Columnist to apply her journalism skills to digital entrepreneurship
Wendi C. Thomas said she will launch a not-for-profit digital media startup focused on economic and racial inequality.
Thomas resigned from The Commercial Appeal in Memphis, Tenn. this week, not last week as originally reported. For the past three months Thomas had been leading the paper’s courts and cops team. Before that she had been the newspaper’s first and only full-time African American and female columnist.
Thomas had worked for The Commercial Appeal for the past 11 years.
“This frees me up to pursue my passion,” Thomas said of her exit, adding that she preferred not to discuss the specific details of her departure. Thomas did say she had been unhappy with the reassignment from columnist to the cops and courts beat.
“This is the city where Martin Luther King was killed. A city that is 63 percent black. And it has the highest poverty rate of any other large metro area in the country,” said Thomas. “It would be great if the local newspaper had a beat covering social justice or race, but it doesn’t and unfortunately those issues aren’t among the newspaper’s priorities. So I’m going to make it happen.”
Thomas has been a reporter or editor at The Indianapolis Star, the Tennessean in Nashville, and at the Charlotte Observer in North Carolina. She joined The Commercial Appeal as a columnist in August 2003.
Thomas wrote regularly about race and economic inequality in the city, even up to her last day on the job. Not everybody was happy with that. Conservative bloggers labeled her a racist and racially divisive; even some within The Commercial Appeal complained that Thomas wrote too often about race, she said. Before she was reassigned, she had just completed an in depth report on minority contracting in Memphis and uncovered that in a city that is majority black, less than one percent of municipal contracts go to black businesses. “That story raises valid questions. Those kinds of questions, and stories that raise these kinds of questions, upset the status quo. But I rather enjoy upsetting the status quo,” Thomas chuckled.
“Legacy news organizations don’t want to piss off local businesses,” she added. “As an independent journalist I believe I will have more of an opportunity to speak truth to power.”
Thomas said she will need at least $150,000 to launch the startup, and has already started talking with funders. The money will go toward hiring journalists with data visualization expertise, writers and editors, she said.
Thomas’s high profile will certainly bring support to her startup efforts. But even with that she will have to target her message to angel investors, said Doug Mitchell, co-director of New U, which provides funding and training to digital entrepreneurs.
“She can get funding (I think) from a foundation,” continued Mitchell. “She’ll have to target her pitch effectively, but I’ve read plenty of data recently that can support her thinking. She’ll have to state why she should be the one to be funded, what it is she’s actually trying to do and ask for realistic money, not low-balling herself Also, I suggest she embed inside the Angel investment community which tends to be more open-minded about a mission such as that.”
In addition to launching the startup, Thomas said she will update her news blog more frequently and co-teach a class in the spring on racial equity and economic equality at the University of Memphis. Starting next week, she will also begin writing a weekly column for Memphis Flyer, the city’s independent weekly, Thomas added.
While Thomas may not miss much about her job, or her place of employment, she said that she will miss several of the editors and journalists at The Commercial Appeal.
“There are a lot of editors and reporters doing God’s work over there,” she said. “News organizations’ priorities change, but for working journalists like myself, our priority to be storytellers and to speak truth to power hasn’t changed.”