Nicholas Lemann

The further education of a journalist, Part II

VTR Date: December 4, 2006

Nicholas Lemann discusses journalistic development.


GUEST: Nicholas Lemann
VTR: 12/04/2006

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind.

And what now may seem to him like a life time ago, in June 2003, today’s guest promised to come back to this table after he’d gotten his feet wet up at Morningside Heights as the new Dean of Columbia University’s noted Graduate School of Journalism…the “J” School, as we called it during my Columbia College days three score and more years ago.

Now, last week Nicholas Lemann – historian, journalist, one-time Washington correspondent, now staff writer, at The New Yorker – proved to be as good as his word, taking time off from his labors as Dean of the “J” School to come here to discuss this further education of a journalist.

Of course, there are many more matters relating to journalism to pursue with him, but first I think I’m going to ask the Dean to go back to where we were, talking about the economics of print journalism, etc. and what your concerns basically are, for the present.

LEMANN: Well, print journalism, the concern is that, ah, at least … the, the smaller papers are pretty healthy, or at least they say they are. The very big papers that are sort of the flagships of newspaper journalism are either flat or losing circulation. Some at a fairly alarming rate.

Now … the good news in this story is many of these papers have established really good websites that have enormous audiences. So, you know, The New York Times and the Washington Post have twenty times as many readers now online as they do in print. But the problem there is the economic model doesn’t really work yet online. That most news organizations, with a few exceptions like The Wall Street Journal feel they can’t charge anything for content. They can’t charge a subscription fee. So they’re totally dependent on advertising. And advertising is increasing pretty rapidly, but from a very low base. So …

HEFFNER: Advertising on the website.

LEMANN: … on the website. Yeah. So most websites have tiny staff even of huge and great news organizations and they don’t really support themselves yet. They have very big audiences and very small staffs.

So many big papers are in a situation where their print version … if, if their publicly held, their stock is flat or dropping. And their circulation is also flat or dropping and their advertising … the same. Not a growth picture.

And the website is tremendously increasing in its circulation and advertising, but isn’t profitable yet. So, you know, to be optimistic, you could say … eventually they’re going to figure out how to make the economics work on the web, and it’s just getting through the transition period till they do that. But now the ride is bumpy.

HEFFNER: Not just the ride being bumpy … what about the journalism? What about the journalism I encounter on the website?

LEMANN: Well, there’s websites and websites.

HEFFNER: Sure. Let’s take the best of them.

LEMANN: Okay. Well, the … every traditional news organization has a website. And basically every traditional news organization’s website, the editorial content is mainly things that were produced by its pre-existing staff in print or broadcast and just put up on the web.

So, it’s great, you know. Now if you take sites that are … exist only on the web, there a few, like Slate, that have really big, meaningful editorial staffs. But most of them have tiny editorial staffs and, you know, there’s a tremendous proliferation of them so there’s a lot of variety and so on. But they exist either as blogs, that is, kind of one person’s opinion, group blogs …the opinions of ah, you know, a discrete group of people who contribute as in Huffington Post. Aggregators … people who pull in material from all over the place. Citizen journalism where the readers essentially contribute the news. Social network type sites where they, they essentially create spaces for people to have conversations about things, or post their own information. It’s just not the model of a staff of people who go out and gather news and then put it up on a journalistic website.

HEFFNER: But, Nick, let’s, let’s, for a moment, go back to the very, very good, big newspapers …


HEFFNER: And I want to ask you what the downside, in your estimation, is of what appears on their website.

LEMANN: I don’t think there’s any downside.

HEFFNER: You don’t?

LEMANN: I mean I, I think it’s great. I, I … myself am completely addicted to these sites and I have gotten in the habit … you know, if you ever worked in an old fashioned newsroom years ago, and you’d kind of wander by the AP ticker every now and then … (laughter) to see …

HEFFNER: Everybody is standing there looking at …

LEMANN: Yeah, to see what, what’s happening. Well, the equivalent of that is … at least for people like me is I log on to, you know, The New York Times or Washington Post site every two hours just to see if any news has broken.

