9News anchor TaRhonda Thomas keeping Denver news factual and conversational
It’s 11:15 a.m. and 9News anchor TaRhonda Thomas, a six-time National Association of Black Journalist award-winning journalist, is vigorously typing her script for the noon broadcast she’ll be presenting in 45 minutes.
Fast-forward: 11:45 a.m. Thomaspolishesher copy, and has a quick word with her producer as she heads into the 9News studio.
But there’s a hitch. Thomas’ hard work might never air. Word has come down from NBC News in New York, lead anchorman Lester Holt might break in at any moment, and local news will take a backseat.Canceled in fact.
Eleven minutes into the noon broadcast, the hammer drops – Holt has broken in.
It is March 13, 2018.
President Donald Trump had fired Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on Twitter hours earlier. In response, Tillerson is holding a press conference that’s being covered by NBC and all of the other national networks…
Breaking news, last-minute decisions, and a change in direction, it’s just another day in the newsroom for TaRhonda Thomas, a familiar face to Denver television viewers. Thomas has been reporting news, participating in 9News events and galas for more than a decade.
“I’ve been the weekend and morning anchor for a year, Thomas explains. “I’ve been doing the noon show for three years, and have been at 9News for 11 years. I can’t believe it when I say that. I’ve never stayed anywhere that long – never. It flew by.”
Thomas has won awards from the Colorado Broadcasters Association and from the Associated Press to name a few news media entities.
Thomas’ workday begins promptly at 2:03 a.m. Well…maybe not exactly.
“My alarm goes off at 2:03,” Thomas says with a smile. “I’m hitting the snooze button a lot.”
However, Thomas arrives at the station by 3 a.m., sometimes 3:30 a.m. – depending on the news of the day and breaking stories. She has a pretty good idea of how her morning routine will flow. First thing, Thomas checks emails for pending stories discussed the previous day that might have changed. Next, she checks for news stories that might have developed during the day or overnight.
“When I arrived here,” Thomas says, “I hit the ground running.”
Thomas immediately starts reading and writing copy – skills she honed in college while working as a news aid for Louisiana’s largest daily newspaper, The Advocate in Baton Rouge.
“It was awesome being in the newsroom and learning from the reporters who were there,” Thomas says. “It was my first lesson in being really thorough. I definitely learned a lot while I was there, how to do things fast, go with the flow and not get mad if somebody changes what you wanted, or get the placement in the paper you want.”
Thomas is usually on the air by 5 a.m., so she has had a good hour and a half to read, write and put on makeup. Yes, 9News fans, TaRhonda Thomas applies her own makeup. She says she has friends in the industry who have makeup artists, but not at 9News. They do their own.
“With women in news,” she says, “we get far more comments on our appearance than men. It’s unbalanced. It’s unfair. The majority of the comments we receive is about how we look.”
KEEPING IT CONVERSATIONAL
Thomas explains that she wants heron air scripts to reflect how she speaks off air. Above all, Thomas will say, she makes sure that everything is correct and sounds conversational.
“It’s an exchange between us and the viewers,” Thomas explains. “I would never in conversation use the word Donnybrook. ‘A Donnybrook ensued,’ and I can’t stand, ‘the house was completely destroyed.’ People try to sound so official. All we need to be is factual and conversational.”
Like newspapers, some stations have a story count or quotas that reporters have to meet daily or weekly. Not so at 9News. Thomas says you have to pick the stories you want on the air, and the kind of treatment each story deserves.
“Not every story is a package when you have the track and the sound bites all put together wrapped up in a pretty little package,” she says. “Some are just voiceovers with video, some need to have a sound bite with them. So we don’t go by a minimum story count, we try to give each story a treatment that it deserves in the time frame that we have.”
Thomas says 9News will let stories go long and breathe if it’s a good story, as they recently aired an amazing story, as she puts it, an 8-minute feature on Five Points. She says the photographer did a lot with Five Point legend Charlie Burrell and kind of centering the piece on him. The story was shot over a course of 8 months.
“During that period, one of the people the photographer was following passed away and he included that,” Thomas says. “And likened that to what if the legacy of Five Points passes away?”
Thomas feels keeping Five Points legacy alive is important, especially with big construction coming in. Originally from Baton Rouge, Louisiana, Thomas says her father had lived in Denver for a while, and when Thomas moved to Denver, her father said, “Just get to Five Points. Everything you need is right there.”
Thomas says, “That’s the way he remembered it back in the ‘70s. When I got there, I was like well…that’s not much here anymore. There was an old hat shop, TV repair shop, good places to eat. But when he lived here, it was like everything was there. That was the only area of town that he was ever in.”
