How three women journalist leaders channeled legacy newsroom experiences into creating healthier nonprofit organizations
Wendi C. Thomas, Lorie Hearn and Bettina Chang have waded through the rocky waters of journalism careers and launched their own nonprofit newsrooms.
Every time journalist Wendi C. Thomas has gotten a six-figure grant, added a national funder or won a national award, she has thought about writing to the Ivy League professor who once said her news startup idea would not work.
A year after that discouragement, Thomas successfully founded the Memphis-based nonprofit newsroom MLK50: Justice Through Journalism. Since launching in 2017, the newsroom that focuses on poverty, power and public policy has published numerous projects that have had tangible impact in communities, including erasing almost $12 million in medical debt for impoverished patients.
Thomas is part of a notable group of women leaders in nonprofit news that have defied the naysayers, built strong support networks and grown to the highest levels of journalism. Across INN’s more than 360 member nonprofit newsrooms, more than half are led by executives who identify as women. The 19th, which has attracted national attention for its coverage of the intersection of gender, politics and policy, became a member of INN upon its founding in 2020.
In February, INN highlighted how nonprofit news organizations are trying to meet the needs of communities of color. As Women’s History Month in March comes to a close, we spoke with three women news leaders who have waded through the rocky waters of journalism careers and now launched their own news organizations — MLK50 in Memphis, inewsource in San Diego and City Bureau in Chicago.
The experiences that shaped them
Thomas said she had positive male mentors early in her career, including her journalism adviser at Butler University, where she earned her undergraduate journalism degree in the early 1990s. Her career launched at The Indianapolis Star, soon taking her to The Tennessean, The Charlotte Observer, The Commercial Appeal and The Memphis Flyer.
“Any of us who survive are so amazingly strong because we’ve had to be.” — Wendi C. Thomas, founder of MLK50
The role of gender, Thomas says, didn’t show great prominence until she had entered management as an editor. “That’s really, I think, where those gender issues started to pop up … in terms of the way people would respond to your leadership, or whether male employees would respect your authority or how much they would challenge you.”
Thomas faced what many women say they face in the workplace: raising hands and being ignored, someone else saying the same comment and getting credit, as well as gaslighting. Male superiors, Thomas said, also didn’t take things like death or rape threats seriously. “Most newsrooms I’ve worked in there’s also been a small network of other women journalists who experienced the same thing — we commiserated.”
“It’s really sad to think about if you combine chronic stress and what that does to your lifespan, the wage gap and what that does to the income you have over that shortened lifespan, the lack of [the same] opportunities in some newsrooms that you see being afforded to your white male colleagues,” Thomas said. “Any of us who survive are so amazingly strong because we’ve had to be.”
That strength is something journalist Lorie Hearn, the founder of San Diego-based nonprofit inewsource, has had throughout her career, which navigated through two newspapers on the East Coast and then three in California. In one job in the late 1970s, Hearn said, she introduced herself as a reporter and the assumption was she was covering the society section. Hearn was covering city hall at the time.
“I always felt that I had to work that much harder because I was a woman,” Hearn said. “It was just kind of part of what was built into my skills or my own expectations that you got to work that much harder, and you have to put up with some stuff, and you just plow through it.”
“We were kind of this force of women determined to make this happen — and we did.” — Lorie Hearn, founder of inewsource
By the 1980s, when Hearn reached the San Diego Union-Tribune where she spent the bulk of her career, she said more and more women in the newsroom were being promoted there into management. “It’s very interesting to say that was kind of a safe environment in some ways to grow as a woman.”
Bettina Chang, the co-founder of Chicago-based nonprofit City Bureau, who entered the job market in a recession in 2010, said she had a great mentor at a magazine internship. “I always think back … ‘Wow, this is a person who, despite not having absolute power at the magazine, she was able to make a humongous difference for interns — totally outside of her job description.”
“As a woman of color, I find that the struggles that I faced are very much about the intersectionality of my identities — as a young person, as an Asian American, as a second-generation immigrant and as a woman,” Chang added.
Chang recognizes the news industry is not run in the most ideal way right now. “We need more people who are dreamers who can see a different type of path forward.”
Launching their own newsrooms
When Chang was working at a national magazine — a job she says, on paper, was a good fit for her — she realized that wasn’t the audience she wanted to reach. “People who read elite national magazines very rarely encounter those systems [we write about] directly.”
After moving back to Chicago, Chang joined her co-founders at City Bureau to create a local newsroom culture she said they hoped would be more collaborative, would value people who have different work styles and recognize a good idea for a good idea “no matter how aggressive somebody is.” City Bureau launched in 2015.
The traditional model of journalism, Chang believes, tends to value aggressive people and hierarchy: whatever the editor says goes.
“Whether it impacts somebody who identifies as a woman, Black, queer, disabled or whatever, those are hierarchies that affect everybody,” Chang said. “There’s a lot of marginalized identities out there that are negatively impacted by that kind of culture.”
Culture was top of mind for Thomas when she launched MLK50. Her organization’s entire leadership team happens to be all women and she says they practice radical candor. “I always tell the team that your family comes first or your health comes first, which was not the message I got in many newsrooms.”
What began as a $3,000 launch, when Thomas said she was temporarily getting by with credit cards, has grown into a million-dollar budget with six full-time employees, a permanent contractor and room to grow, potentially adding two or three editorial and one business staffers this year.
“As a woman of color, I find that the struggles that I faced are very much about the intersectionality of my identities — as a young person, as an Asian American, as a second-generation immigrant and as a woman.” — Bettina Chang, co-founder of City Bureau
Thomas says through the doubters she’s faced and the challenges, she reminds herself of the affirmations posted around her office, as well as on a digital Pinterest board. “Set goals so big they laugh; crush them while they watch,” reads one. “The temptation to quit will be greatest just before you’re about to succeed” reads another.
The path to success took perseverance for Hearn’s nonprofit — there were “dire circumstances” in the early years of inewsource, she said. Hearn started inewsource in 2009, the same year that she signed the Pocantico Declaration that launched INN. It was a time, she says, when men dominated the nonprofit news landscape and were philosophizing about the future of news. The nation was facing a financial crisis that had created a recession and decimated many newspapers. “I had to work even that much harder to be noticed, not to be patronized and to do the things that I felt needed to be done to start this organization,” said Hearn, about her newsroom that focuses on investigative and accountability journalism.
“I had people when I was thinking about starting this coming to me and saying, ‘You don’t want to do this. You don’t want to start a nonprofit and spend the rest of your life raising money.’”
Hearn defied the doubters, along with a stronghold of women on her board of directors as founding members: “We were kind of this force of women determined to make this happen — and we did.”
Reflecting on her early career, Hearn said she strived to become the editor that she wished she had been able to work for at every stage of her career — “somebody who was really helping reporters do their best.”
While some newsroom cultures have made progress, many women continue to face harassment from the public in the digital era, which Thomas said is “not unlike being in a war zone.” Her friends and therapy have helped her process that trauma, while she said some male colleagues have never understood the toll that it takes.
Hearn advises young journalists who identify as women to seek help from their editors and colleagues for support. “They shouldn’t have to respond to [harassment] alone.”
“I think that really fueled my resolve to start something different,” Thomas said.
“The [nonprofit] sector opening up has really shifted the landscape because you have newsrooms that aren’t beholden to corporate interests or shareholders that feel more comfortable experimenting with healthy newsrooms,” Thomas added. “And I think that’s a good thing.”