HEFFNER: Yes, but you say “if any news has broken”. You’re talking about “bulletins” … in a sense.

LEMANN: No. What they post is the actual story that will appear in tomorrow morning’s paper.

HEFFNER: Or the story as of that time.

LEMANN: Yeah. They’ll post … what they do is, they post, you know, if you went right now on The New York Times website … … what’d you see is essentially this morning’s front page in verbatim form, with a few little tweaks and changes. Every story on the front page would be printed … would be up on the web in exactly the same form that it’s on the front page of The Times. So it’s the same thing.

Then if, you know, the Pope has a heart attack … three seconds later you’ll see a three paragraph “bulletin” and then an hour later you’ll see a version of the story that will be in tomorrow morning’s paper. And as you know, you know, in journalism … in the old days, you know, The New York Times published a whole bunch of different editions. And you remember the days when you could go out on the street in New York at 10 o’clock or 11 o’clock at night.


LEMANN: And buy the next day’s Times. So, it’s like that. You know, there’s a continuously up-dated news story …

HEFFNER: But, Nick, I must say I remember that time so well, that that’s what leads to my concern. Because if I read one version of a story, I wasn’t likely to read the up-dated version …


HEFFNER: … or the further up-dated version, or the further up-dated version, or the further up-dated version. And I was fascinated by the New York Times own Ombudsperson being very much concerned about what it is that I know when I read The New York Times on the web …


HEFFNER: I must know, by definition, so much less. What corrects … I mean Will Rogers said, “All I know is what I read in the papers.” And that’s all that I really know.

LEMANN: I, I’m not concerned about that.

HEFFNER: You’re not?

LEMANN: In other words … again … if the Pope has a heart attack …


LEMANN: … and you’re the Editor of The New York Times website … do you really think it serves the public interest for you not to post a little bulletin saying, “Hey, folks, the Pope just had a heart attack.” And say, “Nope, can’t find out about that until we’ve got a full dress story that we’re going to run in tomorrow morning’s paper. I just don’t … you know. You could get it elsewhere. You could go on Google news and you’ll see essentially like that zipper in Times Square … you know, the running headlines of the day.

It just … it, it seems wrong to me for established news organizations to say we’re going to deny our readers those kinds of news bulletins if we have technology to provide them. As long as they’re, you know, clear to be accurate about it.

HEFFNER: All right … then let me ask you a question.

LEMANN: And I still read The New York Times in paper every morning, very thoroughly … so …

HEFFNER: Okay, let me ask you … as a historian … (pause) you sort of pull the sheets out from under me when you say, “I still read the Times every morning.” And I do, too. But for the people who have, let’s say less professional interest and maybe less time …


HEFFNER: … then we do to spend on learning …


HEFFNER: … what if they get … they get the first version and the second version, but they don’t get what we might consider the final daily version of it. I’m not talking about having to wait until you, the historian …


HEFFNER: … write a book on reconstruction … how well informed will we, as a people, be thanks to the websites?

LEMANN: Oh, I … I’m not concerned about that. I think there’s a different set of things I would like to highlight as a concern ….


LEMANN: … but I think the last thing to worry about is the journalistic quality of the great news organization’s websites. This … I will now get to the things to worry about.

One of things to worry about and the people in the business are horribly worried about is people under 30 just don’t go anywhere near The New York Times or any newspaper in any form. That’s a huge worry. You know they don’t read the print edition and they don’t read the web edition. And, you know, you often hear people say, “I get my news on the Jon Stewart Show, the Steven Colbert Show, the Drudge Report … uhmm … at lot …

HEFFNER: Lest anyone think you’re joking, that’s what my students tell me. That’s where they get …


HEFFNER: … their news …

LEMANN: They do.

HEFFNER: … about the world.

LEMANN: So, so …again, the least of your worries should be that people are getting their news from, you know,, and

HEFFNER: Okay. I, I like to worry …but you go ahead and tell me what the greatest of my worries should be.

