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October 12, 2008
Lynette Clemetson
Managing Editor, The Root
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Info: Our guest is Lynette Clemetson, Managing Editor of The Root. The Root is a website of news and commentary about politics, social issues, and the arts. It is geared toward an African-American audience. It was started earlier this year by The Washington Post Company. The Editor-in-Chief is Henry Louis Gates, Jr. of Harvard University. Lynette Clemetson has also written for Newsweek, The New York Times and other publications.

Uncorrected transcript provided by Morningside Partners.
C-SPAN uses its best efforts to provide accurate transcripts of its programs, but it can not be held liable for mistakes such as omitted words, punctuation, spelling, mistakes that change meaning, etc.
C-SPAN/Q&A Host: Brian Lamb September 29, 2008 1:30 p.m. EST

BRIAN LAMB, HOST, CSPAN Q&A: Lynette Clemetson, what is TheRoot.com?

LYNETTE CLEMETSON, MANAGING EDITOR, THEROOT.COM: TheRoot.com is an online magazine that focuses on provocative commentary and analysis of politics, social issues, and the arts from a variety of perspectives aimed at a predominantly African-American audience or a predominantly black audience. The reason I qualify that is because I think, while the bulk of our audience is African-American, when we say the term ”black,” we take in the diaspora. And so we have readers in England, we have readers across Africa and the Caribbean, we have a writer who’s been writing for us from – a Haitian writer who’s in Berlin now. And so we are – we take in the black experience in its fullness and we’re Web only.

LAMB: When did it start?

CLEMETSON: We launched on January 28, two days after the South Carolina Primary. And when the site was conceived, the previous year I don’t think any of us knew the political year that we were launching into and from the weekend that we were preparing for the launch, it become clear that our plans to provide a platform for a greater diversity of black voices to join in the political social debate, it was going to be an important time for that.

LAMB: Who owns it?

CLEMETSON: It’s owned by The Washington Post Company, which – I’ll tell you a funny story about that. You know, every year there is a conference of the National Association of Black Journalists, and every four years there is a joint conference called the Unity Convention, and it’s the National Association of Black Journalists, Asian Journalists, Latin American Journalists, Native American Journalists. And so we were at the Unity Convention this summer in Chicago and we were at the ”Washington Post” table.

And the funniest thing that happened was this one young man who had been reading TheRoot because it’s not branded. It’s just branded ”The Root.” You don’t know that it’s owned by The Washington Post Company. And he came up and he saw the affiliation and said, You’re owned by the ”Washington Post?” He was – he was crestfallen. He was so upset because he found out that this Web site that seemed so subversive that he had been reading and he loved was owned by the man. And so that was – that was our funniest experience to date.

LAMB: What does it mean – ”owned by the man?”

CLEMETSON: Owned by corporate media, and when you think about the Web and what a lot of people who take to Web only publications whether they be blogs or more magazine formats like ours, they’re coming to the Web for this place to share their voice because they feel like they’re not represented in mainstream media.

And so to find out that this place that you came to that you thought was this sort of thumb in the eye to mainstream media is in fact owned by The Washington Post Company, I think the young man was a bit sad. But he still reads ”The Root.”

LAMB: When it was announced, one of the publications suggested that it started when Henry Louis Gates and Donald Graham served on the Pulitzer Prize Board together. Is that true and can you explain it?

CLEMETSON: That’s right. That is a true story. So, Henry Louis Gates Jr., who is Editor-in-Chief of ”The Root,” did serve on the Pulitzer Board with Don Graham. And to hear Skip – Dr. Gates and Don talk about it, they – when they joined the Board together, they did not necessarily get along. You know if Skip said it was up, Don said it was down, and they had somewhat of an adversarial relationship.

And then one day as they began spending more time together, Don approached Skip and said, ”You know we ought to do something together. I think we ought to do a project together, and how about a Web site?” And that’s how it started, and then last – about a year ago actually, last October Skip called me and asked if I would be interested in talking about it, and that’s how my involvement began.

LAMB: How did you know him and what were you doing at the time?

CLEMETSON: You know I didn’t know him – actually didn’t have a real relationship with him. I had interviewed him before. I had been a reporter at the ”New York Times” four or five years and before that I had been with ”Newsweek” for six years, and, in the course of my reporting, did a lot on racial issues but not exclusively but things that involved race and ethnicity.

And so I had interviewed him, but I had also worked for The Washington Post Company because I had been with ”Newsweek.” And so I think in tossing names around, the people at the ”Post” threw out the name of some journalists and mine came up. And I had post-experience and race experience and journalism experience, and so they called.

LAMB: Where did you grow up?

CLEMETSON: I am from Springfield, Ohio, which is in between Dayton and Columbus. And my – I went to school – University of Pittsburgh. My grandfather’s family was from the Pittsburgh area around Donora and Monongahela. And so, the bulk of my people are swing state people.

LAMB: How would you describe your life growing up in Springfield, Ohio and what were your parents like and are they still alive?

CLEMETSON: Yes, my mom and dad are both still alive. Springfield is a small town. I think now the size of the city is maybe 70,000. And it’s one of these towns where you know everybody through church or school or some combination of those things. And I grew up in what had been always, for as long as I could remember a black – predominantly black neighborhood, very working class.

And my father worked for the railroad – he just retired a year-and-a-half ago, but worked for the railroad my entire life as an electrician and signalman, and my mother worked in real estate and building management and raised us. And we lived with my grandparents and sort of a simple life. Very – not you know – it’s – I think the things that I did when I left Springfield to go to college were not things that my friends usually did.

