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Columbia J-School Dean fiddles while journalism burns. Putting out the flames is “too practical.” 2/19/08

Posted by Steve Boriss in ColumbiaJschool.

As the Dean of America’s top journalism school, Columbia’s Nick Lemann is on a mission, but it’s not to help save his dying profession. We received this news from his own students — not because they’ve become so good at investigative reporting, but because he is so bad with new media. When he hit the “send” button, the e-mail he wrote to assess his own job performance that was meant for his higher-ups was sent to his students. Yes, believe it or not, that really did happen.

What we learn from his very mildly self-flagellating e-mail is that his “primary assignment as dean” is to upgrade his school and his field “intellectually.” In one reflective moment, he does wonder “how long our school can continue to thrive if the profession it serves is not thriving.” But mostly, he bemoans the fact that his Ivy League peers continue to refuse to offer for-credit journalism education because they view it as a “practical-minded” skill that lacks intellectual rigor. Ironically, Lemann’s response almost proves their point — an idea so weak that it cannot withstand intellectual rigor. His new, separate M.A. in journalism program offers none of the useful, practical, traditional skill classes, but instead helps students become slightly-less-uninformed non-experts in their choice of four areas — science, business and economics, politics, and arts and culture.

While in his note he seems puzzled why there has not been greater interest in his program, it is painfully obvious to the more “practical-minded.” It serves no identifiable marketplace need. And, it offers no answers for stopping the hemorrhaging in the news industry.

If teaching people skills that can get them real jobs is not enough of an intellectual challenge for Mr. Lemann, I have some suggestions. Why not invent new, financially self-sustaining business models for the future of news? Why not rediscover and renew students’ excitement in the original, much nobler purpose of our Press in America — to prevent government from encroaching on individual rights — and give them an appreciation for our nation’s uniqueness and superiority in this regard? Why not create a journalism minor so that true experts in their areas, now studying in other parts of your university, can get the easier-to-acquire practical journalism skills they need? After all, in the future of news, they will be writing most of the stories, while news outlets focus on aggregating and editing. On the other hand, maybe these ideas are just too “practical-minded” for an Ivy League institution.


1. Nick Booth - 2/19/08

There’s real confusion here. Journalism is a mechanism available to those who have a passion and talent to communicate. It is nothing more than a craft. learnt predominantly through practice, not education.

Journalist should study somehting other than the media, not how to be a journalist, because it is not that difficult.

So he is right to want to find people with an intellect, because they are most likely to have intersting things to say.

Journalist should study somehting other than the media, not ow to be a journlist.

2. Michael W. Perry - 2/19/08

Those who’d like to explore the original debate over whether journalism is too “practical minded” for a serious university should read Joseph Pulitzer’s classic work, The School of Journalism in Columbia.

With some assistance from Columbia University, I brought the original edition back into print (available on Amazon). It’s not selling too well, which may be an indication that, despite this time of rapid technological change, journalism has yet to begin to reflect on what its profession really is.

–Michael W. Perry, Seattle
The School of Journalism in Columbia University: The Book that Transformed Journalism from a Trade into a Profession (ISBN: 978-158742-057-3)

3. Steve Boriss - 2/19/08

Nick, Note the idea of a journalism minor in the last paragraph of my post. I think we are actually moving toward your vision, where more and more of our news will come from experts.

4. Fresh Air - 2/19/08

While I think Lehmann is a bit of a clown–and a haughy, pseudo-intellectual one at that–I don’t think the idea of training future reporters in something other than the five Ws is a bad idea.

If the average newspaper reporter understood statistics, for example, the population would be a whole lot better informed on science and health issues. Giving future journalists the option of taking Arts & Culture, however, seems like a cop-out, though.

5. Charlie Beckett - 2/21/08

Your case for the merits of purely vocational or market-driven journalism training would have been helped if you had spelt his name right. [ed. — thanks, fixed. So when are you folks in the UK going to start spelling “spelled” right? :)]
But more seriously…you are also missing a trick. The whole point of the rapidly changing media landscape is that journalists will need to be cleverer about their craft. There will be more demand for adaptable, thoughtful, insightful editorial managers/gatekeepers/sifters – call them what you will – and less demand for churnalist who have learnt to do what their teachers did ten years ago.
Whether Lemann’s school does that I don’t know. I suspect his lack of enthusiasm for new media means it doesn’t do it as well as it should.
regards from Polis at the LSE,

6. Steve Boriss - 2/21/08

“The whole point of the rapidly changing media landscape is that journalists will need to be cleverer about their craft. There will be more demand for adaptable, thoughtful, insightful editorial managers/gatekeepers/sifters – call them what you will – and less demand for churnalist who have learnt to do what their teachers did ten years ago.”

I agree totally with your second sentence. As far as the first sentence goes, to me it seems doubtful that the minor topic expertise Lemann includes in his new curriculum will make a significant difference in the career prospects of his graduates. Which is not surprising, since he seems to be basing this idea on the need to intellectualize journalism rather than ideas that have been proven to make his graduates more marketable.

7. Meredith Gardner - 3/12/08

I’ve been harping on what sex and leadership have in common- the Gov. Spitzer debaucle.

I actually could say the same thing about journalism. What do journalism and leadership have in common.

I’ve just written a book called Think Better, Lead Better
Chinese Characters Reveal Strategies for Success.

Here’s the thing. Journalists need to have respect, trust, collaboration, interdependence, loyalty, listening, and other important values.

Do you really think that these values are developed in our educational system, let alone in our graduate schools? By the way, I’m a Columbia T.C. grad., and I had to learn these values on my own.

Perhaps an ethics class incorporating values would be useful in the curriculum. I’d love to participate in its implementation…..

8. Steve Boriss - 3/12/08

Meredith, Those sound like good ideas. Actually, I would be happy to see any ethics instruction at all, either in j-schools or on-the-job. Here’s something I’ve posted related to that.

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