The Future of a Free Press

January 10, 2018

When Joseph Pulitzer decided to endow a journalism school at Columbia more than a century ago, his idea was greeted with skepticism by fellow journalists, who maintained that typing and shorthand didn’t require a university degree and that the most important skill—a nose for news—simply could not be taught.

Pulitzer’s response to his critics remains prescient. “An able, disinterested, public-spirited press, with trained intelligence to know the right and courage to do it, can preserve that public virtue without which popular government is a sham and a mockery.”

Those ideals have become integral to Columbia’s intellectual DNA. By the 1960s, Columbia Law School had established itself as a leader in both civil and human rights law. Today, the University is a center for cutting-edge innovation in computer science and data science. All of these academic strands provide a multidisciplinary platform for teaching, research and advocacy on the fundamental challenges facing a free press in a digital age.

President Lee C. Bollinger

Lee C. Bollinger

“Universities, scholars, journalism and journalists share a similar mission: to search out and publish the truth,” said University President Lee C. Bollinger, a First Amendment scholar whose most recent book, Uninhibited, Robust and Wide Open, took its title from the landmark 1964 U.S. Supreme Court decision in New York Times v. Sullivan.

Bollinger, whose father was a small-town newspaper publisher, teaches an undergraduate course on free speech and the press and has made the future of journalism and freedom of expression a key priority for Columbia. He appointed two Journalism School deans, first Nicholas Lemann and now Steve Coll, who have reinvented the school as a center for research and teaching journalism for a data- and social media-driven era.

The five-year-old Brown Institute for Media Innovation, in partnership with Stanford Engineering, develops new ways to report and tell stories. Recent grantees include a social work professor who researches how gang violence and trauma are expressed on social media, and a data-sharing venture that allows investigative reporters around the world to collaborate on projects.

Under Emily Bell, the former digital editor of The Guardian, the Tow Center for Digital Journalism is a key source of insight on innovative methods of reporting and the challenges faced by legitimate news sources. The center recently published studies showing how propaganda from six Russian sites showed up in the news feeds of millions of Facebook and Instagram users in the run-up to the 2016 election.

"Universities, scholars, journalism and journalists share a similar mission:
to search out and publish the truth."

— Lee C. Bollinger


Columbia Journalism Review, founded in 1961 to help define best practices in the field, has rebooted itself as a real-time outlet for the best thinking from Columbia and elsewhere on the economic, legal and political challenges facing journalism worldwide.

In 2014, Bollinger established Columbia’s Global Freedom of Expression project to provide both a compendium of case law and awards to advocates and courts around the world who challenge censorship, often at great personal risk, and report on governments that don’t welcome a free press. In response to the decline of international coverage by many U.S. news organizations, he also started Columbia Global Reports, edited by Lemann, to publish long-form journalism related to globalization.

In partnership with the John L. and James S. Knight Foundation, Columbia in 2016 established the Knight First Amendment Institute to advocate and litigate on behalf of journalism and free expression. Led by former ACLU attorney Jameel Jaffer, the institute’s first lawsuit argues that President Donald Trump and his communications team violated the First Amendment by blocking Twitter users who disagree with the president’s policies.

By bringing together Columbia’s academic strengths in journalism, law and computer science, the Knight Institute helps realize the shared mission President Bollinger sees for the University and a free press. "Though time frames and intellectual techniques may differ, the kinship in the pursuit of understanding the world and communicating with the broader public is deep, even profound. One of the moments when that shared purpose is felt is when, as is true today, the forces of censorship and thought control rise up and take hold. The mind of the censor never likes truth-tellers.”