LAMB: Why? Do you have any remembrance on why?

CLEMETSON: You know I mean I think that it’s these Midwest stories are – a lot of them are the same. You know you have towns that are supported in large part – when I was young, the town used to be supported by International Harvester, and a lot of people graduated and you went to work for International Harvester. And then that went away and then by the time I graduated high school, there was a Honda plant in Dayton, Ohio, and a lot of people graduated and went to work for the Honda plant. And you know married someone from high school and stayed close to home or went to one of the many great schools in Ohio and you know have a nice simple life.

And it’s not – you know I don’t – I don’t – I say that sort of with a mix of nostalgia and it’s obviously – I’m not trying to paint a Norman Rockwell painting, but it is a fairly simple, very familial existence. And people are close and stay close. And so I think my decision to move away and to explore – when I went to Pittsburgh, for me Pittsburgh was a really big city and it was a big leap forward for me.

LAMB: What, though – what got you interested in going away and going to Pittsburgh?

CLEMETSON: You know I just wanted to – I just wanted to – there are great schools in Ohio, but I wanted to be a little bit far away, and so Pittsburgh, because my grandfather’s family was there, was far enough away to be away, but close enough to still have family and still have you know places to go do laundry and still a drive away from home when I needed to get home. It was just four hours.

LAMB: What did you study at the University?

CLEMETSON: So, I did my undergraduate in English Writing and I did my Masters Degree there. I ended up staying in Pittsburgh and doing a Masters Degree in East Asian Studies. And that’s where things took off and that’s what led me down the career path that eventually led to ”The Root.” And I think that the time that I spent – in my junior year at Pitt I did a program called Semester at Sea where you travel around the world on a ship and you study. And it’s not like a cruise; it’s like a floating university. And that was my big first experience abroad.

And it – the year that I went was 1989 – the fall of 1989. Tiananmen Square had happened that summer. And so I think in the same way that after 9/11 you saw a lot of college kids becoming interested in studying Arabic and traveling and doing Middle Eastern studies, for me doing that trip and traveling through Asia in 1989 got me very interested in Asia, interested in China studies, and very interested in Mandarin Chinese which I thought was an amazing beautiful lyrical language that I had to learn. And so I knew that I wanted to go into journalism and I knew that I wanted to learn Chinese, and so I decided to put those two things together and set my sights on becoming a foreign correspondent.

LAMB: How good is your Chinese today?

CLEMTSON: You know my Chinese – sometimes I see people write that I’m – that I’m fluent in Chinese. I think that fluency is a word that most people shouldn’t use with Chinese. I like to say conversant. I think it’s a lot different than Spanish or French or German. There’s the speaking, and then there’s the reading and writing with the character system. And so to have real fluency and literacy, I think that it’s quite difficult. But I’m still pretty – I’m still pretty conversant in simple conversation. If it gets into a matter of politics or military discussions, I’m very rusty now and couldn’t really hold my own. But I do OK still.

LAMB: How did the daughter of a railroad brakeman afford to go at the Semester at Sea?

CLEMETSON: Young scholarship. I was a good student.

LAMB: Is that the same thing that happened at the University of Pittsburgh – scholarship?

CLEMETSON: Yes. Well, no. So, University of Pittsburgh was a sort of combination of student loans and like everybody goes through. But Semester at Sea at the time was administered out of the University of Pittsburgh, and so I applied for a scholarship through the Study Abroad Office at University of Pittsburgh and got it. And it was life changing. I mean really I – everything that happened afterward is a result of that Study Abroad experience when I was a junior. And I still – I’m very – I really – when I talk to students I really press the importance of Study Abroad. I’m on two boards now at the University of Pittsburgh – one for the Center for Asian Studies and one for the Center for – the International Studies. And I go back often – was there recently and as much as I can talk about Study Abroad, I do because it’s – I know the value of it personally.

LAMB: Where did you go right out – so, you got your Masters Degree. Where’d you go to work?

CLEMETSON: So, I – all during undergrad, needed to work, and so there’s a black-owned radio station that’s based in Pittsburgh that was when I was in school called Sheridan Broadcasting Network, now called American Urban Radio Network. And I started there when I was 19 running the board for radio shows and producing radio shows. And I did that all through college and did a number of jobs there. By the – by the time I finished, I could do just about everything that you can do at a radio station, from reporting to cutting and splicing audio to producing to hosting. And I worked there all through undergrad.

And so, when I graduated, I just simply took a full-time job there. And I did that for a year while I was applying to Graduate School and then jumped into Graduate School full-time. And while I was in Graduate School, I still needed to work and so I worked in the newsroom part-time, on Saturday nights I deejayed a hip-hop show in Pittsburgh on the local radio station there to help pay the bills during Graduate School.

LAMB: Any old tapes of that?

CLEMETSON: They exist somewhere. I would like to find out who has them so I could steal them and get rid of them. But yeah, I’m sure they exist somewhere.

LAMB: So, after all that experience, when did you first go to work for a publication of any kind?

CLEMETSON: Right. So, I started Graduate School and started East Asian Studies focusing on Chinese. I got a scholarship to go study in Taiwan, and I spent just under two years in Taiwan and then moved to Hong Kong. And I’d just finished – I finished my Masters Degree in that – in that – the end of that time in Taiwan, and my aim with all of it was to be in Hong Kong by 1997 which was when China – when Hong Kong reverted from British rule back to Chinese rule.

