Columbia J-School walks backward onto the Web

Eye-opening New York mag piece on a rift at the Columbia Journalism School as it struggles with the concept of “new media”: The current faculty doesn’t have the skills in digital storytelling that (some of) the school’s leadership wants to teach. Hiring adjuncts costs a lot of money. So they’re considering crash courses for the professors. And it sounds like they’re still ambivalent. This quotation from the school’s dean, Nick Lemann, deserves some unpacking:

“You can go to the Learning Annex and take a Flash course. I don’t think what we should do is be replicating courses you can take at the Learning Annex. But you have to have some familiarity, or you’re not able to execute a website.”

This straw man is so lightweight it’s amazing it didn’t evaporate as Lemann spoke it. The Learning Annex has a pretty extensive curriculum, you know; they’ll teach you writing and reporting too. All the basic skills that Columbia Journalism School teaches can be learned at extension schools and night schools and in the school of one’s own pajamas. The value the school presumably offers is in how it teaches writing (and photography and, one hopes now, online journalism): not just the basics of accuracy and clarity and economy of expression — the nuts and bolts of reporting and writing — but the ethics and the thoughtfulness and the passion. Right?

Columbia presumably understands that this is its job when it comes to teaching traditional newspaper and broadcast reporting. But suddenly, when the skills involved are newfangled Webby things, that job becomes discounted, something anybody can learn from any old extension school, or any faculty member can pick up by cramming.

Of course these journalism professors should familiarize themselves with the tools if they haven’t already. But you wouldn’t want to try to learn the soul of the discipline from a newbie, would you? Any more than Columbia would ask someone who’d just written their first headline to teach basic news editing. The roster of Columbia faculty is an impressive list, but they are mostly veterans of an era that is fading today, and it is unfair to both them and their students to expect them to become overnight experts in a new world that most of us are just beginning to understand.

The condescension on display toward new media forms here is a recapitulation of what the pioneers in photojournalism encountered in the early days of that field, when it was more technically forbidding but hardly seemed like a serious part of covering a story. Today, one hopes any serious journalism educator understands that learning photojournalism is a lot more than just acquiring the technical facility of taking a decent shot. Similarly, the business of learning to use different online media forms to tell a story goes way beyond just “taking a Flash course.”

We need journalism schools like Columbia to take the journalistic traditions that they have long preserved and carry them forward into the digital age. But they will not be able to play that role until they take these new media forms seriously. The New York piece describes the school’s efforts to begin to integrate digital-era skills with its basic curriculum. That’s promising. But if it’s serious about this, it needs to hire people who know Web journalism as thoroughly as the current faculty knows the journalism of previous eras.

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  1. Carlos

    The web raises questions that just don’t apply to print or broadcast media. For example, right now I’m writing a comment that will appear alongside the post for all to see when reading this item. This is very different from what you’d see in a newspaper or on radio or TV, where only selected letters would be published after the fact, separately from the item. So what exactly is a journalist’s or organization’s responsibility when it comes to comments? Surely it’s less than published letters to the editor, but how much less? And how much should a journalist engage commenters? And on what basis?

    Another example would be corrections and retractions. Right now, if a newspaper publishes something that is inaccurate, they can publish a correction or retraction after the fact, usually buried deep inside. But a website can just update and the item will just change or disappear (although it may be cached elsewhere). What are an organization’s responsibilities in acknowledging their own errors? Should they note when an item has been updated from its first published form, as Salon has done, or is it okay to just update the story without comment?

    As you say, the true value of journalism school isn’t the nuts and bolts of the profession, but rather attitudes and frameworks that allow the reporter to hone their judgment and apply it correctly to the practice of observing and reporting events. J-Schools need to figure out what those attitudes and frameworks should be on the web, otherwise they will be failing not only their students, but society at large.

  2. Hi Scott, as a Columbia J School alum — and a Salon alum — who now works at the NY Times, I couldn’t agree more: Web journalism, in its many forms, needs to be seen not as a competitor to print but rather a complement that requires some of the same skills (storytelling, reporting, etc.), while also offering different strengths. I often feel like the over-emphasis on technical skills overlooks a more basic question that should be asked at various points through the reporting process: What’s the best way to tell this story? The story should drive the choice of medium/format/technology, not the other way around. In some cases, say with especially emotional characters or stunning visuals, video should be dominant, print secondary; in other cases, writing will be the best vehicle, though a follow-up question there should be, is it best to write it as one long story, or a series of smaller blog-like pieces?

    These are the kinds of inquiries that those of us who work on all the different platforms often think about, and the kinds of questions I hope professors are learning to ask their students. The New York Magazine writer also seems to have missed the point.



