About Columbia

A temporary page with text from a Comment is Free post going up Monday….

Nicholas Lemann, the dean of Columbia University’s journalism school — which tops most lists of the best in the U.S. — has been puzzling and peeving colleagues and competitors in the field lately with his positively retro behaviour.

The latest: Lemann cut the budget for the Columbia Journalism Review’s online offshoot, CJRDaily, so he could spend more money on a direct-mail campaign to get subscribers for the old print magazine, leading to the public resignation of the site’s two veteran editors. I was among the blogging hackademics scratching my head, wondering why he did not instead lead the way for the industry and show how to take a print product and brand and safely make the transition to digital.

This comes two weeks after Lemann delivered a papal bull in The New Yorker drawing a line in the sand between professional and amateur journalists, aka bloggers, who engage in what Lemann calls “journalism without journalists.” (He used me as a poster boy for blogging snarkiness and I responded, true to form, here.) Many others responded that they were simply tired of the bloggers-vs-journalists narrative and thought we had moved past it.

The New Yorker piece sets up many strawmen: Lemann says that bloggers think they will replace journalists. But I know no bloggers who believe that; ours is a symbiotic relationship. Lemann tries to demonstrate that some blogging is bad journalism and thus all blogging is not journalism because it is not performed by journalists. But I can point to plenty of examples of shoddy but paid journalism in my local papers and TV stations; that need not reflect on the New York Times or Guardian. Lemann says that bloggers think they are something new when they are just pamphleteers without paper. The bloggers I know proudly acknowledge that heritage.

In his conclusion, Lemann argues: “As journalism moves to the Internet, the main project ought to be moving reporters there, not stripping them away.” Yet then he turns around and strips away journalists from his own online entity. It’s most puzzling.

But I don’t suppose it should be surprising that journalism schools are just as unsure about the future as journalist, and so we are all trying to drive our stakes into the ground.

As near as I can tell, Lemann is setting himself up as the journalistic classicist. I suppose that makes sense in an era when many journalists believe their classical values and standards are being threatened as citizen practitioners invade their trade. And there are still many journalism students who sign up to learn “print” — as if the medium should still define the message — and there are still newsrooms to hire them if they come from the top school. It is ironic that this journalism school should take the retro role after Columbia’s president halted a search for the journalism dean to first install a task force charged with examining “what a preeminent school of journalism should look like in the contemporary world.” Lemann expanded the degree program at Columbia to include more training in subject specialties, to further professionalize professional journalism — and that, it would seem, creates a greater gap between pro and am.

I see no such threat to journalism’s classical values. I see instead opportunities to expand journalism, with its standards and values, into a much larger world of people who commit acts of journalism. And I believe those standards will be strengthened as more citizens are able to help enforce them.

In two weeks, I will begin teaching journalism — of the interactive variety — at the City University of New York’s new Graduate School of Journalism. I am brand new at this. And so you should take everything I say about this with a grain of salt the size of the Dead Sea.

In the discussion about Lemann’s New Yorker essay, I challenged him to propose how we should bring more reporters (I would say, instead, reporting) to online and citizens’ journalism. And so I answered the challenge myself here. Here are my four stakes in the ground:

First, journalism will become more collaborative — because it can, thanks to new tools; because it must, thanks to new business realities; and because it should, to build a new and respectful relationship with the public. So our challenge is to find the ways to help this happen, to encourage the growth of networked journalism.

I’ve argued that newsrooms should become classrooms where the public teaches the journalists and each other, and the journalists share the skills of their trade with the growing world of amateur journalists.

The challenge to all — journalists, citizens, educators — is not to protect against the shrinkage of a changing industry but to find the ways to expand the scope and work and quality of journalism, taking advantage of the many new opportunities before us.

Second, journalism will no longer be defined by its medium. It will be unbundled, in blogging newsman Terry Heaton’s words — and so journalists must learn how to tell stories and deliver information in any of many ways. Thanks to the incredibly easy means of creating media today, there’ll be no more need for priesthoods of the tools. We need to realize that the ease of creation pays a huge dividend: It means we can put less effort and resource into production and more into reporting.

Thanks to all the new means to gather and deliver from and to anywhere, this also means that the process of news must change — not just extending deadlines around the clock but also allowing reporting to become open: the story is never done and can always be better.

So this is about much more than just deciding whether you are a print, broadcast, or online person; those are soon-to-be meaningless lines and possibly career dead ends. This is about changing the essential architecture of news.

Third, journalists must take some responsibility for the business of news. Only a few years ago, this would have been heresy punishable by banishment to PR and in some quarters, it still will be. But today, we have to recognize that journalism will no longer be subsidized by closed monopolies and that the business itself — and the call on the public’s attention — is now highly competitive. There will be no magic bullet to save newsrooms. Newsrooms will change and those that don’t are the ones that are doomed. And there will be many business models. This is why I applaud NewAssignment.net as one model and why I keep flogging the idea of an open-source ad network for citizens’ media .

Fourth, journalists must redefine their roles and relationships as more than reporters, editors, and producers — which, yes, they must still be — but also…. Moderators. Entrepreneurs. Teachers. Students. Helpers. Enablers. Networkers. Filters. Partners. Community members. Citizens.

The greatest benefit that can come out of all this is that we rediscover the essence of journalism and its standards. In most of the discussions of this, we hear about standards in a bundle — without enough discussion of the standards themselves — and they tend to be thrown around as the badges of professionals. But when we extend the definition of journalism and open the doors to all who commit acts of journalism, then the discussion of standards no longer becomes one of ‘we have them and you don’t’ (aimed at the amateurs) or ‘you think you have them but you’re failing at them’ (aimed at the professionals). Standards can stop being cudgels and start being what they should be: goals. But I do not think we should assume that the standards of journalism are signed, sealed, and delivered. As more people gather and share news in more ways and as the roles of journalist, citizen, newsmaker, and advocate mesh and sometimes merge and often conflict, I agree with those who fret about standards. I believe it becomes more important than ever to restate and reexamine them and be open to new standards that fit some of our new roles, standards like transparency and generosity.