And it was this amazing social, political change that was one of these rare news events that you knew in advance that it was coming and you knew that it was going to be this big thing and you could actually plan for it and plan to be there. And I wanted so much to cover it, and so I went to Hong Kong in ’94 – at the end of ’94 and started freelancing. And my first job in Hong Kong was with Turner Broadcasting. They were launching TNT and Cartoon Network in Asia, and they hired me to manage their language department for on-air interstitials – you know, ”Up next on Cartoon Network, 6:30 – ”The Flintstones” – to get all of that into Mandarin and to Thai.

And I had the unique combination of skills of knowing radio production and voiceover work and knowing Mandarin and knowing something about writing that made me a strangely qualified person for that job. And I took that job to get to Hong Kong, and then started freelancing for the ”Far Eastern Economic Review” and for ”Newsweek,” and ”Newsweek” turned into a job.

LAMB: When you were doing the – did you do voiceovers yourself?

CLEMETSON: I did. I did. I did, again, to – because I went to Asia not as an ex-pat, but really on you know shoestring budget coming out of graduate school and my husband, who I married in Hong Kong – met in Taiwan and married in Hong Kong, he and I were really scraping when we went to Hong Kong. It’s a – it’s a very expensive place. And so I had done radio and so on the side while I was freelancing, I got work doing voiceover for Sky Television which is owned by Rupert Murdock. And so there was a time in Hong Kong and throughout Asia because Sky satellite TV and so you would get in Dubai and in India that if you were in a hotel in Dubai, I had people say that they heard me because I did all the commercials for ”Baywatch” and for ”Bold and the Beautiful.” And for all manner of Infomercial for Sky Television. And even after I left and came back to the States, some of these things still ran, and so I would see travelers and journalists who would say they’d be in Bombay and they were at the Shangri-La and heard me doing a Valentino commercial at two o’clock in the morning.

LAMB: How long did you live in Hong Kong?

CLEMETSON: For four years.

LAMB: I’ve got a piece that you wrote for ”Newsweek” back May fourth, 1998, and the headline on it is ”Soul and Sushi.”


LAMB: That I grabbed this paragraph. It’s – you wrote, ”More commonly, blacks struggle against stereotypes exported through American media that they can sing and dance or that they are lazy and violent. Quote – there is a big difference between plain ignorance and real hostility says – is it Carlyle Peake?

CLEMETSON: Uh huh...

LAMB: A debt analyst with Merrill Lynch in Hong Kong. You get some crazy comments in Asia, but it’s not deep and hateful the way it can be in the United States. And the stereotypes are relatively easy to overcome. When Reginald Canal… or Canal? …


LAMB: … 29, came to Hong Kong and the Shanghai Banking Corporation from New York last summer as a project consultant, coworkers were thrilled at the prospect of beefing up the basketball team. Quote – ”I didn’t know how to break it to them, says Canal laughing. I’m, like, the only guy in America who can’t play basketball.” What’s the background on all that?

CLEMETSON: So, I’m so glad that you found this story. It remains one of my favorites because it was one that was deeply personal to me. And the – this story came about because in my time in Asia, whether it was in Beijing or Taiwan or in Hong Kong, I got used to a question that I would get over and over again from white colleagues – white ex-pats would come up to me and ask me very earnestly, ”How is it for you? Are you doing OK here?” And you know I knew immediately what they were asking, and – but I would make people just ask the question. And I would prod people and they would say, ”Well, it’s so racist here. Isn’t it hard for you?”

And my answer, and the answer to – that all of these people gave in this story was that it was – it was an interesting question to have someone pose because my answer to people was, ”Racist compared to whom? I think you feel it because you’re different here as a white person, and so you’re feeling something that as a black American, most African-Americans are used to feeling quite a lot.” And so what you find in Asia or in anywhere – I mean I’ve been to a lot of countries – every place has prejudice and that’s just a fact of life, but this notion that somehow an African-American would have it harder in Asia, I actually think it’s just the reverse.

I think if you grow up in the United States having to navigate these minefields of race and class and all of our history here, that in fact you are uniquely qualified to travel and have these multicultural international experiences because you know – you know the tension points and you know – and you can figure out the backdrop and understand what people are saying when they have – when they don’t have very much information about you.

And so, I pitched this story to my editor, Steve Strasser, who is a great guy, was a fabulous editor and still really good friend, and, ”You know I really want to write about this.” But of course I was a reporter. I didn’t – I don’t write editorials or commentary. And so as I was doing my regular reporting as – I was Hong Kong correspondent for ”Newsweek,” but I covered Southeast Asia so I covered Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore, Malaysia, the Philippines, South China, Vietnam.

And so, as I would travel just doing regular stories, in each country I would just gather string on this and find you know the black professionals in Tokyo or in Singapore, in Taipei or Hong Kong, and just start interviewing them. And I probably worked on that story for six to eight months and until I talked to enough people to feel confident that my experience was a broader experience and worth – and something worth commenting on. And I wrote it and it got a lot of attention. And …

LAMB: Do you feel more or less prejudice, like, in Hong Kong than you do in the United States?

CLEMETSON: Well, I think the passage that you read I think was a good choice because what the woman was saying is that in some ways it was easier to unravel when you – when you came up against it in Asia because it wasn’t based in a real experience and real history. Based a lot of times on what people saw in media, what they’d seen in movies or read in books or saw on TV.