  3. I just graduated UCBerkeley’s jschool and got a similar response from some of my profs there (“You should just take a night class at the community center.” Up until this year, there was no one on the entire staff or faculty who knew how to execute flash, and only a few who knew the very basics of web journalism– which meant many in the new media program spent entire nights attempting to figure out how to get a button to display or an image to appear. The student body eventually got fed up, banded together, and offered their own, largely self-taught (and largely experimental) class on creating web packages. Since last year, the school has brought in 2 fantastic profs to help out with the basics of web journalism technique and execution (which went to to create:, but there are still quite a few hold-outs, and still only one or two on faculty who can put together a basic web site.

  4. student

    I’ve actually been complaining about this very issue for over a year now. As a journalism student graduating at the end of this year, I can tell you that Columbia is not the only school reluctant to face the web and give its students the skills they really need. In my school’s journalism program, another reputable one in the northeast, they’re doing the same thing – all the professors are seasoned professionals, but from a different era, and don’t have the abilities to teach us students the skills we’re going to need to really succeed. They’re finally recognizing that we need to understand how to build a website, use flash, etc., but they’re mostly teaching it in classes that are nothing more than crash courses, not even taught by the professors, but by their grad student assistants. They know what we need to learn and urge us to get into new media, but they don’t have the knowledge or experience to really teach us how. I’m specializing in photojournalism, and that’s an area where these technical skills are especially important to have to be able to viably compete for a job today. It’s extremely frustrating to know that I’m going to graduate in the coming months and face finding a job in a nearly impossible market on top of paying thousands of dollars of debt in student loans that were taken out to get a diploma from a school that made me learn any useful, up-to-date skills by teaching them to myself.


    For student journalists, go to, click on Web reporter and play the advice from Hoag Levins, executive producer of Hoag’s a former newspaper reporter, and one of the most incredible multimedia journalists you’ll ever find.

    Newspapers died ten years ago. They could have been and should have been the Craig’s lists of their communities. Management treated the web as a place to “repurpose” content instead of developing it. For the most part, J-schools are making the same mistake. Students should demand better. But universities have a tendency to move with glacial swiftness.

  6. cranky

    Gimme a break. Universities are not vocational schools. Where did you learn your Web skills, Scott? On the job, right? Just the way it should be.

  7. Ruth

    Universities that have journalism schools are vocational schools. They’re implying to applicants and students that the students will be prepared to enter journalism when they graduate.

    Universities got out of the pure liberal arts education-for-the-sake-of-education when they started deciding whether teachers had taken enough education courses to be qualified to teach.

    They make other implied promises when they tout the achievements of their business school graduates or promote their medical, law, veterinary, architecture and other college programs.

  8. Gina

    I somehow stumbled onto this discussion about what schools of journalism should be teaching and realize now that I had no idea that there were so many people studying “journalism.”

    But there’s no such thing as “journalism.” I suppose the reporters who write for newspapers or other media outlets are “journalists.” But this is not a craft or profession that can be taught or practiced, unless there is a presumption that graduates with college degrees can’t write.

    In which case, journalism schools are simply remedial writing courses for kids who need the comfort of another two years in academia.

    Which is ok. It’s their money. There are no jobs for them and they have no knowledge of anything of history-political, artistic, cultural, scientific, technological. So what can they report on anyway except the latest celebrity gossip?

    Too bad.

  9. Dan Gillmor

    Scott, from all appearances Columbia still thinks its mission is to train New York Times reporters, and not much else.

  10. Le sigh……

    I’m a Columbia alum – and I have fond memories. But I think the school still has a little more evolving to do.

    I can say that there are some at the school who totally get it. There are a few specific profs. there I absolutely love.

    But Nick Lemann never has – nor do I think he ever will – understand the web.

    A sad comment: I was a freak-of-a-student when I was at Columbia because I had a personal blog.

    EVERY j-student should have a blog week one, day one. I hope that is the case now – but I suspect it isn’t.

    There is new media storytelling – which Columbia does stress – taking photos, video, flash, etc.

    But there is also understanding social media – and collaborative storytelling. That is nowhere to be seen in most j-schools.

  11. Tom

    Judging by the comments, many folks don’t know how to write for the web. Too many words. How simple is that?

    The rest is learning CONTENT MANAGEMENT SYSTEMS.

    No one need know how to program Flash unless they are web designers.

    Just like I needn’t know html to leave this comment.

  12. This is scary but not surprising. After all, we’re educating people to get hired into jobs that largely don’t exist at institutions that are increasingly filing for bankruptcy.

    And social media – kind of hard, in the traditional collegiate workflow, to get them to teach what’s worked out to be a burgeoning industry over only the last 3 years.

  13. Paula Span

    I’m one of those veterans who teaches at Columbia J-School where, believe me, figuring out how to educate journalists adept at using a whole range of storytelling tools is virtually priority number one. We’re revamping the basic reporting and writing course in a way that will very much reflect what Damien Cave says above. We’re constantly aware of the roiling media world our graduates will be entering. I haven’t encountered anybody on the faculty, least of all Nick Lemann, who sees multimedia skills as distinct from, or less vital than, the other journalistic skills and values we try to impart. We are a couple of years late, like most schools, and will probably see more change in the coming year than in the previous decade. But we are ON IT.

