Steven Thomma ’76
As a kid, Steven Thomma knew he wanted to be a journalist. But the Chicago native did not decide on Dominican University until his senior year of high school. Ironically, Thomma was on campus to see Citizen Kane with some friends, and like countless alumnae/i, he fell in love with the beauty of the campus and its location.
“I wanted to stay in the city, and I liked the idea of a small college,” Thomma says.
As a freshman arriving on campus in September 1972 — just one year after the university began accepting male students — he acted in his one and only stage play, The Insect Comedy. It seems politics and journalism proved a better fit for him, for in addition to serving as class president during his sophomore and junior years, and student body president his senior year, Thomma wrote for and edited the student newspaper, then called the Rapporter.
While Thomma — a double major in political science and communication — remembers many favorite professors, he singles out one in particular, Bill Clements, an adjunct journalism professor and investigative reporter at the Chicago Daily News, as having the most profound impact.
“He was a great reporter, and it was a revelation to hear him talk about real reporting and real news writing,” Thomma recalls. “He also would bring in other reporters who talked about their experiences, and that was not just instructional but exciting. If there was any doubt in my mind, meeting and listening to them sealed it and set me off on my dream.”
Upon graduation in 1976, Clements helped him get a job as a cops reporter at the City News Bureau, which was a wire service owned by the four daily newspapers in Chicago.
“To be 21 years old, right out of school and wandering around police stations and fire stations was an adventure,” he says. “And within a year, I was covering the criminal court press room that inspired the play The Front Page, and City Hall. It was fantastic.”
Thomma’s dream job was to eventually cover Chicago’s City Hall for one of the major dailies. But by the late 1970s, when two of the city’s four daily newspapers had folded, it was clear there wouldn’t be many job openings for quite a while, so his dream of covering City Hall began to fade.
“So I decided if I couldn’t cover Chicago’s City Hall, I would cover the White House instead,” Thomma jokes.
While it took a few years and several career moves for Thomma to land one of journalism’s most coveted beats, he began charting the course when he strategically took a job as a political reporter in St. Paul, MN, with Knight Ridder, which at the time was the nation’s second-largest and most lauded newspaper chain. Thomma worked his way up the ladder at Knight Ridder (which was purchased in 2006 by McClatchy Company) and, after covering the 1996 presidential race, was named as the White House correspondent and in 2012 was also named senior government and politics editor.
In 2010, Thomma received the Prize for Distinguished Reporting on the Presidency from the Gerald R. Ford Foundation, and in 2000 received the Aldo Beckman Award from the White House Correspondents’ Association (WHCA) for his coverage of the White House during the 2000 presidential campaign.
“The White House is the epicenter of American politics and policy,” says Thomma. “From Reagan through Obama, I’ve been lucky enough to cover presidential campaigns, national conventions, the White House itself, and travel to every corner of the world. It’s a cliché but true — I have a front row seat to history.”
Within the last few months, Thomma himself has been in the news. As the newly elected president of the WHCA — which this year celebrates its 100th year — he regularly confronts the Obama administration on allowing the news media to have more access to the president. Thanks to the explosion of online tools and social media, the White House posts its own photos and videos of many news events, shutting out the media.
“We have no objection to them releasing photos or their own videos, but believe we should be in the room watching the president, too,” he says.
Thomma is optimistic that the White House press corps will make progress. And while he agrees that new technologies will continue to impact the media, it will not change the fundamentals of journalism.
As WHCA president, Thomma also presides over the famed press corps dinner held in the nation’s capital. With a guest list that includes the president of the United States, the high-profile event comes with a lot of pressure — like picking the entertainer.
“No one wants to be the one who picks a really bad one,” Thomma says. “A friend who was president of WHCA in the Clinton years told me he enjoyed fighting with the White House all year, but picking the entertainer was real pressure!”
With lots of friends and family still in the Chicago area, Thomma, his wife, Denise, and three sons visit at least once each year, and the agenda includes a White Sox game and lunch at Michael’s Italian Beef on North Avenue. A recent visit to campus and public lecture on “The Presidency and the Press” included visits with students, talking about his experience and offering his sage advice.
“Journalism students need to learn how to put a story together,” he says. “They need to learn how to report, … and they need to learn values like ethics so that when issues do come up, they know how to handle them.”
What’s more, drawing on his own experience as a Dominican student, he believes that journalism students need a strong foundation in the humanities.
“I encourage students to learn as much as they can about U.S. history, politics, economics and any other field they might want to write about,” he says. “They will draw on that knowledge for the rest of their career.”