And so it was mainly based in ignorance and of course anywhere prejudice and racism is based in ignorance, but when it’s your own culture, it’s also very deeply rooted and it can be harder to shake. And you know I remember being on a train in China and some woman – really friendly woman sitting next to me and she asked me how many guns I had. And you know you just chuckle at a question like that because she was just making conversation and asking a question that she just assumed I must have guns because all of the things that she had seen were that black people had a lot of guns and were very violent.

And you know it was a teachable moment. We had a real conversation and by the time we got off the train, I feel like I had been an ambassador in Asia and that woman knew something that was more than – more than the stereotype, more than the conventional wisdom. And I think those experiences then really helped shape and form what we’re trying to do at TheRoot because, again, I think we’re creating a conversation and a space for debate where we can show more diversity of thought and a level of depth and interest in news and politics than may still be the conventional wisdom.

LAMB: For years with ”Newsweek” owned by the ”Washington Post,” ”Newsweek Corporation. TheRoot owned by the ”Washington Post.” I know you had an interim six years at the ”New York Times” which we’ll come back to a moment. But what is your job? Explain what you do at TheRoot and how many people work there now?

CLEMETSON: So, I’m Managing Editor of ”The Root.” And when we started, we launched with a real core day-to-day staff of three people – myself, a deputy editor, Terence Samuel, a wonderful newspaper guy who also had made a foray into the Web, and Natalie Hopkinson, Associate Editor who came from the ”Post’s” Outlook Section. And it was the three of us.

And what did we do? We did everything. You know learning how to cultivate writers, take – get freelance articles, publish them on the Web site. We know have a grand total of five people working day-to-day on TheRoot as long – along with the Publisher. And we have – so, the core editorial staff is still very small. The thing that makes the TheRoot different is that we have no reporters. There are no staff writers at this point. It’s all freelance and it’s all commentary and analysis with some reported pieces thrown in here and there.

So, every day it’s this grand task of soliciting good, strong ideas from people and sorting through unsolicited submissions for things that will crack the surface and contribute to the discussion that we’re having on the site. So, the – so, there’s that – the core editorial job. Also as Managing Editor, I’m responsible for helping to build the business and the brand, and that’s something that as a reporter I actually had never dabbled in before and you know most reporters are very proud to say that they know nothing about the business side of the publication they work for and you take great pride in that.

And now suddenly I’m in the world of the Web where building the brand, knowing about advertisers and how you court advertisers, and knowing deep, real information about your audience and your demographic and how people read on the Web and how you cultivate them – this is what – the big challenge of the job is that’s completely new to me. And it takes up a lot of time, but it’s fascinating.

LAMB: On the Web site, there is a video – it’s two minutes long – of Henry Louis Gates Jr. talking about something. I want the audience to see this and have you explain it to us.

CLEMETSON: Sure, sure.

VIDEO BEGINS HENRY LOUIS GATES, JR., EDITOR-IN-CHIEF, THEROOT.COM, PROFESSOR HARVARD UNIVERSITY: I’m Henry Louis Gates Jr. and I’m a Professor at Harvard University, as well as the Editor-in-Chief of the TheRoot.com. Let me introduce you to the tools that you can use to build your family tree and explore your roots. Discovering your family history can be fascinating, but it can also be intimidating. We’re here to help. TheRoot.com offers easy-to-use tools that make the whole process less daunting and far more rewarding. Let’s begin with our family tree builder.

With just a few clicks, this amazing tool gets you started. And as you build your family tree, you can share it with your family and your friends. You can even map the geographical locations where your ancestors were born or where they live. When the paper trail ends, you can turn to the emerging science of DNA testing. Through a partnership with AfricanDNA.com, a company that I co-founded with Family Tree DNA, we can trace your roots all the way back to their likely origins by analyzing your DNA.

Now, while this is still an evolving science, answers to many of your questions about your roots are hidden right on the tip of your tongue. With a swab of DNA taken from your mouth, scientists will perform a series of tests that can with a reasonably high degree of accuracy trace your ancestors back to the regions from which you are descended. AfricanDNA.com offers two important tests. The maternal test examines the mitochondria received by both women and men from their mothers. The paternal test is for males only and uncovers the secrets in the Y chromosome which are passed down from father to son. Our goal at TheRoot.com is to make your journey into your family’s past simple, rewarding, and fun.


LAMB: First question to you – have you done it?

CLEMETSON: I did. I did it before the site was launched and traced my—I swabbed – sent away for the kit and swabbed and traced my mitochondrial DNA – my mother’s line because I’m a woman. That’s what you can trace. And it came back that I had the most matches in Mozambique with some in Angola and some in Italy. And I asked Skip about the Italy part and he said it had to do with the migration of peoples and where people ended up through the slave trade.

LAMB: What’s your dad? He got left out in this deal.

CLEMETSON: Yes, it’s – I don’t – you know I don’t know enough about the science of DNA testing to know how. Now we could – I haven’t just because I’ve been so busy with the editorial portion of ”The Root.” I thought I’d spend all of this time tracing my family history. I really haven’t had time. We’ve done some on my mother’s mother’s side, and I haven’t jumped over to the father’s side to really jump into it.

But people are you know quite fascinated by this and I think the idea – this gets back to the core idea for the founding of TheRoot and Professor Gates and Don Graham’s idea for starting the site and how we merged it into this magazine. And I think it’s important to look at and listen to this conversation about genealogy because it is such a rich and growing important area for African Americans because it allows us to tap into a history that had been locked off to us, that because of slavery, if you were trying to search your roots, you’d get to a certain point and your paper trail just would go cold. And so, there’s this resurgent interest in really trying to go back as far as we can.

