Loans got me into journalism. Student debt pushed me out.

A first-generation college graduate, Carrington J. Tatum, seen here visiting I AM A MAN Plaza in November 2021, made the difficult decision to walk away from journalism, in part, because of the burden of his student loan debt. Photo by Andrea Morales for MLK50

I’m the first person in my family to graduate college, but I didn’t want to go. I didn’t know anybody with a degree. I couldn’t understand what college was, what you do when you get there, and what it was for. I didn’t see why I couldn’t just start a business and hustle my way to being rich.

My mom convinced me to go, even if I wanted to be an entrepreneur, so I’d have something I could fall back on. Plus, she remembers all the companies that denied her job applications simply because she didn’t have a bachelor’s degree. Even if it meant working several jobs while raising me by herself, she believed that if she could get her son into college, I would be guaranteed one of those high-paying jobs that would make life a lot easier for me than it was for her.

Around that time, I also started writing columns for the school newspaper. I didn’t like writing, but I knew I could do it, and I thought the paper would pay. It didn’t, but I got introduced to journalism. Eventually, I switched my major and worked my way up to be the first Black editor-in-chief of the paper.

I was good. I won a regional student award for a story about a school housing policy with questionable First Amendment implications. That helped me land an internship with The Texas Tribune. I networked and got an internship with The Washington Post for after graduation; it was canceled because of COVID-19. Instead, I interned for The Dallas Morning News.

One of my stories there helped free a man from jail. A few other stories I wrote in Dallas contributed to moving a toxic dumpsite from behind a Black woman’s home.

That was the first time I saw that I could write a story and it could change something for real. From there, all I ever thought about was testing the limits of journalism and how large that impact could get. I found MLK50: Justice Through Journalism, a newsroom specializing in a similar question: What does it mean to do justice through journalism?

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I wrote a nearly 40-story series that helped a community stop an oil pipeline project that tried to take property from Black landowners. I won two national reporting awards for work I did in my first year on the job.

I was on my way. I did what I was told by family, professors, academic advisors, and online hustle gurus. I stayed in school, studied my craft doggedly, got the resume, the portfolio, the network, worked for free, worked multiple jobs at once, got the internships, got the entry job, made an impact, got the awards. 

But last month, I had to leave MLK50 because of student debt and the rent going up. The math showed my best option was to move back home and find a job in a different industry. Everything I did wasn’t enough to keep me out of my mother’s house. And as I have had time to think about what went wrong, I realized that if I’m going to stay ahead of student loans and survive, I need to make a lot more money. I can’t afford to stay in journalism. Reporting doesn’t pay enough to cover the cost of entering the field and the cost of increasingly expensive cities. And the best money I can make in journalism isn’t paid for the stories I want to do: justice reporting from the ground up.

“… the best money I can make in journalism isn’t paid for the stories I want to do: justice reporting from the ground up.”

And that not only hurts me, but the journalism I could be doing.

Making ends meet

Studies show student loan debt is a disproportionate burden on Black graduates and contributes to the racial wealth and income gaps while also making it harder for Black families to maintain middle-class lives if they can make it there.

Because I’m a first-generation college student, I’ve been shouldered with federal and private student loan debt that crushed my earnings.

I took a personal finance class as a part of my minor in business administration. That class introduced me to popular money management concepts, including budgeting 30% of your income toward housing. Another is the 50/30/20 rule popularized by Sen. Elizabeth Warren, which says that for your after-tax income, you should budget 50% toward your needs, 30% toward wants and 20% toward saving, investing or extra debt payments. No budgeting advice is one-size-fits-all and few people hug their budgets to the penny, but I budgeted how I was told by experts, and it still wasn’t enough to make ends meet.

After graduating, I owed more than $90,000 in student loans, about $64,000 of which is private loans to Sallie Mae. The bill got this high because I had to take out a loan for all four years of college and Sallie Mae charged excessive interest rates as high as nearly 13%.

What’s worse is interest was compounding on all of these loans while I was still in school. Imagine financing a car you can’t drive for another four years. By the time I graduated, the balance on the first private loan had grown by 50%.

On federal and private loans, you get a six-month grace period after graduation before you have to start making payments. I graduated in 2020, so my federal loans had a longer pause due to coronavirus.

Tatum goes through his notes in his car while reporting on a story about environmental racism in North Memphis in September 2021. “The best money I can make in journalism isn’t paid for the stories I want to do: justice reporting from the ground up,” he said.

However, private lenders don’t care if a virus disrupts global economics. They still want their money. When Sallie Mae emailed to tell me my six-month grace period was running out, my estimated monthly payment was about $700. At the time, I was two months into my MLK50 job and there was no way I could pay that. I also could never predict when my federal payments might restart, possibly adding another $200 monthly.

I refinanced immediately with the company Earnest, which had the lowest monthly payment I could get, $450, and also consolidated the private loans.

I once wrote about how a credit union is standing up to payday lenders who target low-income communities of color with outrageous loans because they’re more likely to need short-term financial assistance. It’s funny that when we talk about predatory lenders, we don’t bring up private student loans, a debt trap with excessive interest and unrelenting repayment terms relied upon by low-income students looking for economic mobility. Who’s going to stand up to those lenders?

“Poor people pay high prices. Rich people get discounts.”

My journalism degree was more expensive than my wealthier classmates’ degrees because I couldn’t afford to pay in cash. But that’s a common theme with American systems. Poor people pay high prices. Rich people get discounts.

One of my hesitations with writing this piece was being vulnerable in public. I’m putting out personal financial information, opening myself to be criticized about views on money and money management.

‘Poverty is not an accident’

But I’m writing it anyway because I’m not the only one experiencing this dilemma. There are people with an even greater financial burden, less income, no mom to move in with and no platform like this to tell anybody about it. Telling the truth even in the face of fear is also a core journalistic value of mine.

