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 and 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 a staff writer and then Washington correspondent.
In September 2003, he became dean of the Graduate School of Journalism at Columbia University, at the end of a process of re-examination of the school's mission conducted by a national task force convened by the university's president, Lee C. Bollinger. 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 programs 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. Now Joseph Pulitzer II and Edith Pulitzer Moore Professor of Journalism and Dean Emeritus, he also directs Columbia Global Reports, a book publishing venture. From 2017 to 2021, he was the founding director of Columbia World Projects, a new institution that implements academic research outside the university.
Lemann continues to contribute to The New Yorker as a staff writer. His books include Transaction Man: The Rise of the Deal and the Decline of the American Dream (2019); Redemption: The Last Battle of the Civil War (2006); The Big Test: The Secret History of the American Meritocracy (1999), which helped lead to a major reform of the SAT; 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 currently serves on the boards of the Authors Guild, the Knight First Amendment Institute, the Thomson Reuters Founders Share Company and the Russell Sage Foundation. He is a member of the New York Institute for the Humanities and was named a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2010 and a fellow of the American Academy of Political and Social Science in 2019.