He speaks: Lemann responds

Nick Lemann responds to my Comment is Free post at the Guardian about the cutbacks at CJRDaily.org and his New Yorker essay. I’m glad he is joining the conversation he sparked. He mostly sticks to explaining his actions at the school. We do agree, as he says at the start, that “the internet is potentially the greatest reporting medium ever invented.” I’d like to explore other avenues of agreement. One clarification. Lemann says:

I think Jarvis and I also disagree about whether our school should teach students the substance of complicated subjects that they will write about as journalists – I strongly believe we should, because that is one of the most fundamental ways in which journalism can help inform citizens and thus strengthen democracy, but if I am reading Jarvis correctly he believes we should not because it will “create a greater gap between pro and am”.

No, I do believe that more education in the subjects reporters are likely to cover is important (and CUNY is offering such concentrations to our students, I should add). One cannot possibly argue that more education and knowledge is a bad thing. But no matter how hard and how much a journalism student studies, there will always be someone out there who knows much more. Journalists have fancied themselves experts — they often use the word now — and that’s just not the case, not usually. Reporters are facile at picking up subjects. Reporters should strive to be come more expert in the beats they cover. But, as I’m sure Lemann and I would agree, they do their best work when they go out and report, finding the knowledge of experts — who, thanks to the internet, can now share their knowledge on their own, albeit as amateur journalists. I do think is our job to narrow the gap between pro and am, between journalist and public, to do more together. But less education is not the path to do that. In fact, educating more people is the way to do it, I think.

He also complains that I don’t quote from his New Yorker essay in my post. True. That’s why I linked to it; that is our ethic of the link. And besides, I’d quoted from it plenty here. So I will link again to his Comment is Free post and I look forward to the continuing conversation.

Coffee’s on me, Dean.

: LATER: Over at Unpacking my Library, Chris Anderson, a Columbia Ph.D student also speculates on the meaning of it all and focuses on the notion of expertise:

So, is all this focus on a “new expertise” inherently conservative? Not necessarily, although, at first blush, it certainly is an attempt by a threatened profession to maintain its knowledge-boundary, which has conservative connotations. But as NewAssignment.net and other “networked” journalism projects have shown us, its possible to combine the expertise of the individual and the expertise of the group, at least in theory. The real question, in my mind, is how Columbia’s new MA students are being taught to regard “the expertise of the network.” Are they being taught that they, the “real experts” are a special caste, or, rather, are they learning that there exists such a thing as networked knowledge? These are empirical questions, and I hope to investigate some of them in the years ahead.

I like that: the expertise of the network.

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  • penny

    “I think Jarvis and I also disagree about whether our school should teach students the substance of complicated subjects that they will write about as journalists”.……

    How would that work? An overview of physics, engineering, medicine, literature, fine art, history, anthropology, etc as part of the journalism curriculum? How ridiculous. I agree that it would be splendid if these modern news stylists with their form over substance understood with some minimal depth the context of what they are reporting. But, then, if you want substance, you’d not be seeking it in most of MSM anymore.

    A pity that Lemann doesn’t advocate for easier access into journalism careers more students with core competencies in anything but journalism who have talented writing skills? His guild mentality is being eroded with every informal and well written site on the internet by people knowledgeable about their field that is bookmarked by readers.

    Let me also add that the most fundamental way that journalism “can help inform citizens and thus strengthen democracy” is to report the facts correctly without convenient omissions or falsifications, stop the agenda driven rot, and the pc self-censorship that has diminished the public trust and ability to make informed decisions in a democracy. Lemann is futilely re-arranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.

  • Don’t teach people new subjects, teach people how to learn about new subjects when the need arises, or they express interest in a new subject. Knowing how to learn does a person more go than being taught.

    Teach a man a subject and all he knows is that subject. Teach a man how to learn, and any subject in the world is open to him.

  • Penny, quite right. It’s a desperate fool who thinks “we need more physics in our science writing– let’s teach physics to writers” rather than “let’s get some physics pros to write for us.”

    As Oliver Stone said, maybe the wisest thing ever to come from his mouth, “It’s when the press writes about something you know about that you realize how wrong they get everything.”

  • Networked knowledge is hard at work at wikipedia. Both the Atlantic Monthly and the New Yorker recently reported on the subject in that context. Marshall Poe of the Atlantic noted how pooled knowledge can, in the end, push us closest to the full story:

    “The power of the community to decide, of course, asks us to reexamine what we mean when we say that something is “true.” We tend to think of truth as something that resides in the world. The fact that two plus two equals four is written in the stars–we merely discovered it. But Wikipedia suggest a different theory of truth. Just think about the way we learn what words mean. Generally speaking, we do so by listening to people (our parents, first). Since we want to communicate with them (after all, they feed us), we use the words in the same way they do. Wikipedia says judgments of truth and falsehood work the same way. The community decides that two plus two equals four the same way it decides what an apple is: by consensus. Yes, that means that if the community changes its mind and decides that two plus two equals five, then two plus two does equal five. The community isn’t likely to do such an absurd or useless thing, but it has the ability.”

