behind the news

Welcome to

January 16, 2004

Greetings! You have just logged on to what all of us at Columbia Graduate School of Journalism think is an exciting and important innovation in press criticism., which you are now visiting, will operate on the Web through the presidential election season, under the auspices of Columbia Journalism Review, the country’s premier media monitor.

One of the minor rituals of American presidential politics is the post-election self-examination (or perhaps I should say self-flagellation) by the press. Quadrennially, we regret having pursued some lines of inquiry while ignoring others, or having gotten caught up in momentary feeding frenzies over unimportant things, or having been too susceptible to spin — and then we resolve to do a better job next time. But now we have a new tool. In 2004, the Web makes it possible to analyze and criticize press coverage in real time, so that suggestions for improved coverage might actually be heeded, and incorporated into campaign coverage, while the campaign is still under way.

Thanks to generous funding from foundations — mainly the Rockefeller Family Fund, the Revson Foundation, and the Open Society Institute — we have set up a campaign press criticism “war room” here at the Journalism School, with the beginnings of a full-time professional staff of seven that will monitor as much of the campaign coverage as possible, and write about it here. The managing editor of, Steve Lovelady, is already on board, and he and Mike Hoyt, the editor of CJR, are well into the hiring process. Steve is a veteran journalist who earlier served as a deputy page-one editor at the Wall Street Journal; then, as part of Gene Roberts’s dream team at the Philadelphia Inquirer, helped supervise eleven Pulitzer Prize-winning works of journalism over twenty years; and, more recently, was an editor-at-large at Time Inc. Bryan Keefer, assistant managing editor, was one of the co-founders of the website will be updating the site several times daily, with particular emphasis on speed when the staff feels it can get inside the news cycle and try to improve coverage as it’s being formed.

A few assurances are in order: The Desk will be politically nonpartisan. While it will call attention to journalistic sins, both of omission and commission, it will by no means be exclusively a finger-wagging operation. It will have a lively, engaged tone, not a grim, censorious one. One of the Desk’s important functions will be to praise work of high quality, and one of its most useful aspects will be its ability to bring distinguished work in the local press to national attention, instantly and (through links) in full.

The Desk aims to decrease, not enhance, the self-referential and self-enclosed tendencies of the campaign press. It is quite difficult for reporters traveling with a presidential campaign to get information independently; the Desk intends to make this easier, by making available links to briefing materials, accurate information, and other documents from the outside world that will help reporters evaluate what the candidates are saying.

Because we are starting up on very short notice, will become increasingly full and detailed through its early weeks. Please don’t resist the temptation to become addicted to the site, as it grows and the presidential campaign gathers force. We think has the potential to add a dimension not just to press criticism, but to campaign coverage and even to American politics. And please don’t hesitate to let us know what you think of, and how you think it might be improved.

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Nicholas B. Lemann
Dean, Columbia Journalism School

Nicholas Lemann is Pulitzer-Moore Professor of Journalism at Columbia, and a staff writer for The New Yorker