The Journalism of Tomorrow

Nicholas Lemann, American writer and Dean of Columbia School of Journalism, is convinced that news reporting is a crucial social function with a bright future

At eight, it was adorable. At 18, it was inspiring. At 28, it’s officially embarrassing, says a worried mother whose daughter had been laid off and left with close to nothing to look for a job. The dream of becoming a journalist, or of becoming an ambitious TV producer, as in the 2010 Hollywood production Morning Glory – seems to be naïve, and perhaps unreachable.

To Nicholas Lemann, an American writer and currently the Dean of Columbia School of Journalism, none of this is new.

“Nobody’s mother was ever thrilled to be told that their child was going into journalism…,” he told the ORF in an interview on the future of journalism Nov. 18. “When I went into journalism, my parents were absolutely horrified and they would have answered loud and clear, ‘This is a profession with no future and I can’t believe our child is doing this’.”

But even with all of the upheaval in the profession, Lemann is convinced it’s still one with a future.

“It’s important what happens in the next period of time,” he stressed, “but if I had to say yes or no, I would say definitely yes.”

Currently, American journalism is in crisis, as many major print publications are giving way to electronic media, in which information is both more quickly and widely disseminated. The economic foundation of most national newspapers, long supported by advertising, has been crumbling and the news products themselves shrinking in size, as detailed in the report The Reconstruction of American Journalism, by Leonard Downie Jr. and Michael Schudson.

In the U.S. as well in many other democracies, newspaper journalism is in part partisan, closely linked to various political parties and often also financially supported by them. But in the American media field, advocacy journalism is not endangered – on the contrary, it is developing. What is under threat, however, is independent reporting, the report stresses. It is the social function that provides citizens with the “information, investigation, analysis and community knowledge,” which they would otherwise not be able to acquire themselves.

“…with the proviso that nobody knows where all this is going, it looks as if journalism will cleave into a more high-skilled and more unskilled sector because the barrier to entry is so low on the internet,” Lemann explained.

And even though journalism is an unlicensed profession, receiving a degree from a prestigious university might prove crucial in the years to come.

“No one has to go to journalism school [to be a journalist],” he said. “I would say, if you go to our school, you will come out a better journalist and also better able to get a job in journalism.”

There is still a bright future ahead, Lemann believes. Without any journalists to create the underlying content, there would not be any news to begin with, which is why the fear of a news aggregating software replacing reporters and editors in newsrooms tends to be unjustified. Google News, currently the biggest news aggregator, relies on the judgment of professionals.

“The secret of Google News is that it has a very heavy human hand in the selection of what comes up when you search,” he continued. “It is much less completely algorithmic than you’re made to think as a user, and it’s platforming on the judgment of human editors in newsrooms.”

Google News, he emphasizes, is juried.

“Once you enter Google News, you’re already in a structured realm with many human hands on it. Within that realm, when you type in a search term, what happens next is design to make the world’s most respected news organizations come out on top of the search.”

But this is only one of many. “There are many, many, many news aggregators,” Lemann stressed. “You can’t have a million aggregators, all aggregating in slightly different ways the same small body of news. They’re reprocessing something that somebody has to produce in the first place. A lot of the new players in news aggregation have dropped off for that reason — because they don’t have anything to add.”

Trustworthy independent news reporting cannot flourish without news organizations, including the print and digital operations of surviving newspapers, claims the Downie and Schudson report. It is unlikely, however, that any but the smallest of those organizations can be supported by the inflow of online revenue.

In the United States, “journalism is widely acknowledged as an important social function…and is a crucial institution in modern society,” Lemann set forth.

“Foundations are looking hard at journalism production and have gotten much, much more involved in funding it. There is a much bigger non-profit journalism landscape, based on the web mostly, in the U.S. than there was five years ago, certainly than there was ten years ago.”

One of the recommendations of the Downie and Schudson report, he explained, was for a carefully defined form of public funding that, however, was massively criticized by American journalists. Lee Bollinger, a legal scholar of the First Amendment and currently the president of Columbia University, expressed a similar concern in a Wall Street Journal article “Journalism Needs Government Help” Jul. 14, but agreed that this was the correct approach to funding news aggregation. To many any government support seems inconsistent with America’s strong commitment to have a free press.

Bollinger, however, is convinced:

“American journalism is not just the product of the free market, but of a hybrid system of private enterprise and public support.” More public funding for news-gathering is the answer, he wrote.

“It’s kind of amazing how in America people in general, but journalists in particular are very, very opposed to public funding for journalism,” Lemann said in support. “So that’s not the problem here [in Europe], that’s the problem in the United States. Where I’d caution you is on the idea that something permanent has happened and that never again, because of this financial crisis, could public funding for journalism be restored.”

In Europe, it’s clear, things look a little different.

“…you know I’m not an expert on Europe, but I think it would be easier here to restore public funding for journalism that, even after being cut, is already at unimaginably high levels by American standards, than it would be to create an American-style philanthropic sector from a standing start, which is a huge project,” he added.

The philanthropic sector in the U.S. is the biggest provider of financial resources alongside various foundations. Societies set their budgets based on their priorities, which move up and down the list in order of importance. There is not anything that a society cannot afford, he emphasised.

“The philanthropic sector in the U.S. is enormous, it’s much bigger than it is in Europe,” Lemann said. “So the real question about public funding for journalism in Europe is, how high a priority is it and how expensive is it and what level of support can be sustained. From the outside, being a little facile, it looks as if Europe has been tremendously privileging early retirement, what we Americans would call early retirement, as a paramount social value. Perhaps if Europe would have closer to our attitude about when is an appropriate age to retire, then there would be plenty of money for public support of journalism.”

And yet, as different as the attitudes might be in the U.S. and Europe, it is not because of journalism per se, Lemann speculates, but because of a mindset.

“It’s history, it’s culture. I tend to think that,” he explained. “Almost every realm of American life, of civil society in America, differs from the comparable realm in European society in similar ways. The American model is more market-ized, more populous, more decentralized, less top-down, more distributed, more informal….”

Competitive business goals, a more efficient economic model or simply the results of a century-long tradition, the bottom-line for journalism is one: “More should be done,” Downie and Schudson sum it up, “by journalists, nonprofit organizations and governments to increase the accessibility and usefulness of public information.”

There might be bad times ahead of us, there might be good. It does not matter, Lemann concludes. They are just times of tremendous change.

“Change is more the constant than the idea that everything has been calm up until now.”


This article is based in part on a Q&A interview “The fight for survival is no longer ‘news’ for newspapers”  (Überlebenskampf für Zeitungen keine “News”), conducted by Lukas Wieselberg for the Science section of online edition.

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