Why I think it’s important to the editorial mission of TheRoot because really it gets at a dual mission for the site. There’s this family history part; then there’s the magazine. The reason that they work well together and that they’re important together is because part of the mission of the site is to send the message that we are grounded in our history to shape our future and that it’s knowing our history and embracing it and its fullness that allows us to participate in these discussions about politics and social issues and leaders and who the new black voices are because we can see the people that they’re tied to.

LAMB: When the ”New York Times” wrote up the announcement, they said in their story – a publication you came from – that the DNA part of this, and Mr. Gates referred to this as co-owned by Mr. Gates, and then they said, ”A relationship that would be prohibited at some publications.”

CLEMETSON: Uh huh...

LAMB: Explain the journalism of all this. In other words, what’s going to drive this site?


LAMB: Will this drive it more than the journalism?

CLEMETSON: Right now the magazine is driving the site, and I don’t know whether that is – I think in large part, that’s a function of the political year that we’re in. People want to talk about politics right now and if you want to talk about Barack Obama in this race, TheRoot is a place that you come to for a discussion that you can’t have in other places. And so, that really has been the driving force of the site in a way that maybe people hadn’t anticipated before.

The – I do want to answer, though, the question about the prohibited lines there. We were very conscious of that before, and when you go to the site, there’s a full disclosure. And though Professor Gates does have a stake in this company, we direct people to several companies where if you want to have your DNA testing, you can go to any number of and there are links to all of the companies that do this testing and so you’re not – in fact, you have to actually read through all the other companies before you can actually click a button and be put through to his company.

LAMB: When you got up every morning at ”Newsweek” and when you got up every morning at the ”New York Times” as a journalist, you had a certain mindset. When you get up every day at TheRoot.com, is there a change in what you’re thinking and what drives you when you go to work and what motivate – you know in other words, the motivation – do you think differently about journalism?

CLEMETSON: It’s very different. It’s very different. I don’t think I think – I don’t think I think any differently about journalism. I mean the core values of journalism and what real reporting brings to the conversation are unchanged. I think part of the reason that I decided to accept this challenge to start TheRoot is because in real journalism, one thing’s become clear – that reporters need to know a bit about the Web. And as I thought about it and what is happening to newspapers, I thought, ”Well, I can either write stories for the Web at a print publication or I can really jump in and try to see what all this business is about by starting a Web company.”

And so, the journalism is second nature to me. What I wake up every day and think I would want to write about hasn’t changed. So, because that’s still in my nature and my core, it’s not the thing that keeps me up at night or the thing that jumps – makes me jump in the morning. It’s this business about how do you create a Web site, how do you grow an audience, how do you create content that is commentary and analysis?

Now, this is really murky area, I think, for journalists and I – and I struggle with this about creating a site that’s built around opinion and creating an atmosphere where we can promote opinions without being a marketplace of nasty ideas and ranting. And you know when I talk to writers, sometimes I will say that you know people send ideas and if I turn them down, I mean I’ve had this discussion several times that TheRoot is a place where we debate. It’s not a place where we rant.

LAMB: Give us some of the names – like Charlayne Hunter-Gault, Gwen Ifill, Jack White. I mean I can …

CLEMETSON: Well, that’s – that’s – I mean that’s one of the things that’s been really fascinating about creating this space because what we really are trying to do is create a community, create a family, and we’ve had everyone from Alice Walker who wrote a wonderful, amazing piece for our site that was heavily picked up around the Web on her support of Obama and feminism. Early in this there’s been a lot of talk about race and gender in this campaign and it’s been very heated. And she wrote a piece – actually could never have run in a newspaper because it was 2,200 words and she sent it in and we looked at it and it was very Alice Walker and it was amazing.

LAMB: Did you have to pay her?

CLEMETSON: We did not for that. So, we pay for writers that we solicit content for and for basic stories. If a politician or somebody wants to write something that’s more like an op ed, then we treat it like an op-ed. But for freelance writers or for regular stories that we solicit. Then there’s a small…

LAMB: Do you have to be black?

CLEMETSON: No, no. Actually we – there’s a story that we got in today from this writer who has had a very unusual wit and he submitted a story to us early in the primary. Just a little comedy piece. It was an open letter to Michelle Obama, begging her to let Barack have a cigarette because he – this writer was making the argument that the wear and tear of the campaign was showing on him and he was really stressed out and he’d do much better if he could just go have a smoke. And that was a piece by a white grad student in New York who has written pieces for us since then.

And no, you don’t – you don’t. You just have to – you know I tell people all the time, you don’t have to be black to write for the site. You don’t have to be black to read the site. You just have to be willing to participate in the community of ideas and the discussion that we’re having, and I think that’s what makes it a really robust space.

LAMB: Let me ask you – I think I would call this a generic question – couple of them, and that is it’s about Barack Obama. What happens in your opinion in the black community if he wins? What’s the reaction? What things happen beginning November 5?

CLEMETSON: If he wins?

LAMB: If he wins.

CLEMETSON: I think you know November 5 you just see a lot of people walking around stunned and in shock.

LAMB: Why?

CLEMETSON: You know I mean think about this campaign and think about the suspension of disbelief that people have had to apply to get themselves down this road that if you were talking – I mean as I said, when we conceived the idea for ”The Root,” there was no serious talk of an Obama presidency. No one could get their head around that.

And then Iowa happened and then South Carolina happened and then you go down this road but at various points along this road, if you really look at the trajectory, black Americans were some of the slowest to come to believe that this could actually happen because they know too much about the history that we come – have come from to actually allow themselves to believe it.

