Introducing Columbia Global Reports

Jimmy So
August 12, 2015

A.J. Liebling once quipped that "the function of the press in society is to inform, but its role in society is to make money." This might seem a shrewd and cloudless observation, but the bon mot really benefits from Liebling's attendance at something of a golden age of journalism, when the press actually made money. If only he could see us now.

It is no secret that a variety of forces have conspired to disrupt the press's ability to play its role and thus serve its function; falling profits means that news organizations are less likely to invest in costly journalism projects. Columbia University President Lee Bollinger, who sat on the board of The Washington Post Co., has witnessed this change up close. "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," Bollinger told Columbia News.

When Nicholas Lemann stepped down as dean of Columbia Journalism School in 2013, President Bollinger asked him to start a journalistic venture at Columbia that would demonstrate that a university could originate high-quality journalism. "There are many new non-profit journalism organizations that have embraced this civic responsibility," Bollinger said. "Columbia’s traditions of thought leadership and civic engagement make us an ideal launching pad for such an effort."

Lemann and Bollinger decided to create Columbia Global Reports, a new publishing imprint that's "devoted to book-length reporting projects," according to The New York Times, one that "will address underreported global issues with a general, nonacademic audience in mind." We commission authors to do on-site reporting around the globe, and work to combine the immediacy and narrative power of journalism with the intellectual ambition and acuity of scholarship. The books will be on a wide range of political, financial, scientific, and cultural topics—stories and ideas that matter. Every year, we will release four to six novella-length books, in affordable paperback and e-book editions. Readers are curious and busy, so our books offer new ways to look at and understand the world that can be read in a few hours.

“Journalism and universities—each at their best—are soul mates in the search for new knowledge,” Bollinger said. “Around the world, we see a dual challenge to the robust reporting we need to understand our interconnected society: On the one hand, there’s widespread censorship of free and independent media. And there’s also the declining financial capacity of the news business to invest in costly, time-consuming, high-quality reporting at the very moment when we as citizens need more such in-depth coverage of the world. Universities are uniquely positioned to help fill the gap, and none more so than Columbia with our signal leadership in journalism education, our longstanding scholarly engagement in the great issues of our time, and an admired writer and magazine editor like Nick Lemann on our faculty.”

“Columbia is an ideal place from which to explore partnerships between ambitious journalism and a great research university—an especially important mission right now, because of the financial stresses on news organizations,” Lemann told Columbia News. “We hope that Columbia Global Reports will add significantly to the public’s understanding of globalization, and demonstrate that Columbia can produce a non-traditional kind of research.”

In September, Columbia Global Reports will publish best-selling business reporter Bethany McLean's Shaky Ground: The Strange Saga of the U.S. Mortgage Giants, which examines the biggest remaining risk in today's global financial system—the limbo state of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, seven years after the financial crisis that turned them into zombies. "McLean ... has produced a riveting, surprising, and even at times funny account of how this mess was created and why it persists," Lemann said.

In October, NYU professor and tech guru Clay Shirky's Little Rice: Smartphones, Xiaomi, and the Chinese Dream will be released. Shirky spent a year in Shanghai chronicling China's attempt to become a tech originator, a story told through the rise of Xiaomi, which means "little rice" in Mandarin, a company that in 2014 quietly became the third largest vendor of smartphones in the world, behind Samsung and Apple. "Little Rice's subject is too big to be called a microcosm, but it does provide a usefully contained frame within which to try to understand the vastness and complexity of Chinese politics, business, and culture today," Lemann said. "Shirky's fluid, insightful style makes him a joy to read."

November will see the release of Atossa Araxia Abrahamian's The Cosmopolites: The Coming of the Global Citizen; Sasha Issenberg's The Outpatients: On the Trail of Medical Tourism will come out in February; and Nicolas Pelham's Holy Lands: Reviving Pluralism in the Middle East will come out in March. “This list expresses our goal of publishing books by both established authors and journalists as well as up-and-coming ones, and our desire to address a wide range of topics,” Lemann told Publishers Weekly. “We think these works have the potential to change the conversation, through new information, new analysis, memorable expression, or, in the best cases, all three.”

You can pre-order our books now and read coverage of Columbia Global Reports in Publishers Weekly, The New York Times, Columbia Daily Spectator, and Columbia News. Follow us on Facebook and Twitter, and visit this Columbia Global Reports blog as we curate what we find most interesting in the globalization realm.

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