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nicholas lemann

Nicholas Lemann is the dean of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. In August 2006, he wrote a provocative article for The New Yorker which challenged the claims of blogger/media critic Jeff Jarvis and others that anyone can be a reporter. This is the edited transcript of an interview conducted on Nov. 29, 2006.

You wrote a piece in The New Yorker about the Internet and bloggers. Why did you write it, and what were you trying to say?

What got me interested: the Internet is the most dramatic development in journalism in my lifetime. There are something like 5 million people who arguably are working journalists in the United States, if you count the bloggers who say their blogs are journalistic in some way. So suddenly you're going from this tiny little profession where it seems like everybody knows everybody else to an enormous profession that is more volunteer than paid. So that's interesting.

But what I became especially interested in is there's a phenomenon and a sort of ideology that goes with it. The phenomenon is citizen journalism, and the ideology that goes with it is that people who are not full-time employees of news organizations are actually, in the aggregate, going to do a better job being the keepers of journalism than reporters who work for salaries for established news organizations.

So I was drawn into that debate. I'm still in that debate, because when you pick a fight with bloggers, you're going to be in it for a long time.

Well, tell me, what is a journalist?

We're not a licensed profession. A journalist is anybody who says he's a journalist. People who write astrology columns are journalists. People who write race-tip columns are journalists. Pipe-puffing op-ed page reporters are journalists. Photographers who go to war zones are journalists. Arguably people who write comic strips are journalists. Bloggers are journalists. I don't think it's useful at all to get into the game of saying who is and isn't a journalist. Basically anybody who says they're a journalist is a journalist.

So why would you bother spending tens of thousands of dollars to go to the journalism school you run if you can be a journalist without doing that?

What we are training people to do is to get paid jobs, although some of our graduates go out and become entrepreneurial and start news organizations.

“All that citizen stuff is valuable. There's no reason not to have it. But I don't see it producing … lots of new information.”

A lot of them just go into public relations.

No, almost none go into public relations. We don't let public relations agencies even recruit here. This is one of the few pure journalism schools in the country. Why we exist: we train people basically to be reporters. That is a subcategory of journalists. It means people who go out and actively seek information, we hope, as a full-time occupation. Because it's full-time, it probably needs to be paid, and because it needs to be paid, they want to work for news organizations.

But basically you agree with [media critic/blogger] Jeff Jarvis that anyone can perform an act of journalism?

Oh, yeah. Anybody who does anything that offers any sort of information, comment, humor, etc., on the passing parade of life is notionally a journalist.

But in reading your [New Yorker] article, Mr. Jarvis said ... you're pitting journalists versus bloggers.

Note that in his article, he never once quoted from my article. ... I don't think I actually said a lot of the things he said.

The headline that I would put on the article is, "The citizen journalism movement, as I'm reading it thus far, does not do very much original reporting." The claim is made that citizen journalists are really doing important investigative local reporting on public affairs, as good as or better than old-fashioned formal news organizations. But I don't see it out there in these citizen journalism sites.

Yes, you can point out one or two examples. But, you know, every time somebody e-mails me, which is practically every day now, and says, "You've got to go look at this site." You go there, and it's 99 times out of 100 a site that offers genial, interesting commentary on what's going on, not hard digging about the governance and business of whatever community it is.

Are you saying that they're not serious because they're simply amateurs?

I'm saying that I think reporting is a highly socially valuable activity, and most citizen journalists that I've encountered on the Internet don't do reporting. It's that simple. They don't go out and interview people. They don't go out and actively seek information.

There is a bright-line difference in my mind between opinion -- there is nothing wrong with it; it's where journalism started, and it's a great, honorable thing -- and reporting, which is a relatively recent addition to the panoply of what journalism does. It involves what I used to do: You go out and interview people all day, and you try to find out what's going on, and you offer as accurate a report as you can to the general public on what's going on. You bring the news; you gather the news.

Almost no citizen journalists are doing that. That doesn't mean they're amateurs; that doesn't mean they're bad; that doesn't mean they're not journalists. They're just not doing original reporting or newsgathering. That's what I'm saying.

So when [former Los Angeles Times editor] John Carroll says the organizations that gather most of the original information every day are in danger, that means the content which people on the Internet use every day may be drying up?

I think there's a real point there. I am less pessimistic about the newspaper business than John is. I'm more optimistic about the future of reporting that is a small subcategory of all of journalism.

It is true: A lot of journalism on the Web takes original reporting done by traditional media -- number one on the list would be daily newspapers, but a lot comes from the BBC and other broadcast outlets and various forms of daily traditional journalism -- and aggregates it, comments on it, reprocesses it. If all that stuff went away, the Web journalism environment would be a lot less rich. … You need news organizations to support reporters who do the reporting that supports all this wonderful explosion of commentary that we have.

