By Ken Stone
Lynn Walsh of Ocean Beach has her work cut out.
The 30-year-old leader of NBC San Diego’s investigative team last month became national president of the 8,000-member Society of Professional Journalists — the Indianapolis-based group of news pros, students and educators with the slogan “Improving and protecting journalism since 1909.”
Walsh takes the reins amid a crisis of trust in news media and the industry’s train-wreck economics. And many reporters bemoan a presidency — Barack Obama’s — they consider painful to freedom of information.And the next Leader of the Free World could be worse.
SPJ isn’t a labor union. But as America’s largest journalism advocacy group, it has clout when it comes to promoting the right to know under the First Amendment.
“This is why we need support and help from the public,” Walsh told Times of San Diego. “Again, this isn’t my information or NBC’s information — it’s the public’s. And yes, we can sue for it, and we have and will. But really I think in general government leaders and officials don’t care if news organizations and journalists are upset with them.”
But if the public cares and presses leaders for better access to information, Walsh says, “I think we can make some progress.”
First some Walsh info, who Thursday marked her second anniversary at KNSD.
She is single, living with a boyfriend who moved to San Diego at the same time she did. “I arrived in the city … after a cross-country drive from Ohio with my younger sister,” she says.
Walsh was born and raised in Columbus, Ohio, where she caught the reporter bug early. At St. Francis DeSales High School, she signed up for a journalism class (her second choice, after yearbook) but “quickly fell in love. I became editor (along with another classmate) and just was addicted.”
While others hung out in the Senior Courtyard, she spent her last year working on the student paper. She attended Ohio University (“a truly magical place”) and the E.W. Scripps School of Journalism (“one of a kind”), graduating in 2008.
In her Emmy-winning career, Walsh spent time in Cincinnati, West Palm Beach and Houston. She’s active on social media — with 4,300 followers on her personal Twitter feed (with SPJ having its own) and Facebook account. She blogs under the title “Freedom of the Prez.” Her website is at LynnKWalsh.info. She also aggregates via paper.li in “The Lynn Walsh Daily,” has a YouTube channel, journalism-centric Pinterest page and Instagram account with 890 followers.
She loves being outside and calls herself “definitely a beach bum.” She swims, rides a bike and loves walking.
“I’m not a runner (keep saying I’ll get into it someday, but it just doesn’t happen),” she writes, “but I love going on a long walk along the water. I get so much thinking done, and I feel like it brings me clarity.”
Her KNSD team’s accomplishments include investigations into the WishWarriors nonprofit, sexual harassment by an SDSU professor, trying to verify the validity of a doctoral degree claimed by a former Serra High School principal (“We cannot verify the university exists”) and probes into the handling and storage of nuclear waste at San Onofre.
In Florida, she covered a rape survivor who brought her story to federal leaders, prompting funding for rape-kit backlog testing. She found bad gasoline that could damage vehicles at South Florida gas stations.
She highlighted how much vacant government property sits abandoned in Florida, and uncovered a change in a popular guardrail system used in U.S. roadways that resulted in people being killed after their cars were pierced by the metal after crashing into them.
In Houston, she uncovered possible illegal behavior between contractors at local schools and a school board member.
Walsh lobbies incessantly for open government. (She’s helping lead a drive that beseeches presidential debate moderators Anderson Cooper and Martha Raddatz to ask: “What steps do you believe are necessary and what policies would you implement to guarantee and advance public access to government information and sources?”)
Walsh became involved in SPJ after hearing Hagit Limor, the group’s president, speak when she had a Poynter Institute fellowship for young journalists. “I told her I wanted to get involved, and she suggested joining a national committee,” so she chaired the Generation J community group, joined the Ethics and FOIA committees “and then someone said: You should run for the national board.”
The self-described “data-viz nerd” was elected secretary-treasurer her first year on the board (2014). The next year, she became president-elect, paving the way for her current term, which began with her installation Sept. 20 at the SPJ’s New Orleans national convention.
