Director’s Update

October 19, 2022

By Lynette Clemetson

  • Article |
  • Journal |
  • Wallace House Center for Journalists |

This article appeared in the Fall 2022 issue of the Wallace House Journal

Expanding the Vision of Wallace House

Take a look at the logo accompanying this story. Wallace House is now Wallace House Center for Journalists.

What’s the point of those three extra words? 

Sharper focus. Bolder ambition. Clarity of mission.

Part of it is simply about transparency and making it easier for people to quickly understand who we are and what we do. The other motivation is to reinforce the last of those three words – Journalists.

We are decidedly not the Wallace House Center for Journalism. Of course, we work in service of the future of journalism. But as significant amounts of money and talk have been directed toward saving journalism in the past decade, life has gotten harder for many journalists. The demands are greater. The work is more dangerous. The pay is worse and less stable.

We believe that supporting journalism requires supporting individual journalists.

As we approach the 50th anniversary of our fellowship program, we realize that we are being called to help journalists in more urgent ways.

Our mission is to help accomplished, working journalists survive and thrive, to help them learn new skills, explore new ideas, pursue ambitious projects, and tackle community and industry challenges. To be better journalists. And to keep at it – even when the business makes it ridiculously hard.

Within that mission is a resolve to provide a safe haven for journalists facing threats in both the U.S. and abroad. We’re not a humanitarian relief or social service organization. But in some cases, we are ideally poised to provide the structure, resources and networks needed to help a journalist escape peril. And when we can save one journalist, we save their journalism and their voice.

As we approach the 50th anniversary of our fellowship program, we realize that we are being called to help journalists in more urgent ways. A United Nations special report released this year on the decline in media freedom documented increasing threats to journalists the world over. Backsliding democracies, totalitarian regimes and coordinated disinformation have led to more journalists killed with impunity, more online harassment – especially of women journalists and journalists of color – and increased surveillance and targeted intimidation.

We were in the process of selecting our current Knight-Wallace Fellowship class when a non-profit organization in Washington D.C. contacted me to ask for ideas on how to help a young award-winning Kashmiri photojournalist, Masrat Zahra, who was facing bogus charges brought by the Indian government under an “anti-terrorism” law that could send her to prison for seven years.

Wallace House Center for Journalists is not only concerned with international press freedom. Journalists here in the U.S. need us more than ever.

At the time, we were working with The New York Times to bring our second Afghan journalist to Ann Arbor. And as you read in our cover story, we were also working to bring Russian journalist Elena Milashina for an extended residency. What an incredible opportunity it would be to have these brave, exiled journalists here at the same time, able to learn from and support one another while also bringing so much to the other journalists in our fellowship and the university community. The logistics in the cases were complicated. But we managed to prevail and get them here.

Introducing Masrat and Elena to each other outside the Wallace House kitchen was a brief interlude crackling with possibility. These two women are the sort who make autocrats shake with rage. One day we will be able to look back and understand that journalism and the world are safer because they met one August morning in Ann Arbor.

Wallace House Center for Journalists is not only concerned with international press freedom. Journalists here in the U.S. need us more than ever.

Across all forms of journalism, there’s a hunger among audiences for more in-depth storytelling. Yet for freelance writers, magazines often offer half or less than half of what they paid five years ago for the kind of long-form investigative and narrative journalism that takes months to produce.

A recent Livingston Award winner talked movingly from the stage as he accepted his award about needing to work as a bartender so he could afford to do journalism. The modest Livingston Award prize of $10,000 was more than he was paid for the story that won that year’s award for national reporting – a story that took him six months to produce.

Another Livingston winner, a freelancer with no financial, legal or safety support, paid her own way to Somalia and lived in a leaky storage container in Mogadishu to break the investigative story that won her the award.

They are both in staff jobs now, in part because of the recognition and connections the Livingston Awards brought their way. But that doesn’t make the precariousness of their reporting lives before the award okay.

I was at a journalism conference this summer having breakfast with two Knight-Wallace Fellows when their company announced that layoffs and buyouts were coming, “urgent choices” to keep the company strong. The company’s CEO made $7.74 million in 2021.

For many years the fellowship had a rule that journalists could not actively work during the fellowship. There were reasons for that. But we have to be in tune with the realities of the business. Much of the work we have supported in the past few years – magazine pieces, podcasts, documentary films, immersive multimedia series – would not exist without the financial support of the Knight-Wallace Fellowships.

This year we are back on campus, Fellows are taking classes, and we have resumed seminars at Wallace House. And we enjoy blending the old ways with the new.

If you do a Google search, you may find that Wallace House is a historic home in Somerville, New Jersey that served as the headquarters for General George Washington in late 1778 and the first half of 1779 when the Continental Army was stationed at Middlebrook.

That’s not us.

True, we have a beautiful, historic home. We are also at battle for democracy.

But we are not that Wallace House. We are Wallace House Center for Journalists.

Lynette Clemetson is the Director of Wallace House Center for Journalists, home of the Knight-Wallace Fellowships for Journalists and the Livingston Awards at the University of Michigan. She is a 2010 Knight-Wallace Fellow.