And so I think you know one of the things that we witnessed on the site is that after the Republican Convention and the bump that comes with any convention – there’s a – there’s a bump. And so if you’re somebody who has really studied politics for a long time, you see the bump that happens after a Republican Convention and you realize it’s part of the cyclical pattern that’s natural.

But people who had become very invested in this campaign and who had allowed themselves to believe that this thing could happen were – I think a lot of people and a lot of what we got coming into the site was that, ”See? Oh, gosh, you know this was exactly what we knew would happen.” And people then had their hopes dashed.

And so, it’s an extraordinarily emotional experience politically, personally, historically. And so whether he wins or loses, the arc of emotion and the – and what people are going to go through is going to be extraordinary. I mean if he wins, there’s going to be this whole rich conversation happening around – we ran a story on the site called ”When the Man Is One of Us.” And what happens – because of course if there is a President Barack Obama, he is not going to magically be able to heal all of the things that ail black America in particular. And so how do you combat the system? How do you talk about the man, the government, the oppressive nature of the system when it is led by a black man?

LAMB: What is expected in your opinion, and I know you can’t speak for the black community, but what’s expected? And what are the chances that what’s expected cannot be delivered? That’s what I’m getting at – and – if he – if he wins?

CLEMETSON: Well, I don’t – you know I think that – I think that the electorate is more sophisticated than that and I think really based on everything that I’ve heard and read and the conversations I’ve participated in that people are not expecting a magic bullet. I think what they’re expecting is a much more nuanced, long-running trajectory of change. And so when I hear people talk about it, a lot of what I hear people respond to is, my goodness, their daughters and their sons being able to see Malia and Sasha in the White House and being able to see Michelle in the White House. There are things like that.

And of course, you know there’s the symbol of Barack Obama himself and what that will mean if you’re a teacher and you’re working in schools where you’ve got intractable achievement gaps and low expectations and these problems have seemed so insurmountable, and you actually have something that people look at and see real concrete promise. I mean those are the things that people are expecting more than there will be no more poverty.

I do think one thing that is concrete that I’ve heard expressed quite a lot that people are expecting immediately is that I think that there’s been a lot of expectation that he will really heal the position of America in the world and that that is something concrete that people expect him to be able to do and will be watching for him to do and will be disappointed if he doesn’t do. But things that are specific to race, I actually think people are more sophisticated than that.

LAMB: If you look who’s around him, there’s not an unusual group of Black Americans that work for him around him. I mean there are Susan Rice and Valerie Jarrett. Others are – you see them, but not an unusual number. Do you – does the black community expect the Cabinet to be three-quarters black?

CLEMETSON: I don’t know if that – you know I would say no. I mean, again, I think that – I think that people who are really keeping up with the political process have more realistic expectations and if you have three-quarters of the Cabinet black but they’re not doing anything to really address concerns – I mean I don’t – I don’t think that there’s – that there is so much expectation put on numbers. I think it’s, ”Who do you have on your team who knows what to do?”

LAMB: OK. What’s going to be the reaction if he loses?

CLEMETSON: You know I think – so, I think the emotion swings in the other direction. I think that you know I’ve heard some people say, ”Oh, gosh, will there be riots in the streets and” – I don’t think so. I think that – I think that there will be more sadness than raw anger, but I do think, and this is a conversation that I’ve had more and more in the past couple of weeks that again, just like the expectation for change if he wins is a more nuanced, unfolding, long-term process, that the loss if he loses is also seen as something that is an erosion that we’ll see played out over several years.

So, if you take the opposite side of that coin that you are suddenly able to reach school children with a real role model that allows them to see promise, if the message then that people take away is, ”See? You can have all of this experience and all of these credentials and all of this support and in the end, still not cross over,” then the weight of having to have that discussion with people and what people might take away from that is a very heavy loss that we might see played out in really unfortunate ways.

LAMB: You were with the ”New York Times” or six years and on February 4, 2007 …

CLEMETSON: I know what you’re going to say.

LAMB: … I’ll just read what you wrote. ”Senator Joseph R. Biden’s characterization of his fellow Democratic Presidential Contender, Senator Barack Obama, as quote, ”The first mainstream African American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy” was so painfully clumsy that it nearly warranted pity.


LAMB: Why have we not heard more about this since he was chosen?

CLEMETSON: I think we heard a little bit about it.

LAMB: A little bit, but we haven’t heard a lot about it. I mean if you compare this to the things that have been written about Sarah Palin, you’ve not heard this …

CLEMETSON: Well, although I think you haven’t this specifically. What you hear in general is Biden with his foot in his mouth, which is what this incident of him calling Barack Obama bright and clean and articulate. This was one in a string of Biden gaffs that have become really well known. And so I think people have talked about the Biden gaff as a collective and maybe have not zeroed in on this because if Obama didn’t zero in on it, maybe why should other people?

LAMB: Did TheRoot.com zero in on it?

CLEMETSON: I think we mentioned it – we didn’t do a whole piece on it, but we certainly mentioned it. And we mentioned Biden before. We did a few pieces discounting people who would be ridiculous choices Vice President and he was on that list.

LAMB: You wrote there are not enough column inches – column inches on this page to parse interpretations of each of Mr. Biden’s chosen adjectives, that among his string of loaded words, one is so pervasive and is generally used and viewed so differently by blacks and whites that it calls out for a national chat, perhaps a national therapy session. It is amazing that this still requires clarification, but here it is. Black people get a little testy when white people call them articulate.

