Q&Amp;A: Big Plans

The conventional wisdom on journalism school--particularly the expensive graduate programs--has long been that you're paying a lot of money for a handful of connections. That's not totally fair.

For people who didn't study journalism (or work on their college paper) as an undergrad, a graduate degree in journalism can be a good entree into a difficult, and competitive, career. Still, there's a kernel of truth in the idea that the schools don't offer a lot of substance. When Nicholas Lemann, an author and longtime magazine writer, was named the new dean of Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism School earlier this week, he promised to change the status quo. Lemann, who didn't go to journalism school himself, and Lee Bollinger, Columbia's president, are trying to make Columbia's program more like a professional school and less like an apprentice program. On Thursday he spoke with NEWSWEEK's Seth Mnookin from his home, where he's finishing up an assignment from the New Yorker.

NEWSWEEK: Why is journalism school necessary?

Nicholas Lemann: Well, most journalists didn't go to journalism school. You and I will never see the day when most journalists do go to J-school, and we may not want to see the day. One of the attractive things about the profession is that it's open and democratic. There's an audition, a walk on-quality--anyone who can produce good work can walk on. And that's a great and refreshing thing about journalism. So the issue is, finding where there's the value-added in journalism school. A lot of people who go to Columbia are the kind of people who weren't the editor of their college paper. They're in their mid-20s, and decide they're interested in journalism, and they get a chip they can cash in in the entry-level job market. The school's curriculum focuses very much on writing skills, particularly skills you'll need in the early years of your career. They theory has been, we're going to turn out people who are ready to perform on day one in the kinds of jobs that people start in in journalism. That's important to do.

But you're going to change that?

Bollinger has set forth a goal of expanding the school from one year to two years. So then we get into, what can you add to the existing program? What most interests me is expanding on a couple of basic principles. This is something that other professional schools do a lot, which is to say, let's think beyond the beginning of the career in to the middle of the career.

Like what?

Again, I want to put this big caveat on this--the whole process is consultative, and we don't have any changes in place. But I'd like to create scenarios: imagine you are the editor of The New York Times, and 9-11 has just happened. Conceptually, how do you deal with that? It's a helluva goddamn story, and it has incredibly complicated implications, including calling for some kind of broad understanding of religion, diplomacy, urban design, real estate. So you need to come up with special news budgets and management techniques and all that. I'd like to explore at least whether there are exercises you can develop to train students for how to think when they're in that kind of situation. Train them for when they'll be managers, and senior correspondents and big-foot types.

More like a professional school?

We want to do training for the whole career and not just the early years, and train for problems and situations you encounter. One day you'll be staying in the Wayfarer Inn in New Hampshire [covering a presidential primary], but where you'll never be again is at one of these world-class universities. So we want to figure out: what are all the things one needs to know over a long career as a journalist? And of those things, what can one acquire much more easily in a year or two of intensive research in a great university?

So you want to develop advanced curriculums?

Almost everyone agrees on the idea of creating something that looks like a major. You could specialize in international relations, or government and politics, or cultural affairs, religion, science and medicine/health. And ideally, what you would do in these cases is convene groups of journalists, and the journalism-school faculty and professors in these areas at Columbia and elsewhere, and try to work out a program in which you figure out what you would want journalists covering those fields to know. Obviously, money's a factor. As Richard Nixon used to say, the easy and popular thing to do would be just say, here's your chit, now go out and take courses elsewhere in the university. But the exciting possibility would be to find just the right person at the School of International Relations to help design a course to be taught in the J-school. I think this makes a good case for journalism school. For instance, if you're in the School of Public Affairs, the work product you're working towards is this thing called the "decision memo," involving cost-benefit analysis. If you're a journalist covering public affairs, it's important to know about that. But at the same time, your work product is very different. It's a written piece to promote understanding and interest in the general public. So you have to know the field and apply it in completely different ways. At least my supposition is there's a specifically journalistic way to teach advanced knowledge in these different subjects.