In August, when longtime 9News anchor and reporter TaRhonda Thomas left the station to move with her family to Philadelphia, Denver lost its most prominent black TV news journalist. Afterward, veteran local TV and radio personality Gloria Neal told us local stations' de facto one-in, one-out quota system limits opportunities for African-American broadcasters in the Mile High City.
Today, Neal is working for Denver Mayor Michael Hancock and Thomas has just landed a new gig at 6abc Action News in Philly, a market that's much more diverse than Denver. In her view, this fact helps Philadelphia remain a leader in this area and makes it more difficult for Denver to catch up.
"When you're a reporter coming from somewhere else and trying to decide if you want to work in a certain market, you look at who they have, what positions they're put in and whether or not you'll have a chance to be in that position someday," Thomas says. "If you're looking and seeing no one like yourself on the air or in leadership positions, you wonder, 'Does that mean they're not going to look at me?' That's what anybody in this position would think."
At the time of Thomas's departure, four African Americans had on-camera positions at Denver TV news stations: Fox31/KWGN's Shaul Turner, a onetime anchor now working in the outlet's Problem Solvers unit; 9News reporter Eddie Randle, hired in January 2017; Fox31/KWGN reporter/anchor Zora Stephenson, a July 2017 arrival; and CBS4 reporter Tori Mason, who came aboard in August 2017.
The good news is that these four are still at their respective stations, and two more black journalists have earned positions at area signals: Micah Smith, a Denver7 morning reporter who hit the airwaves in December 2018, and Mekialaya White, a CBS4 morning news reporter since January. But none of them have prominent roles as of this writing. Most are currently working low-profile shifts and only rarely get face-time during the more frequently viewed afternoon and 10 p.m. newscasts.
Philadelphia is another story.
"There's a drastic difference," Thomas confirms, "and I'm not just talking about on-camera, but behind the scenes, where you see people of all ethnicities and all ages, too. That's a big thing in news. People think you have a shelf life, an expiration date. But I'm seeing women and men well into their sixties who are still working, whereas in some places, they think you have to be young. People are really valued."
That's not to suggest Denver TV news employees aren't, Thomas hastens to add, "but there's just much greater ethnic diversity in Philadelphia. The NBC station here has a show where both anchors are black women, and when I saw that, I thought, 'That's great.' There was a day and time when producers would think, 'I don't know if that's going to work.' And I see way more African-American main anchors for the main evening and morning shows and people who've been working in the industry for thirty or forty years and are still out there on the street reporting and loving it, or working behind the scenes. And when an organization has more diversity of people with different levels of experience, that can only help you to cover your community more effectively."
Because stations in Philadelphia are less likely to reflexively jettison talent of a certain vintage, the number of opportunities to break into the lineup are limited — and when Thomas wasn't immediately offered a full-time gig despite her sterling reputation and the esteem with which 9News is held nationwide, she considered taking a break from the job search. "For twenty years, my life has really been wrapped up in what I do for a living," she acknowledges. "But I really loved the chance to do things I've never been able to do before, like volunteer at my kids' school. I ran a little holiday shop for Christmas with a bunch of kindergartners trying to buy presents and did stuff with teachers, and it was great."
The enjoyment she got from participating in activities like these made her more open when 6abc offered to bring her on-board part-time. She's currently reporting several days per week, and she calls her schedule "awesome. I get the fulfillment of doing what I love and the interaction with great people — and everyone I work with has been great. I'm working on stories, doing live shots, and then I get to be home three or four days a week. My children love it. Now they know what it's like to have mom at home and have me make them breakfast. And they don't just want cereal! I'm making them hot breakfast."
Should a full-time position become available at 6abc, Thomas is open to the possibility. In her words, "We'll cross that bridge when we come to it" — and given her skill set, that bridge could be completed soon.
"It's great coming from Channel 9," she stresses. "When I told my coworkers I'd been with KUSA, they were impressed immediately. People really respect KUSA here. This is the number-four market in the country [Denver is seventeen], but they still know KUSA and see the type of journalism the station does. I'm so grateful to come from there."
Still, the size of her platform on Denver TV was the exception for black reporters and anchors, not the rule, and journalists from coast to coast know it.
"I've heard people looking at stations in Denver say, 'I don't know if I have a shot. There aren't enough people like me in leadership roles,'" Thomas reveals. "If people of color have an offer from Denver and an offer from Atlanta, they might choose Atlanta because they feel that diversity is being embraced more."
Thomas has had "conversations with friends in news across the country," she goes on, "and I can tell you that's what a lot of us do. We'll look at what the stations have and whether it will give us any indication that there could be upward mobility. Representation matters, and if people see themselves represented, they'll think, 'This market doesn't mind having a person of color in this position — so I have a shot.'"