CLEMETSON: Articulate – yes. And this story, if you think about it – and this is an unusual story for me because I think it was the only piece of commentary I’ve ever written.

LAMB: Where did you place it?

CLEMETSON: This was in the ”Week In Review.” This was the lead story in the ”Week In Review” …

LAMB: On Sunday.

CLEMETSON: … on the Sunday ”Times” that week. And so it was pegged to this news item, but really it’s not a story about Joe Biden. If you read the story, it’s a story about race and about this word and about this touchy experience of black professionals.

And if you – there’s a – there’s a part lower down in the story where I recount my experience with a colleague and good friend of mine at the ”New York Times,” another black female reporter named Rachel Swarns, and how we joke often of being around Washington and interviewing people and people would say to us, ”Gee, you really remind me of Condoleezza Rice,” and what it means when someone says that because neither of us looks like Condoleezza Rice and we don’t look like one another, but what are people saying when they say that.

And that’s what this story is about. It’s about these things that people are trying to figure out about professional black people and what – and what kind of boxes you put them in and if you can in fact put people in a box. And so when Biden called Obama articulate, that particular word stood out for people in a way that these other kind of very clumsy words about clean and bright and were really quite ridiculous, but that word ”articulate” was something that so many people could zero in on and recall instantly many, many experiences that were exactly the same.

LAMB: How can we tell when you’re irritated?


LAMB: Yes. In other words, all these experiences you write about, living in Asia and of course and being a black reporter for the ”New York Times” and listening to people say these kind of things, how do – how do people know when you’ve just about had it?

CLEMETSON: See, I don’t – that’s – it – for me, these things actually aren’t things that particularly irritate me because I’m really comfortable talking about them. And I think it’s a – it’s a great thing about – again, about TheRoot because the thing about this article and this article on this word ”articulate” got picked up a lot, and so it seemed very incendiary and very controversial at the time.

But I think the thing that was different is that this was simply bringing a broader mixed audience into this discussion. Black people have this discussion all the time – all the time. And this was just, you know, opening this up onto the front of the ”Week In Review” section of the ”New York Times” where an audience that is not predominantly black gets to participate in the discussion.

But I think these things and experiences in Asia and wherever, I actually view all of this sort of tough discussion about race and emotion and boxes and categories is fascinating. I think it’s so rich. It doesn’t – it irritates me if people don’t talk about it.

LAMB: The – when it comes to ”The Root,” there were a couple of things I wanted to ask you about regarding people that are working there or working with you. Omar Wasow, who we’ve seen grow up on television.

CLEMETSON: Absolutely.

LAMB: Years ago was on MSNBC as one of the young Turks went on to found his own Web site, BlackPlanet.

CLEMETSON: BlackPlanet.

LAMB: It was announced middle of this year that he’s become a site product strategist for TheRoot.com. Did he abandon BlackPlanet?

CLEMETSON: No, BlackPlanet was sold. And he sort of worked with us behind the scenes a bit from the beginning, and he is now a Ph.D. student at Harvard and so this is just a matter of tapping his talents and helping him – pulling him in to help us work through the strategic web parts of the site.

LAMB: Give us an example.

CLEMETSON: So, we’re working to improve our tools, we’re working to improve the way the site looks and feels and the way people experience the site so that it’s not a static site but more of a community. Omar is an expert in this, and so he’s helping us refine how people will experience TheRoot when they come to the site.

LAMB: Donna Byrd, who is she? And she’s now your publisher and what does that mean?

CLEMETSON: Donna Byrd is our publisher and on a small site it means a little bit of everything. She is – the thing that I love about Donna – Donna, first of all, comes like Omar with vast Web experience. She’s done Web startups in the past. She helped launch Tom Joyner’s Black America Web. The Tom Joyner Morning Show you know is a very popular morning radio show and there’s a Web site attached to it. And Donna launched that, and so she has very specific experience in this space and the kind of space that TheRoot was trying to work in.

But the thing that I love about Donna is when she was considering the job, other people had talked to her, she knew Omar and people had recommended her to the site. And she wanted to talk to me and we finally got on the phone and she said, ”Explain to me what you think the relationship should be between an editor and a publisher.” And what she was trying to get at is did I see that as an adversarial relationship. And you know I said, ”Well, you know there will be some push and pull, but I don’t see – I’m not that kind of person. You sound like you’re not that kind of person.”

And so she comes with all of this experience about the business of building a Web site. And I have to say that of all the many partners I have in TheRoot, she has become my closest and in many ways, most valued and valuable for what she’s teaching me about the business. I have you know very close partner in Terence Samuel whose my Deputy Editor in the Editorial team, but Donna, what she’s able to teach me and the discussions we have about what is the vision for TheRoot and how do we get to that place, you know I can’t – I don’t know that there would too many editor/publisher relationships that are quite as congenial and really dynamic as ours.

LAMB: One of the references I saw in one of the stories announcing it all was the huge database of obituaries. And you pointed out when you came in today that you have an unusual obituary of Norman Whitfield appreciation lived 1940 to 2008 – that’s about 67 – 68 years. Why – I haven’t had time to read this, but …

CLEMETSON: Sure. The …

LAMB: … what is it about obituaries that have value in something called TheRoot.com?

CLEMETSON: … so, the huge database of obituaries, to be clear, was more of a wish list of ours than something that actually exists. But we have been working toward the recognition of these sorts of pieces like this piece on Whitfield, and the piece is titled ”Just His Imagination.”