But there are sites on the Internet that are trying to do real reporting, right? [Talking Points Memo's] Josh Marshall, who did the [Sen.] Trent Lott story, says he's attempting to do that and hiring reporters to do that.

Yeah, I admire Josh for hiring reporters. The Trent Lott story, [in which Lott praised the 1948 presidential campaign of Sen. Strom Thurmond, who ran on a hard-line segregationist platform], it should be said, is a complicated case, because this is something Trent Lott said before an open mic. There were 30 reporters in the room when he said it. It's not as if [Josh] ferreted out the fact that Lott said it. What he did is -- and this is where bloggers add a lot of value -- there's always 87 zillion things going on in the world, and the focus can only be on three or four of them. So journalism is highly selective.

Bloggers are very good at saying to the mainstream press, "Here's an item that you haven't selected as important, and we demand that it be treated as important." Then they can sometimes, if they have a good argument, get it elevated. That's what happened with Trent Lott, in my view.

And Dan Rather?

Dan Rather's a sort of fact-checking case, but that's another case where I think the bloggers did have an influence. In other words, while that piece was on the air in 60 Minutes II, bloggers were going online and saying, "We question the veracity of this." They put it into play. And because 60 Minutes II did not have an airtight case as to where they got those documents, it caused the story to collapse.

Conversely, if bloggers are going after something where there's no real weakness, they're not going to have that effect. But again, none of this is what I would call original reporting, which is the thing that journalists do that is of especially great social value.

Well, what do you think of their concepts, like the wisdom of the crowd?

First of all, I spent one-third of the [New Yorker] article [saying] that this kind of back-and-forth has been going on forever, between discourse being more in the hands of the elite and more in the hands of the masses. Every time a new medium is invented -- and new media gets invented constantly, it's not just the Internet -- it opens up the conversation to new players. They speak in a louder, coarser voice, then they get assimilated into the system. It's a never-ending cycle.

Maybe you can find somebody who's willing to say, "I believe only elites should be able to participate in the discourse." I don't believe that. I started out working for an underground newspaper; I don't think that; I've never said that.

No, but they have a concept, this idea of the ultimate wisdom of crowds. Some have called it digital Maoism.

It's not that wisdom resides in one side or another. It's that doing the newsgathering -- doing your homework, going there, talking to the people -- is a valuable activity, and you shouldn't get so carried away with the idea of the wisdom of the crowds that you say: "Oh, that little thing, gathering the news, who cares? Let that go, because that was all part of this elite construct." That's really, really important.

But isn't there a basis to criticize the establishment organs of the news, that they have a particular view of the world and that they need to be sometimes reminded that there are other things going on and other people now who have access to all this information?

This is a total straw-man kind of argument. Whoever said that the media elite were perfect or that they should dominate national discourse? They never have, and I don't think they should.

I just don't buy the way it gets set up by people like Jeff [Jarvis] and [media critic/blogger] Jay [Rosen]. There's an enormous proliferation of opinion -- and this is pre-Internet -- in the United States. Any sort of big news organization has to be fantastically selective, so they can never let all voices speak. And no matter how evenhanded and open and nonideological they try to be, they're always going to be in the trap of representing only a fraction of opinion. So socially you need all these other venues for people to be able to express opinions because, just by definition, all views aren't going to make their way into these big news organizations. The Internet is a great development because it makes that much more possible than it was before. I don't get what we're arguing about here exactly.

So what's their beef with you?

I've thought about that a lot. I come from the Deep South. I spent most of my life in Louisiana and Texas. If you live there, there's this deep feeling the fancy people in New York are laughing at us and sneering at us. A lot of that is part of the culture of the blogosphere, the feeling that the journalistic establishment is looking down its nose at all these people doing new, daring things.

Eric Schmidt, the CEO of Google, told us: "The new reporters are not going to follow the traditional path. They're going to find ways of finding a new audience and won't be as tied to the traditional newspapers." He said, "I'm not sure this is good, but it's a fact of life." And, you know, his question is, what are the journalism schools doing to meet this challenge?

That I can tell you. I get up the first day of school every year when the students arrive, and I say: "Look, I can promise you that journalism is an important thing to do and an exhilarating thing to do. I can promise you that if you work hard at it, there will be a need for what you do. But I can't promise you what form you'll do it in, and that's highly subject to change.

Our job at the school is to teach you how to report, how to present your reporting clearly, how to behave ethically, and how to be ready for massive change as to what is the venue for practicing your profession." We're always revamping. I mean, we get more webby every year. And we're about to get a lot more webby than we've ever been in how we teach our students.

