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Denver's Black TV Journalist Shortage and Exit of 9News' TaRhonda Thomas

TaRhonda Thomas in the 9News studios.
TaRhonda Thomas in the 9News studios.
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On Sunday, August 12, 9News weekend morning anchor and reporter TaRhonda Thomas will sign off for the last time at the station where she's worked for the past eleven years. She and her family are moving to Philadelphia.

Thomas's exit represents a significant loss for Denver television viewers, and not just because she's a smart, sharp and compassionate journalist and communicator. She's also been the most prominent African-American personality on local TV news over the past several years. Her departure will leave the Mile High City with just four black reporters at four stations, all of whom currently have significantly smaller on-air roles than she did.

This issue is an important one for Thomas.

"I don't want to be the only reporter covering diversity issues," she says. "I want everyone to see why a certain event is important. So I hope I've gotten people in Denver more interested in someone who doesn't look like them. And in that vein, representation matters."

A native of Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and a graduate of Louisiana State University, Thomas came to 9News in 2007 following stints at outlets in Morgan City, Louisiana, Colorado Springs and Richmond, Virginia. Two years later, she earned her first Emmy for political reporting, and she's also won five awards from the National Association of Black Journalists in addition to being named broadcast journalist of the year by the Colorado Association of Black Journalists.

TaRhonda Thomas on assignment for 9News.
TaRhonda Thomas on assignment for 9News.

When she and her husband, basketball coach Mike McKee, arrived in Colorado a little over a decade ago, Thomas recalls, "I'd just had my first child — I was a new mom — and 9News is the only place I applied. I'd been anchoring on the weekends and reporting during the week in Richmond, and I thought, if I don't get this job, I'm going to stay at home with my baby. But I knew it would be incredible to work for 9News. The station has a reputation around the country. So it was there or nothing."

In the years after landing the gig, Thomas has proven her adaptability. "I've worked every shift: night-side, day-side, weekends, mornings. I started mornings seven years ago after I had my third child; I've been working weekday mornings and anchoring weekend mornings. And in between, there was an eleven o'clock morning show called Daily Connection that I did with Gregg Moss [who left 9News in 2016]. That show used content from NBC, and it evolved into other stuff as well. It was a fun moment."

In the meantime, Thomas reported from the field on plenty of memorable stories. "I remember covering a flood in 2013 where three cars were in the water and we didn't know if people were inside — and it was all live. When that happens, you feel so worried and emotional, but you have to be professional on the air and let people know what's happening."

She also has vivid memories of covering the aftermath of the 2012 Aurora theater shooting. "My husband was out of town and the children were with me. I had to drop them off at daycare and then go to the theater later that morning. There were so many people in a daze and things that were so heartbreaking that we had to filter through in order to figure out how to cover a story like that. We didn't put a lot of those images on the air, because we determined that people don't need to see every bloody detail. But we have to see those things ourselves so we can decide."

Thomas acknowledges that "I hold things like that in my heart, and so many other stories, too — especially court cases involving children, which I've never let go of. We meet people on the worst day of their lives a lot of times, and it's hard not to absorb that — and I do absorb it. But that makes me feel more deeply about a story and more determined to get it right."

In a matter of days, Thomas is taking these skills east. In June, McKee, who's worked as an assistant basketball coach for the Air Force Academy, the University of Denver and Regis University (and as an advance scout for the NBA's Golden State Warriors, Atlanta Hawks, Houston Rockets and San Antonio Spurs), was named the head coach at La Salle High School in the same league where he played point guard in high school beginning in the mid-’80s

A portrait of TaRhonda Thomas.
A portrait of TaRhonda Thomas.

At this point, Thomas is keeping her employment options open. "I've talked to a lot of TV stations this past week — and coming from 9News really gives me the chance to share what I've learned here, which is solid storytelling and first-rate journalism. Those skills are invaluable in a job like mine. But I'm going to take my time and enjoy being a mom for a minute, because my kids have never had a school year where I was there when they woke up. So before I jump back in, I'm going into mom mode. And after that, I'll be back on TV — just in a different time zone."

Meanwhile, the number of African-Americans regularly on camera at Denver TV-news stations will be reduced by 20 percent; the remaining four are 9News's Eddie Randle, a reporter hired in January 2017; CBS4's Tori Mason, a reporter who came aboard last August; Fox31/KWGN's Zora Stephenson, who came aboard in July 2017 and began anchoring the Saturday morning newscast on Channel 2 in recent weeks; and Fox31/KWGN's Shaul Turner, a onetime anchor now working in the outlet's Problem Solvers unit. And in Thomas's view, that's a shame.

"We're a large city," she points out, "and Denver is one of the top twenty markets in the country. The African-American population isn't that big here, but no matter how small a population it might be, seeing someone who looks like you on TV makes you feel like you can be the way they are. I remember meeting a little girl at a gala, and her mom said, 'She's so excited to meet you. Every time she sees you on TV, she stops and looks. Now she wants to be on TV, and she didn't start talking about it until she saw you do it.'"

This kind of response "gives you a check and lets you know that what you're doing matters. And I know just how she feels. I got inspired to do the news because in my home town of Baton Rouge, an African-American anchor came to my school. I remember saying in fourth grade, 'I want to do that.' That's why it's important to have all kinds of people represented. We can't all look the same and be the same. It's time to let go of that cookie-cutter type of feel. People are different, and we need to reflect that."

Not that she's advocating for a quota system. "People need to have the ability and the talent to earn that role," she emphasizes. "But when they do, it really speaks to a larger community of people. And I'm talking about people in the background, and people in leadership roles, too. We all process through our own filter, and when a person is in the right spot, they can help with decision-making and representation."

In her view, "If I'm the only person like me a person of color sees, but it's a positive representation, I feel like I've done well. Having a platform is wonderful."

And the one in Denver has plenty of room.

Editor's note: The original version of this article neglected to mention Fox31/KWGN reporter Zora Stephenson. We regret the omission.

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