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Marilyn-Thompson

Working with words: Marilyn Walser Thompson ’74

Marilyn Walser Thompson is no stranger to breaking news. From being the first reporter who revealed the existence of Strom Thurmond’s biracial daughter in 2003, to editing reporters’ pieces that went on to win two Pulitzer Prizes, Thompson’s background with the major news players led her to being named a Joan Shorenstein fellow at Harvard’s Kennedy School.

As one of eight annual recipients, she’ll research where tax dollars head when taxpayers donate money to the Presidential Election Campaign Fund.

“It’s highly relevant because of the 2016 race. I’m looking at the financing for presidents put in place after the 1970s,” she said. “The pace of modern campaigning — and to be in an ultra competitive race – means this fund is no longer relevant [to candidates.] No one wants to use it because you have to agree to restrictions.”

Thompson’s fellowship and reporting will look into how candidates who have used the fund spent the money and if the fund should still exist.

“It’s an exciting challenge — and a frightening challenge — moving back into writing because I’m an editor, and I work on other people’s stories. Generating all the information through reporting, it’s a different skillset,” she said. “It’s a great step in anyone’s career to take a step back and say, ‘Can I do that?’ ‘Will I provide anything useful people want to read?’”

Thompson’s reportage started in The Tiger newsroom where she began by selling advertising before jumping to reporter and eventually becoming the managing editor.

“It was the ’70s and The Tiger was this scrappy, liberal, anti-war publication,” she said. “I was this meek little freshman. I was so happy to be at college because I didn’t think I would get to go. I remember vividly being really dressed up — in a dress and heels — and it was like nine flights of stairs to the top of the horrible dorm to get to The Tiger meeting. I get up there in my prissy dress and heels and it’s like a hippy haven. I looked like an idiot because I thought I actually had to dress up!”

Once she kicked the heels and changed her major to English, Thompson settled into the newsroom atmosphere for life. Her career has taken her from local coverage at The Greenville News to national politics with The Washington Post, Reuters and Politico.

“I do look at things differently than most people,” she said about her career. “That probably goes back to my childhood and the influence of my father — the counter-intuitive Archie Bunker type. He didn’t trust anything or anybody.”

Thompson’s fellowship research will be out this May, as well as featured in future Politico publishing.

Early Entrepreneur: Alex Skatell ’08

AlexSkatellBy age 10, Alex Skatell already had a knack for knowing his market. He convinced his dad to take him to Wal-Mart to buy 24-pack cubes of soda. From there he filled a rolling cooler with ice and the soda and went and sat on the smoldering hot corner near a halfway house and a golf course and just waited. The people came to him since he was selling soda for less than the local convenience store.

“I was doing so well that after a while [the convenience store] called the police on me. I was 10 or 11. I was really young. And they called the police on me to get me to move because they said I was taking their business,” Skatell laughed.

But he saw a need and anticipated it. Supply. Demand. Market-setting trends. He sees them.

Now, he’s anticipating the news, media and how stories will unfold and how people want to view, read, scroll or listen to their stories. Since his days on the corner, the construction science major has carried the same attitude into his ventures creating start-up Independent Journal Review and co-founding IMGE, a digital consulting firm. In the last year, Skatell was named to Forbes30 under 30” rising stars in media and was also named to Wired magazine’s “20 Tech Insiders Defining the 2016 Campaign.”

“I made a bet that I thought iPhones were going to change how we communicate with one another. … And I made a bet that Facebook … was going to change how news was distributed. So I didn’t just talk about it, I went about figuring out how this platform was going to do that and how could I best invest my time and energy into understanding this platform that would change how news was distributed,” he said.

This past fall Independent Journal Review played host to a Republican debate in New Hampshire along with ABC News by providing first-hand accounts from the candidates’ and viewers’ perspectives.

“So what our experience allowed to have happen was for everyone in America to have input in who’s up and who’s down during the debate. That’s what Americans are looking for in news. They expect the news not to tell them how to think, but show them what is happening and let them make their own decisions,” he said.

Skatell’s success looks like it happened overnight, but success and building two companies with 105 employees took a lot of rejection.

“Entrepreneurship is also just getting rejected and punched in the face nonstop. You really have to be a glutton for punishment,” he said. “You have a lot of people tell you no, and you have to make a lot of decisions that won’t go over well with a lot of people, but you know you have to be confident in your decisions and your vision. The barriers to entry for just anyone right now are so low. You don’t have to ask for permission.”

“I saw an opportunity,” he said. “There have been several times in my life where I’ve seen opportunities and I’ve leveraged just a very little amount of capital at my disposal and made big bets on whether or not those things would change an industry.”