So when I talk to Jeff Jarvis, should I say to him: "Now wait a second: Nick Lemann tells us he agrees with you. What are you worried about?"

This is what we disagree about, two key points on different sides of the ledger. One is how malign a force in American society is the so-called MSM, or mainstream media?

I would argue the MSM, which has all sorts of problems and shortcomings -- and the economic ones and a lot of others -- is, net, a tremendous force for good in American society. I don't think Jeff would say that. I think he would disagree with that. I'd be interested [to hear] what he said if you asked him that: Are the MSM basically a force for good in American society?

The second is, if you look at blogs and citizen journalists and so on in the aggregate, how much original reporting are they doing that has real value? He would say, I think, a lot. I would say very little, and much less than you'd think from reading the rhetoric of himself and other promoters of the movement. Not, by the way, that they're bad, that they're a force for bad in society, that anything [is] wrong with what they do.

I compare them, infuriatingly to Jeff, to church newsletters. Nobody's against church newsletters; they're fun to read. They're just comment. They're like a community bulletin board.

Yeah, but you're belittling them --

Yes, I am belittling them in that sense. I'm belittling them --

You're looking down on them from on high here in uptown Manhattan, from the heights at Columbia University, and saying, "You guys are like a church newsletter."

Fair enough. That gets back to what I was saying about being from Louisiana. That's a sort of tonal argument. But I think it's worth sticking to my guns in the sense that it is in fact true that there isn't a lot of original reporting that's being done by bloggers and citizen journalists, at least in comparison to reliable and original reporting, sort of digging out new stuff instead of reprocessing the stuff that other people have dug out already. It's more a cultural dispute than an actual argument about what should happen in the journalistic world.

Eric Schmidt of Google says the biggest problem facing the Internet is reliability.

That's a very interesting, complicated issue that leads us in the completely different direction.

Right now -- and this is part of the headache of traditional news organizations -- with some notable exceptions, you can't charge for content on the Web. So how can you support the reporting that I think is vital if you can't charge for content? Well, one way you can do it is if there's an avalanche of advertising. But if the advertising avalanche isn't quite big enough, then you can't.

What I hope and believe will happen slowly over time is essentially what's happened in print: Certain Web sites will develop a reputation among their readers for being absolutely trustworthy and smart. Everything is filtered. Even the Drudge Report is filtered. You can't have a news organization that doesn't have an editorial function decide what's in, what's out, how carefully things are checked, etc. Sites will develop brand identities; they'll build their own audiences.

Those sites that provide original information and highly trustworthy analysis will be able to develop audiences that would be willing to pay for them, and then that will pay for the reporting. That would be my hope. But it will be a kind of informal ecosystem on the Web where some publications, some sites are more reliable than others.

There's no proof at this point that the Internet will have enough revenue in various sites to support the kind of reporting you're talking about.

It depends. I am way less pessimistic than most people I run into every day in my job, for a number of reasons. The scary stuff in the newspaper business is happening really at about a dozen or so of the biggest big-city newspapers. Based on who comes here [Columbia Journalism School] to speak, the people who publish in small- to medium-sized markets are not nearly as pessimistic as the people who are publishing in big markets. They say, "We're a local newspaper; we publish a lot of local news; our audience is loyal to us; it's not slipping away; our advertisers are not slipping away."

On the Web, some people are doing extremely well, like Bloomberg News, and that's because they're able to charge a huge subscription price because they're based on financial data.

The model for the daily newspaper is they've mushed together a bunch of things traditionally under one roof, and if the Internet starts taking away little pieces of it, the whole doesn't cohere economically, or that's the scenario. The biggest example of that is the classified ads being taken away by craigslist and others.

Some sites on the Web, particularly Bloomberg, have done sort of the opposite: They've built an economic base on all this financial data that people are willing to pay a fortune for, and then layered news on top that their readers like and want, but that's clearly supported by something else.

People will experiment and come up with ways to make this work. I definitely think the trends will drive most American newspaper journalism to be intensely local, and that's where the economic sweet spot is going to be. The most endangered is the Washington bureau and the foreign bureau. The newspaper has to be willing to say in its print and Web iterations, "What you're getting from us, you cannot get anywhere else."

Now wait a second. You are saying that some newspapers are doing OK; a lot of them are still making money. The Los Angeles Times makes over a billion dollars in revenue a year, and over $200 million a year in profit today, and it's in a crisis, and the newsroom is being cut.

