Michael Wolff—the Vanity Fair columnist, entrepreneur, and curmudgeonly media provocateur—trekked uptown last night to explain to a crowd of Columbia Journalism School students why they were wasting their money.
In a recent column in USA Today, Mr. Wolff argued that Columbia’s J-School was a racket and Steve Coll, newly named dean of the school, was the wrong person to run it. He was dismissive of the school’s nascent digital journalism program, noting that the school “curiously hir[ed] a Web editor from London to run it.”
The web editor in question, Emily Bell, invited Mr. Wolff to the J-School to answer for his op-ed. Upset Columbia students and alums came to see what outrageous things Mr. Wolff would say. One student, no doubt demonstrating his digital journalism skills, even made a tumblr to commemorate the occasion.
“You may not have learned this in Journalism School,” Mr. Wolff told the crowd of Columbia Journalism School students last night, but the best way to write a newspaper column “is to find an interest group and alienate them.”
Mr. Wolff seems to have found that interest group, but then again, alienating aspiring journalists is a bit like shooting fish in a barrel, even if it does make for decent enough copy.
“Starting a journalism business has nothing to do with journalism,” he declared. “The most important skill in the journalism business is figuring out how to fire journalists.”
“That’s not hard,” Ms. Bell said. “You don’t need a course to learn that.”
Judging from the recent round of layoffs sweeping the industry, we would tend to agree with Ms. Bell.
If there has to be a J-School, Mr. Wolff did not think it should be run by Mr. Coll, a former president of the New America Foundation and staff writer for The New Yorker, the holy grail for wannabe writers everywhere, “where no one of you will go to work,” Mr. Wolff said. Ouch!
Ms. Bell added that Mr. Coll had also edited The Washington Post, which only increased Mr. Wolff’s ire. “One of the greatest failures of our time is The Washington Post,” he said. We can think of other failures of greater proportion, but whatever. “[Mr. Coll] killed the Washington Post.”
If not Mr. Coll, then who? “Bill,” he said. “I like Bill.” Mr. Wolff was referring to Bill Grueskin, the dean of academic affairs, who was rumored to be the insider favorite to succeed Mr. Lemann. For the only time that night, the room burst into applause.
Toward the end of the discussion, the students got the opportunity to ask their ersatz professor questions. Many tried to defend—or perhaps rationalize—their decision to go to J-School.
One young man explained to Mr. Wolff that he appreciated the opportunity to write a 10,000 word thesis with the assistance of a dedicated editor, something he could not find outside J-School. We hope that the young man enjoys the experience. It sure will cost him.