LAMB: Who was he?

CLEMETSON: This is a piece about the loss of a Motown lyricist songwriter who was responsible for a lot of the melodies and – of Marvin Gaye, the Temptations, the Marvelettes, the backdrop of Motown and the soul sound. And why this is a uniquely TheRoot story – this is something that actually wouldn’t rise above – it wouldn’t crack through most mainstream media stories. It’s not like he was a big star. It’s not like losing Isaac Hayes which, of course, everyone knows Isaac Hayes and his contribution. And we did a lot when Isaac Hayes died.

But something like this where we can recognize that this is a man who basically tried to help craft the sound and change the Motown sound to a more socially politically conscious sound that pulled in the politics and protest of the Civil Rights movement to get the music past doo-wah doo-wop moon-June-croon-I-love-you into something more meaningful and how – and the story even makes a point at the end that this kind of passage in music and his contribution probably helped lay the groundwork for what would become rap and hip-hop and the force of politics and social change that has been occurrent through black music and the importance of that.

And so I love when I can click onto the Web site in the morning and see a story like that because I really know that it’s not something I’m going to see somewhere else.

LAMB: How long has Donald Graham, the Chairman of the Board of The Washington Post Company, given you before you have to make a profit?

CLEMETSON: I don’t know. You have to ask Don. I don’t know. I think – I don’t – it must – we must have a fair amount of time because I don’t – I can’t actually – I don’t know.

LAMB: So how do you measure this first year? It was announced in the early part of January of 2008. When did you actually have your first day?

CLEMETSON: Right. We launched on January 28. That Monday morning there was a thing called TheRoot and people clicked onto www.theroot.com, there was a Web site. So, there are many ways in which any Web site measures it’s success – the growth of your audience which we’re doing quite well by all of our internal standards, the growth of your advertisers for sure.

LAMB: Give us some idea, though. I saw ads for Infinity, Allstate Insurance, other things on there. But how many people watched …

CLEMETSON: Coke has been – Coke has been …

LAMB: … how many – how may people come to your Web site?

CLEMETSON: … So, those are internal figures. I’m sorry. I wish I could share them, but I will say that we have a really robust audience and on a very good day, you know hundreds of thousands of people would read our stories on TheRoot. And there are – and there are days when you know when you’ve got a story that really takes off and it’s picked up around the blogosphere that you as a print person, especially – there are days when I’ve looked at our traffic numbers and thought, ”Wow. This is why the Web is so dynamic because even a newspaper with very heavy circulation, you wouldn’t have this many people read your story in a given day.”

LAMB: Again go back to Barack Obama. If he’s the President of the United States, what’s that do to the numbers for TheRoot.com?

CLEMETSON: Well, I mean I think that certainly – I think either way really – I think either way, what has happened this past year is fertile ground for an entity called TheRoot because what we’ve done is presided over this yearning for a discussion and this yearning for a place that you could come and simply say what you feel without a lot of filtering, without a lot of explanation for a larger audience. You know, when you come to TheRoot, anybody can come and read it, but we don’t give you a lot of background, we don’t try to catch you up.

One of our writers said at a conference over the summer – Jimi Izrael, who’s one of our bloggers and quite a character said to a large group of people, ”You know we’re not going to be your Negro America tour guide. You know we’re not going to back up several paces and explain everything to you. But if you want to jump in and hear what people are talking about, you are more than welcome.”

And so I think that the variety of people we have – we have college students who are reading us every day and submitting stories to us. We have people like Gwen Ifill and Alice Walker writing for us. It’s a mix of people coming to get something on TheRoot that you can’t get anyplace else. I don’t think that goes away regardless of the results of the election. But I think either way, there’s going to be this whole new track of interesting conversations to have and that what you’ve seen created not just at TheRoot but in the black blogosphere or the Afrosphere, as it’s called, overall that you have this environment on the Web where people are coming and I don’t think, regardless of where we are on November 5 any of that goes away.

LAMB: Did you say Afrosphere?

CLEMETSON: Yes. It’s a great term, right?

LAMB: Who invented that?

CLEMETSON: I don’t know, but it is a wonderful term. You know, there is – there – TheRoot is just one of many really vibrant spaces on the Web where black people are discussing issues – anything from politics, like we do a lot of, to arts to you know of course celebrity gossip, which we definitely don’t do, but there are plenty of sites who do that.

LAMB: Let me ask you, as we are really out of time, but who invented TheRoot.com?

CLEMETSON: I came up with that name. It – we were – you know we started with a different name and we were tossing around terms, a group of us – Skip and Jacob Weisberg, who’s the Editor of Slate, and some other people in this discussion. We were tossing around all these terms and because of Professor Gates involvement and his background in genealogy and our decision to include genealogy on the site, we were throwing around these words with roots – these – and none of them were clicking with me. It felt very backward looking. And so I was sitting and sort of tossing around, ”Why don’t I like these names?” And I sent out this e-mail to people saying, ”Well, what about root or the root?” because it has this larger meaning? It’s not just about roots as in genealogy, but it means sort of the source of where things come from – where – and you know or it can be – have all these meanings – to root, to cheer for, to you know – and we floated it around and people thought, ”Hmm, this is not bad.”

LAMB: It’s not the roots, it’s TheRoot.com.

CLEMETSON: TheRoot – R – O – O – T.

LAMB: Thank you, Lynette Clemetson, Managing Editor, thank you for joining us.

CLEMETSON: Thank you.


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