrupting journalism, journalism that centers the most marginalized and vulnerable.”

She said she will “hit the ground running” January 2, and her managing editor Deborah Douglas will assume day-to-day operations.  She also will continue to raise funding.  “While ProPublica’s financial investment is sizable, MLK50 still has significant fundraising challenges,” she said.  “We have a managing editor, senior writer, reporter, social media manager, and assigning editor who are all contract workers for the project.

“Because of our commitment to practice economic justice in a project about economic justice, we pay all contributors at least $15 an hour and many double that.   It’s been a challenge to get local funders, aside from the Community Foundation of Greater Memphis, to invest in the work inspired by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., but hope springs eternal.  A no can become a yes.  My prayer is that local donors will see ProPublica’s sizable investment (and the continued support of the Surdna Foundation and Community Change) as proof that this journalism is important.”

Examining Systems

As for ProPublica itself, the respect for its work has been demonstrated in the significant financial support by the Sandler Foundation, Knight Foundation, MacArthur Foundation, Pew Charitable Trusts, Ford Foundation, the Carnegie Corporation, and the Atlantic Philanthropies.  Its Pulitzer Prizes were won for stories about life-and-death operations by doctors at a hospital isolated by Hurricane Katrina, the Wall Street Money Machine, law enforcement’s failures to investigate properly reports of rape, and the use of eviction rules by the New York Police Department.

As for MLK50’s future agenda, Ms. Thomas said she proposed a series of stories “on systems that keep poor people poor in Memphis.”  “Most center around debt and I can’t say more than that,” she said.  “I don’t want to scoop myself.  The important thing about these stories is that there’s the opportunity for public and private policy change that would immediately benefit residents who are now struggling to make ends meet.

“Too much of our discussions around poverty is charity-minded – getting diapers donated for low-income parents, for example, or raising money to pay off medical bills.  What if we help low-income people keep the money they have and position them so they can buy for themselves what they need?”

The Higher Goal

At a time in Memphis history when there has been an outburst in journalism in various forms, ProPublica’s white paper on nonprofit journalism is a must read for the journalism junkies in all of us.

It said: “What has been laid bare is what was only implicit before: that profits come first, and journalism second, that journalism can be served only to the extent that profits are already assured, that in any actual choice between the first dollar of profit and the next increment of journalistic quality the need for profit will prevail…Many in these newsrooms see their own goals as at some variance with those of the corporate officials who set their news budgets.  They continue to view journalism as a calling and look to impact as an important objective of their work…

“The dire straits of the journalism business are forcing greater alignment between newsroom and corporate objectives.  As news budgets are cut almost everywhere, content that costs more in dollars than it yields in dollars is being squeezed down, and out…And, unfortunately, there does not seem to be any demonstrated correlation between journalism’s impact and its economic value.  In fact, most successful journalism, in terms of impact, presents the classic economic problem of positive externalities.  Great communal benefit may result, but little or none of its value may be recoverable by the party – in this case, journalists and their employers – causing that value to be created.”

In that environment, nonprofit journalism has an advantage.  “Missions matter,” the white paper said.  “To the extent that a nonprofit such as these has the resources, its job is to devote those resources to producing impact.  There is no other, higher goal.”

Disruptive Journalism

As part of its process to measure impact, ProPublica measures changes in policies and laws, legislative hearings, special commissions, and even the tracking of public officials speaking to the reporting.

Impact is the sort of results that ProPublica will be looking for in its Local Reporting Network as it supports the continued work of MLK50: Justice Through Journalism and the advocacy journalism of Wendi Thomas.  As she has said: “The best journalism disrupts the status quo.”

Ms. Thomas is a 2016 fellow at the Neiman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard University.  She has worked as a reporter or editor at the Indianapolis Star, The Tennessean, and the Charlotte Observer.  She was metro columnist and assistant managing editor at The Commercial Appeal, and after leaving the city’s largest newspaper, she founded MLK50.


Join us at the Smart City Memphis Facebook page for daily articles, reports, and commentaries relevant to Memphis and the conversations that begin here.