Thursday, January 18, 2007

The Repo Man and the Poet

In different ways, two prolific bloggers hope to influence local news.

Posted By on Thu, Jan 18, 2007 at 4:00 AM

Thaddeus Matthews is a Memphis minister and car repo man with no journalism training. The comments he writes and posts on his blog (thaddeusmatthews.com) often run roughshod over the rules of grammar, spelling, civility, and good taste.

Richard Thompson is a poet, English teacher, and veteran print journalist who says he was fired last year by The Commercial Appeal (editor Chris Peck says he resigned). His blog (mediaverse-memphis.blogspot.com) is as carefully spell-checked, sourced, and edited as many mainstream newspapers.

The burly Matthews, 49, and the soft-spoken Thompson, 34, have this in common: They're on the outside looking in but they both have a nose for news and some dedicated readers. They're willing to put in long hours at their computers for little or no money. They're part of the growing legion of Internet-savvy citizen journalists that was a focus of the National Conference for Media Reform that brought 3,500 activists to Memphis last week. And there are indications that they're having some success.

Matthews -- coincidentally, he says -- started his blog a few weeks before Operation Tennessee Waltz broke in May 2005. His menu of gossip, rumor, misinformation, name-calling, and scoops about corruption and "poli-trick-ans" has won him a readership he estimates at 800 or more, including several journalists and public officials, among them U.S. attorney David Kustoff.

Thompson's specialty is reporters and the media, a surefire way to capture the attention of people attuned to anyone who might be stealing their bacon. Both Matthews and Thompson are black in a majority-black city whose print and, to a lesser extent, broadcast media are dominated by white editors, owners, and reporters. For whatever reasons, the CA and Peck took careful note of the media reformers here last week.

Matthews is a Memphis native who broke into radio in 1985 at now-defunct WXSS. "I purchased my time and sold my own ads," he says. At other stations, he played gospel and blues and hosted talk shows. He is associate minister at Christ United Methodist Church in Whitehaven and preaches regularly, although he says he is not paid.

"Express Yourself," a show he was involved with at the local ABC-TV affiliate, was about to go off the air in 2005 when a friend introduced Matthews to blogging.

"It's a forum to put my thoughts out there," says Matthews, a dreadful speller whose fans don't seem to mind. "I probably need a proofreader, but most of the stuff I write is off the top of my head." He does interviews and goes to trials and newsy events because "to do this you have to be out there and part of what is going on. I spend a lot of time I should be spending in the repo business doing reporting." He doesn't make money off the blog and has no plans to seriously try, because "people think they can pay you and change your views, and I don't think you would make enough money to worry about it."

Thompson is a Montgomery, Alabama, native who came to the CA in 1999 as a business reporter and was sent to cover DeSoto County in 2003. He started blogging "because I wasn't getting the opportunity to write in the manner I wanted to write." That included his thoughts about the CA, and that eventually led to his departure. He writes, reads papers, and watches television news six hours a day. His blog is impressively thorough, and borrowings are carefully sourced. "He asked really good questions," said ABC-24 news director Jim Turpin, whom Thompson recently interviewed. Thompson hopes to develop a premium service for subscribers that will make money in six months.

"Thaddeus has made a name for himself and can no longer be ignored," he says of his online colleague. "But our real separation comes in terms of focus. It's not my job to report news or influence public policy. As a trade publication, Mediaverse-Memphis focuses more on internal discussions that shape how news is presented."

Married to a Jazzercise instructor, Thompson teaches English and is earning a master's at the University of Memphis. "It's fair to say," he says, "I'm making less than I was."

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