  14. Dan

    Boston University has got it right. They strongly encourage all of their students (I am working towards my Master’s in print journalism there) to be web-savvy when they get their degrees. From the use of various blog platforms, basic Google sites knowledge and more sophisticated website creators, to Flickr, Audacity, Final Cut and Photoshop. The faculty at BU understands that to stay ahead, their students will need to be multi-platform journalists. It is not just a matter of learning the correct forms and refining writing, it is a mission to make their students valued (and employable) when they get their degrees. A professor told me once “if you are a print journalist who knows how to shoot and edit video, in this day and age, you are golden.”

    It seems to me that the other large J-schools should find this principle as a no-brainer and I am surprised at the foot dragging I hear from Columbia and Berkeley. At BU we are taught that, when the time comes, we will be the ones replacing the old guard of journalists who are slow or resistant to learning the new platforms. It will take a new wave of young, dynamic and multi-talented journalists to revamp the current sectors that are faltering (redesigning newspaper websites) and create new ones.

    Kudos to Boston University. It looks like I made the right choice.

  15. I think the too-long-didn’t-read comment above has it right – technical learning is just that. Flash will be dead and gone in ten years. Students shouldn’t have to learn it.

    They should have to learn how to be a journalist in our brave new world: how to handle multimedia (newpapers should have podcasts and vlogs), how to groom commenters into sources, how to juggle investigative journalism with the day-to-day crap that passes as news a most outlets, among others.

  16. At the Reynolds Journalism Institute at the Missouri School of Journalism, a group of students and profs are developing HealthCommons, a local social/information/news network. We’re taking an entrepreneurial approach — figuring out how it can be ad-supported. And we’re taking a collaborative approach — spending a lot of time asking the community what it needs and wants, and we’re making the community the visual and functional engine. (You can follow our progress on

    Although the basics of journalism are still there, there’s so much more that modern jurnos need to do: map their communities, integrate businesses as part of the community, learn how to do collaborative serial beatblog reporting, address transparency issues, manage the community’s conversation, use databases effectively, follow through to the resolution of community issues and goals. All this has to be taught, too, and I don’t know of any J-schools that have integrated this approach into their curriculum. Webcentric journalism is so much more than tools, but most J-school faculty don’t understand that.

    Columbia, like Berkeley, kept Webcentric reporting classes at arm’s length. Webcentric journalism (including Flash) have been taught at Berkeley since 2000 (with Paul Grabowicz, I developed the first multimedia reporting class in 2000), but as an elective until a couple of years ago, and by visiting lecturers, like myself.

  17. I can’t believe there are people on here actually buying into the idea that Flash, et al, are actually supposed to be separate and beneath the mighty calling of journalism. Flash and Web design are to online content what layout and page design are to print. I’m graduating from a school (undergraduate) where I’ve literally had to teach myself everything I know about the Web and Flash, and I can tell you that until you dive into it and dissect it, you have no way of understanding how important it is to learn it in a journalistic setting. Without knowing basic ActionScript, at least, it’s impossible to determine how information should be presented in an interactive Flash item because you have no knowledge of what can be done.

    I’m currently trying to decide between Arizona State’s Walter Cronkite J-School and Northwestern. Northwestern really seems like it has its act together. And after reading about Berkeley on here, I’m rather relieved I didn’t get accepted into their program. I don’t need to be someplace where I’m teaching my teachers — I’ve had enough of that at my undergrad alma mater.

  18. peter m herford

    The strength of any university is the extent to which it is home to ideas and research. The arts and sciences of looking forward and backward in an atmosphere that lends insight into history and advancement for society. There is a legitimate debate in J schools about where and how “new media” should be taught. But what seems to be missing in the minutiae is the notion the J schools have been weakest where they should be strongest: ideas that challenge and change their own craft. Why is it that an MIT (and others) had “media labs” decades ago? Shouldn’t the media labs have started in the J schools where the best minds and the best research might have led rather than followed todays trends. One of the dirty secrets of journalism that practitioners have all experienced is the conservatism reflected in some of the comments. Newsrooms that are resistant to change. Editors and publishers who are risk averse toward innovation. This same conservatism is pervasive in parts of most J school faculties, the parts that too often control the direction of the schools. The changes in journalism should have been coming from the J schools, not the J schools chasing the problem of what to teach and how to teach. A few J schools try to shift the balance to the innovators, the leaders rather than the followers. Columbia and most J schools have faculty members who have vision and want to innovate. The schools where leadership encourages their visionaries have the best chance to stand out and offer their students the most challenging education.


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