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Columbia Dean Retooling Curriculum


Nick Lemann heads up the effort to turn the journalism program's 10-month grad school into a two-year program that goes beyond teaching ''basic skills."

In 2002, Nick Lemann -- then the Washington correspondent for The New Yorker -- was one of 30 people asked by Columbia University President Lee Bollinger to serve on a task force convened to examine "what a pre-eminent school of journalism should look like in the contemporary world."

The search for a new dean for Columbia's Graduate School of Journalism was put on hold while the group of journalists, academics and others met six times.

In April 2003, Bollinger laid out his thoughts about journalism curriculum, including the ideas that a graduate education should take longer than 10 months and should do more than teach "basic skills training": It should also give students a "base of knowledge across relevant fields" by teaching them about political theory, statistics, economics, philosophy, science and other topics.

Bollinger appointed Lemann dean, saying, "In all my years in university life, I have rarely met anyone with more promise and ability in assuming a leadership role of a school."

Lemann's primary task was to implement Bollinger's ideas without dismantling what works at Columbia. Most of his energy was and continues to be aimed at the trial of a two-year curriculum scheduled to begin in 2005.

"The thrust of the task force and my overall thrust is the school already has a lot of medium-specific instruction," explained Lemann. "Virtually everything I'm working on and trying to add to the curriculum is non-media specific."

Besides pulling together a new curriculum, Lemann has found time for other endeavors, including the creation of the election Web site Campaign Desk, which -- in parent Columbia Journalism Review parlance -- is already collecting lots of darts and laurels. For more thoughts on Columbia's new media program, see a companion interview with Sreenath Sreenivasan, Columbia's longtime online journalism guru.

In addition to his work at Columbia, Lemann will soon begin to influence journalism in another way as the "Wayward Press" columnist for The New Yorker, following the tradition of A.J. Liebling. In a recent interview with Online Journalism Review, he discussed his plans for the school and other issues related to online journalism.

Online Journalism Review: In terms of medium-specific classes, those aren't going to sit fallow for a few years while you work on the other curriculum?
Nick Lemann: We're in a process of examining our medium-specific classes and what goes on in the first year as well. We're just starting on that. The first thing we're doing is looking at broadcast instruction, which is complicated and expensive because it involves a lot of equipment. But that's not top of mind for me right now, and I just don't have a good answer to you if your question is how will the medium-specific classes change over time.

OJR: I'm thinking more along of the lines of what kind of approach do you take to the medium-specific classes while the other is going on? Not what are you actually going to end up with, but how do you see it happening?

NL: Online is a tricky one because it's very uncertain what the labor market is going to look like over time, right? Three years ago, I gather it was a really major labor market for our graduates; now it's almost dried up to nothing, very small, and it's not clear where that'll go. That's always a practical consideration for a professional school. 

I know magazines because that's what I come from. I'm going around and learning about the other areas, and I'm making a particular effort first in broadcast. One thing we don't do a lot of or enough of now is sequence courses, where we would have within a medium basic skills and advanced skills. ? That's sort of the obvious area of improvement we've been talking about.

My dream would be to see how far we could go with non-medium-specific instruction. In other words, in the second year -- which is themed more to subject matter -- why couldn't you say you could turn in your assignments in any medium, as long as you've mastered the material? And that way you're giving, for example, online people the opportunity to do more advanced work in their area without having a course that is called an online journalism course.

That's where I'm inclining other than the sequencing issue. The other things we can maybe do more of, as we add a second year, is get people summer internships between the two years and get them out into workplaces.

OJR: I've heard mentioned taking the sequencing but making it more shallow instead of a full semester.

NL: We do that a little now in these mini-skills courses. Yes, that's another thing that's been batted around but nothing's been done with it.

OJR: When you talk to people from outside Columbia, potential employers, what kind of skills are they asking for?

NL: I've only been dean for five months and you cannot do everything in five months. ... I have spent X amount of time having those conversations with employers, but I can't say I've gone around on a major national tour of employers.  And I have not in particular made the rounds of online employers.

OJR: Let me take it back then to the task force and ask what kind of skills came up there?

