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, for sixteen years; and, since 1999, at The New Yorker, as Washington correspondent and as a staff writer.
On September 1, 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, raising $175 million and more than doubling the school's endowment, added 20 members to its full-time faculty, built a student center and a digital media center, started two new professional degree programs, its first 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, and is now Pulitzer-Moore Professor of Journalism at Columbia. He also directs a new project at the university called Columbia Global Reports, which publishes six book-length works of journalism a year on aspects of globalization.
Lemann continues to contribute frequently to The New Yorker. 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), which helped lead to a major reform of the SAT; 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. He delivered the Joanna Jackson Goldman Lectures in American Civilization and Government at the New York Public Library in 2004, and delivered the Tanner Lectures on Human Values at Stanford University in 2014.
Lemann has served on the boards of the Authors Guild, the National Academy of Sciences' Division of Behavioral and Social Sciences and Education, the Academy of Political Science, the Society of American Historians, the Reuters Founders Share Trust Company, the University of Michigan School of Education, and the Russell Sage Foundation. He was elected a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in April 2010.