Wallace House announces new program aimed at revitalizing news in Midwest

Monday, November 25, 2019 - 3:29pm

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Design by Kathryn Halverson

The Knight-Wallace Fellowship — a program for accomplished journalists to study at the University of Michigan — has expanded to include two fellowship positions for leadership of beginning news operations in the Midwest. 

Wallace House Director Lynette Clemetson said the opportunity, housed within the current fellowship framework and its benefits, will allow project leaders to develop outlets focused on bringing news to the Midwest. Fellows in the new program will work with faculty in the University’s Business School and Law School and can continue to work for their operation from Ann Arbor, a responsibility fellows normally must forgo during their eight months in the program.

“When you look at the Midwest, in these areas where things have been closing, there hasn't been a rush to to address those voids and there hasn't been a rush in funding or attention,” Clemetson said. “The repercussions of local news disappearing in the Midwest are striking and quite serious, and things that I think we've all been feeling socially and politically for the past several years.”

Clemetson said the new addition to the fellowship program was inspired by a report from the Knight Center and the University of North Carolina, which found growing news deserts in the Midwest. The report found around one in four newspapers in the U.S. have shut down or merged since 2004, and approximately half of newspaper jobs have been terminated in the same period. 

Ann Arbor became the first city of any size to lose its professional daily newspaper in 2009 when the Ann Arbor News shut down and then merged with the media group MLive. The new Ann Arbor News now publishes a paper twice-weekly and online daily.

Clemetson said Ann Arbor has felt the effects of losing one of its main sources of news. She said she hopes the fellowship allows participants to build outlets to fill voids left by shuttered publications.

“People around the country have seen local news diminish, from daily newspapers to weeklies,” Clemetson said. “Even if people aren't specifically paying attention, I think it is something that people in communities have felt. We certainly have experienced that here in Ann Arbor, and it's in communities across the country.”

A gift from Ann Arbor entrepreneurs and philanthropists Dug and Linh Song funds the new opportunity within the fellowship. In addition to the $70,000 stipend and subsidized classes, seminars, workshops and travel, the two fellows will also receive six months of consulting support after the conclusion of the fellowship.

Clemetson described the Midwestern fellowship as a “concentration” within the current fellowship structure rather than a separate entity. She took inspiration from her own experiences, specifically with working on a startup for The Washington Post prior to her Knight-Wallace fellowship in 2010, as well as those of board members and former fellows into account when creating the new role.

Clemetson said she tested out how one could participate in the fellowship without completely stepping away from work. She did this with Dayo Aiyetan, a former Knight-Wallace fellow who serves as the founding executive director and editor in chief of the International Centre for Investigative Reporting, a nonprofit investigative news organization based in Nigeria. Aiyetan was able to continue completing some of his job’s duties while in Ann Arbor.

Aiyetan said he sees the opportunity as a way for leaders of developing journalism ventures to obtain additional support, while understanding they cannot completely step away from their operation. Aiyetan said there is a risk in jeopardizing the new operation’s survival if the leader steps away for a long period of time. 

“For newsroom leaders who would ordinarily not be able to lead their work for one year to come for a fellowship in Michigan, this is perfect for them so that they can be part of the Knight-Wallace Fellowship and still be able to do some of the work they will do back home,” Aiyetan said. “The person will partake in all the fellowship programs, but for that person it will be structured in a way so that you go back home and not discover that there’s no job for him again, because he has spent one year in Michigan and he’s lost everything.”

Clemetson said the selection committee will judge applicants without preference to the medium. The goal, she said, is to support new operations providing communities access to information, regardless of the way in which it is delivered.

Additionally, she noted the new option is not an incubator for ideas for potential news outlets. The traditional Knight-Wallace fellowship program allows journalists to focus on a long term project, which could be developing a new journalistic venture. However, this new opportunity is for leaders of projects already off the ground.

Clemetson said communities are negatively impacted in many ways when news organizations shutter. With the majority of journalism jobs on the coasts, she noted a lack of communication between journalists and community members can contribute to distrust in the media among Midwesterners. She said she hopes the fellowship plays a role in changing this by bringing new projects and journalism jobs into the Midwest.

“What happens when you have local news disappear is you have communities that never see someone covering their school board, they never see someone covering their city council, they’re not running into journalists at the grocery store, at church, at the gas station,” Clemetson said. “There’s the actual absence of information, but there’s also a cultural void that’s created because people aren't any longer in contact with journalists and don’t actually understand the nuts and bolts of the work that journalists do.”

Like industry professionals, students interested in the field of journalism, such as LSA junior Lindsay Calka, are hopeful this addition leads to more information to the Midwest. Calka, who volunteers for Groundcover News, a nonprofit street paper created in 2010 to provide a voice for low-income residents, said people experiencing homelessness regularly sell issues of the monthly paper as a path to employment and financial stability.

Calka said Ann Arbor has felt the impacts of having lower access to news and noted the value of journalism as a way for people to hold those who have power in their communities accountable.

“Knowledge is power, and learning about something — even if it would be like very rudimentary information about what's going on — would make people care more,” Calka said. “When people that are knowledgeable about something have a platform to share that, I think a lot of people would get on board and community organizing would be easier.”

Clemetson said the resources available at the University, such as courses in philanthropy and nonprofit business models, may be useful for fellows developing new businesses. Paired with the opportunity to learn from other fellows in their cohort, Clemetson said she hopes the fellowship allows for participants to grow their ideas and take them back to their organizations.

While Clemetson said she knows this fellowship will not solve the larger problem at hand alone, she said this issue is too important to not try to begin working on strategies to reverse its impacts.

“The problem can look so big that it feels impossible to address, but we have to start addressing it in some way,” Clemetson said. “I know that we will have a hard time turning this around, but you have to start somewhere, and certainly we have the resources here and the expertise within the fellowship and within the University to try to help the people who are interested in trying to make that map look different and who are interested in trying to revitalize journalism in an area of the country that needs it.”