LEMANN: Well, the, the … area of more concern would be … I would say … net … I think the web is a hugely positive development for journalism. So, I want to make clear that’s my general attitude about it.

But, you know, there isn’t a way … there, there’s a tremendous amount of stuff out there on the web and there aren’t as clear mechanisms for separating news from opinion and rumor from fact. You can … if, if you …

HEFFNER: Editors you’re talking about.

LEMANN: Well, here’s an example that is, you know, much discusses sub rosa at the moment. If you go … viewers … and go on Google and type in the words “Bush drinking”, you will see that there is this library of sort of material on the web claiming that President Bush has, you know, resumed his long dropped habit of heavy drinking. And there’s videoes about it and there’s this … a lot, lot, lot of material about it. And it hasn’t been in the mainstream press at all.

I think the mainstream press has been right, including the websites in the mainstream press. I think they’re right not to do it. I don’t know if they’re pursuing it, but, you know, the promise there is, “if we can’t prove this, we’re not going to publish it” because we don’t publish rumors about people.

But, you know, there’s lots of people who are very happy to publish rumors, so it’s sort of out there in the discourse. You have to really trust people’s ability to distinguish between sources they can trust and sources they may not be able to trust. So there’s a lot of people out there in this country who believe President Bush is, you know, swigging from a bottle every night. And I have no idea, you know, if that’s true or not. I have no reason to believe that’s true, but it’s all over the web and a lot of people believe it. So. And …

HEFFNER: You know, it’s interesting … when David Brooks first came on this program … I, I said to him …by way of introduction, I said about him by way of introduction … when I watch him on television with Mark Shields, he’s such a sweet, nice person. And properly relates himself to his elders etc. When I read him on the web, my god, there’s a hatchet there.

LEMANN: You mean on the … he’s different on the web from what he is print?

HEFFNER: What he is in person on the air.


HEFFNER: And … ahh … meaning television. And he said, “You know, that’s one of the troubles with not having an editor” when your write that sort of thing.

LEMANN: Yeah. Well, that’s a whole other subject. You know, on blogs, which I’m, I’m using that word to refer to, you know, kind of mainly individual, opinionated websites. And there are … as I said, millions of these now. There’s a sort of rhetorical style associated with them. And it’s … you know various words go along with it … like “flaming”. People post very quickly, they don’t have editors and it’s, it’s just kind of the mood of the web is … you speak … you don’t speak in a sort of an establishmentarian tone, you speak in a hot-blooded, super partisan, angry attack dog tone. And sarcastic and so on. And, you know, there’s a real debate about this … about that tone.

HEFFNER: What is the debate?

LEMANN: Well the debate is … there’s a lot of people out there, I’m not one of them, who would say, “Hurray for that tone, that’s exactly we don’t get in the press and the press is a bunch of establishment fuddy-duddies who kind of try to control the discourse, both in terms of subject matter, in terms of distribution mechanism, and in terms of tone of voice …

HEFFNER: That’s not untrue is it?

LEMANN: Well … I don’t know. But anyway … they, they try to have the conversation be about what they want it to be about and the tone they want it conducted in … and the web has kind of opened everything up … and let angry, alternative, populist voices be heard. It’s a populist medium. So that’s really what we’re talking about.

HEFFNER: And where are you?

LEMANN: Well, I have spent my … I started, you know, in my generation’s version of a blog, which is an alternative weekly news paper in New Orleans, which was based on then new technology, which is photocomposition.

However I will confess I’ve spent most of my life in what bloggers call the MSM … mainstream media. So I don’t personally like … I’m … I am not comfortable writing or speaking in that kind of hot blooded, populist angry voice that predominates on the blogs. That’s just not who I am. I mean even if I had a blog, which I don’t … I don’t think I’d speak in that voice.

Now, you know, it’s a free country, we have freedom of speech … and I, I can’t say, you know, it is wrong for bloggers to speak in that voice, but it’s just not, it’s not my preferred means of discourse. The more important thing is, I really consider myself to be a reporter. I do a tremendous amount of research before I write. I try to go talk to the people I’m writing about and hear their views. And a lot of my friends who are bloggers really think that process just doesn’t add as much value as I believe it does.