That's a different question. My understanding of that is public markets bet on the future of companies. Public markets are often wrong, but they're not just completely blind. So the calculus of investors is, yes, the Los Angeles Times has a 20 percent profit margin, but it's also losing, what, 7 percent of its audience every year? Play it out for 10 years; it's not going to be at 20 percent profit in 10 years unless some cuts are achieved or additional revenue [is found].

That's all the investors are doing. If they thought it will produce 20 percent profit in perpetuity, then the stock wouldn't be going down.

But you're talking about the public markets. [Berkshire Hathaway chairman and billionaire investor] Warren Buffett says newspapers, as an industry, are in decline; tells people, even though he owns a large chunk of The Washington Post, "Don't invest." That's causing a crisis in newsrooms across the United States.

Look, I'm not an investor. For the most part, the public markets do not believe in the future of the traditional print newspaper, particularly big-city newspapers. That's why the stocks of companies associated with traditional newspaper journalism are quite depressed right now.

On the other hand, there's a lot of private players who are trying to get into the business. Some of them are trying to get into it for vanity reasons or public service reasons or whatever you want to call it. Some of them, I think, think they can make the economics work and that the markets are overreacting to something temporary.

But let's say it does happen. Then there's a conversation that people in journalism don't really want to have, but it might be a conversation worth having, which is in much of the world, including in the United States, good journalism is associated with various explicit and implicit public policies. That is, government interventions to make journalism better, such as the BBC in Britain, which has taxing authority; such as the now-departed Fairness Doctrine and various public service requirements in broadcasting; such as nonprofit status and quasi-public status like NPR and PBS have.

We may have to start thinking, if we value reportorial journalism, about structural interventions that will preserve it if trends move in that direction, rather than just saying, "Oh, isn't it horrible?" Or saying, "Why can't we have owners who don't care about profits as much?"

When we interviewed Dean Baquet and Jeff Johnson, the former editor and publisher, respectively, of the Los Angeles Times, they said, "We answer first to our readers and then to our shareholders." Is that a naive perspective in the modern world?

It's a complicated question. Journalism in the United States has traditionally been completely independent of government, although today that's not really true; this show we're on now is, indirectly, very heavily supported by the U.S. government. Like it or not, it's just true. But nonetheless, if you have journalism having a commercial basis, and also journalism as a profession in the sense that the people who practice it have a set of values that are not purely commercial, you've got a built-in tension.

It's nothing new. It's always existed, and it's not a problem that's that easy to solve ever. There's always something else you can do that will be of journalistic value that will drive your profits down. The idea that there was a time when all newspapers were immune to economic considerations and only cared about their readers, I don't really buy that. I grew up in a town that now has a great newspaper, but when I was a kid had a horrible newspaper. The idea that there was this misty time in the past when journalism didn't care about profits and all local papers were great, that time didn't exist.

Go back and read. In 1947, there was the Hutchins [Commission] report about the state of journalism. It said there's too much concern with profits; chain ownership is taking over; sensationalism and celebrity journalism is taking over; something must be done. Go back and read [New Republic founder] Walter Lippmann's book Public Opinion, written in 1922. Same argument: Journalism had this wonderful promise once, but concern with profit and big corporate ownership has dashed that promise, and we have to think of some new way of saving journalism.

This is a constant, because of the way American journalism is structured.

Everyone's running to the Internet. At the same time, when you talk to people at these newspapers or broadcasting companies, they'll tell you the revenue from this is really pretty small and there's declining profits in their parent companies. What's at risk, they say, is in-depth reporting and the future of it. Is it at risk?

I hope it's not at risk, and let me make the case why it wouldn't be at risk. That would be that the economics of the Internet are going to start to work over time. If we're sitting here in 20 years, it's my hope that the people who are doing really good journalism on the Web, that serves local audiences and so on, will be making money at it, and that the print publication will still exist and will have settled down to a smaller, natural level.

Putting it another way, reporting -- taking out the word "in-depth" -- is the only thing you can really offer on the Internet that people would conceivably be willing to pay for; certainly subscribers, and maybe even advertisers. For that reason, I think the economics will start to work on the Web side of journalism.

Most of the established newspapers in the United States, as far as audience goes, have very healthy Web sites with much bigger audiences than their print edition. I can't think of a single big city in the United States where some other person came along and established the dominant local news site that has a bigger audience than the daily newspaper's site.

So the question really becomes, what does the slope of decline look like for the print edition, and does it start to sort of level off? What is the slope of income increase on the Web side through advertising, through some form of paid circulation, through some form of monetizing search? And will we get to some kind of equilibrium where it's still supporting reporting?

I really hope it will, and I believe it will. At every moment in my life there's been something that was in crisis, and it's always been wrong to follow the trend line at that moment down as far as it goes. It's perilous to believe that what's happening in 2