In his USA Today column published yesterday, Michael Wolff pulled out his wagging finger and directed it at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism for appointing longtime New Yorker reporter Steve Coll as its dean.
The supposed folly? Coll has never Tweeted. Using that as the kernel of his argument, Wolff calls the new dean’s appointment “an audacious statement about news values and direction.” He then goes on to suggest that Columbia is out of touch with the modern news landscape – “to say it resists the outside world would be kindly” – and has failed to modernize.
As well as laboring through three clause-heavy sentences to call Coll a “boring” writer, Wolff derides Columbia as “anti-market in outlook.”
He also sniffs at the school’s alleged ideal to “get you a job on The New York Times or Washington Post, two organizations trying to fire more people than they hire.”
There are several problems with Wolff’s argument.
The first is that it takes about 40 seconds to teach someone how to use Twitter, but the skills of journalism are acquired and honed over a lifetime. Being adept at Twitter does not make you a good journalist, just as being a good journalist does not make you an adept Tweeter.
Media people who feel smug because they have a Twitter handle, an about.me page, and 500 friends on Facebook often seem to think there is something magical about their ability to navigate social media. There’s not. Social media is easy to use, the barrier to entry is almost zero, and it’s not at all impressive in the larger realm of what constitutes “new journalism,” or whatever it is we’re supposed to call journalism that involves the use of Big Data and interactive infographics.
Journalism skills, however – those antiquated intangibles that fusty old out-of-touch Columbia tries to teach – are non-trivial. Journalists have to be able to not only write, but to also process and synthesize complicated ideas in a short time, structure narratives, master the art of interviewing, take notes really fast, self edit, research in places where others don’t think to look, speak truth to power, ask ballsy questions that might otherwise get their teeth smacked in, construct arguments, dismantle other arguments, see through bullshit, and think on their feet. You can learn those things by yourself through hard work and experience, but it’ll take more than 40 seconds.
Coll might not have ever written a Tweet in his life, but he has won two Pulitzers, authored seven books, and spent the last 28 years writing for the best publications in the US. Does that qualify him to head up a school of journalism? I think so. And if it is absolutely essential that he send out a few messages on Twitter every now and then – if that’s what it takes to prove that he’s as “with it” as Michael Wolff – then I would wager that it is within his intellectual means to somehow be able to manage it.
Another problem with Wolff’s argument is that his straw man doesn’t even have very much straw in it. For a start, it’s not like Coll is going to be running from classroom to classroom teaching students about the importance of social media. That’s not his job. Columbia has about 40 staff on its faculty, and many of them have encountered this mysterious thing called Twitter.
In fact, on closer inspection, Columbia just might not be as un-hip as Wolff suggests. In his column, Wolff does breezily note that the school has “expanded its digital program” run by a “Web editor from London,” and that it “has courses about using data in reporting.” But he doesn’t mention that the “digital program” is actually the Tow Center for Digital Journalism, headed up Emily Bell, the former digital director for the Guardian’s multiple-award-winning online publications. He says nothing of the dual degree in journalism and computer science that the university offers, or that it has a chief digital officer who blogs, hosts a call-in show on BlogTalkRadio, and even has a Twitter account, albeit one with only 45,000 followers (in other words, more than twice as many as possessed by Wolff).
He’s also wrong about the journalism school being “anti-market” in its outlook. Columbia is trying to produce well-rounded journalists. The market actually wants those. As Pew has noted, people are spending more time with news than ever before. People are happily reading more news and longer stories on tablets and mobile devices, just as social media is facilitating and accelerating the spread of those stories. And all of those stories are produced by journalists. The market demand for journalists is thus healthy – the problem is that news businesses are still trying to figure out how to turn that demand into enduring profits.
The news business, however, is something different to journalism itself. While Columbia should certainly make their students aware of the industry’s financial challenges, it is training the next generation of journalists, not the next generation of media business people.
Even the most cutting-edge of news businesses want these journalists, too, though. While Wolff mocks Columbia’s idea of getting its graduates jobs at The New York Times or the Washington Post, BuzzFeed is gleefully raiding the talent of those very outlets, rightfully recognizing that journalism skills, and their attendant critical-thinking framework, are much harder to come by than the ability to string together a series of Tweets in a Storify embed.
I don’t mean to defend Columbia University. Any institution that charges $60,000 in annual tuition fees deserves its fair share of criticism. But Steve Coll’s lack of activity on Twitter is just too soft a target. It’s true that even though he has had a Twitter account for three years, Coll has never sent a single Tweet. What does that mean? Well, it might just mean that Coll doesn’t care for the platform. He’s a longform journalist; he might not feel the apparently compulsory compulsion to find out every newsy detail as soon as it breaks. For the paragons of new media, that might be a sin, but it doesn’t follow that Columbia is getting it wrong.
Give me a good journalist over a social media guru any day.