Columbia Launches Publishing Imprint to Cover Global Issues

October 20, 2015

Soon after announcing that he would step down as dean of Columbia Journalism School, Nicholas Lemann had a conversation with University President Lee C. Bollinger, who had appointed him to the job a decade earlier. "We're going to start a news organization to cover globalization," Bollinger said. And then he hired Lemann—again—to run it.

Lemann, the Joseph Pulitzer II and Edith Pulitzer Moore Professor of Journalism, was planning to write books and return to teaching but jumped at the chance to add this new venture, Columbia Global Reports, to his responsibilities. “Lee is extremely interested in journalism and that’s quite rare for a university president,” he said. “He’s also very interested in globalization, and they tie together because he believes, and I agree, that much of the news business just isn’t in a position to invest in conveying the complexity of globalization's impact.”

A First Amendment scholar and son of a small-town newspaper publisher, Bollinger’s firsthand appreciation for journalism is informed by a global perspective. Last year he established the Global Freedom of Expression Project, which promotes international legal norms to protect the free flow of information and presented its first annual prizes to courts in Turkey and Zimbabwe and to a U.K.-based legal services organization in recognition of their contributions to free speech and a free press.

While his research and teaching has focused on the problems of censorship and press freedom, Bollinger is also concerned with how the financial disruption of the news business has affected its capacity to cover the world. “There has been a notable and significant decline of in-depth, serious journalism on global issues, and it happens just when there is a greater need for it because the world is a much more interconnected place as a result of global commerce and technology,” said Bollinger. “I have long felt that a university should try to fill this need.”

The first, about an underappreciated problem in the global financial system, is called Shaky Ground: The Strange Saga of the U.S. Mortgage Giants, and written by business journalist Bethany McLean, who co-wrote the bestselling book on the collapse of Enron, The Smartest Guys in the Room. Here, she examines the quasi-public financial giants Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae, which guarantee the mortgages of millions of American homes and are still in conservatorship seven years after the financial crisis.

It will be followed a month later by Internet expert Clay Shirky’s Little Rice, a look at how a Chinese smartphone startup is influencing communications worldwide and could also give Chinese citizens greater digital access—if the government allows it.

Then, in November, The Cosmopolites by Atossa Araxia Abrahamian (CC’08 and JRN’11) takes a look at small, impoverished nations that have developed a business selling citizenship to a wide range of people, rich and poor, who want a second or third passport to avoid taxes or make travel easier.

Each book will run up to 35,000 words—about 125 pages—and be available in both paperback and e-book editions. “We’re writing about globalization, a story everybody knows is important but is hard to cover,” said Lemann. “We are doing original on-site reporting on under-covered stories, and our writers have the prose skills that use the power of nonfiction narrative.”

It was McLean’s idea to focus her book on U.S. mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac and demonstrate that their economic problems are not just a domestic issue. “I don’t think it’s healthy for our economy to have these two behemoths in an unresolved and perilous state,” she said. “There’s this overwhelming political pressure to abolish these two companies, and yet nobody has a solution that works better.” Future Columbia Global Reports will explore Middle Eastern states where one sect or ethnicity has risen to power—a seeming recipe for continued conflict. Another examines the advent of so-called “medical tourism,” focusing on two tiny towns that offer such inexpensive dental services that they have transformed Hungary into what is essentially the world’s largest dental office.

This last idea came from Dr. Lee Goldman, chief executive of Columbia University Medical Center and dean of the College of Physicians and Surgeons. “We talk to peers all over the University and they suggest things for us to write about,” Lemann said. “At a place like Columbia, there is a world expert on literally everything.”

Bollinger believes that Columbia Global Reports is a natural outgrowth of what educational institutions should be doing. “We do many things that are connected to the actual practice of different professions, such as treating sick patients or developing practical public policies in the field,” he said. “It seems to me that the University should also take on the responsibility of trying to meet this global journalistic need that’s so important for all of us to be educated citizens.”

Columbia Global Reports will launch on Sept. 15 at a forum in Low Library introduced by President Bollinger. The conversation, moderated by Lemann, will feature McLean; Franklin Raines, former CEO of Fannie Mae; and William Ackman, CEO of the hedge fund Pershing Square Capital Management, L.P.

—By Columbia News Staff

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