NL: No, I'd rather answer your original question. I'll answer that question, too. The task force, remember, had six meetings, six dinners. It had like 30 members, so you didn't get much past a level of super generalities with the taskforce.

The general tenor of the taskforce would be Lee Bollinger pushing ever so gently away from doing any kind of skills instructions and the faculty of the journalism school pushing back somewhat and the employers pushing back somewhat but not as much as the faculty. One was an online person -- Omar Wasow (executive director of What they essentially said is, 'We want people who can come in and perform in the workplace coming out of your school. We don't want to have to train them from the get-go once they get here.'

When I talk to employers, I get two things fairly consistently -- again this isn't a scientific survey and I don't want to sound like I've devoted endless amounts of time to this. ... One, we want people who are able to do the job when they get there but, two, they like the idea of subject matter expertise, which is stuff they can't teach in their workplace and we can teach in a university. ... The single one I hear the most is business reporters; No. 2 would be science reporters. 

OJR: When you talk about having people come in who are trained, do you think they're looking for people who they can slot into one medium, or people they can put anywhere?

NL: First of all, I want to make super clear that this is a topic that never once came up with the task force. If you want my surmise, it would be they want people they can put anywhere -- but there's no evidence of that because it just never came up.

There was a great deal of discussion of the proper length of journalism school, and there was a great deal of discussion of how much to do the sort of skills or craft or trade school or whatever you want to call it stuff versus other stuff and, if there was other stuff, what should the other stuff be. In other words, it was more of a sort of a J-school curriculum discussion.

OJR: There are other ways Columbia is involved in online journalism.

NL: The Campaign Desk is the one I sort of started. The difference between Campaign Desk and the CJR Web site is that Campaign Desk has a rather substantial, dedicated staff that turns out material just for it and CJR can't afford to do that.

OJR: So tell me how Campaign Desk came to be and why you wanted to do this.

NL: A president of a foundation came to see me and he had an idea that morphed into Campaign Desk -- Lee Wasserman, who is the director of the Rockefeller Family Fund in New York. As I recall, his initial pitch was he wanted to find some way to monitor press coverage of the campaigns. And we sort of batted it back and forth and so on and it turned into the idea of a staffed Web site -- sort of war room operations with people who would spend this year working there and responding in real time to campaign press coverage.

The idea being the Web is great for press criticism because what you can do is get yourself out of the after-the-fact realm where you're saying it's too bad the press blew coverage of this and more into the realm of being able to correct mistakes so that the coverage going forward is actually better because of your intervention. That's a very powerful new thing you could not do without the Web.

OJR: And their responsibility is to scour the news. It's not a truth squad? 

NL: It has some aspects of being a truth squad in the sense of correcting mistakes, but it's more quick turnaround and time-sensitive comment and criticism on coverage of the presidential campaign in particular with the aim of having a positive effect on future coverage.

OJR: You do have in this position a chance to create different energy.

NL: Yes. The two things that I have actually done in the online realm that are worth talking about are Campaign Desk and an effort that is in an early stage that I'm doing with Sree [Sreenath Sreenivasan] with a software company that may or may not turn into something. We're in early, early stage talks with a company called Ask Sam. We?re talking to them about doing a customized version of Ask Sam tailored to the needs of journalists with templates and bells and whistles.  We're hoping we can use the power of the school and name to make that happen. I've been an Ask Sam user for many, many years. 

OJR: What would you like to see them have for reporters?

NL: The question is: What is practicable? What you'd really want to have is a sort of master customized tool -- again, I'm just talking in a very blue sky way. If you had all the money in the world, what would you do? You would have a live Web page that you'd log onto and it would link to all the most wonderful and useful links for journalists.

Second is it would have some kind of work group Web-resident version of Ask Sam, the text database itself, so that you could put together teams of reporters scattered all over the world. Like if you were doing a WMD [weapons of mass destruction] story, as long as you had Web access you'd have your person in New York, your person in Washington, your person in Iraq, all using the Web to dump things into the same database. ...

