When Jelani Cobb was named dean of the Columbia Journalism School, he became the 14th person and the first African American to lead the institution, which was founded by Joseph Pulitzer in 1912. He also became the third consecutive New Yorker staff writer to assume the prestigious title, following Steve Coll and Nicholas Lemann. The pedigree gets a bit more specific from there: Cobb, Coll, and Lemann share an editor in Virginia Cannon, a 31-year maestro of the magazine who followed Tina Brown from Vanity Fair in 1992 and is married to fellow New Yorker dignitary Hendrick Hertzberg. “I told her when I got appointed,” says Cobb, “if you wanted to set up a really shady consulting firm telling people, ‘I can make you a journalism school dean,’ you probably have a track record to support it.”
Cobb recently marked his first year in the job, for which he was selected in May 2022 by Lee Bollinger, Columbia University's longtime president until this past spring. On August 16, which happened to be the first day of classes for the 2023–2024 school year, I schlepped up to Morningside Heights to spend an hour chatting in Cobb’s office at Pulitzer Hall. Wearing a sharp beige suit neatly fitted to his bearish frame, he looked the part of someone who now requires a chief of staff and an executive assistant to help manage his demanding schedule. On the day of our sit-down, his calendar included the usual meetings, a Zoom panel, orientation for 260 incoming students, and a program by David Isay from StoryCorps, the nonprofit organization that facilitates archival recordings between loved ones. (Cobb participated with his mother, Mary Cobb, before she died in 2011.)
“The metaphor that comes closest for me to describing what being a dean has been like is that it’s like being an orchestra conductor,” Cobb told me. “There are all of these things happening, and you literally want them to happen in concert to make a kind of harmony.”
Cobb’s orchestra includes curriculum development, faculty recruitment, tenure reviews, research, budgeting, and, of course, the actual rearing of journalists. But he’s laser focused on one of the more challenging movements of the J-school symphony: tuition reform.
The goal is to soften the blow for anyone who clicks over to “Cost of Attendance” on the Columbia Journalism School website, only to feel their blood pressure hit the roof when they see a dollar sign next to the number 126,691. That’s the tab for this year’s full-time nine-and-a-half-month master of science program, including tuition ($75,348), fees ($9,521), and living expenses ($41,822). I told Cobb that when I entered the MS program in 2007, the total cost was something like $67,000, which I took out in loans. I emerged on the other side working at The New York Observer—a highly coveted job, for sure, but one that paid a humble $28,000. Starting salaries have grown since then, but not as much as the cost of the program, never mind the cost of living in a city where you’re most likely to find a decent journalism job. Inflation, as you might expect, has invigorated the old debate over whether a graduate-level journalism education is even worth it.
“Anybody who’s in and around media knows that it’s hard to stay in this field,” says Cobb. “This is a point where we have to intervene, to do what we can to make it possible for people to get a high caliber journalism-school education, and also be able to afford a journalism career.” Columbia’s existing financial aid and scholarship packages apparently aren’t enough. “We are fundraising. We are doubling and tripling down around scholarships. Our bigger objective is to fundamentally change people’s relationship to tuition.”
Cobb’s first major initiative is a loan-repayment plan. Unveiled in May and officially opened up to applicants on August 1, the pilot program will reimburse alums who go on to work in nonprofit newsrooms—up to $50,000 over the course of five years. “It helps their salary dollars go further, so it helps both the industry and the individuals in it.”
Cobb said it was too early to talk about other ideas he’s exploring. But his ultimate objective, he told me, is to cover the full cost of tuition for low-income students while expanding the reimbursement options for those who are better positioned to take out loans. “There’s a correlation between socioeconomics, and ethnic and racial background. So we see that the numbers in terms of diversity in the field reflect that same dynamic. If we can reduce the cost across the board, we open up the doors to more people from a broader array of backgrounds coming into journalism, and we can then serve as a pipeline for helping to diversify the field period.… The objective is for people who are interested in journalism to not feel skittish about pursuing a career in journalism, or that they’re doing something—”
“Yeah. Or at worst, people will say, This is naive. This profession has existed for as long as it has because it meets a vital social need. So we are trying to facilitate people making the decision to actually pursue the career.”
Cobb’s own journalism career began at Washington City Paper, a leading light during the golden age of alt-weeklies that pulled the plug on its print edition last year. The youngest child of working-class parents who moved from the south to Queens, he’d spent seven years pursuing a bachelor’s degree at Howard University, taking time off when he couldn’t afford the tuition. After finishing school and freelancing here and there, Cobb arrived at City Paper in 1996, an eager disciple cutting his teeth under the tutelage of the legendary David Carr, who’d recently begun his editorship. “He was trying to diversify the paper,” recalls Cobb. “He had this intern program, and in Carr’s first class of interns, he got me and Ta-Nehisi Coates. David, to his credit, never bragged about that.” (Coates is a contributing editor at Vanity Fair.) “I said this when he passed away” in 2015, “that when I’m working on a story and I need to triple-check a fact, it’s his voice in my head: ‘Do you know? Or do you think you know?’”