    Such implications do translate to the reporting of news, where the degree of aggregated knowledge and information can often have a direct relationship with the value of the story. Journalists are not total experts–not the end-all of information–and the aggregation of knowledge works to direct it to a median. In this respect, networking of knowledge should be encouraged.

  • Somebody should tell Oliver Stone that “the press” doesn’t write stuff that gets into the newspapers, reporters write stuff and I know quite a few who would get it right, some complicated matter on an obstacle-ridden deadline, and then they’d contact those involved in and ask if they “got it right.” And the ones that made those calls generally did get it right, though Mr. Stone, if he sees that sort of activity, moves right along, sees there is nothing there for him, no grist for his miil.

  • Its interesting, Penny. Your lists of subjects– “how would that work? An overview of physics, engineering, medicine, literature, fine art, history, anthropology, etc as part of the journalism curriculum? How ridiculous.” — is actually fairly similar to the original curriculum for the Columbia Jschool proposed by Joseph Pulitzer. He though journalism students should spend most of their time learning Greek, German, Sociology, Politics, Law, Math, etc, though taught in such a way that it would be useful to the journalist. This lasted about 2 years, before the CU administration decided it cost way too much money, and the school moved in a more “professional” direction.

  • Scott Suttell

    Re: It’s a desperate fool who thinks “we need more physics in our science writing– let’s teach physics to writers” rather than “let’s get some physics pros to write for us.”

    I’m not going to defend poor reporting, bias and the various other problems in journalism. But you’re dreaming if you think getting “experts” to write stories is going to be the magic solution.

    From a practical standpoint, most experts in key fields — science, medicine, finance, law, etc. — are well-paid, so few if any would ever leave their jobs to become reporters. Even on a free-lance basis, newspapers wouldn’t come close to paying these people adequately for the time and effort that goes into substantial pieces.

    And if these people still hold jobs in their fields while writing for the media, how effective can they be in covering news? (Op-ed pieces are something different.) If you’re an investment banker, would you talk with a “reporter” for the local paper who’s also an investment banker at one of your main competitors? I doubt it.

    The best reporters are curious people who listen well, gather facts diligently, know enough about the subject to ask intelligent questions and aren’t afraid to ask sources to repeat and explain information they don’t understand. They correct mistakes promptly and fully.

    In a perfect world, we’d all be “experts” in everything we cover, or we’d have unlimited budgets to add staff when the need for expertise arises. But that’s not the world we live in.

  • penny

    Chris, maybe the really smart thing, Pulitzer’s vision, would be to restrict journalism to a post grad degree after you’ve have a degree in the liberal arts or science.

    Isn’t this the same form over substance problem playing itself out in our public schools?

    Scott – you point is well taken. But, honestly, the most incurious people dominate the insipid and overly stylized MSM now. Just read the standard slop or watch the prevailing interviews on the news. It’s pathetic.

  • Scott, you’re assuming the answer is to force experts to work the way newspapers and journalists work now. (Admittedly, my question did sort of push it that way.)

    Yet lots of experts are already writing directly for the public on their blogs. They just aren’t writing for newspapers, where some editor will dumb it down and make them take out most of what motivated them to write in the first place.

  • Scott Suttell


    I agree that blogs are a great place for people with expertise to write about the subjects that interest them. It’s a major reason I read blogs, too.

    But since the context of the discussion was how to improve the performance of MSM, I wanted to point out that as a practical matter, getting experts to write for newspapers, TV, web sites, etc., won’t work very well.

    As terrific as blogs are, we still need the traditional media to gather the facts about, say, a major corporate merger in the telecom field. (I work for a business newspaper, so the examples I pick tend to come from business.) It’s not realistic to think that a telecom analyst for a major investment bank is going to write a news story about the transaction. That person might have a blog that offers insight on the deal, and that’s tremendously valuable. But that person isn’t writing the 1,200-word story with all the details about the transaction and comments from all the parties involved.

    Experts don’t fit into the economic model of the news business. (To say nothing of the conflicts they’d bring in writing about the fields they work in.) Penny’s right that too much in the media is insipid and ill-informed. I just think the answer is to find more reporters and editors with a broad base of knowledge and the ability to learn.