Guest Post of sorts: Nicholas Lemann at Columbia Journalism School Graduation

(My friend Nick gave a great graduation speech on Wednesday, at Columbia Journalism School. As Columbia hasn’t posted the speech themselves, I’m putting it up here. -clay)

Commencement 2009

Welcome, everyone, and warmest congratulations and good wishes to all our graduates and our families.

Columbia Journalism School is rapidly approaching a very important milestone, our centennial, but if I am doing the math correctly, today is a significant anniversary too: this is our seventy-fifth conferring of graduate degrees (before that we were an undergraduate school). As our older alumni often remind us, back in the early days of the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism, the room on the third floor of our building that you know as the Lecture Hall was outfitted as a newspaper city room, complete with desks in rows and a small printing press set off in the corner.

Today we offer three different graduate degrees. We teach journalism in many different media and on many different subjects. The Lecture Hall is no longer a newsroom. But we still operate on the principle that if a course can possibly take the form of a guided exercise in doing journalism, it will. The number of individual journalistic Web sites launched every academic year from within our building is now up in the dozens.

One of the great things about a university setting is that it permits us, while we are doing our work, also to think about its larger purpose, more than most of us will ever have the chance to do while working at a news organization. (And as you saw a couple of hours ago during President Bollinger’s commencement speech, we are not the only people thinking about our larger purpose.) That is what I would like to spend a few minutes on today, as my parting words to you.

My generation was raised to think that journalism worked this way: owning a newspaper, especially a big-city newspaper, was a “public trust.” So was owning a local television station, and for that matter a television network. (Alex Jones and Susan Tifft’s 1999 biography of The New York Times is simply and grandly called “The Trust,” for example.) We assumed that news organizations were naturally very profitable; the idea of them as a public trust meant that their owners had an obligation to operate them at a handsome, but less than maximal, profit, so that they could fund newsrooms filled with dogged, independent journalists who would report on public affairs, at home and abroad.

Although the word “public” in “public trust” implies a quasi-governmental function, we did not mean that government should have anything to do with news organizations. They should be insulated from the state and from politics. We preferred that family dynasties own newspapers—this was an oddly feudal vision of the good, which we probably wouldn’t have had much patience for if someone had proposed it in other domains. Our job, as journalists, was to speak out, loudly, for the value and independence of journalism. We were to keep the government and powerful private interests away, and keep the family dynasties mindful of their public, but not public-sector, obligations.

The obvious problem with this vision today is that many big news organizations are no longer making the profits that were supposed to fund great journalism. This sudden and dramatic change has generated a big, urgent conversation about the need for a “new business model” for news production. That conversation is important, but it isn’t all-important. There is a subtler but no less pressing need for a different kind of conversation, which will take place in a wider realm, about our purpose—what we do and how we interact with other elements in society.

For most of my career, journalists, like most other professionals, had a robust, vigorous, tough-minded ongoing internal conversation about what the standards and norms governing our work should be. We felt that our own judgments about what good journalism was, achieved after a lot of argument, should be accepted by the rest of the world. So, like members of an extended family, we should be internally disputatious and externally unified. We should defend, stand up for, journalism.

But this is no longer a good way of defining how we should conduct public conversation, when, so to speak, we are outside the family circle. First, we have a palette of standard journalistic forms—many of which you have just learned how to execute while you were here. They grew up over the years, in response to commercial imperatives, technology, and the judgments of our profession. They have always been in a process of evolution, but it seems certain that they are going to evolve more rapidly over these next few years.

It’s amazing to think about how many new journalistic forms have been developed over these last few years, because of the Internet: blogs, wikis, interactive graphics, animations, audio slide shows, and so on. If you keep constant our basic mission of gathering, assessing, and presenting information, the specific ways in which we do this are changing more rapidly than at any time I can remember. And we don’t get to decide on our own how they change—that depends on what the technology permits us to do, what provides an economic basis for our work, and what our audiences respond to. This is not a time for journalists to say, “We have decided that the traditional news story is the best basic form of news delivery, so we’re doggedly sticking with it.” This is, instead, and more interestingly, a time for experimentation, which also means it’s a time for listening.

Second, and more broadly, we have been in the habit of assuming that whatever appears in a newspaper or a magazine or on a broadcast or a news organization’s Web site is available there uniquely, and represents a distinctive and irreplaceable contribution to public life. I spent a lot of my time these days talking to non-journalists about journalism, and I can tell you that we all have to learn to make a more sophisticated argument for ourselves.

Much of the public that we believe we are serving needs to be persuaded that it cannot find out what’s going on in the world simply by looking at non-journalistic Web sites and blogs—that there is a special value to the work that news organizations do. Conversely, we need to be more precise in our thinking about exactly how we are serving that oft-mentioned cause, the public’s right to know, at a time when, thanks to the Internet, the public has more free unmediated access to information than at any time in the history of the world. It may be that the particulars of how we execute our general mission will have to change quite a lot for us to be able to make the strongest possible case for the value of our profession. We have to be willing to explore all that undefensively, with energy and enthusiasm.

The kind of journalism that we have trained you to do—reporting—requires economic support. American journalism’s traditional systems of support have eroded in recent years. We have to find new ones. Some of these will be commercial, some will be philanthropic, and some will be public. That is the case for all professions. It is the case for ours already, but in these next few years our reliance on a mix of support systems, many of which will be new, will become more obvious than it has been.

So this is your charge. You will not only have to reinvent journalism, you will also have to reinvent the conversation about journalism, making it less internal to the profession, and more interactive with the rest of society. That’s an enormous job; I wonder whether any generation of journalists has had a more momentous mission than yours. But, to me, and I hope to you too, it sounds like fun. Good luck. We’ll miss you.

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