Walsh, KNSD’s investigative executive producer, responded to email questions on a recent flight back from visiting SPJ’s Fort Worth chapter:
Times of San Diego: You’re a young leader of an old organization in an industry beset with major economic problems. How does being a 30-year-old inform your presidency?
Lynn Walsh: I bring a different and new perspective. I have seen this since I got involved with SPJ at a national level. I don’t like making it an age thing, though, because there are people twice my age on the board who think the same way. But generically speaking, I feel that because of my age, digital background and the type of newsroom I work in, I am more in touch with the current mood journalists have and climate they are working in.
Also, I consider myself a digital native. I don’t have cable and haven’t for five-plus years. I have never subscribed to a print edition of a newspaper. It doesn’t mean I don’t respect that or think they don’t matter, it’s just not how I get my news. The reality is I’m not alone. I’m one of those cord-cutting millennials news organizations are trying to find a way to reach, so I don’t have to think like them — I think like me, I am them. I can use that to help shape what SPJ does, how we communicate, etc.You’ve talked about recruiting more SPJ members as Supporters — nonjournalists paying a lower annual fee. Has a new fee been set? How would this help SPJ and journalism in general?
Yes, the new fee has been set. It’s $20. You can sign up here. The public has a right and a want to know what’s going on in our government and communities. Traditionally journalists have filled that want and need. They still are, but so are lots of others who are posting and sharing online and on social media.
So what’s happened is it’s becoming harder and harder for the public to tell the difference between what is coming from a journalist and what is coming from a nonjournalist. This has created distrust between the public and journalists. One way to combat this is education. So I hope and think that by SPJ reaching out and having conversations with the public about what journalists do, how we do our jobs, etc., we can do that.
I also love that people can now be as powerful with one tweet as an article published in The New York Times. People who are publishing online and sharing on social media are in their own way committing acts of journalism. So I want to reach out to them, ask them to join SPJ as supporters of the First Amendment, a free press, freedom of speech, government transparency. Help us protect these rights and create more openness and transparency in our government that the public has a right to.
We can’t as journalists do it on our own. We need the public to fight for these things too. In the end, it’s not about me, as a journalist. I see my role as a public servant. It’s about the public having the right and being able to exercise that right to get access to documents, information and share it with the world. SPJ can be the leader in fighting for that, along with help from other journalists, journalism organizations and the public.
For the first time, all three top SPJ officers are women. This comes at a time when women’s issues in the news industry have made headlines — such as Donald Trump’s treatment of Megyn Kelly and Roger Ailes stepping down from Fox News amid harassment accusations. Have you ever personally dealt with sex harassment, sexism or similar issues on the job?
Unfortunately I think most women in journalism can probably answer that question with a “yes.” I’ve never had anyone grab my ass, or anything like that, but let’s be honest: The news business was and in some cases very much still is “a good old boys club.” SPJ, when it was first founded as a fraternity, didn’t even let women in. Now I think it’s gotten a lot better, and it was a sign of the times, too, but it still exists.
For me personally, it’s hard to distinguish if I’m being treated differently or taken less seriously because I’m a woman or because of my age. I’ve excelled quickly in my career and although I’ve earned it and worked hard, I’m still looked at as young girl and sometimes not taken seriously.
How did you deal with this? How should women in news media deal with such issues?
Most of the time, for me, these experiences come when dealing with sources or upper management. You mention something in a meeting, a new idea, a suggestion, and it’s not until a man with more experience suggests it that it happens. Or with your sources, they call you “sweetie,” talk down to you or say: “Ask your boss, he’ll understand what I’m talking about.”
It’s frustrating. As far as dealing with it, sometimes I use it to my advantage. Playing dumb can work in your advantage sometimes. [Sources] say more than they might with someone else, but since you know your story you now have the goods to catch them in a lie. The key, I think, is to not get frustrated or discouraged about it. If you are good and you prove yourself, I’ve found that still wins out in the end, no matter your age or sex. You may have to try harder and that may not be fair, but life’s not fair. It’s also important to speak out about it or bring it to someone’s attention when it happens, though. You shouldn’t have to feel like a victim at your workplace.