And if you take nothing else away from my reporting or the work of MLK50, it should be that poverty is not an accident. It’s systems of exploitation that create financial hardship.

Not everybody believes us on that. But even some people who agree don’t realize what it means to actually change the way you view poverty or financial struggle. Rather than dismantle the systems that exploited people into poverty, low-wealth people are often blamed for their conditions. Some assume people struggle because they either didn’t work hard enough, lack discipline or mismanage their money out of ignorance or incompetence.

But when companies want to lay people off or say they can’t give raises, CEOs never turn over their budgets and prove the math behind their claim to workers. And they receive assistance from the government with little scrutiny.

“It’s hard not to be insulted when you’re asking for help and folks won’t take your word…”

When I first started telling people what I was seeing and feeling financially, many didn’t believe me. When I shared what I was making, the first response I often got was, “Oh, you can make that work.” 

It’s hard not to be insulted when you’re asking for help and folks won’t take your word or assume after all this expensive-ass education and award-winning reporting, I’m somehow not competent enough to do the math on my finances.

So let’s do the math together for those still pocket-watching.

After one year on the job, my salary was about $46,000. With additional monthly stipends, my total compensation was just short of $50,000. After taxes, I took home about $42,000 per year or $3,500 per month.

If I follow Warren’s formula, I should set aside 50%, or $1,750, for needs; 30%, or $1,050 for wants; and 20%, or $700, toward debt payments and savings.

But there’s no room to save: I budget about $725 monthly for my private and federal loans.

Two expenses I can’t adjust are student loans and taxes. So before I’ve even made a decision on what other bills to pay, I’m starting with about two-thirds of what MLK50 pays me on paper.

I was managing when I had a roommate, but then they moved out and my landlord upped the rent to $1,700.

When I first moved to Memphis, I lived in a place that offered cheap rent in exchange for little security and the sound of gunfire. I wrote a story about how gun violence is the leading cause of death for Black males aged 15 to 35. So as a 24-year-old Black man, should I have to risk my safety just so I can afford to do journalism?

“So as a 24-year-old Black man, should I have to risk my safety just so I can afford to do journalism?”

But keep in mind, rent isn’t my only bill and my student loans, which still total about $88,000, aren’t my only debt. My mom went into debt to get me through college, and if I have to pay Sallie Mae back, I’m damn for sure going to pay my mom back. Even then, I’m an only child and anticipate I’ll have to help her during her retirement.

And beyond that point, this becomes a conversation about what I’m willing to sacrifice to do journalism. And I don’t think that’s a job requirement for everyone; it’s just for students who don’t come from money.

Doing more with less

Tatum (center) interviews people outside of the Shelby County Criminal Justice Center in October 2021 while working on a story about the county district attorney Amy Weirich’s prosecutorial record. Photo by Andrea Morales for MLK50

There are reporting jobs out there that pay good money. But I don’t want to write about just anything. I need to write stories that will make a material difference in the lives of marginalized people. I want to write stories that change minds, conditions and power balances.

Because if I don’t, then what am I writing for? 

Many Black reporters working at historically white, legacy papers know the struggle of fighting to tell the truth about injustice in our communities. MLK50 is a place where reporters don’t have to do that. In fact, when I refer to the industry’s problems, I think of MLK50 as an exception.

MLK50 pays well for the Memphis market and better than most local newsrooms relative to the cost of living. At the same time, it’s a Black woman-led, Black-serving newsroom focused on challenging the systems that oppress their readers. That means it’s skipped over for funding compared to other nonprofit newsrooms, as Black startups usually are.

“But this new brand of working-class, Black-serving journalism will come from working-class, Black storytellers who are victims of the oppressive systems they write about.”

MLK50 wants to challenge industry traditions with worker-serving reporting and have good practices with its employees — and it does. But this new brand of working-class, Black-serving journalism will come from working-class, Black storytellers who are victims of the oppressive systems they write about. That means MLK50 will have to do more than other newsrooms to sustain these storytellers, and that’s a tax on the business model that white-serving, power-upholding news organizations don’t have to budget for.

While reporting about some of Texas’ historically Black colleges and universities, I learned they have a similar dilemma. These HBCUs disproportionately serve low-wealth students, but they’re also historically underfunded. They have to do more with less.

And that’s also why I’m not mad at MLK50 or the people leading it. This outcome is the result of not one but several systemic issues. The cost of college is too high, predatory lenders have too much freedom, and the journalism industry isn’t accessible to everyone. I don’t think MLK50 alone can be expected to fix and compensate for all those issues.

Most importantly, when these systems overlap, it’s not just me losing. It’s about the stories I could be writing and serving my community with. I will be fine, but will journalism? What about the people journalism is supposed to be serving?

I’m not the only Black reporter unable to sustain in this industry. I’m among the last in my group chats to quit reporting.

It’s up to lawmakers and government officials to address predatory lending and the cost of higher education. But journalism’s top editors and publishers also have to decide how committed they are to making the industry inclusive.

I’m extremely grateful to my colleagues and mentors who helped me get to this point and the sources who made every story possible. These connections, to me, are the most valuable part of this journey.

I’m not sure where I’ll go from here, but this dilemma has me thinking about other ways I can push for justice and rethinking the forms journalism can take. Either way, I remain hopeful and committed because the road to a more just world was never going to be an easy one.

Carrington J. Tatum was a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms. Email him at [email protected]

This story is brought to you by MLK50: Justice Through Journalism, a nonprofit newsroom focused on poverty, power and policy in Memphis. Support independent journalism by making a tax-deductible donation today. MLK50 is also supported by these generous donors.

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