When student loans and the housing crisis force journalists out of business

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Economic justice is at the heart of everything MLK50: Justice Through Journalism does, not just in the content we produce, but in how we care for and compensate workers.

It is there in our vision, which echoes the dream of Dr. Martin Luther King: a nation where all residents, especially working people, have enough resources to thrive, and where public and private policies support their success.

We center people who work for a living, especially those trapped in systems that create and sustain poverty. And that includes people who work for MLK50.

How do newsrooms retain talented journalists who are straining under the weight of crippling student debt and whipped by soaring housing prices? Particularly those who are BIPOC, the first generation college graduates with no inherited wealth?

It’s a question I grappled with in the weeks following the resignation of MLK50 reporter Carrington J. Tatum. (Read Tatum’s article here.)

Carrington joined the team in October 2020, just months after leaving Texas State University with a journalism degree and student loan debt that now hovers around $90,000. In less than two years, he has amassed an award-winning body of work, including dozens of stories about the controversial Byhalia Pipeline project.

He used to make it work when he had a roommate, but when the roommate left and his landlord raised the rent from $300 to $1,700, the math no longer worked. His best option, he concluded, was to return to Texas and live with his mother, where his housing costs would be zero.

This was all happening while I was stuck in an Italian government detention center after catching Covid at an international journalism conference. The stress kept me from concentrating on even the simplest work tasks and the team graciously shielded me from what was happening.

But by the time I got home, her decision was made.

Not all problems can be solved with money, but this problem could be.

The fact that I didn’t realize it until it was too late reflects my shortcomings. I bawl all the time about my commitment to economic justice in all areas, including compensation. I knew student loans are a grind around too many necks and I knew rents were going up, but I didn’t realize how much it was undermining a co-worker’s career plans.

I feel like I failed Carrington, even though he assured me that was not the case. These issues are bigger than our newsroom and solving them shouldn’t be the MLK50’s cross to bear, he said.

Maybe so, but if the solutions don’t start with newsrooms like ours, where would they start?

My salary surveys of other local newsrooms and similarly sized nonprofit newsrooms indicate that MLK50 pays better than average in a city where living expenses have historically been low.

It was Carrington’s first full-time job, and his total compensation when he quit (which he shared in this article) was just under $50,000. That’s above the city’s median household income of $41,900, but below the Memphis metro area median household income of $53,900.

Between March 2020, the start of the pandemic, and May, Memphis-area rents rose nearly 30%, the 10th-fastest metro-level rent growth among the nation’s largest metro areas, according to the data collected by Apartment List.

I’ve heard of rent increases much higher than that; it’s not uncommon for a one-bedroom apartment to cost $1,600. Add in student loans, auto loans, inflation, scary gas prices, and for too many people, including Carrington, it becomes unsustainable.

Before launching MLK50, I sought advice from Russ Wigginton, then Vice President of Rhodes College, and now President of the National Civil Rights Museum. His sage advice: You have a dream Cadillac, so don’t budget Pinto.

I thought I did a Cadillac budget—this year it’s just over a million dollars. But we don’t have a budget that accounts for and corrects the economic disparities that capitalism creates and maintains.

My first wildly impractical and improbable idea: win the lottery so I can pay off workers’ student loans. But the lottery itself “preys on the poor”, as Vox explained. Lower income and black people are more likely to gamble.

In the end, I end up with questions, which as a journalist isn’t the worst place to be.

How do you repair damage to some workers? How to do this without alienating other employees who benefited from a much more solid financial base? Would candidates who are bothered by our attempts at fairness be a good candidate?

Is our remuneration structure fundamentally unfair because we pay above all for experience and skills, without taking needs into account?

What would a repair-centric salary structure look like? How would we sell that to funders? To donors?

If we decided to make need/debt/lack of generational wealth a compensation factor, at what stage of the hiring process would we inquire about a job candidate’s finances? Is it appropriate to do so? And how could we ensure that this information does not affect hiring decisions, while factoring additional expenses into our budget?

What other economic/financial worker challenges are we overlooking? (We calculate an increase in our mileage reimbursement rate to account for gas prices of $5/gallon.)

We talk to other newsrooms and try to figure out what we could do now, what we want to be able to do soon, and how to get from here to there. If you have any ideas, let me know.

In the meantime, when the Powerball gets really big, I’ll buy a ticket or two. Wish me good luck.

Wendi C. Thomas is the founding editor of MLK50: Justice Through Journalism, where this article originally appeared, and a 2016 Nieman Fellow.

Photo illustration by Andrea Morales, MLK50.

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