Steve Coll, a star at the Washington Post and the New Yorker, has taken on one of the toughest jobs in all of the media ecosystem: running the vaunted Columbia School of Journalism.
The new dean has to maintain the excellence of the institution while putting his stamp on it for years to come. But all incoming journalism-school leaders have that agenda, of course. Coll has a special 21st-century burden, all his own, at a school that is synonymous with excellence.
Crucially, Coll has to make sure that Columbia’s program can remain relevant in the digital age, the ultimate objective for everyone today in journalism. None of his predecessors faced this kind of a unique challenge so there is no model to draw upon. The Internet threatens to change the world of journalism more than any single event since the advent of the television set.
For years, there has been a debate raging about hte state of the journalism school in general, centering around a simple question: Is it still necessary? That is, can an ambitious Bob Woodward or David Halberstam wannabe achieve greatness — or at least, have a successful media career — without going to Columbia, Medill, USC, NYU, Syracuse, Berkeley or some other top-flight J-school?
I think the answer, for better of worse, is yes. Journalism schools of Columbia’s quality aren’t cheap. There is a viable alternative, too. This is the age of blogging, after all, so a person can dive into the deep end of journalism without sitting in classrooms. The lure today of a J-school might be to give a student real professional experience. But you can get just that by launching your blog. Hopefully, before too long, the blogger can find his or her writing voice and even attract a solid, growing readership to boot.
I went to the graduate program of the Medill School of Journalism — way back in the last century. I enjoyed the program and, most important, made fantastic friends for life. But If I could do it again today, I’d be a blogger. I hope Steve Coll can change my mind.