The Institute for Public Service Reporting is a professionally staffed newsroom on the campus of the University of Memphis dedicated to civic-minded journalism. Our robust, independent investigative reporting and in-depth explanatory journalism aims to promote a vibrant democracy, foster inclusiveness, and enrich the lives of the people of Greater Memphis, including its many underserved communities. We do this while providing hands-on training to university students who will become our community’s next generation of journalists.
We believe in the Fourth Estate’s vital role in democracy.
We value the journalist’s duty to impartially explore and explain complex issues that impact metropolitan Memphis and its citizens. We believe quality local journalism leads to an informed electorate and is among the highest forms of public service.
We strive to promote fairness, accountability, equity, and inclusion.
We are duty bound to prepare the next generation of journalists in support of this essential mission.
What We Do
The Institute is housed in the Edward J. Meeman Journalism Building on the University of Memphis campus though we are not formally part of the Department of Journalism and Strategic Media. We are a free-standing, multidisciplinary institute. Our focus is narrative, documentary journalism distributed through an exclusive contract with dailymemphian.com, a nonprofit, digital news outlet that is one of the primary sources of local news and information in the market. We also partner with Memphis’ public radio affiliate, WKNO-FM. We also intend to collaborate with television and other media such as magazines and academic journals. This will involve working with faculty and students within the Journalism Department as well as other departments of the University, including History, Sociology and Business. In fulfilling our mission, we will cover a broad spectrum of public-interest topics.
The Need for Our Work
The Institute for Public Service Reporting was founded in July 2018 amid a crisis in print journalism. Legacy media has declined steeply nationwide, and its drop has been especially precipitous in Memphis. According to the Pew Research Center, newsroom employment fell 23 percent nationally between 2008 and 2017. It dropped by as much as 73 percent over that same period in Memphis. Fewer journalists mean fewer eyes and ears on government. It means less public accountability. It means in a time of tightening government budgets and decreasing faith in traditional institutions, along with rising political polarization, Memphians are getting less substantive reporting on issues critical to the region, including education, criminal justice, gun violence, government and political corruption and the environment.
The Institute aims to reverse this trend with consistent, quality investigative and explanatory reporting not affected by corporate journalism’s continued contraction and consolidation. We are a truly independent newsroom working on behalf of Memphis, not subject to increasing financial pressures of an advertising-supported business model or the whims of remote owners and newsroom managers who don’t understand or appreciate Memphis’ unique economic and social challenges. We are focused on driving community conversation and change by increasing the quality and volume of local journalism in a city and region where crushing generational poverty and one of the nation’s highest violent crime rates are major barriers to economic and population growth. The lnstitute’s impact will be tangible and measurable: our journalism will raise community understanding and awareness of these complex issues, focus attention on potential solutions, and hold those in power accountable when their actions negatively affect the citizens, businesses and institutions of metropolitan Memphis.
Our leadership team has been producing high-impact investigative and explanatory journalism in Memphis and elsewhere for decades:
Marc Perrusquia is The Institute’s director. Previously, he worked 29 years at The Commercial Appeal, the daily newspaper in Memphis, winning numerous state and national awards as he produced some of this city’s most memorable watchdog reporting. His investigations of Tennessee’s corrupt taxpayer-funded childcare system led to broad reforms and the criminal prosecutions of six people. Perrusquia’s long-running reporting on state senator John Ford and larger political corruption in Memphis inspired the FBI’s Tennessee Waltz bribery sting that altered the state’s political landscape. In 2003, he revealed how dozens of Habitat for Humanity families filed for bankruptcy or lost their homes to predatory lenders in Memphis, leading the nonprofit to pass nationwide reforms to promote financial literacy and protect Habitat homes. His investigation of practices by car title lenders who gouged customers with 264-percent interest rates and inescapable loan terms led to greater state regulation. His 2018 book, A Spy in Canaan: How the FBI Used a Famous Photographer to Infiltrate the Civil Rights Movement, tells the story of paid informant Ernest Withers and the abuses of political surveillance in Memphis. He reported and co-produced WKNO-FM public radio’s 2020 mini-documentary on Memphis’s rape kit crisis, The Waiting Decade, and served as a consultant to Stitcher’s 2022 ten-part podcast, Ernie’s Secret. He holds a B.A. in Journalism from the University of Minnesota.
David Waters is The Institute’s assistant director. He worked for The Commercial Appeal for more than 35 years, holding a variety of reporting and editing positions, including religion and education reporter, columnist, and editorial page editor. He also was religion editor for The Washington Post from 2007-2010 and launched, wrote, edited and produced its ‘On Faith’ website and ‘Under God’ blog. Waters has written several award-winning explanatory narrative series on everything from the impact of generational poverty to a Memphis medical team’s treatment of heart patients in the Balkans. He has presented lectures and workshops on explanatory narrative journalism for the Poynter Institute, the National Writers Workshop, Southern Newspaper Publishers, Religion Newswriters Association, and Scripps Howard. His numerous state and national journalism awards include a Distinguished Writing Award from the American Society of Newspaper Editors, five Wilbur Awards from the Religion Communicators Council, and induction in the Scripps Howard Editorial Hall of Fame. Waters, a 1981 graduate of the University of Memphis, and a 2009 recipient of the Outstanding Journalism Alumni Award, has taught a number of undergraduate and graduate journalism classes.
