Alumna Lisa Matthews becomes National Press Club president

Media Arts and Design

By Charlotte Matherly, staff writer

Standing at a podium in front of a virtual audience of hundreds, Lisa Matthews placed her left hand on an AP Stylebook – the bible of journalism – and took the oath from Dan Rather, the iconic news anchor whom Matthews, while she was a JMU student, wanted to one day replace.

With that oath, Matthews became the 114th president of the National Press Club on Saturday, Jan. 30.

“When I think of great journalists worthy of the name, I think of people like you, Lisa Matthews,” Rather said. “Yours is now especially essential, noble work.”

Matthews (’90) was inaugurated as just the 14th woman and second woman of color to serve as president of the National Press Club. Matthews, who majored in broadcast news and worked in student media during her time at JMU, will serve a one-year term. The National Press Club is a prestigious journalism organization based in Washington, D.C. that provides programming for journalists and has historically brought newsmakers to speak in front of its members.

Because the COVID-19 pandemic prevented the Press Club from holding its traditional in-person banquet for the inauguration, Rather performed the swearing-in remotely in front of hundreds of Matthews’ friends, family members, former and current colleagues, and plenty of Dukes, who cheered her on virtually.

Ticket sales and support from sponsors like her former employer Hager Sharp and the Associated Press (AP) raised money for the Press Club’s “Help the Heroes” initiative, which provides free meals for frontline hospital workers at Howard University Hospital in D.C. Saturday’s event collected enough proceeds for more than 2,000 meals.

Matthews’ agenda for her one-year term focuses on the importance of press freedom and regaining the public’s trust. She said one of the “biggest threats to journalism” was former President Trump, but she said there’s much more work to be done even now that he no longer can use the office of the presidency to dismiss coverage as being “fake.” She said she plans to combat mass distrust in the media through education.

“Unfortunately, we are in a time where an individual was able to turn … such a basic service to the public into what was perceived as a threat,” Matthews said. “We need to return to the basics of explaining to our public why we do what we do.”

Matthews said she hopes to hold educational panels to provide insight and receive feedback from the public, stressing the idea that “communication is a two-way street.”

But press freedom isn’t Matthews’s only mission this year. An all-female leadership team will take control — an NPC first. Matthews is just the third person of color to lead the club in its 113-year existence. The National Press Club didn’t accept Black members until 1955, and women couldn’t join until 1971.

“The very first presidents of the National Press Club did not look like me,” Matthews said. “They were not women. They were not Black. Those early leaders might not have imagined that someday, someone like me would stand before you as your president. But here we are.”

Matthews said she wants to increase diversity within the club while also boosting engagement. She announced in her inaugural speech that she would give free one-year memberships to journalism graduates from historically Black colleges.

An award-winning career in journalism

Matthews won the first of her two Edward R. Murrow awards for broadcast excellence by covering the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Nearly 20 years later, she guided the news service’s coverage of another breaking news event: the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol.

On Sept. 11, Matthews was an Associated Press radio editor. She said once the first plane crashed into the World Trade Center and it was clear the U.S. was under attack, she had to reprogram the entire broadcast. She said planned sportscasts transformed into updates about canceled games, and she scrapped other segments completely.

On Jan. 6, Matthews said she had a similar experience.

“You kind of watch in disbelief because you just cannot believe what you’re seeing, but you push through your personal feelings about it and just report what’s happening,” Matthews said. “But at the same time … it was something that you read about in history books …  and the history that we were living on January 6 was unimaginable.”

Matthews also noted one major difference between the two events. In 2001, journalists covered terrorist attacks objectively. That was more complicated Jan. 6, when insurrectionists attacked the media itself.

“Usually, journalists are able to walk alongside the demonstrators and walk alongside the police officers,” Matthews said. “Suddenly, there’s been a flip, because our role in society has been challenged … It’s important that we take that back.”

Matthews joined the National Press Club in 2014 while working as vice president of Hager Sharp, a public relations firm for which she worked during a three-year hiatus from her journalism career.

“I felt like I could help bridge the divide between public relations professionals and working journalists because we essentially work to do the same job … inform our publics,” Matthews said in an interview. “It's good to see both sides because at the National Press Club, our members are both working journalists and members of the public relations profession, communicators.”

From JMU’s quad to America’s seat of power

Matthews’ work ethic and passion for reporting come as no surprise to those who knew her at JMU, where she got her degree in broadcast journalism with a minor in political science. A resident of Eagle Hall for three years and Converse Hall during her senior year, Matthews used to wake up early and enjoy the sunrise on her walk across campus to Anthony-Seeger Hall.

There, in what used to be the communications building before it moved to Harrison Hall, she worked at WMRA, the National Public Radio affiliate on campus. Her first newscast was at 5 a.m.

Matthews packed her schedule, taking 18 credits each semester, working at the radio station every morning and serving as class president in her sophomore and senior years. She said she loved every minute at JMU. She said every Duke she meets seems like family.

For instance, she said when she sees a car with a JMU sticker, she’ll honk her horn and “the person will wave back at you.”

“We have such a wonderful culture … very large community with love for the purple and gold,” she said.

When Matthews was at JMU, the media technology the school offered was advanced. She actually had to learn at her first job the old analog editing process of cutting tape with a razor because JMU was ahead of what many professional newsrooms used.

Connecting with current SMAD students

Matthews also will bring her perspective to students through a Zoom session Feb. 24 at 6 p.m. She’ll talk about her experiences, her vision for the future of media and will take questions from students.

Matthews advised students and aspiring journalists not to give up on their dreams. She said it took her several years of working in retail while earning her master’s degree before she became a journalist in Washington. She said student reporters should learn as much as they can while they’re in school.

“Don’t be afraid to challenge norms, what appears to be established norms,” Matthews said. “Don’t be afraid to tell the story … Never be afraid to ask, and take advantage of every opportunity that you’re in. If you’re on a Zoom call and they open up the session for questions, be the first one to raise your hand.”

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Published: Sunday, January 31, 2021

Last Updated: Thursday, November 2, 2023

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