Magazine article Editor & Publisher

Intern Had an Impact on Many; L.A. Times Editor Gave Him the Opportunity and He Made the Most of It - until He Was Shot during a Domestic Quarrel

Magazine article Editor & Publisher

Intern Had an Impact on Many; L.A. Times Editor Gave Him the Opportunity and He Made the Most of It - until He Was Shot during a Domestic Quarrel

Article excerpt

ETHAN ALLEN THOMAS Jr. was an unlikely intern prospect for the Los Angeles Times.

An ex-con for armed assault and a one-time crack dealer and gangbanger in South Central L.A., he had no journalism training and no idea of how to go about getting an internship at a newspaper that carefully screens its summer news applicants from the best that local journalism schools have to offer.

How he got the internship is one of the more remarkable stories of the newspaper business - and ultimately one of the most tragic.

One day in 1993, the 20-year-old Thomas reported to his parole officer only to learn that his office had been moved and was replaced by a dance studio.

As she gave him the new address, the studio owner, Trena Johnson, found something likable about Thomas and began quizzing him about his future plans. The young man, who had won a $150 award in a high school essay competition, said he wanted to be a journalist.

Johnson gave him a series of facts and asked him to write a news story, and then two more. She liked what she saw and decided she would try to get Thomas an internship at the Times.

Having no journalism background herself and knowing no one at the paper, she simply made a cold call to the switchboard operator. After getting bounced around five or six times from one department to another, Johnson got lucky. Someone rang her into associate editor Narda Zacchino's office. Zacchino's secretary was away from her desk and Zacchino picked up the phone. "She [Johnson] was so compelling in telling me about this kid that I kept listening," Zacchino recalled in an interview. "I finally asked her to bring him in for a meeting."

Johnson and Thomas came, he with stories he had written to show Zacchino.

"I was really impressed," the editor said. "I could have put his stuff in the Times that same day."

Thomas was on his way to fulfilling his dream at that point. Zacchino and others managed to get him a 10-week paid internship, although there were no slots for him.

"We broke a lot of rules," Zacchino said. "But besides being a good writer, Ethan was smart and inquisitive. Nothing got him down. He was a joy to have around. And he was a news junkie. He even watched C-Span."

She assigned Thomas to the Life & Style section, putting him under the wings of staff writers Michael Quintanilla and Bob Sipchen.

"You could see right away he had talent," said Quintanilla, who became Thomas' chief mentor. "He had a love for writing and wrote about what he knew - life in South Central. Ethan had a gritty side but he was trying very hard to turn his life around."

To help him do that, Quintanilla took Thomas out on assignments with him, letting him sit in on interviews and even ask questions.

They were good questions," the reporter remembered. "Ethan was curious about everything. …

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