Nicholas Lemann was born, raised and educated in New Orleans. He began his journalism career as a 17-year-old writer for an alternative weekly newspaper there, the Vieux Carre Courier. He graduated magna cum laude from Harvard College in 1976, where he concentrated in American history and literature. He was president of The Harvard Crimson. After graduation, he worked at the Washington Monthly, as an associate editor and then managing editor; at Texas Monthly, as an associate editor and then executive editor; at The Washington Post, as a member of the national staff; at The Atlantic Monthly, as national correspondent; and at The New Yorker, as staff writer and then Washington correspondent.
On September 1, 2003, he became dean of the Graduate School of Journalism at Columbia University. During Lemann's time as dean, the Journalism School launched and completed its first capital fundraising campaign, added 20 members to its full-time faculty, built a student center, started its first new professional degree program since the 1930s, and launched significant new initiatives in investigative reporting, digital journalism, executive leadership for news organizations, and other areas. He stepped down as dean in 2013, following two five-year terms.
Lemann continues to contribute to The New Yorker as a staff writer. He has published five books, most recently Redemption: The Last Battle of the Civil War (2006); The Big Test: The Secret History of the American Meritocracy (1999); and The Promised Land: The Great Black Migration and How It Changed America (1991), which won several book prizes. He has written widely for such publications as The New York Times, The New York Review of Books, The New Republic, and Slate; worked in documentary television with Blackside, Inc., Frontline, the Discovery Channel, and the BBC; and lectured at many universities.
Lemann serves on the boards of directors of the Authors Guild, the National Academy of Sciences’ Division of Behavioral and Social Sciences and Education, and the Academy of Political Science, and is a member of the New York Institute for the Humanities. He was named a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in April 2010.
Lemann has been married twice. His first wife was Dominique Alice Browning, who later became an editor in chief of House & Garden until 2007; they married on May 20, 1983, have two sons, Alexander and Theodore, and later divorced. His second wife is Judith Anne Shulevitz, who was a columnist for Slate and The New York Times Book Review and is now science editor at The New Republic; married on November 7, 1999, they have a son and a daughter.
- New Yorker articles:
- The Big Test (1999). ISBN 978-0-374-52751-8 (The story of how standardized tests (such as the SAT) became very important in the United States)
- "None of the Above" Review, by Andrew Sullivan, The New York Times, October 24, 1999.
- "BOOKS OF THE TIMES; What's Wrong With the SAT and Its Elite Progeny" Review by Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, The New York Times, October 4, 1999
- The Promised Land : The Great Black Migration and How It Changed America (1991) ISBN 978-0-394-26967-2 (On the migration of millions of african americans from the South to the North in the 1940s and 1950s)
- Redemption: The Last Battle of the Civil War (2006). ISBN 978-0-374-24855-0 (The story of Reconstruction in the South after the Civil War)
- Slate articles:
- 1992 PEN/Martha Albrand Award for First Nonfiction for The Promised Land
- Karen W. Arenson (April 16, 2003). "Columbia Names Dean for its Journalism School". The New York Times.
- Profile at Columbia Journalism School.
- Haughney, Christine (October 9, 2012). "Lemann to Step Down as Dean of Journalism School at Columbia". The New York Times.
- "Dominique A. Browning Marries Nicholas Lemann". New York Times. 1983-05-21.
- "Judith Shulevitz, Nicholas Lemann". New York Times. November 7, 1999.
- Anne Stuart (Sep–Oct 2005). "The Press Professor". Harvard Magazine.
- Audio Interview with Sam Tanenhaus, the editor of The New York Times Book Review (MP3 format).
- Lemann and Steve Shepard discuss future of journalism.
- Booknotes interview with Lemann on The Promised Land, May 5, 1991.
- A film clip "The Open Mind - "The further education of a journalist", Part I (2006)" is available for free download at the Internet Archive
- A film clip "The Open Mind - "The further education of a journalist", Part II (2006) is available for free download at the Internet Archive