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‘Are We the Problem?’ The New Dean of Columbia J-School Wrestles With Its Place in the Industry

Everyone is in their back-to-school finest. For the incoming Columbia Journalism School class, this means: a lot of Fjällräven backpacks; some of those little reporters’ notebooks that journalists use in the movies; at least one LA Times-branded mask (is it from a subscription deal or a coveted internship?). Doc Martens abound, so do first-day jitters.

A little under 250 new students are masked up and packed into the Joseph D. Jamail lecture hall to hear Dean Jelani Cobb talk about a 118-year-old article that he plucked from the archives. His goal: to get these newly minted J-schoolers to think more clearly about a journalism school’s place in America. The title of the piece, written by founder of the Columbia Journalism School Joseph Pulitzer is “The College of Journalism,” which Pulitzer describes as “a review of criticisms and objections.” And while some of the complaints about the concept of a journalism school feel slightly anachronistic (whether a journalist must be “born” or whether he can be taught) many remain relevant: whether journalism has to be taught in newsrooms, what can’t be taught in a classroom — and whether a “college of journalism” is superfluous.

These are a ballooning list of questions that are very much on Cobb’s mind these days as he takes on a job as the public face of the country’s premier J-school. He’s stepping in at a particularly fraught time: Local newsrooms have been hollowed out; the ones remaining are regularly accused of relentlessly chasing clicks and eyeballs, rather than delivering reporting that seeks to educate or hold power to account. Politicians and their fans regularly attack the credibility of the press. (As do some journalists.) Then there’s a worldwide rise in the killing of journalists.

“What is Columbia Journalism School’s role when there are news deserts everywhere?” a new student asks Cobb. “Are we part of the problem?”

That’s a question he’s still thinking through, Cobb says, but he likes the idea of providing the occasional workshop for underserved journalists. “I know it may be an unsatisfactory answer, but we’ll see how that can be done,” he says.

Inherent within his measured answer is Cobb’s growing understanding — officially one month into the job — of what it means to be dean. He’s spent six years teaching at the J-school while also contributing to The New Yorker (a job he will continue), but dean-hood comes with a distinct set of challenges.

It’s easy to arrive starry-eyed, imagining the ways you and your students can–and will–change the world. Then comes the fundraising.

An M.S. in journalism from Columbia — all told a nine and a half month program — costs an estimated $121,290. Depending on where you’re looking, a journalist with a master’s degree makes on average between $36,000 and $58,000 after graduating. Columbia can offer generous aid packages (73 percent of those who applied for scholarship aid received funding and the median award is approximately $40,000), but its students are also regularly drowning in debt. For many young people with journalistic aspirations, the training that Columbia provides is a luxury they literally cannot afford.

Cobb is all too aware of the problem. He told me that he regularly hears from students who have always dreamed of becoming journalists but now worry about how they’ll pay for school or how much of a burden their debt will be. “It’s not a novel idea that we need to find some other way for this to exist,” he says. “We just don’t know what that is right now.”

Jelani Cobb did not attend journalism school himself, an irony of which he’s very cognizant. Born William Anthony Cobb in Queens, New York, he learned to write from his father, an electrician named Willie Lee Cobb who had a third-grade education, but made his children’s education a top priority. Jelani says he remembers his father’s large hand engulfing his tiny one in their home as he learned the alphabet.

Cobb was the youngest of four in his family, though the only child his parents had together. He went to Howard University, where it took him seven years to complete his undergrad because he didn’t have the money to consistenly pay tuition — he spent much of that time freelance writing and protesting in on-campus demonstrations. (He occupied administrative buildings to protest apartheid and the appointment of Lee Atwater as a trustee of the University.) When he was 19, he changed his middle name to Jelani, a Swahili word that means “full of strength” or “powerful,” for, he says, “a very serious and a less serious reason.” For starters, he wanted to reconnect with his African heritage, a connection that “has been taken away from many Black people in the United States forcibly.” And then there was the problem of his initials: W-A-C. He didn’t want to be “wac(k)” anymore.

If his seven years at Howard weren’t enough, Cobb then embarked on a Ph.D. program in history at Rutgers. He credits mentors in undergrad and his love of the physical spaces of college campuses for his continued interest in academia — the high school he attended, Jamaica High School, was designed by the same architects who designed Columbia. Preparing for his new job, Cobb recently stumbled upon his old personal statement about why he wanted to go get a history Ph.D; he wrote that he thought it would make him a better journalist.

Cobb has been ensconced in the world of academia for years, all the while occasionally leaving the classroom to report as well. And his reporting has borne fruit: In 2018, he was a Pulitzer Prize finalist in commentary for “combining masterful writing with a deep knowledge of history and a deft reporter’s touch to bring context and clarity to the issue of race.” Meanwhile, a gas mask Cobb wore while covering the Ferguson protests and the birth of the Black Lives Matter movement is in the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture.

His office is still a work in progress (“a painting issue,” he tells me). His books are boxed up and still in his old faculty office downstairs. The essentials that have made their way up to the dean’s office (which was already replete with a table, desk and some couches) are his elegant road bike — he’s got a clunkier electric one as well, he says — and a photo he took of his daughter Christine, now five, playing in water sprinklers.

