2006 Graduation Remarks by Dean Nicholas Lemann
May 17, 2006
Every year at our graduation ceremony I am permitted to pontificate for a few minutes, as long as I keep it brief. So, before we get to the part of the event that you all came for, I will offer just a few minutes of thoughts.
First, congratulations on graduating and good luck in your careers in journalism. This school is a curiously intense place, and, besides its educational benefits, that creates a strong emotional bond that tends to last. As soon as you come up here, cross this stage, and get your diplomas, you will be alumni. Please think of that as just a new a longer-lasting phase in your relationship with the school. In the short run, our career services office plans to be very much a part of your lives, if you need its ministrations, and in the long run I promise we will think of lots of ways to keep you connected to the Journalism School. To paraphrase what the hunky hero of my favorite reality TV show, “The Millionaire,” said in the final episode, we want to continue the journey.
Shortly after our school, which was founded in 1912, was reconstituted as a graduate school in 1934, the large room on the third floor that you all know as the Lecture Hall was made into a newsroom, and it remained so for two decades. The school then, according to James Boylan’s history, Pulitzer’s School, unhesitatingly saw itself as a training ground for newspaper reporters, and the newsroom was meant to replicate as precisely as possible the atmosphere in which the students would be working the following year.
After a long newspaper-only period, the Journalism School serially launched distinguished programs in other forms of journalism — television, radio, photography, magazines, books, online — but today, the more fundamental truth is that we of the faculty don’t know exactly what you, our new graduates, will wind up doing during your careers as journalists. Today the plurality of you enter the school saying you want to be magazine journalists; this time next year, the plurality of you will probably be working for newspapers. But as all of you know, newspaper circulation is gradually slipping, and the consensus in the profession is that the social function we perform is moving to the Internet.
Even in the short three years I have been dean here, it has been striking how much the school has moved in the direction of Internet journalism. I came here during an Internet bust, and now we are clearly entering another Internet boom. We have created a web site for student work, called The Columbia Journalist. We are now filling a newly created position called Assistant Dean for Technology. More and more of our classes, including the class I taught this year, are producing their journalistic work in digital form. Columbia Journalism Review now publishes daily on the Internet, as well as six times a year in magazine form. I doubt there is any news organization that does not have an Internet version of itself, in addition to the original version in whatever medium. The lines are blurring between the different categories of journalism around which our school organizes itself.
For you, our graduates, I would guess that producing journalism for delivery through the Internet will be a much larger part of your professional lives than it has been in the professional lives of most of us on the faculty. For the Journalism School, that raises the question of how we should change in response to the rise of Internet journalism. I am sure that every day for all of the time I am dean here, we will be thinking about that question in some way. I don’t think the answer is as easy as it might appear to be — which is to say that I won’t think the answer is that we should simply teach something called “Internet journalism,” or “convergence journalism,” to all our students.
We don’t really know yet what those terms mean. Journalism has only begun to tap the incredibly rich potential of this new medium, which can employ printed and spoken words, still and moving images, and raw and finished material, all at the same time, which can interact in real time with its audience, which can react more instantaneously, and also be less constrained by the news cycle, than other news media. On the Internet we can get news out more quickly, update it more easily, and keep it out longer, than anywhere else. Simply to teach people the technical skills associated with putting journalism up on a web site is to sell the Internet much too short.
Generally, over the next few years, we should be undertaking two somewhat contradictory missions with respect to the Internet. We should be exploring as fully as we can the overarching principles of great journalism — the things that transcend any medium of transmission. These would include ethics, a sense of the history of our profession (which seems much more relevant at moments when journalistic history is unfolding before our eyes), the most powerful and most penetrating ways of gathering and assessing information, even when it is difficult and technical, and clear, engaging, accurate means of presentation. At the same time, we should be thinking of Internet journalism in particular not so much in terms of basic technological skills — those are only the beginning — but as an enormous untapped opportunity to expand the limits of what is possible in our profession. As a school, we have the luxury of functioning as an experimental laboratory, and the Internet, with its low barriers to entry, provides an ideal occasion for us to do this. Finally, we should be using our fortunate position as one of the main places in the world where thinking about the state of journalism goes on to conduct an ongoing conversation about how what we teach here — reporting — can establish itself as strongly as possible on the Internet, even as that medium also enables a historic flowering of individual, non-professional political and cultural commentary.
We will have fun working on all this at the school, but you will have more fun doing it out in the world. Please don’t be afraid of the changes coming in journalism. If you remain loyal to the core values and skills you have learned here — honesty, curiosity, fairness, clarity, thoroughness — you will be doing something all societies desperately needs, and that is also as consistently challenging and stimulating as any professional endeavor. You are off on a great adventure: enjoy it.