One of your prime goals is improving access to public information through FOIA. But either of the major presidential candidates may prove unfriendly to your efforts. How would you work around a President Trump or Clinton, who would succeed a president with a terrible record on freedom of information?
This is why we need support and help from the public. Again, this isn’t my information or NBC’s information — it’s the public’s. And yes, we can sue for it, and we have and will, but really I think in general government leaders and officials don’t care if news organizations and journalists are upset with them. But if the public cares and shares with them that they want to see changes, that they want access to information, I think we can make some progress. I also encourage journalists and news organizations and members of the public to write about and share stories of difficulties they are having with FOIA. I’m hoping SPJ can highlight more of these cases in the coming year and encourage everyone to share them with us.Trump, in fact, has suggested he would “open up” libel laws, making it easier to sue news organizations. Aside from his lack of understanding of press law and court precedents, what would a President Trump mean for U.S. journalism?
I’m not sure either candidate would be great for U.S. journalism. Something I was reminded of from a journalist who works internationally is that what happens in the U.S. related to free speech, government transparency and a free press impacts what happens around the world. Other countries look to our laws, our actions. So if they see that the rights of the media and right of a free press are slipping, they use it to justify the changes they make. If we lower our bar, they lower theirs. For me, sharing and reminding either presidential candidate of this is imperative. I would hope anyone leading this country would still want to be the best and the leader when it comes to a free press, free speech and government transparency.
SPJ’s Code of Ethics says (among many other things): “Avoid pandering to lurid curiosity, even if others do.” But the knock on commercial news outlets — especially broadcasters — is they serve up titillating stories for the sake of ratings. Can NBC San Diego and stations like it stay in business without infotainment that comes close to crossing the line?
In my opinion, it’s not about staying in business. It’s about doing what’s right. We should not be showing video just to get more viewers or clicks. SPJ’s Code of Ethics is meant to be looked at holistically, but one section — “minimize harm” — is dedicated to these very issues. You have to weigh the public’s right to know with the impact it would have on the people involved.
This is especially important and needs to be carefully considered when covering tragic events like car accidents, shootings, rapes, assaults, etc. We need to ask ourselves if the public really needs to see the video of Ray Rice assaulting his wife in the elevator. There are arguments on either side, but we have to do it tastefully and limit the number of times we are using it if we decide to use it. I honestly think the public would prefer to not have video like that aired constantly. It’s horrifying; it’s depressing. They may want to know, but it doesn’t mean we have to bombard them with while they are eating breakfast and sitting down for dinner.
Surveys find low public trust in mainstream news media. (When asked about their own local media, confidence tends to rise.) How can SPJ help change public perceptions of news media accuracy and fairness?
I hope SPJ can help change the public perception of journalists and news orgs through education. It’s part of what I mentioned earlier. I want to reach out to the public and groups we have not traditionally spoken to and share our code of ethics, share information about FOIA. I think dialogue is a start and hopefully leads to better mutual understanding.
Outside of NBC San Diego, which local journalists do you most admire and why? Any media outlets in San Diego falling short of SPJ Code of Ethics standards? Which and why?
The local nonprofit orgs (Voice of San Diego, iNewsource) are fantastic. Having worked for a similar organization in Texas, maybe I have a soft spot in my heart for them, but they genuinely produce really great work about issues that other media is sometimes not paying attention to.
I love having a strong PBS station in the market, too. Allison Ash at Channel 10. I worked with her when I was with the E.W. Scripps company and she is a bulldog, a real fighter. She just turns story after story, and if she had more time to work on them, watch out. I get worried she’s going to scoop us.
I admire people who have been in the business for years but still go out there every day ready to fight until the end for their story. David Gotfredson at KFMB has been an invaluable partner for me and NBC when it comes to public records battles. He knows the law so well and comes prepared to take a stand for the media. We need more of that.
