I started this podcast with the intent of helping people who are not in journalism or have never met a journalist to better understand what the world of the news media is really about. Because other people, like politicians, are trying to control the narrative, I thought to take it back.
Honestly, this podcast became an effort by me to show you how the sausage is made (sorry to any vegetarians or vegans). I’m not here to say that all reporters are perfect and the news media is not fake. Sadly, some of it is.
Nope, I just want to show you that we’re humans trying our best to seek the truth and then give you all the information you can attain to become a better-informed citizen. I will wholeheartedly agree with you that we haven’t done a great job of that in many ways, but in all fairness, we’ve done a lot of great work that unfortunately gets overlooked because politicians don’t want you to see it. They want you to be angry with us, so they’ll call us names and try and convince you that we’re the villains. Well, let me introduce you to someone trying to prepare young journalists for a future in the business. Lynette Clemetson wants reporters to remember to show your work to regain trust.
TRS – Let’s talk about the audience. How do you think over your career that the audience’s needs and opinions have changed?
Lynette Clemetson – I think that in those early days of the web, we made assumptions that things couldn’t be over 600 words and people had concise attention spans, and they wanted things very quickly, and as we see now, people want much deeper substantive content, things that they can spend time with, but they want it more on their terms. They want to listen when they want to listen or watch, and they want to be able to carve out the bites on their own rather than be really driven by what is a traditional clock for broadcast. I do think that all of our consumption habits have changed. In journalism, the business model had changed, and in many cases, news organizations were just scrambling for their survival. We looked at trends and ran toward them in many cases without remembering what are our principles and what is our mission? What are we really bound and committed to doing? And so, I think many news organizations have lost their way. I mean, I think we indeed ran toward whatever shiny penny looked like survival.
TRS – It was around that time when you had every cable channel switched news to commentary. Was that the shiny penny?
Lynette Clemetson – I think that that is what people thought the shiny penny was. It is easier to have some money and just express their thoughts than to send people out in the field to do reporting. I think most reporters get into the business because they are curious about the world, and they are curious about going out and asking people questions and seeing what is happening and reflecting the world back to people in a way that helps them see what is shaping their lives. The situation we are in now has to do with fifteen years of chasing trends that were ultimately abandoned. What journalism is supposed to be serving? If we think about January 6th as a document entry of the failing of the systems in our country. One of those failings is that we allowed local journalism to crumble and disappear. That lets local communities off the hook for being invested and involved in their own systems and structures. It weakens all of our systems and structures. We can blame tech companies for that. But I think journalism failed to make a case for why and how it was necessary for people’s lives. In the past five years, I think journalism has recognized that and has started to reinvest in local news and make a case for what journalists do. But it wasn’t until somebody was out loud calling us the enemy. And people were beating up journalists at press conferences, and news organizations had to station security guards with their reporters; we started becoming very serious about making this case.
TRS – I found you in a piece in Politico. It was a piece asking, ‘is the media doomed?’ And they talked to 16 or 17 different people about where’s journalism going in the next 15 years? And I remember reading your take, which was a big focus on local. So, in the next 15 years, how do you think this industry will change or is it that you think it has to change to survive?
Lynette Clemetson – I think it has to change to survive. I think it already is starting to, and I think that there are a lot of awe-inspiring local efforts, people doing intense journalism about things that may never get national attention. I would say this about the New York Times and The Washington Post; they’re both doing outstanding journalism. The L.A. Times is making a fantastic comeback. And we’ve got a few regional papers that are holding on. Still, I think at the community level, at the ground level, thinking about local journalism in a way that is better than it was before, in a way that is more reflective of the diversity of the communities they serve more in a way that’s more focused on accountability and really looking critically at systems. That’s what’s going to get us back, I think, to get us back. I’m careful about saying back because I don’t want to be overly nostalgic about how things were, but I think it would help us get to a place where people can be functioning productive citizens because they’re armed with information.
TRS – Big tech companies are putting money into some organizations. But are they part of the solution, or are they part of the problem?
