Could a university be the savior longform journalism has been looking for?

September 22, 2015

The relationship between academia and journalism had not always been cozy. Reporters have struggled to portray the intricacies of scientific research, while scholars have snubbed the Fourth Estate. But the gap has shrunk in recent years, as journalists have embraced social science techniques in their reporting and academics have sought to widen their audience by writing for popular news outlets.

This trend reached an apotheosis last week with the release of Shaky Ground: The Strange Saga of the US Mortgage Giants, the first book from Columbia Global Reports. The university-funded publisher aims to produce novella-length narratives, sprinkled with analysis, on underreported stories rooted in globalization. The project is a strong example not just of the fusion of journalism and academia, but of how one field can help the other. “Just at the moment when our world is changing radically and rapidly, we have less capacity to understand it through our institutions of journalism,” Columbia President Lee Bollinger said during a launch event last week.

A director of the former Washington Post Company and a longtime journalism supporter, he hopes the unproven business model will drive coverage of important stories that have drifted out of reach for cash-strapped newsrooms with shuttered foreign bureaus. Universities, Bollinger argues, have a responsibility to meet this need, both financially and intellectually.

Just at the moment when our world is changing radically and rapidly, we have less capacity to understand it through our institutions of journalism.

Columbia Global Reports sits somewhere between a magazine and book publisher. With three staffers, including renowned book publicist Camille McDuffie, the imprint will produce 12 books over at least the next two years, but each publication runs only about 25,000 words, or 150 pages. Unlike most traditional book publishers (but like high-end magazines), Columbia Global Reports fact checks, pays writers’ expenses, and has a total production time, from signed contract to store shelves, that’s measured in months, not years. But it’s not banking on subscriptions or advertising dollars reaped from bulging digital audiences. Nicholas Lemann, director and former Columbia Journalism School dean, says he actually wants people to buy a product—whether it be the $12.99 paperback or the $8.99 ebook.

“I’m pretty skeptical about a lot of economic strategies that I’m seeing for online journalism, and I can see how this can work. I’m not saying it will work,” he says. “What we’re trying to do is publish something that we think you can’t find elsewhere, and that’s the way we think we’ve built a niche.” Many digital outlets have adopted Silicon Valley’s idea that revenues follow the development of a large audience. While that mantra applies to platforms, like Facebook, which boasts nearly a billion active daily users, Lemann says it means little for news organizations with much smaller audiences.

It is, of course, easier to chase doggedly reported longform journalism with the backing of a major university. Columbia Global Reports editor Jimmy So, who was most recently a books editor at The Daily Beast, likens the new imprint to a startup and the capital to “seed money.” He’s not the only one to have this idea. Journalism heavyweights Jill Abramson and Steven Brill have talked about launching a similar project that would publish one long story per month, which would be available to subscribers. But they have reportedly hit a wall due to gun-shy private investors. If the Columbia effort falls short of sustainability—Lemann says he would be “thrilled” to sell 10,000 to 20,000 copies of each book—the staffers “can fundraise if we have to.” That’s a promising safety net for a venture into rough waters, one that digital outlets often earn only after flexing their quick-hit, viral muscle. There’s no guarantee it’ll keep the project afloat in the long term, though university underwriting appears to have worked in favor of ventures like the subscription-based Boom: A Journal of California and the digital-only Yale Environment 360.

If you can do what we want, you really are in demand. But that’s because not a lot of people can do what we want.

Sign up for CJR's daily email

Writers, too, benefit from this arrangement. While Lemann and So declined to talk hard numbers, they contend that their authors receive “quite generous” compensation. Columbia Global Reports maintains that it’s imperative to pay its contributors well. “If you can do what we want, you really are in demand,” Lemann says. “But that’s because not a lot of people can do what we want.”

The publisher is not like traditional university presses, which tend to print academic research to be read by other academics. Columbia Global Reports wants authors who can do on-the-ground reporting wherever the story might take them, and weave think-tank insights into a captivating story driven by characters. In Shaky Ground, for instance, author Bethany McLean describes the government control of mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac as a war story with causes steeped in American history and culture. The next release, Little Rice: Smartphones, Xiaomi, and the Chinese Dream, examines “China’s attempt to become a tech originator—and what it means for the future course of globalization,” through the lens of the country’s smartphone behemoth. Most signed-on writers are journalists, though a few scholars are slated as well.

Nonfiction book publishing has been steady in terms of sales and volume in recent years, notes Jim Milliot, editorial director of Publishers Weekly. But other single-story longform outlets, most notably digital outposts like Byliner, have failed to rise above the hundreds of thousands of books professionally and self-published each year. Even so, Columbia Global Reports may have an advantage borne of print and branding. “With the Columbia name behind it—and it is sticking to serious nonfiction—I think they can make that work,” Milliot says, praising the publisher’s goal of pumping out high-quality journalism on big topics. “You don’t hear too many people say that anymore. I hope it works, and you’ve got to applaud them.”

The “digestible” length of the books should boost sales, Milliot says. They’re meant to be read on a long train trip or plane flight. To that end, Columbia Global Reports has inked deals to place hard copies in airport gift shops, hopefully catching the eye of general-interest readers who typically pick up The New York Times or The New Yorker.

Although this marriage between higher education and journalism appears to be based on funding, it offers a bonus for the content. Lemann and So, in deciding which topics to pursue, have access to the stockpile of experts who teach at Columbia. A meeting with a medical school dean, for example, led them to successfully develop and pitch the concept of medical tourism and its global economic implications to Sasha Issenberg, author of The Sushi Economy.

Columbia Global Reports could become an archetype for in-depth, resource-draining journalism. The test drive could also flop. Regardless of the outcome, it’s an experiment worth watching—and one that’s set to churn out strong stories over the next two years.

Jack Murtha is a CJR Delacorte Fellow. Follow him on Twitter at @JackMurtha