Q&A: Sandra Clark, Vice President for News and Civic Dialogue at WHYY| Nov 21, 2016
Sandra Clark is the vice president for news and civic dialogue at WHYY. Before she took the role in August 2016, she was a managing editor at Philadelphia Media Network, publisher of the Philadelphia Inquirer, Daily News and Philly.com. She spoke about diversity in journalism on a panel last week, then sat down with the Daily Princetonian to continue the conversation and discuss where journalism is headed.
The Daily Princetonian: What were some of your highlights that you got to talk about during the panel today?
Sandra Clark: Well, we talked a lot about diversity in journalism, or the lack thereof, in many ways. Diversity is a big problem for the news media. We write about the lack of diversity in many companies, but we fail to address it in our own sometimes. Particularly, post-election, some of the things we learned were about how diversity could have been better: one of the things in the elections was there was a lot of generalizations about various groups, so there were questions about, you know, which way is the black vote going to go, which way is the hispanic vote going to go, and ironically, no one really thought about which way is the white vote going to go?
DP: Do you think there are other kinds of diversity that need to be addressed more?
SC: I think there are so many different kinds of diversity. I think the fact that many of us don’t know each other, and this also includes our own neighbors, for example, is a problem. We don’t always as a society seek out credible information and so you know it’s important for all of us to be knowledgeable about various parts of our country, regardless of what our party is or what our political views are. I think we should seek more understanding of each other than just kind of going to our corners and just kind of shouting assumptions about each other. And journalism plays a role in the knowledge that people have, and if we don’t get it right, then we haven’t done a service to our readers. And I think some people did very, very good coverage, so it’s not all journalism that didn’t get it right. We’re in a cable environment now, so obviously there’s just a lot of ratings pushings by the controversy. And most people watch television every single day, I mean, that’s just a fact. So it’s incumbent upon us to try and create understanding by listening to people rather than assuming what we know or don’t know.
DP: Absolutely. Congratulations, by the way, on your recent new position [as vice president for news and civic dialogue] at WHYY. What are you excited about in this new role, and what are some of the challenges that you see your outlet facing moving forward?
SC: Thank you. I mean, it’s two different playing fields; I moved from print to radio, which is just another distribution model. I oversee the NewsWorks’ website as well as our radio coverage, and we have several programs throughout the day, and we do news reporting and radio as well. And then we have some news coverage on television as well. So it’s interesting, I mean, there’s all these different, you know, distribution platforms for us. But the key is the same, no matter where you are: you have to write stories that serve your readers, stories that reflect that you understand the needs of your audience, stories that reflect your communities, and so in that way, it’s not different than print.
DP: What are some trends in journalism that you’re observing right now?
SC: Well, this isn’t so much a trend, but obviously our transformation to producing content for digital is huge. And technology has affected everything. So digital audiences, mobile audiences are huge, and that sometimes is a different kind of storytelling that, you know, requires a different skill, and a different attentiveness. We have radio, we have podcasts, so it’s really different skillsets and different ways of packaging information. All of it still comes down to meeting the needs of your audience, but how we do that is different. Another trend is, you know, a lot of public media stations are partnering with print journalism, because we all realize that, particularly at the local level, none of us can cover all of it. So how do we enrich our storytelling by working together in some cases rather than just thinking that we can compete or not cover something at all, because we don’t have the bandwidth to do it.
DP: So, linking to those other sites?
SC: Well, we just started a partnership with several different local media partners who cover prison reentry, and that’s gonna be very interesting, because it’s WHYY, it’s WURD which is a public radio station, Philadelphia Tribune which is a newspaper, Philadelphia Media Network, which is the biggest media company in the area, that has the Inquirer, Daily News, and Philly.com. So there’s a number of partners, and this is supported by Solutions Journalism. And so they want to see that we can come together and cover in a really important area from very different entry points and different perspectives to create the best possible package.
DP: Journalism is such a powerful tool. And obviously, especially nowadays, it’s a business, but it’s also a public service.
SC: I think that’s something we have to keep in mind. We hear, particularly from a lot of young journalists, “I like to write, and I’m interested in long-form journalism.” And what we have to remember is it’s not about liking to write: it’s about serving the public. And regardless of which way we do it, whether if it’s by digital, television, or radio, it’s about “How do we best serve our audience?” And so we don’t always focus on what the audience needs as much as we should.
DP: So, where I might want to put on my artist’s hat and write a beautiful long-form piece, I’m going to write the story that people want to read, because I know they need to learn about it?
SC: Yeah, yeah. I always put myself in the place of the audience. Not to say that I have interests that match up with everyone’s, but when I’m reading a story or listening to a radio piece, I’m always thinking as an audience member, and that’s my editor training. I’m always thinking,'Well gosh, this story is not getting to the info[rmation] I need quick enough, or it turns out to be a beautiful read and I can’t stop reading, or, if I’m listening to the radio, I’m thinking did that person ask the right question, or I’m thinking that person knows exactly what’s going on, and is now giving me useful information on top of that.
DP: What would be your biggest piece of advice to aspiring journalists?
SC: I think what I look for are people who are willing to step out of their comfort zones, who see the world in a much bigger space, with all these different nuances, who understand that people are different, who go deeper in their storytelling, or challenge their own perceptions. And I like people who speak other languages, and engage with different communities. Because I think those are the skills [one needs]. You can teach somebody to post a story, you can teach someone to attach a picture to it, what you can’t teach so well is for somebody to really, really open their eyes, and to want to reach for the mission of journalism. We need to serve all of our communities and it’s easy to kind of get caught up in certain areas, where all of your sources are the same people, where you write the same kinds of stories. We need to challenge our assumptions actively, all the time. Because what we think may be the truth may not be the truth. How do we even begin to impart understanding to others when we haven’t gone and sought it ourselves?
DP: Absolutely. I so believe in the power of journalism to heal divides and offer insights into differing viewpoints and stir up empathy. With everything going on in our country today, what does that actually look like?
SC: I think to be good journalists it calls upon us to really be critical thinkers. And it calls upon us to seek truth. And as much as we talk about audience engagement we have to challenge ourselves to engage more with different communities, because the engagement isn’t going to happen on its own.