LEMANN: That’s its fundamental issue.

HEFFNER: … downside? Upside? Do you think there’s very much of an upside on the part of the bloggers?

LEMANN: Yeah. Well, I mean, look … if you … you know just a minute ago we were talking about the importance of a free press. Right?


LEMANN: … the First Amendment, and all that stuff.

HEFFNER: Nobody said a free press doesn’t mean a free and responsible press.

LEMANN: When various of the Founders like Thomas Jefferson said the things they said about a free press there were no reporters and there was no objective journalism and there was no, you know, journalistic function of the kind that we’ve been talking about. What they were really talking about was making political speech, disseminating political speech in printed form. That is essentially what the bloggesphere is.

So it’s in many ways exactly what the Founders had in mind in writing those four words, or whatever about freedom of the press in the First Amendment. It’s not reportorial or objective journalism and it doesn’t pretend to be. I believe those things are very, very important and they are essential to a democracy.

Most of my blogger friends do not agree with that. But I think … net … you know, what the bloggesphere has done is allow every voice to be heard on politics and that’s a healthy thing in a democracy.

HEFFNER: You say it’s a health thing. Do you think, looking at the potential for another downside that the uncontrolled and uncontrollable … technologically uncontrollable … bloggesphere, bloggesphere … it can do damage …

LEMANN: It can do damage and it does do damage.

HEFFNER: To, to the freedom of the traditional press. Are there any signs of that?

LEMANN: Well, I don’t think bloggers are what is hurting … they don’t hurt the freedom of the traditional press. Other parts of the Internet hurt the economics of the traditional press, but that’s not bloggers, that’s things like Craig’s List and things that pull off a portion of the economic support for things like newspapers. So, that’s more the danger. The other thing that happened is the dynamic that, that I’m very familiar with … is … bloggers, and they’re very proud of this … can sort of put things on the agenda for the mainstream press. This is one of their main functions. So, so … you know, if you’re running a news organization, by necessity you’re fantastically selective. You’re not covering 99.99% of what goes on in the world, you can’t. So, often what bloggers do, or what they do every day is say, “Hey, mainstream press, this is going on and you’re ignoring it.”

And that usually doesn’t work, but there are times when it does work. So quite often, quite regularly the bloggesphere will say, “this is a story” and insist, insist, insist on it and then it becomes a mainstream story, um …

HEFFNER: Nick, what do you think of the institution of the Ombudsperson?

LEMANN: Well …

HEFFNER: And have you changed your mind at all?

LEMANN: No. I, I guess … I don’t … I don’t have a very interesting opinion about it … I think it’s a good thing. They’ve been around for many years. The only real big change recently is The New York Times established one.


LEMANN: But, but most other … many other big papers have had one for a whole generation. So I don’t think there’s any big trend for or against Ombudspeople, except The New York Times adding one in the wake of Jason Blair.

HEFFNER: Okay, I guess since the Times is my paper, I’m a New Yorker and it looms so large. What about the Ombudsperson now?

LEMANN: Well, I think it’s a healthy thing to have it at the paper. I … the reason people read the paper is to get the news. In the process of doing what a newspaper does … to an extent that people who work there don’t see … they generate a tremendous amount of objection out there in the world, among the people they cover, among readers for … you know, if, if you’ve ever worked at a big newspaper, it’s shocking to hear the level of objection every day to the decisions you’ve made putting the paper together.

So I think it’s a healthy thing to have somebody there who’s job it is to field all these things and sort of think about them and evaluate them and say, “Here’s a case where people are right.” You know, it’s, it’s a sort of corrective safety value. So I don’t … you know … I think it’s not an earth shattering development that changes the whole nature of the newspaper, but it’s a nice thing to have.

HEFFNER: Would you like to see one other development … a National News Council?

LEMANN: Well, there was one …

HEFFNER: I know.

