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So What Do You Do, Dean Lemann?

A chat with the 'Pope of MSM,' a.k.a dean of the Columbia Journalism School

- October 2, 2006

dean_lemann_interview.jpgNicholas Lemann, the dean of the Columbia Journalism School, came under fire recently for cutting funding to CJR Daily, the online arm of the Columbia Journalism Review, during which two editors quit in protest. The move, and Lemann's thoughts on Internet journalism, even prompted some bloggers to dub Lemann the “Pope of MSM” (short for "mainstream media"). We recently spoke with Lemann (pronouced "like the fruit" lemon, he notes) about the story behind the cuts, News21 — a cornerstone of a three-year, $6 million initiative led by five universities, including Columbia, in which 44 journalism students dove into long-term investigative projects — and what it’s like being a J-school dean in the digital age. What is your assessment of News21 so far?

Lemann: It has a lot of moving parts, so logistically it was big, big challenge. My hope is now that we’ve done it once, the next time it will be easier. The students really got a lot out of it, and all of the schools involved created something that’s not duplicative of what’s already out there. That’s a pretty big achievement.

mb: What was the biggest challenge?

Lemann: News21 is very expensive. It’s paid for by foundations. As long as the money’s available, we can execute new and valuable journalism. I would love to do it forever. My biggest concern is to come up with a financing model to keep this going.

mb: Does News21’s intensive deep focus imply there’s been a failure by the mainstream media to do to the same?

Lemann: No. I think the New York Times has 1,200 people in its newsroom. If you went to [Times executive editor] Bill Keller and said, ‘Bill, I’ve got a fabulous idea, but in order to pursue it, you need to free up 40 reporters and have those 40 reporters work as a team.’ He’s not going to do that. He can’t. No Times editor in the history of the paper has been able to do that, and they will never be able to. If we can go to a news organization and mount a small army of reporters for a summer, and can go after a very labor-intensive project, that’s a very powerful thing. No news organization can do that on their own. And we they didn’t have to [simply] trust us — we gave them the finished product, fully-documented.

mb: Is the "citizen journalism" movement valid? Does the so-called wisdom of crowds apply to journalism?

Lemann: Of course. The distinction I’m trying to hold up here is reporting. Citizen journalism does absolutely no harm and is a very helpful add-on. The only objection I have is [the perception that] it can replace full-time reporters, which you see out there a lot on the blogs. It's additive. The Times-Picayune is possibly the greatest example of [citizen journalism utilized by newspapers]. You don’t have to make a zero sum decision. What I would caution against is defunding in news organizations because citizen journalism can do the same thing or fill the gap. It’s not about the Web. News21 was a project that was big on the Web, and we’re always increasing our commitment to it. What we were doing is Web reporting by full time reporters who know what they’re doing. But reporting shouldn’t get lost as we contemplate the wonderful potential of the Web. A person sitting at home performs a very different journalistic function than a person who is out traveling around with a notebook interviewing people.

This whole thing about gatekeepers in mainstream media — my nickname in the blogosphere is ‘The Pope of MSM’ — I don’t buy it. The important distinction is this: Do you or don’t you do good reporting? The whole perception that mainstream media and what is taught in journalism schools has something to do with this exclusion of the discourse — I just don’t buy that.

mb: Are you training people to be “real journalists” who can support themselves?

Lemann: What I tell students is, ‘If you are truly committed, I can promise you can spend your life doing reporting.’ But, if you say, ‘What exact form am I going to be doing it in 10 years?,' I don’t know. The industry is changing very quickly. When this school became a graduate school in 1934, the dean could get up and pretty confidently say, ‘Kids, you are going to be newspaper reporters, some of you promoted to editors, in New York City.’ I like to think of journalism as a more portable set of skills. Lots and lots of our grads are self-employed. We just teach you the skills. We don’t try to teach you in a way that restricts you to one thing.

mb: What about graduates who might do something like the reporter who raised his own money from readers to go to Iraq and report?

Lemann: I have no problem with that. Lots of our students do things like that when they first get out and don’t have the annoying things us middle-aged people have like mortgages and kids. They eventually gravitate toward traditional employment if they can get it.

mb: Do you teach students how to market themselves as freelancers? Business school trains people to be self-supporting entrepreneurs. Can you see J-school doing the same thing? Or is assumption that they're still J-school people?

