Much like its author, the essay was masterly but impossible. In the school’s early years, a strenuous effort to follow Pulitzer’s dicta exhausted both faculty and students (there was even a brief strike), and the Pulitzer vision began to give way to budgetary and human realities. The school—and the university—reined in the program. Its scope diminished, settling after two decades into a compact single-year graduate curriculum, tailored to the demands of the Great Depression, aimed less at a broad education—a task to be left to undergraduate institutions—than at giving students skills that would make them immediately employable. As this plan played out, it meant the admission of no more literary types and very few women. As for Pulitzer, he was rarely mentioned beyond obligatory references in the school’s catalog. His name was neither on the school nor on its building, which remained just plain “Journalism.”

Such was the dim status of the founder of the school that once celebrated his birthday annually. By 1960, when we set off to create the Columbia Journalism Review, so far were our minds from Pulitzer that the magazine’s opening policy statement failed to mention him. Nor did we give much thought to the possibility that we might be imposing a substantial burden, lasting for decades, on the school that he founded. The unasked question was: Would the Columbia Journalism Review be an enterprise consistent with the founding goals of the institution? Unasked, it was unanswered.

Perhaps now, when CJR is—incredibly to me—publishing its fiftieth-anniversary issue, and as the school approaches its centennial, we can look at the matter more closely.

The prima facie case is easy to make. Pulitzer’s 1904 essay, “The College of Journalism,” abounds in references to criticism, evaluation, or improvement of journalism, albeit in a classroom context, rather than in a magazine. The
quotation at the start of this essay is the most extended, but there are others:

Every issue of a newspaper represents a battle—a battle for excellence. When the editor reads it and compares it with its rivals he knows that he has scored a victory or suffered a defeat. Might not the study of the most notable of these battles of the press be useful to the student of journalism as is the study of military battles to the student of war?

As yet the journalist works alone. . . . But if the future editors of the city had . . . a recognized professional meeting place in which they could come together informally and discuss matters of common interest, would they not eventually develop a professional pride that would enable them to work in concert for the public good? . . . Such a spirit would be the surest guaranty against the control of the press by powerful financial interests—not an imaginary danger by any means.

By far the largest part of the American press is honest, although partisan. It means to do right; it would like to know how. To strengthen the resolution and give its wisdom the indispensable basis of knowledge and independence is the object of training on journalism.

And there are more. Pulitzer made clear that he not only would allow but would advocate frank discussion of the press. The only means he specified for recognizing merit was his provision for the Pulitzer Prizes, which are still administered out of the journalism school. But almost all of the rest of the evaluation he had advocated had all but vanished with the shrinking of the curriculum. The Columbia Journalism Review can be said to have filled that vacuum.

Can be said, indeed; but has it? In recent years, Dean Nicholas Lemann has refocused the school on the Pulitzer ideals. So it is more than an abstract question to ask whether the Review has helped carry out Pulitzer’s vision.

James Boylan is CJR’s founding editor.