From there, Cobb embarked on a dual track of journalism and academia. He got a PhD in American history from Rutgers (where we overlapped, though I was an undergrad) and then became an associate professor at the University of Connecticut and director of the school’s Institute for African American Studies. Along the way, he wrote books about Barack Obama and hip-hop while collecting bylines everywhere from Essence and Vibe to The New Republic and The Washington Post. The New Yorker (one of Vanity Fair’s sister publications at Condé Nast) made Cobb a staff writer in 2015, and the following year, he began teaching at the journalism school, setting the stage for his elevation to dean last spring. “It’s huge!” MSNBC anchor Joy Reid gushed in a short video that Columbia released to herald Cobb’s appointment. (Cobb is an MSNBC contributor.) “It’s a really big deal.”
More recently, the appointment of another Black journalism-school director made news for different reasons. In July, The Texas Tribune reported that Texas A&M had botched its hiring of the renowned journalism professor and New York Times alumna Kathleen O. McElroy, who’d been recruited to revive the school’s journalism program. The trouble began, McElroy told the Tribune, when a “vocal group of constituents in the Texas A&M system expressed concern over her experience at the Times and with her work on race and diversity in newsrooms.” Texas A&M reneged on aspects of the job offer, including tenure, and McElroy opted to stay in her tenured position at the University of Texas at Austin.
“I wasn’t surprised,” says Cobb. “She wasn’t there to teach anything associated with anything that could be even broadly described as critical race theory. She was there to run a journalism program, to teach people the technical and ethical elements of working in media. And so it’s almost McCarthy-like, where an allegation and innuendo and insinuation can take on the weight of fact, and actually impact people’s ability to work in their fields.”
We talked about the convulsions in American education, from the end of affirmative-action-based college admissions to Florida’s New College takeover and AP-course imbroglio to the book bannings and school board wars now raging across the country. “I’m not active as a historian at this point, but people who I know who are still very active in that world have the opinion that what is happening is alarming, although it has happened before. The fact that we have navigated through these kinds of civic crises before, doesn’t mean we should have a blasé attitude about confronting one now, because as we see things that have long traditions, or deep connections in history, that are happening again, we also see things that are novel, that haven’t happened before. Anyone who looked at, you know, what happened on January 6, 2021, would have some sense of concern that you can’t assume we have, like, a moral momentum in this country right now.”
That’s as good a segue as any into my question about Cobb’s thinking on 2024 and the Republican Party’s quadruply indicted nominee-apparent. “The real concern is, what the media has or has not learned about covering him,” says Cobb. “Like for instance, the CNN town hall. It was easy to criticize that and say it was a disaster. But I think the bigger question was: What have we taken as the protocols for covering an authoritarian figure? The example I give time and again is the way Joe McCarthy really plagued the press, because while he loathed them, he also knew that they were addicted to him as someone who would sell newspapers. If you put a quote from him on top of A1 above the fold, you were gonna move papers. So there was a kind of contemptuous but symbiotic relationship between McCarthy and the press, until eventually, people began to recognize the level of threat that he posed, and you would start seeing people do things like fact-check him in a headline. McCarthy makes accusation. Parentheses: No indication that it's true, and so on. I think we haven’t entirely reached that threshold with our coverage of Trump.”
There are certain subjects Cobb wants to make sure all of his students are equipped to grapple with as journalists. One is climate change, which he believes will increasingly intersect with other areas of coverage, whether that’s politics, or immigration, or the economy, and so on. Another, which reflects Cobb’s own pedagogical interests, is history. In the vein of his Trump-McCarthy comparison, Cobb believes journalists should be able to connect what’s happening in the world today to events and phenomena from the past, which is why he’s developing a course called “American History for Reporting” that he hopes to introduce in the spring. “We have to be able to understand contextually the moment we’re reporting in,” he says.
When my hour with Cobb was up, his assistant poked her head in to keep the boss on schedule with his next engagement. He asked for five more minutes so we could wrap up. Downstairs, the class of 2024 was beginning their rigorous nine months of high-priced training, a significant investment to advance their careers in a field that just weathered yet another grim spate of contraction and job losses. How does the dean of the world’s preeminent journalism school feel about the industry he’s sending these students into?
“We had a guest at the journalism school who said he’s come to think of journalism as like being a restaurateur,” Cobb replied. “There are all sorts of downsides to opening a restaurant, yet people open restaurants and succeed and find ways for restaurants to continue to exist. Restaurants are optional; journalism is mandatory. And so I have faith that we will find ways to continue.”