August 11, 2006

Just say it: CJR Daily is not that important

Nicholas Lemann, dean of Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, has cut the budget for CJR Daily, prompting Steve Lovelady and Bryan Keefer to resign.

As Lemann explains:

We have had considerable success in fundraising for Columbia Journalism Review, but not so much that we can keep CJRDaily at the same editorial budget it has had, so we are going to reduce that budget, with regret. But even after the reduction, CJR will have the most substantial Web reporting and writing staff of any publication its size that I know of. We are making that commitment because we believe so deeply in the journalistic promise of the Web, even though, as everybody in journalism knows, it does not yet produce revenues commensurate with its quality. Our goal for Columbia Journalism Review, under the leadership of Victor Navasky, it that it be, in print and on the Web, as strong a media monitor as we can make it on the resources we have.

This is fascinating. The second sentence is just incredible. By what standard will this be “the most substantial Web reporting and writing staff of any publication its size”? Well, this is smoke because Lemann admits he has no idea what to compare it to. Then, to say the reduced funding is a “commitment” to a “deeply” held belief in the “journalistic promise of the Web” is stunning euphemistic nonsense. CJR Daily “does not yet produce revenues commensurate with its quality,” so let’s ensure that it becomes even harder to do so by cutting the budget. None of this should be a surprise.

I’m not criticizing the decision to make the cuts. It’s the oh-so-typical thing to do. But it is Columbia’s gig, and they are welcome to screw it up if they please. What I really object to is the rhetoric of Lemann’s statement. Why insult our intelligence this way? Just say it: A direct mail campaign for the magazine is more important than the CJR Daily.

I like this attitude better:

In my 35 years in journalism, I’ve never seen a more interesting time in journalism. After years of decline and lament, possibilities are exploding all over the place. Sure, this makes for messy terrain — but also promising terrain!

5 Responses

  1. Sven 

    I didn’t know Navasky was involved (I haven’t read CJR in print for years 🙂 )

    I wonder if he’s the one really driving this, using the old Nation strategy. Lemann seems to be eager to share the “credit” – and thereby hedge any future blame.

  2. The whole thing is really kind of amusing considering that New Yorker column 🙂 But I feel bad for Lovelady and Keefer. A real loss. But they won’t miss a meal.

  3. Andrew,

    It is indeed entertaining. There is, to be sure, no shortage of hedges, like “considerable success.” And even the weekend aficianado of “This Old House” can appreciate such nicely turned table legs like “revenues commensurate with its quality.” With a nice coat of varnish, it’ll look splendid in the living room.

    But don’t misunderstand me. Hedges are essential to academic prose. But too many hedges transform what was an initial irritation into an outright rash — um, yes, I tend to think metaphorically, what with the table legs and rashes.

    Walker Gibson, in Tough, Sweet, and Stuffy: An Essay on Modern American Prose Styles,” defines the third category of this triad as the “rhetoric of hollow men.” He writes that “we feel a disparity between the simplicity of the situation, as we feel it ought to be defined, and the pretentiousness of the lingo” (97). I’m not sure if that accurately describes Lemann’s prose here, but it sketches an outline, I believe.

    Your summary is perfect, by the way, but both you and I know that it would be unlikely in that situation for Lemann to use such blunt language. It was face-saving time and nothing works like a bit of “smoke and mirrors.”

  4. In case you haven’t seen it, here’s Jeff Jarvis on the latest from Lemann.

  5. J- Thanks for that link!