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Veteran Journalist Talks About The Importance Of Local News As The Industry Evolves

Joey Mastro
University of Michigan

Lynette Clemetson is the director of Wallace House, home of the Knight-Wallace Fellowships for Journalists and the Livingston Awards for Young Journalists at the University of Michigan. She came to the university from National Public Radio and has also worked for the New York Times and Newsweek Magazine.

She talks with WEMU’s Lisa Barry about the importance of local news that listeners can still get from WEMU and why a trusted local news source is worthy of listener support.


Lisa Barry: As the world of journalism and how we get our news continues to evolve, there are still many fundamental sources like NPR and WEMU. This is Lisa Barry and, in Ann Arbor, there's been an ongoing program where journalists have a unique opportunity for an academic year of study and collaborative learning at the University of Michigan, known as the Knight Wallace Fellowship, typically based at Wallace House in Ann Arbor, which was a gift from legendary newsman Mike Wallace and his wife, Mary. And joining us now to talk more about journalism, its importance and how it's evolving is the director of Wallace House, Lynnette Clemetson. Thanks for talking to us. 

Lynette Clemetson: Thank you so much, Lisa, for having me. 

Lisa Barry: Well, that is a night. Wallace alum herself came to the university from National Public Radio. She also worked for the New York Times and Newsweekmagazine and has a passionate interest in sustaining journalism in a variety of forms and supporting journalists in the pursuit of their craft. So we welcome that. And I'm glad that's your passion as well as ours here, WEMU. So let's start from your extensive journalism perspective. What changes have you seen personally? 

Lynette Clemetson: Oh, my goodness. Over my career, I've seen everything change, right? In some ways, I have done my career in a reverse way in that I started internationally and then became a national correspondent and then focused on building local journalism. And many people do it the other way around. Right. I've worked in all forms of journalism and I've certainly seen the stresses that the industry has been under over the past decade or more, losing a lot of local journalism. But I also think that there are signs for great optimism. And I think our public media system is one of the places for the greatest optimism. Right. Because as newspapers have gone away in many places, public media newsrooms have grown and they've been hiring and training reporters and allowing those reporters to do local journalism and inform communities and really help people focus on what's important about journalism, accountability, right. Of their local systems and fostering civic engagement. So I think we're not through the disruption that journalism is going through. But I'm a great believer in the power of public media to keep journalism and the importance of journalism in our democracy at the forefront. 

Lisa Barry: So let's talk a little bit more about local journalism, local news, which we heavily emphasize here on WEMU. And I feel and I've worked in radio my whole career, maybe you Linnett, who has also had an extensive journalism career, can comment on this. Have you seen local news? Sort of weird shrinking, but perhaps the emphasis on it?

Lynette Clemetson: Well, of course, it's shrinking everywhere, right. As the financial models for sustaining journalism shrink in the print industry, not only is local journalism going away, but to the extent that it is surviving, a lot of local newspapers are being bought and run by hedge funds that are not concerned about the quality of the journalism. They're concerned about turning a profit from the news, and that creates all kinds of compromising situations. And I think at the same time, we have places that see that threat to journalism springing up to actually reinforce the values of local journalism. Why we need it, right? Why we need it for functioning societies. Why we need it for community engagement, why we need it to keep our institutions accountable. So local public media is growing, but also what I see in my work, I'm noticing more and more small nonprofit newsrooms growing up with a specific focus on local journalism and with a specific focus on investigative and accountability journalism to really shine a light in places where that news ecosystem has gone dark. Right. We have, especially across the Midwest, places that are complete news deserts at this point. And while that's scary, I think people are rushing in to try to save the day 

Lisa Barry: You hit on so many different things. I like writing notes that I want to follow up on threats to journalism, the importance of financial support, and basically what you just dealt with by supporting WEMU. It's your chance to help us not have the news desert in our community. 

Lynette Clemetson: Yes, that's it. It's a chance to not have a news desert to make sure that the news that reporters are. Doing in your community reflects the values of your community with and supporting reporters who live in and understand your community, right? I mean, it's important to have local journalism, but it's also important to support the training of journalists who come from communities and understand the how the city council works, how the school board works, how the local institutions and businesses work in the community to really help make their communities stronger. 

Lisa Barry: And you said three key words reflect your community and you work for NPR limit a long time. It's a key to to keeping financially healthy and strong and moving forward and continuing to reflect your community.

Lynette Clemetson: Yeah, absolutely, you know, my first job when I went to NPR was running a program that was helping training at local member stations to help reporters do state reporting and state health coverage, state reporting better. And this was at a time when state house bureaus were closing across the country. Right. What had been a staple of reporters, they were just going away in all of that. We were always focused on what is important to your community. Right. Not everything can be dictated by national media, news organizations. Right. Where you wake up and you see what the story is of the day and the news cycle just becomes dominated by these major national themes. Within that, though, there are there are also things going on in in your community that things decisions about the curriculum at your children's school or whether or not workers are going to have a raise during the pandemic and how health care is going to work and how our nursing homes are functioning and all of these things that really are important locally, completely absent from whatever is happening on Twitter nationally in any given day. I think being able to have a trusted local news source where, you know, the people, right? People know you, they trust you, and that counts for everything. And you all at WEMU and in public media really, really help make that network of community reporting and reporters doing what they do transparently in front of the people they live and work with. You uphold those values. And it's so important. And I just applaud you.

Lisa Barry: Lynette Clemetson, director of Wallace House of the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. Thanks so much for sharing your perspective with us here on Eighty-Nine one WEMU. 

Lynette Clemetson: Thank you so much, Lisa, for having me. And I hope everyone supports WEMU. 

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— Lisa Barry is the host of All Things Considered on WEMU. You can contact Lisa at 734.487.3363, on Twitter @LisaWEMU, or email her at lbarryma@emich.edu

Lisa Barry was a reporter, and host of All Things Considered on 89.1 WEMU.
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