BOB GARFIELD: Given the elusiveness of journalistic profitability in the digital age and the click economy’s inherent corruptibility, we were struck by a recent invitation letter from Columbia Journalism School Dean Steve Coll to prospective students for a December informational event. The letter began, quote, “This is a great time to enter journalism.” Is it now? Experienced journalists are out on the street, fresh young ones are working for coolie wages or no wages at all. Nobody has devised a business model, online or off, to suggest that journalism will provide most Columbia graduates with a stable livelihood. And, as we’ve just seen, financial incentives often militate against journalistic truth. Therefore, to quote the philosopher, whaddup with that? Steve Coll, welcome to On the Media.
STEVE COLL: Glad to be back, Bob.
BOB GARFIELD: A great time to enter journalism?
STEVE COLL: Well, [LAUGHS] your description of what's going on in the business is just wrong, I think, in many important ways. Bezos bought the Washington Post for 250 million bucks. Pierre Omidyar is putting 250 million into a new investigative reporting venture. I think there's no question that we’re in a boom, actually, for media. I think it's a fairer question to say, well, what does that mean for reporting? This is not like entering the civil service anymore, as it was when I entered the Washington Post at 25, stayed for 20 years and my whole peer group were, by and large, people who stayed at newspaper institutions for many years at a time.
This is a much more entrepreneurial period, and that means the skills that you need and the kind of temperament that you need to really live this fantastic life, you’re gonna have to be quicker on your feet.
BOB GARFIELD: You, yourself, said that many of the opportunities that are out there for journalists are funded by investors, entrepreneurs, various kinds of seed capital. In the good old days, journalism jobs were funded by the [LAUGHS] ongoing profits of large media organizations, which gets back to the premise of this conversation. I don't really see any evidence that you are, at least in this one invitation to one event, managing the expectations of incoming students.
STEVE COLL: I think that journalism is about a life. It's fun to ask impertinent questions at press conferences, to be standing on a balcony in the middle of a revolution, to have a voice, to be able to learn how to write for audiences, to think every morning about what matters and what doesn't. It is a great time to have that life, because media is at the center of our society, it’s at the center of our government, it’s at the center of our powerful private institutions. We all walk around with media tools in our hands, consuming media all day long. Who wouldn’t want to be involved in that?
And your definition of what journalism is, like mine, is rooted in an era that’s gone. The civil service era was an accident of business history, it was an accident of social history. But the life of journalism is still there.
BOB GARFIELD: I have no argument with you that the business model for journalism is changing - the post-mass media age business model for journalism has not emerged - and further stipulate that there are all sorts of benefits to a Columbia Graduate School of Journalism education. That’s not at issue. What is at issue is the role of the Journalism School to make sure that those who wish to enter it understand exactly what it is they’re entering. Are you comfortable with your new class of graduate students will enter with eyes wide open about the, the realities of the marketplace?
STEVE COLL: Yeah, I am, I mean, I think not because they’re gonna take what I write them in an invitation to an session as the answer to that question, but because they are college graduates who have been living in the world, they’re curious people considering graduate schools of journalism. At that point, you have to have a fairly serious lean toward a life in journalism. And it is, like graduate degrees, a point of entry.
BOB GARFIELD: I got to ask you this, Steve: When you were considering taking this position, dean of the Columbia Journalism School, did you think about whether to take that job as to sort of breed white rats, only to kill them in the laboratory? Did you have any kind of misgivings or concerns about the ultimate role of journalism schools, under the current economic conditions?
STEVE COLL: I didn't. I think maybe this is a flaw in my character, but I actually believe in journalism so profoundly and that I actually think, counterintuitively, that with the big confident incumbent institutions that I grew up in and around - the Washington Post and its peers, the big magazine publishing companies - with all of them disrupted, laying people off, losing confidence that, actually a durable institution like a university becomes relatively more important because somebody has to interrogate all of this technological change for its value to readers, audiences and citizens.
Somebody has to ask why do our new abilities to share cat videos matter, to also teach the kinds of skills in data science, computational science that will allow the graduates who do come through to prove that journalism still matters, and to get paid for it.
BOB GARFIELD: Thank you, Steve.
STEVE COLL: Thank, you Bob.
BOB GARFIELD: Steve Coll is the Henry Luce Professor of Journalism at Columbia Journalism School, where he is also the dean.