I will say Matt Hall and [his] U-T opinion page has been doing a little more of that, and I hope it continues. Someone I don’t personally know that well but I’m always impressed with her stories is Kelly Davis. The criminal justice system is hard to cover and sometimes the public is not very forgiving or interested, but she sticks with it.
As far as acting unethically, I guess I will say what surprises me the most with San Diego media is that with all of the news orgs that exist, we all seem to cover the same thing. Why? There’s so much going on here. While we may be in a medium-size market (DMA-wise), this is a big city/county. More than a million people depend on what we produce. We need to start acting like a larger market.
Will NBC San Diego cut you slack for your new SPJ time commitments? How much more travel do you expect to do on behalf of SPJ? In other words, how will you balance your NBC duties with the SPJ role?
NBC has been incredibly supportive of my role with SPJ, and I am beyond grateful for that. My immediate team (NBC 7 Investigates & NBC 7 Responds) is understanding and works with me, sending me links to videos via Dropbox so I can review something before it airs, texting and calling to alert me to something urgent in my inbox. I’m lucky to have their support; otherwise I wouldn’t be able to do it.
As far as more travel, it will involve more travel. I try to make it so it’s mostly weekends, red-eye flights, etc. it’s definitely going to be busy, no doubt about that. It’s all about prioritizing, though, and I also think it helps that I’m two years into my job and life in San Diego and not just beginning it.
What sparked or fostered your interest in journalism?
I was always enthralled with breaking news growing up — Columbine, the O.J. Simpson trial. My parents couldn’t keep me from watching it. I also remember being in bed growing up … my parents still watching TV shows and reading downstairs, and I would hear the sound of the NBC breaking news music. I wouldn’t go downstairs, but I would try so hard to listen. There’s something about that music, even now to this day, that makes me anxious, yet it’s also comforting, like I know something tragic is probably taking place but also I feel like I’m in good hands and will be kept informed.
There was also one story I wrote about in high school that helped me make my mind up about pursuing a career in journalism. More of the story will be published in the next edition of the SPJ Quill magazine, but here is a 15-second tease: a school fall sports pep rally is canceled because the football coach didn’t want the team distracted. Other fall sports players spoke to me and said it wasn’t fair. It started a conversation, and the pep rally was rescheduled.
I thought: Wow, a journalist can ask questions and tell a story, and it can make a difference.
As a grade-schooler, what did you want to be?
A teacher and The President. I used to play school with my [three] siblings. A family friend and my grade school lunch attendant asked us that same question one day, and I remember saying: “I want to be president.” Her son, one of my classmates, laughed, and I remember her saying: “Lynn, you will be the first female president of the United States.”
Thinking of that story now brings so many thoughts to mind. But mostly I’m grateful to have been able to grow and learn in an environment where people encouraged and stuck up for your dreams, no matter how far-fetched they seemed.
Do you have national NBC News ambitions or a longterm goal of working in another market?
This is such a hard question for me to answer, and I get asked it all the time. I think it’s because I really don’t know the answer. I haven’t had a traditional career track when compared to my peers or those that were in my position before me.
Instead of focusing on market size, I’ve really focused on where I want to live and the opportunity involved. I wouldn’t say I don’t have ambitions of a larger market or network, but really for me, it’s more about what the position would involve. I enjoy investigative and long-form projects, innovative and new media, maybe a start-up, maybe management.
At times, I think, it’s time to field-produce for the networks, seek out an opportunity overseas. Other times, the idea of being in charge at a TV station that is No. 3 or 4 in the market and being able to have free reign to disrupt the status quo is exciting. Because journalism has changed and will continue to change, I don’t think the traditional career tracks are a reality anymore. Journalists should be thinking about more than market size and moving to the network when thinking about their next move.
Anything else readers should know about your SPJ duties or intentions?
I would love their support, journalists and nonjournalists. This is a trying time, but it’s also really exciting. But what we do now really has the potential to negatively or positively impact the industry. So help us make it a positive one!
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