Lynette Clemetson – Newspapers were lucky if the family that owned them stayed out of the way of the editorial and didn’t try to meddle and just supported the reporting. It has always been the case that people who support journalism want some sort of a wall protecting the journalists. Journalism from the interests of the people producing the journalism has always been the case. The tech companies know that they are part of the system to help. And then journalists have to be journalists, and we have to be critical. We have to know that if you take $100000 from Google or Metta to help start or pay for a reporter or two in your local area, you have to enter those agreements to understand what that money does and doesn’t do. Understand where the money’s coming from to protect the integrity of what the money is going toward. There are people in every state that can support a symphony or a public library or a theater or an art museum. We have to make the case that those same people, that some of their money, needs to go to support journalism and. And then I have to think that we have to make the case that reporting costs money. I can tell you what I think about something, but until I go do the reporting and dig and find records and talk to people and verify my facts, which takes time. It’s not something that is best done on the cheap.
TRS – As journalists, what are we doing wrong? Do we need to go on a PR campaign to help people understand what a journalist is?
Lynette Clemetson – It’s a tricky question. PR campaigns only go so far because people understand that as PR, they understand it in some respects as spin. I think the industry is starting to learn from the fantastic data journalists who have become integral to our newsrooms that it’s that old math assignment; you don’t get total points unless you show your work. And I think we have to show our work and explain to people that this is the story we created. How do we do that? Why do we have to talk to people? I did a story recently that had to do with criminal justice, and I was talking to a family; someone was in jail, and the woman was talking to me about arrests, and I just explained, now the next thing I’m going to do is I’m going to go and look up all the records of the arrests, and I’m going to read the police version of the account of that arrest, and I’m going to compare the two. It doesn’t mean I don’t believe what you’re saying, but I have to look at it from several different angles for the work to be credible. And I think that we can explain to people how we do our work and why we’re doing it that way, to the extent that we can be transparent about when we make mistakes. That will get us some way toward having people’s trust, and again, this is where I think local is where you build that up. Because if there are journalists in a community who are running into the people they’re covering at the grocery store, and at the dry cleaners and at the coffee shop and at the park, then you can have a casual conversation if somebody thinks you did a terrible job on a story. I think it makes the reporting stronger. And it may not change everybody’s mind, but at least people can see that there’s a process to it, and it’s not just people sitting somewhere far away making things up.
TRS – You got to let them into the kitchen, see how everything is made. You’re working with younger journalists, you’re catching them at a certain point in their career, and I wonder what you’re seeing with the younger journalists?
Lynette Clemetson – I think the future is auspicious. I run the Wallace House Center for Journalists at the University of Michigan. We have two programs, the Night Wallace Fellowships, which work with more accomplished journalists. Typically the people in the fellowship are in their 30s, 40s, and sometimes their 50s. And the Livingston Awards for Young Journalists Awards, excellence in journalism by journalists under thirty-five. I tend to see journalists as sort of in those early years of their career and at the stage where they’ve had some significant accomplishments and are trying to figure out what they’re going to do next. But I’m also on a university campus where I see students interested in journalism. And I think every year. I see so much good journalism. And journalists armed with tools that I could have never dreamed of knowing how to use when I was sitting with a razor blade and tape in my hand trying to put people’s sentences together. They understand; again, I think fundamentally kind of understand this show the work thing that you can write a paragraph. One thing in American public education that I feel I see reflected in journalism now is the concept that people absorb information in various ways. There are different kinds of learners. And by the same token, there are different ways to tell a story. When I was working with teams at NPR and with multiplatform form teams, I would say, let’s start with the story and then talk about the best platform and way to do that story. When I think in the early days of the Web, whatever was your primary medium, you sort of assumed, OK, we’re going to do a three and a half minute radio story, and then you toss that over some invisible fence to the digital people, and they do their digital thing with it. And then they toss it over to the social people, and they do their social thing. And that’s not really the best way to approach storytelling. The way you communicate a story on social or, on a web page, or with numbers or graphics needs to be organic and original to that storytelling platform. And I see the young journalists interested in telling stories, really thinking about the information and who they’re trying to reach and what might be the best way to reach them. And that gives me actually a lot of hope and. And I think that we can do PR campaigns, but I think in a very old-fashioned way, we protect journalism by doing more journalism. And showing people how we do it, why we do it, and why it’s essential to involve them in the process. And realizing that there’s a whole country to cover and that it can’t just be Washington and New York and a little bit of Florida and a little bit of California and Texas. Driving what people should do or think or feel or how they should act in the rest of the country.