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Columbia Journalism Dean Delivers Commencement Speech on Future of Media

May 19th, 2010 by Andrew Kaplan - Special Assistant to the Future of Media project

Nicholas Lemann, dean of the Columbia University School of Journalism, delivered this commencement speech to the Class of 2010:

Last year I urged our graduates to get involved in the larger conversation about the future of journalism that is now taking place very intensely in societies all over the world—a conversation that is going on not just within the confines of the profession, as was customary before the digital revolution arrived.

This year I’d like to deliver a similar, but more pointed, message. If you heard me last year, well, sorry, but as my mother used to say, it bears repeating.
 
Just after I arrived here as dean, seven years ago, I got a call from a senior at Harvard who was writing a thesis about the media reform movement—the folks who push for government policies meant to reduce the scope of big media companies. She wanted to know why there never seemed to be any journalists involved in that movement’s activities, either as supporters or as opponents.
 
It was a good question. Media reform simply isn’t on most journalists’ minds, even though many or most of us work for media companies, or would like to. Why not? I think it’s because we like to conceive of ourselves as independent solo crusaders, who go out, uncover uncomfortable truths, and resolutely bring them to the public’s attention. All we need to be able to do this is freedom.
 
But what makes our idea of ourselves more complicated now is that, at least in the United States, with the advent of the open Internet we don’t lack for the freedom to say what we want. What we urgently need more of is economic support for the kind of dogged reporting that, at least at this school, we hold up as the sine qua non of great journalism. Journalists of my generation grew up believing that the best way to get this support was by demanding it from rich owners. But now owners of journalistic properties aren’t so rich. So whom do we ask?
 
Many years ago when he was a law professor, Lee Bollinger, the president of this university, used to write that the United States had a dual press system, with an unregulated realm, print, and a regulated realm, broadcast. Both the newspapers and the broadcast outlets usually had a highly protected monopoly position in their markets, which made them very profitable and therefore able to support journalism.
 
In the digital age, President Bollinger’s distinction doesn’t really hold any more. Most journalism is consumed online, and most of us get online through a system that government touches: a cable line, a telephone wire, a satellite.
So even though it may not appear that way to you, journalism is deeply intertwined with government policy. And the way government, business, and technology have set up the playing field, the folks who carry the signal to your computer make money and the folks who create the material the signal carries (meaning, among others, we journalists) do not.
There is an intense debate going on right this minute about government policies that will have enormous effects on the future of journalism.
 
The media reform movement, as always, is mainly focused on limiting the power of big media companies and on improving public access. Therefore its main causes regarding the Internet are universal broadband access, so that everybody everywhere can have fast service, and net neutrality, so that Internet service providers have to continue giving every user equal access to every Web site. Internet service providers, as always, are pushing back against the media reform movement—and journalists are almost nowhere to be found in the debate.
 
One of the few journalism organizations to answer a recent call from the Federal Communications Commission to comment on the future of our business was the Radio, Television, and Digital News Association, whose public comment pronounced the state of commercial broadcast journalism to be just fine, and ended on this libertarian note:
 
“The Commission should not accede to calls from those who would have the government tell the public what is best for them or who would integrate the government and the press. That would deal a far greater blow to our democracy than any perceived contraction in journalism.”
 
If the reformers win this round, then most Americans will be able to go anywhere they want in the vast reaches of the Web. But I am far less optimistic than the RTDNA that journalists will have the economic means of producing journalism. We could wind up with a situation that’s an exaggerated version of what we have now: more access, less real reportorial journalism.
 
Let’s assume everybody in this room wants to see our profession have the resources it needs to perform its function in society to the fullest. Where will the resources come from?
 
Most of the discussion about the fabled new business model for journalism, whose arrival we are all eagerly awaiting, seems to be turning to the idea of restricting the regime of absolutely free access to all journalism produced everywhere that we have had over the last few years. News organizations’ Web sites will begin charging for access. New tablet-style mobile devices will probably charge readers from the git-go. And advertisers may find readers who can and do pay to be a more attractive audience than easily distractible Web surfers.
 
Even if all this works economically, it will still represent a departure from the current socially attractive and economically untenable idea that the fruits of our journalistic labor should be available free to all the citizens of the world. So one could argue that economic support for journalism is a public good and should be funded from sources in addition to the free market, as universities like Columbia are.
 
Maybe Internet service providers should be compelled to set aside some money for news production, as broadcasters, in effect, used to be. Or maybe the public radio and television systems should get funding to do more original local reporting. Or maybe philanthropy should fund journalism. Or maybe government itself should, with appropriate firewalls to protect editorial freedom, as it has with high distinction in some other countries.
 
These are not abstract ideas from a seminar room. They are intensely and urgently under discussion right now, in Washington and much of the rest of the world—but mainly without the participation of journalists. I am using my few minutes at the podium today to urge you as strongly as I can not only to go out and be great journalists, but also to learn about and engage in the realm of public policy that affects our profession.
 
There will be decisions made in just the next few years that will profoundly affect the way you do your work over the many decades of your careers. You really shouldn’t let them be made without us, collectively, in the room. The idea that journalists somehow sully themselves if they become active participants in shaping the future of our profession isn’t just silly--it’s dangerous, if you believe journalism is as vital to the health of free societies as I think we all do.
 
As young journalists, you are standing at the doorway to a new period in our profession, whose nature is still being determined. Journalists always get to witness history unfolding; that’s one of the great attractions of our profession. You will also get to witness the history of journalism unfolding, more dramatically than most of us sitting here on the stage have. Please, don’t let yourselves be on the receiving end of history. Be participants in it.
 

One Response to “Columbia Journalism Dean Delivers Commencement Speech on Future of Media”

  1. Guest says:

    Is this satire? Has Mr. Lemann read 1984? "Journalism" should rise and fall on its own merits.

    Journalism has always been portrayed as the fourth branch of government. If it were to ask, or accept, any money from the government, it would be worse than incest.

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