A Journalism Dean’s Prescription: ‘Invent a New Social Compact’

This year’s college graduates face an uncertain jobs market, let alone those moving forward with undergraduate or graduate degrees in journalism, given the news room buyouts and layoffs roiling the mainstream print and broadcast media.

Dean Nicholas Lemann
Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism Dean Nicholas Lemann

So what’s a journalism school dean to say?

As dean of one of the nation’s leading graduate schools of journalism, Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism Dean Nicholas Lemann noted that since his first commencement speech as dean five years ago “the mood of our profession has changed profoundly,” in large part because of “the manifold effects of the Internet.”

The Internet offers “a nearly miraculous power to put the ability to publish, and to receive, journalism into the hands of untold millions of people all over the world,” said Lemann, who still writes regularly for The New Yorker.

“For more sophisticated practitioners,” Lemann continued, “it gives journalists a greater variety of means of conveying information than we have ever had before.”

So much for the good news? Lemann pointed out that the Internet “has clearly eroded the economic basis of at least the corner of journalism into which this school has traditionally sent the plurality of its graduates, the American big-city daily newspaper.”

Large metro dailies not so long ago were “the most efficient way for people to get a big packet of information in one place.” Newspapers were “the best means of getting people to buy what you were selling,” and those owning large metropolitan daily newspapers “were well protected from new competition” as a result of large capital costs to enter the field.

Those days are gone, Lemann told the graduates, and audiences have moved to the Internet.

“On the front pages of newspaper Web sites, you’re starting to find what we would recently have taught as television stories – video and audio presentations a few minutes long. Television sites publish what we teach as newspaper stories – stories made up only of printed words, without images. Magazine sites publish animated cartoons. And so on.”

Telling his school graduates that they have the skills to report complex stories, he urged them “not to take it for granted that the best way to present information is an 800-word, all-text, pyramid-style news story.” He urged them to be creative in presenting individual stories, which news organizations they work for, and “figuring out, in the aggregate, what package of material they are presenting.”

“The old way doesn’t work any more – but it’s a far more creative, challenging assignment than what was handed to my generation,” Lemann said in his commencement speech. “Our job was to improve on the old model. Your job is to create a new model.”

“On your watch, newspapers will be primarily digital, but the primary task for you is not to switch delivery media, it’s to invent a new social compact with a community around the gathering and presentation of information.”

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