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

An MS 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 — 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: WAC. 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 Cobb’s gas mask 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 Aiesha, 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 newly minted 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, he says, 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 benefits 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 US 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.