Wendi C. Thomas, founding editor and publisher of MLK50: Justice Through Journalism, a nonprofit newsroom in Memphis, Tennessee, has been selected as winner of the 2023 I.F. Stone Medal for Journalistic Independence.
MLK50 focuses on poverty, power and a range of public policy issues that affect local residents. Since its founding in 2017, one year before the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., it has provided indispensable community journalism and has told the stories of marginalized people too often ignored by established news media.
An independent selection committee of five journalists chooses a Stone Medal winner each spring. Speaking about this year’s decision, I.F. Stone Medal jury member Jasmine Brown said: “Wendi Thomas followed her North Star, establishing MLK50 despite doubters who told her a nonprofit newsroom centered on the vulnerable could not stand. MLK50 has proven there is strength in a press that is proximate to the people. MLK50’s reporting has transformed lives and brought about change. As a shining beacon of local journalism, this newsroom gives me hope that there are scalable models for the press to survive and thrive.”
Bernice Yeung, another jury member, added: “Wendi’s journalism is an inspiration. In just six years, she has grown MLK50 from a nonprofit with $3,000 in the bank on the day it launched to a formidable, flourishing and award-winning journalism organization. At a time when layoffs are an unfortunate reality in the news business, MLK50 recently expanded its staff. It’s a notable example of how Thomas and MLK50’s commitment to community and journalism has allowed the organization to grow and succeed.”
As part of ProPublica’s 2019 Local Reporting Network, Thomas investigated a nonprofit hospital’s aggressive debt collection practices in the award-winning “Profiting from the Poor” series, which led the hospital to erase nearly $12 million in hospital debt after suing more than 8,300 people. The series is just one example of the tangible, positive impact of MLK50’s journalism in the community. In 2020, Thomas was also named to ProPublica’s Distinguished Fellows Program.
Nieman Foundation curator Ann Marie Lipinski said: “Wendi Thomas is an inspired and deserving choice for the Stone Medal. She founded MLK50 to bring accountability journalism to Memphis and with a small but tireless newsroom has made a dramatic contribution to public service reporting. But more than that, Wendi and her colleagues have inspired other community news organizations, expanding the impact of her ‘justice through journalism’ mission — a fitting tribute to the I.F. Stone legacy.”
In January 2023, MLK50 announced that it received a $2 million grant from the Ford Foundation’s Creativity and Free Expression team. The funding will help build the operations infrastructure needed to expand MLK50’s accountability journalism and strengthen its fundraising capacity, allowing the site to continue to offer investigative reporting free of charge.
Thomas previously was a metro columnist and assistant managing editor at The Commercial Appeal in Memphis and worked for The Charlotte Observer, The Tennessean and The Indianapolis Star. She also was the founder and program director of Common Ground: Conversations on Race, Communities in Action. Thomas was a 2016 Nieman Fellow at Harvard University and is currently a member of the Nieman Foundation’s Advisory Board.
Learning that she had been chosen for the I.F. Stone Medal, Thomas commented: “I am honored. This award is especially meaningful because of its connection to the Nieman Foundation. It was during my 2015-16 fellowship year in Cambridge that I incubated MLK50: Justice Through Journalism, which has grown into an incredible team of journalists who agitate in the spirit of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on behalf of those pushed to the margins.”
Among her many previous honors, Thomas received the 2022 Freedom of the Press Local Champion Award, presented by the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. In March 2021, she was named to Memphis Business Journal’s 2021 Power 100 list, which honors the city’s most influential business leaders. Her “Profiting from the Poor” investigation received the 2020 Selden Ring Award for Investigative Reporting, the Gerald Loeb Award for Local News, the Association of Health Care Journalists’ 2019 award for business reporting and the Investigative Reporters & Editors 2019 Print/Online Award-Division 1 award (tied for first place). Thomas additionally received the National Association of Black Journalists’ 2019 Best Practices award. In 2018, she was named Journalist of the Year by the Journalism and Women Symposium and she was inducted into the Scripps Hall of Fame for commentary in 2008. She is a graduate of Butler University.
Established in 2008, the I.F Stone Medal honors the life of investigative journalist I.F. Stone and is presented annually to a journalist or journalists whose work captures the spirit of journalistic independence, integrity and courage that characterized I.F. Stone’s Weekly, published from 1953 to 1971. The award is administered by the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard.
An independent committee of journalists chaired by PBS public editor Ricardo Sandoval-Palos oversees nominations and the selection of the annual I.F. Stone Medal winner. In addition to Jasmine Brown, a senior producer in the race and culture unit at ABC News’ “World News Tonight with David Muir” and a 2020 Nieman Fellow, and Bernice Yeung, managing editor of the Investigative Reporting Program at UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism, the other members of the selection committee are Phillip W. d. Martin, a senior investigative reporter for WGBH News and a 1998 Nieman Fellow and Michael Riley, an investigative reporter for Bloomberg News and Businessweek magazine. Myra MacPherson, author of the biography “All Governments Lie: The Life and Times of Rebel Journalist I.F. Stone is an emeritus juror.
The Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard educates leaders in journalism, promotes innovation and elevates the standards of the profession. More than 1,700 journalists from 100 countries have been awarded Nieman Fellowships since 1938. The foundation also publishes Nieman Reports, a website and print magazine covering thought leadership in journalism; Nieman Journalism Lab, a website reporting on the future of news, innovation and best practices in the digital media age; and Nieman Storyboard, a website showcasing exceptional narrative journalism and nonfiction storytelling.
For more information about I.F. Stone, visit www.ifstone.org.
Learn more about Wendi C. Thomas’ work:
- Profiting from the Poor: Methodist Le Bonheur Healthcare and Debt Collection(2019)
- To the Harvard professor who said MLK50 wasn’t ‘viable’: Look at us now (2022)
- Police have been spying on Black reporters and activists for years. I know because I’m one of them.(2020)
- Coronavirus in Memphis Warehouses (2020)
- First up for COVID vaccine: 75 and older. The average Black person in Shelby County doesn’t live that long (2021)
- FedEx says it’s a safe workplace. So why is Jessica James dead? (2023)
- Democracy lost, but Justin J. Pearson and Justin Jones will be back (2023)
In Nieman Reports