"She's the One"  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  The Beat
From AJR,   June/July 2004

"She's the One"   

Award-winning investigative reporter takes the helm in Lexington, Kentucky.

By Dana Hull
Dana Hull (danahull@gmail.com) is a reporter at the San Jose Mercury News.     

Marilyn W. Thompson has had quite a year.

The Washington Post's assistant managing editor/ investigations was diagnosed with breast cancer last fall and stepped down from her position to undergo weeks of chemotherapy. Then in December--weak, exhausted and six weeks into treatment--she got the phone call of a lifetime: After years of denial, Essie Mae Washington-Williams, the illegitimate mixed-race daughter of Sen. Strom Thurmond, was finally ready at the age of 78 to tell her story.

Now Thompson, 51, is becoming executive editor of Knight Ridder's Lexington Herald-Leader in Kentucky.

"I made the decision to take the job at the tail end of 28 days of radiation," Thompson says. "I consulted with all of my doctors, and they were very supportive. They said that after a battle with cancer, the thought of a hopeful, new, challenging career move is just what you need... [O]pportunities to be editors come along once in your lifetime."

Herald-Leader Publisher Tim Kelly wooed Thompson over the course of several months and made a point to regularly call her to see how she was feeling. "She's a great reporter, a great editor, and she's fun," says Kelly. "She came in a few weeks ago to meet with the staff, and she blew them away."

Thompson's scoop about Thurmond's illegitimate daughter was decades in the making. She had confronted Washington-Williams in 1984 as a reporter for the Philadelphia Daily News. When Washington-Williams wanted to come forward, she remembered the encounter--and Thompson still had her reporter's notebook from the interview. "It was spotted with food stains," Thompson says. "All the paper had mildewed. But I knew in my heart that someday I would need it."

Thompson's 2,868-word scoop about Washington-Williams ran on the front page of the Washington Post on December 14; a week later, she wrote a longer piece for the paper's Style section about how the story that she'd pursued for 25 frustrating years finally came together.

"Starting an investigative reporting project is like confronting a 500-piece jigsaw puzzle, its pieces scattered randomly on a table. If the reporter lucks out, the search quickly yields a corner piece, giving logic and symmetry to the hunt," wrote Thompson. "My attempts to penetrate the deeper story of Thurmond's life yielded no good fortune. It was as if the jigsaw puzzle had 5,000 confusing pieces, and its box had been wildly shaken and tossed into a blustery wind."

Thompson grew up in Salisbury, North Carolina, and graduated from Clemson University. Journalism runs in her family: Her older brother Jim Walser is a senior editor at the Charlotte Observer.

"We just loved newspapers. I remember reading them avidly when we were kids," says Walser. "I don't know what the spark was. My dad was never a journalist, but he was a big skeptic about things, and we always had a lot of political discussions in our house."

Thompson began her career at the now-defunct Columbia Record in South Carolina as a governmental affairs and investigative reporter. In 1982, she joined the Philadelphia Daily News, and moved to New York's Daily News in 1986.

In 1990 she joined the Washington Post as a metro reporter in Maryland's Prince George's County; a year later, she was the metro projects editor. She then steadily rose through the ranks, from deputy national editor to investigations editor to AME/Investigative in 1999.

Under her guidance, the Post earned two Pulitzer Prizes for public service. There was "Deadly Force," a series on an alarming number of shootings by police officers in the nation's capital, and Katherine Boo's pieces on abuse and neglect in the city's group homes for the mentally retarded.

Thompson also found time to write three books: "Feeding the Beast: How Wedtech Became the Most Corrupt Little Company in America"; "Ol' Strom: An Unauthorized Biography of Strom Thurmond," cowritten with Jack Bass; and most recently, "The Killer Strain: Anthrax and a Government Exposed."

Thompson will be the Herald-Leader's third consecutive female editor. Pam Luecke, editor from 1996 to 2001, left to join Washington and Lee University in Virginia. Amanda Bennett followed Luecke but departed after just 20 months to take the helm of the Philadelphia Inquirer in June 2003. The paper has been without an executive editor for nearly a year, and some staffers say they are relieved that Bennett's replacement has finally been named.

Linda J. Johnson, the paper's computer-assisted journalism coordinator, was one of the Herald-Leader staffers who met with Thompson this spring. "My take on her was, 'She's the one,' " says Johnson, who has been at the paper for just over six years. "Her work stands strongly, and when I talked to friends at the Post they had a hard time coming up with something that wasn't stellar."

Thompson and her new publisher both feel that Lexington is a journalistic gold mine. Eastern Kentucky includes large swaths of Appalachia, with its scores of stories about rural poverty. Last year, in a series called "Prescription for Pain," the paper reported that Eastern Kentucky is "the prescription-painkiller capital of the United States, a place where narcotics such as OxyContin and Vicodin pour in at much higher rates than in Miami, Detroit, or Los Angeles."

"When we first started talking, the only experience I had with bluegrass was stuffing Easter egg baskets with brightly colored fake grass," jokes Thompson. "But I began reading the Herald-Leader online and found fertile ground, from extreme poverty and the problems that come with it to the ultra wealthy to foreign influence in the racing industry. I began to tick off all of the areas that would make investigative projects and great stories."

She and her two sons, ages 13 and 15, are wrapping up school and work in the Washington area, and Thompson will start her new job July 1.

"I don't know that many people who could do what she's done over the last 18 months. I don't know how she does it," says brother Jim Walser, adding that Thompson also paints and plays tennis and golf. "Whatever she takes on she will bore in on and get to the core of. It's amazing."

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