“My daughter keeps referring to me as ‘the dean,’” he says, laughing. “She thinks that comes with a cape.”

Reporting on the ground and working in academia are not always a natural fit. Hang around certain academic circles long enough and it’s easy to get afflicted with a certain kind of circular thinking. Comparatively small problems all become the result of structural factors out of your control.

Example: Journalism school is too expensive. This is especially true given that journalists can’t hope to make much money after they graduate. And it gets worse when you think about where graduates end up right out of school. They either don’t want to or can’t afford to take a low-paying local news job in a smaller city or town — if those even exist anymore. So they stay in New York or Washington. This contributes to the professional networks that drive job opportunities and elite bias in the media. These biases lead to worse reporting, fewer people interested in journalism and fewer checks on the crooks that steal from the poor and give to the rich, who are the ones setting the market on how expensive graduate programs are. Journalism school’s big price tag is actually a crisis of capitalism.

For someone proudly on the political left like Cobb, there’s probably little wrong with that logic. He knows these arguments from his decades in academia. But, they can also be paralyzing: If everything requires a total teardown of our broader systems, what do we do while we’re waiting for the revolution?

Cobb is eschewing that logic to examine the problem in a way that befits the trade school that he’s been tasked to lead. Journalism school is too expensive. Which means he needs to fundraise to make it cheaper.

Beyond the issue of cost, there is the question of what nine months in this highly intensive place can teach students. Certainly, it can help them build a certain skill set: how to report and interview; how to write clearly; how to file a FOIA request. And it certainly links students into professional networks — and to coveted internships and jobs. Cobb is also laser-focused on historical context, something he says young journalists can easily lack. He wants them to have at least “50 years of working knowledge” in major areas of interest from U.S. foreign policy to Capitol Hill to criminal justice. And though he’s a liberal columnist, he says that students are often “surprised” by his commitment to not imposing personal views on readers.

“One of the clichés of Dr. Cobb’s class is, ‘the information you have is not as important as the information you don’t have,’” Cobb says.

I didn’t go to J-school myself, so I decided to take the day I had on campus to soak up what I could from one of America’s preeminent teachers of the craft.

“If you had a student who was writing a profile of the new dean of Columbia Journalism School, what kind of advice would you give them?” I ask.

“This conversation just became very meta,” Cobb says. He stands at an imposing 6’3”, but in his reporting, he takes a cue from the famously diminutive Joan Didion: “Be small.”

“You should not take up space in a room until you want to take up space in a room … [and] ask something the person wasn’t expecting,” he says. “So I think that’s probably a question that would qualify.”

It’s not so easy for Cobb to be small these days, and not just because of his large stature. Walking around Morningside Heights with Cobb — where he lives and works — he’s recognized on the street by someone who’s seen him on MSNBC. That happens a lot. At a neighborhood bookstore, Cobb grabs two volumes that he’s preordered: Salman Rushdie’s essay collection, “Languages of Truth” and Democratic Rep. Adam Schiff’s “Midnight in Washington.” Cobb is a man of varied interests, though the California representative’s Republican critics might say both books include magical realism.

Returning to Cobb’s office, which boasts views of Columbia’s stately campus, we walk by displays of numerous high-profile awards his school awards, from the National Magazine Awards to the DuPont-Columbia Awards to the Pulitzer Prizes. There are carved busts and painted and photographed portraits of some of Columbia Journalism School’s luminaries, including its previous deans. It’s a whole lot of white guys; Cobb is Black.

“The arc of my career has been being a Black person in rooms where there were fewer and fewer Black people,” Cobb says. “That is what it is. But also, why critique it if you’re not interested in actually trying to change it?”

The late journalist David Carr, who gave both Cobb and Ta-Nehisi Coates their first real reporting gigs at the Washington City Paper, once described Columbia Journalism School as “Hogwarts for wizards who type.” Serving as its newest Dumbledore, Cobb hopes to expand the place to be welcoming to more than just the “pure-blood” (Columbia already gets much better marks than Hogwarts on the diversity front, to be fair).

Cobb wraps up his welcome address, turning the microphone over to Winnie O’Kelley, Columbia’s dean of academic affairs. It’s almost his birthday, and O’Kelley is armed with a surprise: red velvet cake. (There are cupcakes in the back, too, to accommodate 250 some-odd students and staff). She walks up to the microphone and leads the room in an awkward, off-key rendition of “Happy Birthday.”

“I’m totally putting that on my [Instagram] story,” a new student says.

Cobb cracks a big smile. He already looks at home in this environment. It helps that he can ply his new students with some free food.

Still, he’s resisting the urge to get too comfortable.

“I want us to be a pipeline that helps make the [journalism] field itself more democratic. I don’t have any illusions about how complicated that undertaking will be,” Cobb says.

But he’s here because he wants to try. Because, after having conversations about inequity in the field for years, now he’s got the chance to mold the school to fit his vision. “You have a conception of what this place is,” he says, “and also what this place could be.”

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