You'd want to have a series of templates so that people working in teams, people working on long investigative projects, people working on books, reporters doing detailed stories would be encouraged to have structured ways of dumping their notes into text-based form and being able to keyword your records in ways you'd be familiar with and do date-sorting, proximity sorting, etc. Most reporters, as you know, just dump everything into a giant Word file and they're not aware of the greater power you can get from text databases.

Then, if you really had all the money in the world, you'd combine it with some kind of data-mining feature as well, where you'd have your Ask Sam-customized Web page running all night and looking for things relevant to whatever you were working on, automatically keywording them and date-stamping them and dumping them into your database and telling you what it found during the night. ... 

OJR: So if I just went on the first few minutes of our talking it would sound like there's not a lot going on with online, but actually there's depth.

NL: True.

OJR: Do you see any other ways that you might be able to use the Web in terms of class projects or putting projects together?

NL: I haven't spent a lot of time thinking beyond what I've just told you. In addition to Sree there are a couple of other computer gurus around the school who have been thinking about this kind of thing. ... I just want to stress again that my charter coming in is to focus more on higher-order, cross-platform thinking skills and subject matter expertise. Not to ignore, but I'm not brought in to think more deeply about medium-specific skills instruction. I don't see that as my sort of main mission here.

OJR: What are you going to do on your broadcast day? Are you going to do an online day?

NL: I haven't planned to do an online day; it may not be necessary. It may be that I can just sit down with Sree for a long lunch and get the basics. I don't have the same sensation as I do with broadcast of getting conflicting signals from people. ... At the risk of taking you off topic, let me rattle off a few of the questions on my mind. How distinctive to broadcasting are broadcasting skills, in other words beyond general reporting skills what do you need to add on to that to prepare these people to work in broadcasting? What kind of equipment should you be teaching people on? When we hire faculty, is there a particular part of broadcasting which we should be trying to hire from? Can you be on faculty here and still full-time broadcast? ... Is that relevant?

OJR: It's more relevant than you think. A number of online journalists are producing their own video and audio. More reporters are being sent out with tape recorders and asked to do digital recording.

NL: That raises a number of questions about how much teaching people how to use that equipment should be our responsibility.

OJR: How do you define online journalism or new media?

NL:  The online part is pretty easy to define. Online is that which takes place online. The journalism part is harder. ... I would say journalism is mediated information produced by people who claim to have come to their views on something independently, and written for an audience that seeks independent information and analysis of subjects of interest to them. Journalism is neither raw information -- like stock market tables, completely unprocessed -- nor is it advertising and public relations -- produced in service of commercial or political cause.

The medium as I read it is tending to develop, to show itself as friendlier to some kinds of journalism than other kinds of journalism as all media do. Each medium through which you can practice journalism develops a set of journalistic forms and conventions that seems to fit with it best, and online has done that.

OJR: So in that sense it does fit the definition of a different way of doing journalism? Or does it?

NL: There are some things that can happen in online journalism that could never happen before, such as the links. There are a lot of things in online journalism that have happened before, but tend to sort of cluster in online journalism, like a symphony orchestra with an unusually big brass section and an unusually big string section.

In other words, if you read Slate, say, which is maybe not typical, it's hard to find an article in Slate and say it's inconceivable that this article could appear in any other form of journalistic delivery than online. ... The visual is much less important in online than in television; the sound is much less important than it is on radio or TV. Longer or more purely informational forms of journalism seem to be less adaptive in the online environment than they are in print.

OJR: Has online journalism been good for journalism?

NL: Yes. Sure. Absolutely. There's a certain camp that gets pretty outraged about blogs and I'm not really in that camp ... but, yeah, I think that it's been good for journalism.

Also on OJR
Interview with Sreenath Sreenivasan, Columbia's new media guru
More Links
Ask Sam
Bollinger on journalism education
Bollinger postpones search for journalism school dean
Bollinger's taskforce
CJR's Campaign Desk
Columbia Journalism Review
Columbia University
Jay Rosen on Campaign Desk
Bio: Lee Bollinger
Bio: Nicholas Lemann
Rockefeller Family Fund

Nick Lemann: "Online is a tricky one because it's very uncertain what the labor market is going to look like over time."