The Spirit of Ida B. Wells returns to Memphis?

The May 25 New York Times features a description of  MLK50, a scrappy, pot-stirring news  operation in Memphis.  MLK50 was started by Wendi Thomas, a Memphis native and  veteran journalist.

We unapologetically exist to dismantle the status quo where it doesn’t serve low-income residents in Memphis, the overwhelming majority of whom are black,” Ms. Thomas said. “We’re not a black publication, but we frame the news from the perspective of the most vulnerable.”
Below: Wendi Thomas)

MLK50 won awards for an investigative report that exposed how a “nonprofit” local Methodist-affiliated hospital Which underpaid its workers, then sued many for being unable to keep up with medical bills in their own facility.

Much of Memphis has long been like that, Thomas contends:

The city has made a commitment, a commitment, to low-wage industries, which means low-wage labor, which means systems that exploit, for the most part, black and brown workers,”

That tradition of exploitation was what drew Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to Memphis in April, 1968, to support striking garbage workers.  Marking the 50th anniversary of his assassination there gave Thomas’s project its name.

There’s another legendary Memphis figure  involved here too. Ida B. Wells (1862-1931), the pioneering black woman journalist who investigated & crusaded against lynching from Memphis when pretty much no one else in journalism did:

(At left, Ida B. Wells.)
After three years of hard work and stirring the pot, expanding support leaves Thomas hopeful about MLK50’s prospects:

“We’re in a moment where the future of journalism can look really grim, but it’s also a moment when we can reimagine what we do,” she [told The Times.]

That hope is tempered by an awareness of economic vulnerability: “You have more time and more bandwidth to dream when you’re not worried about where your next paycheck is coming from,” she noted. “But if we can find some space to imagine what’s possible, maybe we could make more progress in making our communities fairer for the people who have been pushed to the margins.”

All well and good. At the same time, I wonder what “new future”  for journalism is being “reimagined” here. In the article it sounds like  old-fashioned Charity has kept MLK50 afloat, that is support by rich people through their foundations & such.

But that only shifts the financial support (& the power that goes with it) from a loyal readership to a few (or only one) wealthy benefactor.

Such arrangements are not novel or inherently progressive. Nor are they particularly stable: rich people’s priorities change (i. e., they’re fickle); they can lose interest, lose their wealth, die, or succumb to pressure.

The heroic Ida B. Wells had to abandon  her paper and flee Memphis in 1892 to escape very credible threats of being lynched herself. She carried on, with much struggle, from Chicago.

It sounds like Ms. Thomas shares some of Wells’s grit and determination. I hope so; those may be the nearest things to a guarantee of success that a venture like hers will get in today’s “really grim,” and ruthlessly chaotic media world.

Ida B. Wells would understand.


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