Lemann: We are starting an executive training program in a few months that will get into some of that stuff. But if you come here as a J-school student, you’re not going to get courses in marketing. It’s just not part of the curriculum at this point.

mb: You've had some very desirable journalism jobs, and been at what some would call the pinnacle of magazine journalism — Washington Post, The Atlantic Monthly, and at The New Yorker, among others. Today you're an administrator, with all the challenges that implies. Do you miss being a full-time writer, getting the chance to be completely absorbed in a piece you’re doing and not have a million administrative distractions?

Lemann: I like to call myself an educator, and not an administrator. I’ve had a very lucky career. I was a full-time magazine writer when I was 17. I’m 52. Part of the genesis of all of this was when I was in my late 40s. I thought that if I want to do something different in my life, I should do it now. But I intend to go back. Ex-deans tend to go back to Columbia as faculty members who have very active publishing careers.

mb: What have you learned about yourself in doing this?

Lemann: The default position of journalists tends to underappreciate the difficulty of operating in institutional roles. When I started covering politics, I found myself thinking not ‘These people are all idiots,’ but rather, ‘This is really hard.’ I have a healthy respect for what they do. I’ve been budged off that attitude. I still think being a writer is harder, but this is hard too. As a writer you are more limited, leading a Unabomber-like life.

mb: What is the Columbia Journalism School's main purpose?

Lemann: That’s easy. We take the 200-300 best people we can get in the world, teach them the richest, most powerful journalism and find them the best jobs we can, and have a powerful influence on journalism in the aggregate. We would never tell a student who says ‘I want to be self-employed’ they couldn’t do that. But as a matter of honesty, 95 percent of the students, maybe 85 percent, say ‘I want a job at the New York Times.’ And that’s partly because of the debt they undertake by coming here. And a lot of our students can’t get that position they desire on the coasts, so we often encourage them to go to the sticks. It’s a decision that comes up all the time.

mb: What is your daily media consumption like?

Nothing super interesting. I read the New York Times, Washington Post and Wall Street Journal as a sort of baseline experience. I read Slate faithfully. I’m addicted to Romenesko…

mb: And mediabistro, of course.

Lemann: And mediabistro, of course. I look at Gawker, Google News, some political sites. I’m in no way comprehensive with what I read, just because of the limited time I have.

mb: Are there any restrictions to students in terms of blogging?

Lemann: We started the Columbia Journalist, in response to students wanting it. And we said you have two options: you can start it on your room, go off campus, rent a room, whatever, with total editorial freedom. Or we can start a school site that the famous gatekeeper phenomenon applies. And they wanted that.

mb: Why?

Lemann: They wanted something that would maximize their chances at a traditional journalism job, which they thought a school-hosted site would be.

mb: You took a lot of criticism recently for cutting the budget of the CJR Daily. What do you say to that?

Lemann: I would love not to have done so. CJR Daily didn’t have a staffed Web site when I came in. I had the opportunity to start a Web site called the Campaign Desk to monitor press coverage of the campaign, which was staffed. My not-so-hidden agenda was to use that to start a permanent, staffed Web site. I sat down with [CJR Daily managing editor] Steve Lovelady and said I want to start this site, but I gotta be honest, I need to find the funding for it. Let’s do this for a year, I have a couple funding prospects, but if we can’t find the money we’re going to have to cut the budget. He understood that. We have five people producing content for CJR Daily — I believe that’s more people than the Washington Post has producing original copy for their web site. I think we’re still pretty committed, but we couldn’t stay committed at the level we were at. Steve had the argument to de-fund the print side, based on the sort of cosmic argument you hear from Web people that print is dying. But I just didn’t want to do that.

And it wasn’t that that I couldn’t keep a newsroom of 8 going and replace it with a newsroom of 5 — we’re having trouble keeping a newsroom of 5 going. We’re going to start running Web advertising soon, but the estimates I see are in the low six-figures. And the 8 person staff was up around $650,000 editorial cost. So if you give me the money I’ll bring the people back.

mb: Are you saying you might have to cut back further?

Lemann: Yes, absolutely yes. We have a funding stream that will last for about two years; after that, I can’t promise anything.

[EDITOR'S NOTE: This interview contains excerpts, and has been edited for clarity.]

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