Throughout his 10-year tenure as dean of the Graduate School of Journalism at Columbia University, Nicholas Lemann fielded calls on a daily basis from people asking about the “crisis” in journalism and what he intended to do about it.
It was a crisis he was all too familiar with. As dean, he navigated young journalists through a turbulent decade that saw the rise of social media and of an Internet-savvy readership, as well as a sharp decline in job opportunities.
Last October, Lemann announced that he will step down at the end of the 2013 school year, which also marks the centennial anniversary of the journalism school. He will be replaced by Steve Coll, a writer who is also the former president of the New America Foundation, a public policy think tank.
Lemann plans to focus on book writing for a year, and will then return to the school as a professor. The Forward’s Seth Berkman, a 2012 graduate of the journalism school, talked with Lemann about his early career, his unusual Jewish background and what lies ahead for the world’s young journalists.
Seth Berkman: Do you get aggravated by constant questions about the “crisis” in journalism?
Nicholas Lemann: It’s a wonderful part of this job that people all over the world look to this school as a leadership institution in journalism. The more annoying form of the question would be, “How can you in good conscience take students’ money when there are no jobs out there?” Which is sort of an ignorant question, because our employment numbers are actually up, they have trended up quite a lot over these 10 years. And then the other [form of the question] is demanding that we solve all the economic problems of journalism here at the school. We’d like to be able to contribute to that, but the idea that this one building can come up with an answer that has eluded hundreds of thousands of people working all over the world and in much bigger organizations is putting a lot of faith in us…. A lot of comments have the tenor of, “You must stop everything you’re doing and invent the new business model,” and that’s just not appropriate for this school. There’s a difference between thinking about it and making a real contribution and ceasing all other activity.
What do you remember most about your first job at the Vieux Carre Courier in New Orleans?
I was just a kid, a high school senior, when I started working there. I just went there, screwed up my courage, walked up the stairway and there I was, in this unpainted loft space with a bunch of people sitting at typewriters, and I asked to meet the editor. I introduced myself, and I asked for a job. That was with the two top editors, one of whom is still around, and a friend [Jeanette Hardy], and one of whom [Bill Rushton] who has passed away since then. We made a deal that they would let me write an article if I would go around and empty out the coin boxes every week, put the coins in a sack and put the new papers in.
Do you remember your first story?
I sure do. I actually have it at home. Because I was a high school senior in a private school in New Orleans, they assigned me to write about what really goes on in private schools in New Orleans.
Tell me about your journey from New Orleans.
My family is originally from Germany, but they settled in a small town called Donaldsonville and a lot of them still live there, but all of the ones who still live in Donaldsonville are no longer Jewish, they’re Catholic due to intermarriage. Most of the family that’s in New Orleans is Jewish across a very wide range of different ways to be Jewish. In the synagogue [Temple Sinai] I was raised in, for example, it was this kind of super-Reform Judaism that was no kosher laws, no bar mitzvahs, no tallit, no kippot. We had a choir. It was meant to be like an Episcopalian church, but Jewish, our little realm of Judaism. We were anti-Zionist and Israel could never be mentioned, that sort of thing.
I recently spoke to Mark Yudof, the outgoing president of the University of California. He said he wasn’t sure that college presidents have legacies. Do you have a legacy?
I do think there’s a legacy here in the sense that the community that is the school has changed quite a lot in these last 10 years. We’ve got a lot of new people in the building; a majority of our faculty is new in the last 10 years. There are changes in the kind of faculty we have; there are many changes in the curriculum. There are two entirely new degree programs and big changes in the other degree programs. There are physical space changes. So I think there is a lot of stuff I feel proud of having been part of that I hope and believe will last.