Laura Faith Kebede is the coordinator for The Institute’s Civil Wrongs project that investigates unsolved and unresolved murders of the civil rights era, lynchings, and racial massacres and analyzes their enduring effects. Laura is a Report for America corps member and recently hosted and wrote WKNO public television’s special History, Justice and the Journalists on unresolved civil rights crimes in the Memphis area. She previously covered education inequities for Chalkbeat Tennessee and local government and religion for the Richmond Times-Dispatch prior to that. Her data reporting on possible school closures in Memphis equipped parents and teachers with information denied to them and led to widespread advocacy. Her focus on student voices led to systemic changes in Memphis schools and uplifted perspectives that are often ignored in traditional media. Laura is a former board member of the Lynching Sites Project of Memphis, a nonprofit that places historical markers where lynchings occurred. She is pursuing her master’s degree in liberal studies, an interdisciplinary program at the University of Memphis.
Christopher Blank is The Institute’s Senior Producer. He joins us via our broadcast partner and NPR affiliate WKNO-FM, where he serves as News Director. As a contributor to NPR, he has covered a wide range of iconic Southern news stories—from Confederate statue removal to Elvis Presley fanaticism. His radio features have won multiple awards from the Public Media Journalists Association and the Green Eyeshades. Before leaping headlong into broadcast production nearly a decade ago, he was a long-time arts and culture writer for The Commercial Appeal. That stint included a prestigious USC Annenberg Getty Arts Journalism Fellowship and two additional fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts. He holds a literary arts medal from the Germantown Arts Alliance. In keeping with his interest in and support of the Memphis arts community, he also leads WKNO’s Culture Desk, which hosts group outings and critical discussions about regional arts and culture.
Meet our interns
Morgan “Jake” Lankford is a first-year graduate student in the Department of Journalism and Strategic Media at the University of Memphis. His writing talents allowed him to graduate magna cum laude from the UofM with a BA in journalism. As an undergrad, he aced many a course – including Otis Sanford’s opinion writing class.
A native Memphian and man of many hats, Jake has written for the UofM student newspaper, The Daily Helmsman. He hosts a show for The UofM’s ROAR internet radio station and is writing his fiction debut. He also played baritone horn in the UofM marching band, our beloved “Mighty Sound of the South.”
After earning his undergraduate degree, Jake immediately turned his attention to the future, which led him to interning at The Institute. “I am extremely thankful for all of the opportunities the UofM has offered me, and I am especially thankful that the Institute for Public Service Reporting has taken me on as an intern,” Lankford said. “Investigative journalism is an important subset of the fine art of journalism, and I am glad to be part of it and to develop my own voice as a writer and journalist.”
Scott Pickey is a second-semester graduate student in the Department of Journalism and Strategic Media.
A native Memphian, he graduated from Harding Academy and Christian Brothers University where he received a B.A. in Communication Arts/Journalism. While at CBU, he also worked at WKNO-FM as a news and classical music announcer.
After graduation, Scott landed his first television newsroom job as an anchor/producer at KTVO-TV in Kirksville, MO. That job launched an almost 30-year career as a news manager at television stations across the country: from Syracuse, NY to Wilmington, NC to Odessa-Midland, TX.
“I’m looking forward to stepping out of the news director’s office for a while and getting back to my reporting roots,” Scott said. “I think this internship will allow the Institute and myself the opportunity to cover local stories you won’t see anywhere else in town. It’s an honor to be accepted into the internship and I greatly appreciate the opportunity.”
Lana Canady is a senior majoring in Film & Video Production. She was born and raised in Memphis, where she attended Middle College High School before transferring to Memphis Virtual School, where she graduated second in her class.
She’s worked in various film and production capacities, including as a film intern at Rhodes College and also as a post-production assistant at CLOUD901, the Memphis Public Library’s research and performance technology lab for teens.
As our broadcast intern, she teams with WKNO-FM public radio.
“I hope to one day be an on-air personality for a national news organization and to direct quality productions,’’ Lana says. “I believe that working with WKNO will give me the foundational knowledge base necessary to achieve my goals in the future.”
Ben Wheeler is a graduate student in the Journalism and Strategic Media Department. His emphasis is News and Storytelling.
Ben was born in South Dakota and moved to Tennessee as a child, graduating from Cookeville High School and later from Tennessee Technological University with a Bachelor’s degree in Communications.
Ben brings several years of professional newspaper reporting experience to The Institute, having worked for the Yankton Daily Press and Dakotan in South Dakota and the Herald-Citizen in Cookeville. He’s covered business and the environment, placing in the Tennessee Press Association’s annual journalism contest.
“I am looking forward to the valuable experience to be gained from working at the Institute as I continue to hone my skills as a reporter while I am working on my master’s degree,’’ Ben said. “I hope to use the skills gained during my time as an intern after graduating as I look to reenter the world of newspaper reporting.”
Caleb Suggs is a senior double-majoring in Broadcast Journalism and Film & Video Production.
Caleb was born and raised in Memphis. He attended Germantown High School, where he got his start in broadcasting as an anchor and voice talent at the school’s student television station, GHS-TV. He’s worked with a variety of media outlets at the U of M, including WUMR 91.7 FM, The Daily Helmsman, and Tiger News, where he currently serves as executive producer. Caleb has won several awards, including the Lurene Kelly Video Story Award, a Hearst Television I – Features award, and various Tennessee AP Broadcasters & Media Editors awards.
He dreams of one day running a television production company of his own.
Christopher Fulton is a first-year graduate student at the U of M, where he’s seeking a master’s degree in Journalism with a focus on News and Storytelling.
Christopher was born in Florida but raised in Memphis. He attended Craigmont High School and Harding Academy. After high school, he briefly attended Arkansas State University before joining the Navy, serving from 2008 to 2013. He graduated Summa Cum Laude from the U of M in 2020 with a BA in Journalism. He is a former managing editor at the campus newspaper, The Daily Helmsman.
Support what we do
Give at: supportum.memphis.edu/publicservice
or make checks payable to:
Institute for Public Service Reporting
University of Memphis Foundation Department
238 P.O. Box 1000
Memphis, TN 38148