LEMANN: … and it went away. And, and people are always …

HEFFNER: It was killed.

LEMANN: Well …

HEFFNER: It was killed by The New York Times and CBS who wouldn’t go along with them.

LEMANN: Fair enough. People come to us a lot and pitch us on starting something like that at Columbia Journalism School. Or not a lot, but regularly.

HEFFNER: Well, don’t your darts accomplish that …

LEMANN: Yeah, well, we, we publish Columbia Journalism Review. We now publish a daily, you know, version on the web called CJRDaily, which essentially does, you know, a few shorter items of press criticism every single day. So we do some of that there. If you set up a formal body that hears these complaints and sort of adjudicates them … I think it would be very unwieldy and expensive. That, that’s the main thing. When people come to us and want to start it, I say, “You have no idea how much work it is, if you’re going to really give a fair hearing to every complaint you get. Because you’ll get many, many, many, many.

A journalism review you can get a, you know, complaints every day and say “Let’s pick these three or four, they look like they’re legitimate”, but it’s a very informal, on-the-fly process that I think nets out well.

An institution that’s like a court almost, that really offers the promise of a full and fair hearing for every legitimate complaint and then issues a ruling. That would be a staff of, I think, 40, 50 people …

HEFFNER: Oh, the National News Council didn’t take anything like that … but, of course, they didn’t do everything they wanted to do; didn’t entertain all. And today there would be many more matters brought before them.

LEMANN: So that’s the question … is it, is it, is somebody willing to pay for an organization that would have to have a very substantial staff, wouldn’t have the force of law, only the force of a sort of professional sanction. You know, in a perfect world I think it would be a nice thing to have. But I have not encountered anybody, when I really walk through with them, what it would take to do this, who was willing to write the check to start it.

HEFFNER: Used the word “profession”. Not that it’s the oldest profession, but is it a fair word to use in reference to …?

LEMANN: Yeah, I think so. One of the changes in myself since becoming Dean is … I used to be uncomfortable using the word “profession” about journalism and my argument would have been, we’re not licensed and we don’t have a sort of required degree and we don’t have a … we have a professional society, but you don’t have to be a member to practice the profession and so on.

HEFFNER: None of that has changed.

LEMANN: None of that has changed. However, there’s a sort of standard sociological definition of profession which is “any field of endeavor, whose practitioners have a sort of code that, that does not map exactly onto their life as employees, is sort of what they believe in as practitioners of whatever it is they do, as opposed to just whatever the boss wants.”

And I think journalism does fully meet that test, so that’s why I’m comfortable talking about it as a profession.

HEFFNER: We only have one minute left, so you can scramble around. What’s changed your mind about that?

LEMANN: What’s changed my mind is thinking about the definition differently and also thinking that it’s very important for journalists to, you know, in their sort of lucid, disorganized way … to be a group that has a set of values that we think about and that we promote. And occasionally push back against both people we work for and government in defense of the things that we believe in.

HEFFNER: And how are the students taking that?

LEMANN: Students would not be at a professional school if they didn’t have, some, you know, openness to those ideas.

HEFFNER: Including the restrictions that are implied?

LEMANN: Yeah, I think … you know, we debate these things all the time. We teach students ethics, we teach them history, these are not taught in the 10 Commandments way. These are taught in a way of … there are issues in our profession and let’s talk about them and think about them.

I stood up in my class yesterday and said, “Let’s devote this class to talking about whether journalism is possible?” And we had a fun discussion.

HEFFNER: And what was the conclusion … in 10 seconds.

LEMANN: The conclusion is … yes, if you do it right. (Laughter)

HEFFNER: I’m sure that you’ll teach them how to do it right, because you do it right and have done it right for so long as a professional journalist yourself. Nick Lemann, thank you for joining me again on The Open Mind.

LEMANN: Thank you.

HEFFNER: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time, and if you would like a transcript of today’s program, please send $4.00 in check or money order to The Open Mind, P. O. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, New York 10150.

Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck.”

N.B. Every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this transcript. It may not, however, be a verbatim copy of the program.