Thomas’ first journalism job was in Morgan City, a small town in Louisiana. She says the biggest thing the town had going for it was the Shrimp and Petroleum Festival.
“It is a thing,” Thomas says. “A weird thing, but yeah, from there I went to Colorado Springs. I was actually hired as a photographer, so I shot for other reporters, which was pretty cool.”
Thomas says she enjoyed that job which enabled her to work her way up to do something different. Thomas eventually became a producer, a reporter and would fill in as the news anchor. During her Springs’ tenure, Thomas met her husband and moved to Richmond, Virginia and then finally to the Mile-High City.
“When I came here,” Thomas explains, “I wasn’t sure if I wanted to keep working. I just had my first baby, so I thought I wanted to be a stay at home mom. That was a decision I made in Richmond. I was down to only working two days a week anchoring a weekend show until they found my replacement. So when I got here, I said, ‘You know, I would be crazy not to try to work in Denver specifically at 9News. This is the only place I applied.”
In 2013, Thomas received a masters degree in media, film and journalism studies from the University of Denver. During that period she managed schoolwork, working at 9News and raised three children at the same time.
So why purposely put all those challenges on her plate?
“I always thought about preparing for a next step,” Thomas explains. “I don’t believe in luck. I believe in preparation meets opportunity. So if the opportunity arose for something that is completely out of the box, would I be prepared for it?”
Becoming a university professor has always been an idea she’d loved and entertained.
“So I thought, why not work on my masters right now, so if that day comes,” Thomas says, “and I’m feeling like I’m going to work toward that, I can teach and I can get my Ph. D.”
Thomas says, all together she’s been in TV news for 17 years, she underlines the fact that people who have had that much experience, are not the ones who are teaching because they have moved onto something else.
“So I think we can help a lot of people who are coming up through the ranks by sharing what we learned in our jobs. I learned so much when I got my masters degree about how people perceive news. I’ve been on this side for so long, getting my masters forced me to take a good look at a lot of studies, and a lot of information on how people take in news, how they perceive it, and how they perceive us. It was really eye-opening.”
So after 17 years, what would Thomas’ finest hour be in journalism?
“That’s a hard one. I’d like to think my finest hour is yet to come. I’m always expecting more of myself.”
Real Talk with TaRhonda Thomas
Urban Spectrum: As an accomplished journalist, how do you feel when you hear the term “fake news” and how do think that term can and should be abolished?
Thomas: When I hear the term Fake News it’s disheartening because we are doing what we have always done which is to stand up for people. To hold those in power accountable and to call out wrongdoings, and to have what we do to be politicized, it’s disheartening. The good side is it is causing us to really dig in and focus and be completely transparent to a level where maybe no one has ever been before to earn our readers and viewers trust all over again.
Urban Spectrum: As an African American woman regarding the MeToo movement invading Denver, what are your thoughts on the effect on community leaders and where and if lines should be drawn? Where do you think this movement is going and what will it accomplish?
Thomas: When this first started surfacing I was thinking, not as a journalist, but as a woman, “It’s about time.” I was proud of a lot of the women who stood up to talk about the things that have happened to them or to any of us that maybe never even realized were wronged, that though we had to take as part of being a woman in a male-dominated society. It made me think back to things that happened in my career, and even in college that made me feel this isn’t right – and why didn’t I tell anyone. When it comes to leaders, I think this is going to change everything about how women are treated in politics, law, and government.
Urban Spectrum: With the Trump Administration in full swing, how has it affected the presence of African American journalists and women in the field?
Thomas: I think it has required a little bit more from us because we have to reflect what we see and the response to what we see. With so many people saying and feeling that they are being wronged or not counted or not cared about, then it holds us accountable to tell their stories more so than we have before. And sometimes they hit closer to home to some than others where we can relate and people are finally speaking about it. When we look at instances of racism and how out in the open they are against journalists, now it’s being coupled with a lot of fake news allegations as well. I think of a story I read about a reporter when she was just trying to get ready for a live shot when these guys, just passing by in a truck back and forth, called her the N word. Why is this happening at this point and time? There are a lot of theories as to why people would be so comfortable to say things like that. The good news is we’re telling when things like this happen so people who are not people of color can look and say, “Wait, this is still happening? We have to do something about this.”
Urban Spectrum: What would you tell young aspiring journalists on how to secure a future in the new digital age and technology world of journalism?
Thomas: Diversity – don’t get stuck on just one thing. I don’t just anchor, I don’t come and sit in a chair and read the teleprompter. Don’t limit yourself to one thing outside of this career. Work on things that feed your soul. Have the passion projects that you really, really love. If they need a photographer, I can go and shoot it myself. Don’t put yourself above things.