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Media Circus

Doubting Thomas

By Gadi Dechter | Posted 5/3/2006

The Sun newsroom was stunned Monday, April 24, when new metro columnist Wendi C. Thomas abruptly resigned, just a week after starting at the paper, and a day before her debut column was set to publish. But Thomas’ misgivings about moving up from Memphis’ Commercial Appeal (where she will return) had taken root before her arrival in Baltimore.

“On the 900-mile drive from Memphis to Baltimore, every 50 miles I asked my boyfriend if I was making a huge mistake,” she says by phone from Memphis. “It’s not a reflection on The Sun. I didn’t work there long enough to develop any strong feelings about them. It was more the city, just getting a sense that it wasn’t going to be a good fit.”

A Memphis native, Thomas’ doubts began soon after her initial visit to Baltimore, to interview for the columnist position vacated in January by Michael Olesker. After returning home, she says, “I called [The Sun] and said, ‘I don’t think this would be a good fit for me. Take my name out of the running.’”

Thomas, 34, was encouraged by Sun editor Tim Franklin and recruiter Sam Davis to maintain her candidacy, and when she was offered the job she felt the opportunity to move up to a major regional paper was too good to pass up. “These columnist jobs don’t come up often. The guy I’m replacing has been there for 27 years. Do I wait maybe another 27 years? I just couldn’t turn it down,” she told the alt-weekly Memphis Flyer in March. At the time, she was also still smarting from the Commercial Appeal’s recent decision to move her column from a section front to an inside page.

“My regret,” she says now, “is that I didn’t follow my first instinct [about Baltimore]. I’ve wasted a lot of people’s time, the Sun’s, and, frankly, my own.”

Her main gripe with Charm City: expensive housing. “Frankly, I was not going to be able to maintain anywhere near close to the standard of living that I had in Memphis,” she says. “Nowhere near.” Initially, Thomas expected to be able to buy a home for about $200,000, but after driving around the city and county with two real estate agents, she quickly realized she would have to spend about twice that for something comparable to her “very nice” Memphis house.

The Sun would have been paying me well,” she says, “but not that well.”

Tim Franklin won’t disclose Thomas’ salary but says it was “absolutely” enough for Baltimore. “I think that one could live comfortably on what her compensation would have been,” Franklin says. “And, indeed, they do.”

In addition to house-hunting sticker shock, Thomas says she was battling homesickness—she would be leaving her mother and boyfriend behind—so a “serendipitous” encounter with an E.W. Scripps Co. executive at a Washington journalism event seemed almost fateful. Scripps owns the Commercial Appeal, and the executive informed Thomas that her old job was still available to her.

The terms of her return to the Memphis paper include a pay raise and the return of her column to the metro section front.

Last Sunday, Thomas called Sun recruiter Sam Davis and told him she was seriously thinking about resigning. Davis called Franklin, who says he was “surprised and disappointed” by Thomas’ about-face. The following morning, Thomas met with Franklin to hand in her resignation. “She had quite obviously made up her mind by the time of the meeting,” Franklin says.

Thomas “seemed happy” during her short time in Baltimore, says Franklin. “I know other members of the staff had made a point to greet her and tried to make her feel at home. . . . I don’t think any of us had any inkling of this.”

“It really does look like some sort of personal wet-feet [issue],” says Sun reporter Michael Hill, whose newsroom desk was near Thomas’. “I got to know her a bit, and we had nice talks about Baltimore . . . and she seemed, you know, quite interested and engaged.” When he arrived at his desk Monday afternoon, Hill noticed on his desk a pair of Baltimore-history books he had lent Thomas. “It was almost poignant.”

In addition to being a costly embarrassment for The Sun, Thomas’ departure is a blow to the paper’s diversity committee, which had lobbied for her hiring, according to newsroom sources. She is the Commercial Appeal’s first black female columnist, and would have been the Sun’s only black woman columnist, as well.

Thomas says she hopes her quitting doesn’t hurt the cause of minority recruitment at The Sun, but sounds a somewhat cynical note: “I think if the paper is fully committed to diversifying its newsroom . . . then I don’t think the departure of one person would affect that,” she says. “If they’re less committed, then sure, they could use this as a way to say, ‘Well, we tried, we got a black person, and it didn’t work out.’”

Franklin says boosting newsroom diversity is an ongoing priority, but that it was always a secondary consideration to journalistic quality—and will remain one. “We hired Wendi because we thought she was the best candidate. She also happened to be an African-American woman.” He points out that the Sun’s newsroom employs slightly more minority staffers than the national average of 14 percent.

Since news of Thomas’ resignation was reported, Franklin says he has received a dozen unsolicited messages from newspaper columnists around the country expressing interest in the position.

Veteran Sun columnist Dan Rodricks took the occasion of Thomas’ quitting to suggest to Franklin and managing editor Robert Blau that the paper ought to more seriously consider hiring a local journalist with deep knowledge of the city. “No one asked my opinion,” says Rodricks. “But I thought, why not just look a little closer to home, someone who knows the local scene? They said, ‘OK, make some suggestions.’ And I plan to.” He declined to say whom he had in mind.

Thomas’ twice-weekly column was set to debut Tuesday, April 25. In her first installment, a draft of which was obtained by City Paper, the writer confessed to mixed feelings about trading Memphis for Baltimore:

“Nearly a month ago, I left Memphis, the city in which I grew up, the city where my parents and boyfriend still live, to take this job. I left behind a city and a state that I know all too well, and a great gig as a columnist there, to opine about a city and a region I barely know at all. I left behind the easy eating of pulled pork barbecue to work for my dinner, hammering out the white goodness in steamed crabs. And sometimes, I wonder if I left my good sense somewhere between the River City and Charm City.”

The piece ends with the words, “Let the conversation begin.”

In a profile of Thomas in this month’s Baltimore magazine, Michael Anft (a former City Paper staff writer) notes that in Memphis Thomas was given to lacing her columns with Bible passages.

When asked what scriptural nugget would make an appropriate epigram for this unhappy episode, Thomas turns to another popular fount of wisdom. “OK, it’s not quite the Bible,” she writes in a follow-up e-mail, “but Dr. Seuss was another wise man whose words bear repeating. One of my favorite sayings of his, one I kept near my desk in Memphis, and one I had posted briefly on my desk in Baltimore is this: Be who you are and say what you feel, because those who mind don’t matter and those who matter don’t mind.

“This saying encourages me to do (or write) what I think best, regardless of what the reaction might be. Those who matter to me—my family, friends, colleagues throughout the industry—have been incredibly supportive of my decision to be who I am wherever I choose, and I choose Memphis.”

And how long will she stay in Memphis? “I don’t know,” Thomas says. “I said I’d stay in Baltimore for the foreseeable future, and that ended up being one week. I will make no more predictions about my stay at newspapers.”

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