People who run university journalism schools get used to being asked why they are offering courses to wannabe journalists who won’t be able to find jobs because so many of those jobs are disappearing in the digital disruption. I get asked this twice a week.
Nicholas Lemann steps down as head of the Columbia Journalism School in New York next year and an interviewer from the Daily Beast asked him just this question. His splendidly iconoclastic and counter-intuitive reply makes an excellent riposte to the unreflective pessimism which dominates much pipesucking and public moaning about journalism.
Lemann doesn’t dispute the facts: that jobs have been lost on papers and that more will go (see this blog on Britain here and here). He’s not optimistic about the 25 largest big-city dailies in America. But Lemann takes aim at two fallacies which pop up in most discussions about the future of journalism: the idea that these problems didn’t exist in a golden age sometime in the recent past and the assumption that the future of well-known daily newspapers is the same as the future of journalism.
“People tend to feel, whatever the pressing problem of the moment, that humans before me didn’t have to deal with it,” as he puts it.
There wasn’t a golden age and daily papers aren’t the whole of journalism, just as gloomy American journalists aren’t typical of the world as a whole. Oh, and the trend towards partisan journalism? “Journalism was opinion journalism from about 1700 to 1900.” Renewal and experimentation is going on all over the place. Journalism will do fine, Lemann concludes.
It’s a pithy blast of common sense, informed by a good sense of history’s arc.