“NPR is a great place to work, and it’s not a place you leave lightly,” says Lynette Clemetson. But last year, she left a top job at the public radio network to become director of U-M’s Wallace House. Its Knight-Wallace fellowships for “mid-career” journalists are a sort of paid, eight-month sabbatical on campus. Clemetson, a former fellow herself, says she took the job because “I had a very strong feeling about this program. I know what it does for journalists.”
Clemetson, forty-nine, is sitting in her upstairs office in the Ann Arbor Hills house, purchased in 1994 with funds donated by journalist and U-M grad Mike Wallace. She’s enjoying a brief summer breathing space. During the school year, eighteen to twenty fellows from media outlets around the world breeze in and out. When not auditing classes, working on individual research projects, or speaking to students and community groups, they meet at Wallace House, where the walls are decorated with political caricatures by cartoonist Patrick Oliphant; over the fireplace hangs his drawing of a nickel with Barack Obama’s face replacing Thomas Jefferson’s.
A departing 2016-2017 fellow, Amy Maestas, stops in to say goodbye. She and Clemetson exchange hugs and promises to stay in touch. Senior editor of the Durango Herald in Colorado, Maestas spent her time here exploring strategies to help hyperlocal newspapers like hers thrive in an era of digital disruption. “The fellowship was everything I expected, and more,” she tells me later. Another fellow, French TV reporter Laurent Richard, had worked on the same floor where Islamic militants murdered a dozen staffers of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo; he created a nonprofit to publish the works of journalists who’ve been threatened, jailed, or killed.
“It was an eight-month life-changing experience,” says John U. Bacon, a 2005-2006 fellow and New York Times-bestselling author. Bacon says the program strengthened his writing skills (he audited a screenwriting class), gave him the time to work on a book collaboration with Bo Schembechler, and provided an introduction to Michigan Radio’s Steve Schram that led to regular on-air commentaries.
Clemetson, too, recalls her year (2009-2010) as a game-changer. Already a veteran print journalist (Newsweek, New York Times), she had just launched an online site for the Washington Post targeted at African Americans. She took classes at the U-M business school to “study startups–what worked and what didn’t, what worked editorially and what worked financially.”
Her predecessor, Charles Eisendrath, ran the program for three decades. Known for his networking skills and sartorial flair (bow ties, jaunty hats), he built the program’s $60 million endowment and turned it into a globally recognized brand. When he announced his retirement in 2015, Clemetson put her name in.
There were more than fifty candidates, but “her strengths were just obvious, beginning with her CV,” says Eisendrath. “She was a great success everywhere.” He also appreciated “her great sense of humor.”
Lynette Wellington grew up in a predominantly black, working-class neighborhood in Springfield, Ohio. Her dad was a railroad electrician and her mother managed apartments. The older of two girls, she was a good student, but her passion then was for dance, not writing.
That changed when she got into journalism at the University of Pittsburgh. She couldn’t afford to take an unpaid internship, so she got a job at a local radio station–“running the boards and cutting [magnetic] tape, the way radio used to be.”
After graduating in 1990, she studied Mandarin Chinese in Taiwan. There she met her husband, British-born Gary Clemetson; they married in Hong Kong in 1994.
By then, she’d completed a master’s in East Asian studies at Pitt and launched her journalistic career. As a stringer for Newsweek, she covered the dramatic period when Great Britain transferred control of Hong Kong to China. “It was as big a story as any in the decade,” she says. She recalls watching in a downpour as the British flag was lowered for the last time.
Her work in Hong Kong led to a job as a Newsweek correspondent and a 2000 cover story about Oprah Winfrey’s media empire. Then based in the magazine’s Washington bureau, Clemetson scored a coup when Winfrey agreed to an in-depth interview. “I think I spent more time with her than any other journalist,” Clemetson says, sounding awed. Watching how carefully Winfrey read an invoice that an aide presented, she filed away a lesson in the importance of detail in management.
In 2002, Clemetson went to the Times as a national correspondent in the Washington bureau. She embedded with the navy during the Iraq war, covered the creation of the National Museum of African American History and Culture, and wrote about NPR’s growing pains. “I thought I’d spend the rest of my career” at the Times, she says. But five years later, the Post hired her to launch TheRoot.com, a step that led to her own fellowship in Ann Arbor.
Clemetson first visited Wallace House in the late 1990s, when a friend gave a lecture there. “I remember stepping into this house–oh, what a beautiful place!” she recalls. Though Harvard and Stanford also offer journalism fellowships, Michigan’s was the only one she applied to. Afterward, she spent a year at the Pew Center on the States before joining NPR.
Clemetson is already making Wallace House more visible, encouraging fellows to speak out on important issues ranging from the Flint water crisis to Russian trolling on the Internet.
“We have to be in close contact with news leaders and journalists … so that people see us as part of the continuum of journalism,” she explains. “We do know that democracy cannot function in a healthy way without journalism.”
“Lynette wants to make sure [the fellowships] are not just a replenishing of mind and soul,” says Margaret Low Smith, her boss at NPR. “The hope is that in some way you are galvanizing journalists to make some sort of transformational changes when they go back to their positions.”
Clemetson and her husband, an administrator with Lenawee County’s economic development group, are settling into Ann Arbor. Surprised by the high cost of homes here, they’re renting a house on the north side. Daughter Chelsea, twelve, and son Ellis, nine, attend Ann Arbor STEAM.
At Eisendrath’s retirement bash, he gave Clemetson one of his hats as a gift. She thanked him but doesn’t plan to wear it. “I don’t have a head for hats,” she explains.
Besides, she says, “I’m not the next Charles. I’m the first Lynette.”