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First Mover: Emily Bell

Columbia Journalism School's digital guru on her first year in New York: 'Like Paris in the '20s'

Columbia Journalism School's Emily Bell | Michael Nagle

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Adweek: You were doing cutting-edge journalism. Why’d you pack it up for the musty old halls of academia?
Emily Bell: Somebody made the joke that the curriculum looks like it was written by Joseph Pulitzer. But we have an incredible set of young faculty who are adjuncting. There are a couple of people who are teaching among the best—if not the best—digital courses a journalist can take.

AW: Is j-school worth the tuition?
EB: Journalism school is really expensive. So is a master’s in fine art, law school, and business school.

AW: But you come out of law school, you can actually make money.
EB: Yeah, I get your point. First of all, something like 70 percent of people [this year] had somewhere to go work at the point of graduation. It used to be the case if your ultimate aim was to be a correspondent in Pakistan, you had to go to a large regional paper and work your way up. Now, if you have the skills, you go to a good graduate program and [then can] pretty much go and do.

AW: How are you liking New York?
EB: If you go below 14th Street, it’s like Paris in the ’20’s. There’s more digital media activity in New York now than anywhere else in the world.

AW: How is journalism different in America from the U.K.?
EB: Somewhat to my shocking surprise, journalism is taken much more seriously in the States. I think it has a lot to do with the Constitution and the First Amendment. I think people actually feel strongly about freedom of expression, and they feel strongly about having a free press. The idea of balance and rigor is very different from the U.K., where the [print] press tends to be much more competitive, much more biased in terms of how it presents its reporting. Broadcasting is the opposite.

AW: What did Wikileaks teach us?
EB: It highlights the ongoing challenges. The story was carried by the Times, carried by the Guardian, carried by El Pais. It points to the future: Your news isn’t going to come to you packaged and broken by one media outlet. There was a time when a story like that would have not been a “success” unless you had it entirely to yourself and press dictated the pace it published. I think you’ll see that journalism is never going to be the same again.

AW: You’re fairly anti-paywall. Your take on the Times?
EB: We’ll have to see how these things go. I use the Times’ website and I still have not run into the wretched paywall. I know why they did it: because the investors were shouting at them to get more money out of digital. The one thing we don’t know about the paywall is what else the Times could have done with that investment and concentration of developer skills. [Look] at the IPO for Groupon. People seem to be monetizing activity around content more effectively than the news business.

AW: Maybe the Times should have a Page 3 girl like the U.K.’s Sun.
EB: [Laughs] I don’t think Jill Abramson is going to put a naked woman on page 3.

AW: You went to Oxford with Gawker’s Nick Denton. Do you hang out?
EB: No, I haven’t seen him. I’m a huge admirer of his. I think he [early on] understood how digital journalism [could] work. People ask if I’m on the ex-pat circuit. No. I have a full-time job and too many children.

AW: Would a nonprofit, NPR-style model work for newspapers?
EB: I come from the land of BBC. Nonprofit—or funding journalism through a business or trust that does something else—is a viable model. Look at ProPublica. There’s a bit of lip curling, “Yeah they got one big gift and how is that really a model?” [But] if people are willing to give money and you can set up a structure that makes it work and you can do Pulitzer Prize-winning work, it is a model.