This article is part of an LMA series on solutions and innovations at and for local media organizations, in which we explore the products, best practices, and strategy behind sustainable and thriving local journalism businesses. 

By Joe LananeLMA Contributor

The quest to create sustainable journalism too often focuses solely on business models instead of people. At MLK50: Justice Through Journalism, the people take priority.


The Memphis-based nonprofit news site goes dark for a week each January and August so staff can regroup and recover.

“It’s keeping with our commitment to self-care. When we think of sustainable organizations, I think we also have to go beyond the money and also think about the people,” said Wendi C. Thomas, the founder, editor and publisher of MLK50. “If this work requires you to work more than 60 hours per week, that’s not sustainable.”

The twice-annual weeklong sabbaticals were implemented before 2020 when dueling news cycles about the pandemic and social unrest have made self-care all the more essential, Thomas said. She draws back to MLK50’s original mission to cover the 50-year anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King’s assassination in 2018, launching one year prior. The project has sustained beyond that milestone by focusing on poverty, power and public policy coverage.

“We’re advocating for people that Dr. King would be advocating for were he still alive, and that audience is largely low-income workers,” Thomas said.

King was a powerful force in Memphis at the height of the Civil Rights movement, fighting against exploitative labor practices, so it’s important to Thomas that MLK50 emphasizes a work-life balance. She acknowledges her self-care mantra is “radical” in some journalism circles, but it’s all part of her effort to dismantle the status quo — both in how the Memphis community is covered as well as within the journalism industry.

“I’ve been very open and honest about the sacrifices required to do this work, and one of the greatest things about starting your own thing is you can create the kind of newsroom you would want to work in,” Thomas said.

Thomas is a longtime Memphian who covered her hometown 11 years for the Memphis Commercial Appeal, where she covered the 40th anniversary of King’s assassination. Over the next several years, she contemplated how to cover the half-century milestone, and a one-year project idea was hatched. She accepted a Nieman Fellowship at Harvard University shortly after leaving the Memphis daily newspaper in 2014, focusing her studies on social entrepreneurship.

“My professor told me my idea wasn’t viable and wouldn’t work,” she said. “I was determined to prove him wrong.”

Upon returning to Memphis, Thomas found a built-in audience who already knew her for her coverage of social justice issues. With only $3,000 raised, she launched MLK50 in April 2017 and said the content was well-received.

“I was living off credit cards for the year while fundraising,” Thomas said. “I was really lucky to have available credit to be able to do that. I do think about the people that may have better ideas than mine but can’t afford to rack up $37,000 in credit card bills.”

Only in July of this year did Thomas become a full-time employee of MLK50, with benefits. Most of the project’s funding comes from national foundations, such as Surdna Foundation, Borealis Philanthropy as well as American Journalism Project, which all support the hyperlocal, solutions-based coverage on racial inequity issues.

“We’ve come a long way. I’ve learned in fundraising that money follows money,” Thomas said. “Once you get a big foundation to sign on, it’s easier to get others to sign on — but that’s not to say it has been easy.”

Now the operation is expanding, hiring its first full-time managing editor and hopes to hire a chief revenue officer soon. The latter role will help MLK50 expand its business model to include memberships to offer new and existing donors something in return for their support. Right now, small donors make up less than 10% of all revenue, Thomas said.

The extra staffing will allow MLK50 to start producing a regular newsletter, which she hopes to monetize through sponsorships. The operation is also moving from the Medium content management system to NewsPack, a and Google News Initiative publishing platform.

“It does feel like we’re at a turning point,” Thomas said, noting that additional resources can ease some immediate burdens, but creates other challenges for a young newsroom still building a foundation. “As the great 20th-century philosopher Biggie Smalls once said, ‘Mo’ money, mo’ problems.’”