October 10, 2012

The Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism is about to choose its first new leader in a decade, after Dean Nicholas Lemann announced his impending departure from the post at the end of this academic year.

University President Lee Bollinger will take the “unusual” step of personally leading the search committee for a new dean, The New York Times reports.

Lemann told me in an interview Wednesday he is proud to be handing his successor a school with a clean balance sheet and no legacy problems overshadowing the future. The program is ripe for someone with “a strong and good vision” to step in next July and implement their ideas.

“The big, big thing going on out there in our field is the digital revolution,” he said. “We’ve done several generations of response to it, and there will be several more generations at least. … That’s kind of the obvious thing sitting there confronting the next person.”

People who have worked closely with Lemann had high praise for him.

“He really is a writer, a leader and a gentleman — anyone who’s worked with him knows,” said Eric Newton, senior adviser to the president at the Knight Foundation. “He’s been a terrific dean.”

“It’s going to be tough to fill his shoes,” said Sree Sreenivasan, the school’s former dean of student affairs, recently named the university’s chief digital officer.

“Nick has been a terrific dean and will leave a permanent stamp on the school — not just through the many infrastructure improvements he brought, but also through the talented new faculty and changes to the curricula he initiated and led,” Sreenivasan told me.

The thinking person’s J-school

One of Lemann’s major initiatives as dean was to ramp up the intellectual portion of the journalism school’s offerings.

The Harvard graduate and New Yorker correspondent was first appointed dean in 2003. He told The New York Times then, ”I have gone through life wishing I had three months to read Plato, Aristotle, Machiavelli and to discuss the master ideas that are most likely to be of use in journalism and then linking them to the practice of journalism.”

Lemann recounted in a 2008 memo that his appointment as dean was preceded by his participation on a task force Bollinger convened in 2002-03, “whose purpose was plainly to push the Journalism School to upgrade itself intellectually. That was my primary assignment as dean, and the attractiveness of it was what led me to accept the job.”

He continued: “The professional education of a journalist should include intellectual content. The primary orientation of journalism schools, including ours, is toward conferring skills associated with entry-level practice; almost the entire discourse in journalism education is internal to journalism and concerned with professional norms and practices, rather than with how to understand the world we are supposed to cover.”

That mission manifested in 2005 as a new Master of Arts journalism degree, the memo says. “The M.A. program does not offer traditional skills classes; instead, it is organized around the understanding of complicated subjects,” like science, economics, politics, health or arts and culture.

The M.A. program complements the school’s traditional Master of Science degree, which focuses on basic, practical reporting skills. Put more simply, the M.S. teaches students how to tell a story; the M.A. teaches what stories to tell.

On Wednesday, Lemann told me he feels the goal of adding intellectualism to the curriculum has been met. “It is one of the things in my life that I’m happiest about,” he said.

In a letter this week to friends and colleagues announcing his retirement, Lemann said that after 10 years he felt ready to move on and not seek another 5-year term. “It’s a good moment for a new dean, with a new set of ideas, to come in.”

The road ahead

What exactly those new ideas might be will depend on who the new dean is. But any journalism school today must respond to some significant trends and pressures:

  • Rethinking the university experience in the face of disruption from online learning. “The cost to attend the journalism school’s 10-month Master of Science program is an estimated $81,222, including tuition, room and board and living expenses,” Bloomberg reports. The high cost and comparative value of the degree model will increasingly be measured against the option of online training or new hybrid models.
  • Business models. The firewall between business and content is coming down in many news organizations. And entrepreneurial journalism — starting your own news business — is a more common approach with the accessibility of digital publishing.
  • Technological fluency. We need more journalists who understand how news gets delivered digitally through websites and apps, and maybe even how to build some of those tools. I’m not saying every journalist needs to learn to code, but most should understand some code and those with an inclination should be able to get the education from their journalism program.
  • Adapting to the speed of change. No matter how much you learn about journalism today, much will be different in five or 10 years. Journalism students need to be learning how to learn about their industry on an ongoing basis.

Newton, of the Knight Foundation, said under Lemann’s watch Columbia has adapted well.

Columbia created a dual degree program in journalism and computer science. It has moved toward the “teaching hospital” model of learning-by-doing with its New York World news website.

The school is planning to overhaul its M.S. curriculum in fall 2013 to erase distinctions between types of media, according to a news release issued Wednesday. Students will no longer choose to major in newspaper, broadcast, magazine or digital journalism. Instead they will have three platform-agnostic course categories: “The Written Word, Images and Sound, and Audience and Engagement.”

“The nature of the work that paid journalists do is changing and entails a much closer interactive relationship between journalists and audiences, with attention to assembling and presenting information from a variety of sources as well as first-hand individual reporting,” the release said.

“Columbia is doing very large numbers of things correctly,” Newton said. “The challenge is to find the next Nick Lemann, not to find an entirely different species.”

The next Dean

Journalism and society’s transition into an era of social media and mobile devices will define the next 10 years much as the rise of the Web defined Lemann’s last 10.

Will the school seek a dean with particular expertise in digital media?

The Times quotes Bollinger saying “he expected Mr. Lemann’s replacement to have an appreciation for digital media, but he predicted that the next dean would not come from a purely new-media background.”

“I think we all know the way to create serious journalism is now more open to the uses of images and means of communication other than the printed word,” Bollinger told the Times. “At the end of the day, in all honesty, it will probably favor the written word.”

Lemann told me that what makes a dean effective is not just his own wisdom and vision, but his ability to build consensus with others in the academic setting:

“As an old political reporter, I’d tell you this job is half executive branch and half legislative branch. The part that’s legislative branch is … really about building support and consensus for ideas and getting to agreement and winning votes. When you hire new faculty, they must be voted in by the whole faculty, and when you institute new curriculum — these are the two most important things in a place like this — it must be discussed and voted in by your faculty. You can’t order these things to take place.”

Lemann will take a year-long sabbatical then return as a faculty member at Columbia.

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Jeff Sonderman (jsonderman@poynter.org) is the Digital Media Fellow at The Poynter Institute. He focuses on innovations and strategies for mobile platforms and social media in…
Jeff Sonderman

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