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Get Smart About Your Readers: Ideas & Insights
Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Seeking a new breed of techno-journalists

(Rich Gordon)

There are many reasons to worry about the future of journalism in the digital age, but one of the biggest is this: journalists and technologists don't understand each other.

On the Web, portable devices and digital platforms yet to come, just using technology to distribute journalism isn't enough. Digital technologies offer exciting new opportunities for finding information, making sense out of the world around us, presenting journalism and engaging media audiences. But to seize any of these opportunities, we need collaboration between journalists and technology professionals - and these are two groups of people who don't naturally communicate well.

In newsrooms and at journalism schools, we've tried to teach technology to journalists. Now, a new program at the Medill School of Journalism is going to try to do things the other way around: to teach journalism to technologists.

Starting with students enrolling in September, Medill is offering full and partial scholarships toward master's degrees in journalism to computer programmers and Web developers. Scholarship winners will also receive a cash stipend. The program, announced today, is funded via the Knight News Challenge, a new initiative from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation that provides support for people and organizations with innovative ideas for using digital news or information to build community.

The goal is to immerse people with strong technology skills in the mindset, culture and craft of journalism - and then, to see what happens. Or, to put it another way, to create more Adrian Holovatys.

Holovaty, editor of editorial innovations at Washingtonpost.Newsweek Interactive, is a living example of what someone with both journalism and programming skills can accomplish. A journalism graduate of the University of Missouri who taught himself to program, Holovaty helped develop the technology behind the innovative Web sites of the Lawrence Journal-World (Lawrence.com, ljworld.com and kusports.com) and later went on to create Chicagocrime.org, which enables Chicago residents to search crime data for any neighborhood in the city.

At Washingtonpost.Newsweek Interactive, he is responsible for a variety of searchable database projects, including congressional votes, campaign contributions and Bill Clinton's speaking fees. Holovaty, who also won a News Challenge grant, also contributes his time to enabling other technologists. He also is part of the team that developed the open-source Django framework, which allows Web developers to build database-driven sites quickly and efficiently.

Only recently have newsroom leaders begun to realize the need for people like Holovaty. In his PBS.org blog, Mark Glaser writes of newspaper executives who hear Holovaty speak about technology and journalism. "Where can we find another person like you?" they ask.

There are many ways that technology professionals can help fulfill the central mission of journalism: providing the information that citizens need in a democratic society. Holovaty's approach - applying technology to make information more accessible and searchable -- is just one piece of the puzzle. Derek Willis, research database editor for the Washington Post, has published a terrific series of essays, entitled "Fixing Journalism," that explores many other ways technology could or should improve the way journalists find, keep track of and communicate information. Beyond that, technology can be used to build audience engagement and help people find relevant information, as the success of Digg.com shows.

Back in the late 1980s and early 1990s, I was one of a small group of journalists who discovered the power of what newsrooms called computer-assisted reporting or precision journalism. Basically, this amounted to using computers to analyze data for purposes of producing journalistic stories. This was an exotic concept in newsrooms, even though the tools we were using (spreadsheets and database managers) were being routinely applied by administrative and clerical staff in offices around the world. Even today, while many newsrooms now have a few journalists who are proficient in this kind of data analysis, the practice of precision journalism is still not routine.

Today, thanks to the Web, precision journalism can be more than just an internal newsroom function. In the past six months, the Asbury Park Press has proven that the general public might be as interested in public records databases as journalists are. The Press, led by investigations editor Paul D'Ambrosio, has created DataUniverse, a site that allows people to search public records databases such as government salaries and property tax assessments. Since the site's launch in December 2006, DataUniverse has generated more than 25 million page views - more than a quarter of all traffic to the paper's Web site.

In the digital age, journalism is more than just reporting and storytelling. And technology is more than just business systems or inventory management or e-commerce. For people to discover and act upon the information they need to be citizens in a democratic society, journalism and technology must increasingly intersect.

The new Knight News Challenge scholarships are designed to bring people with computer programming skills into the world of journalism and get them thinking creatively about how to apply technology to the creation of a better-informed society.

From experience in newsrooms and academia, I know that only a fraction of technologists will be interested in obtaining a journalism degree. They'll have to go through the same training in reporting and writing that our other master's students do - which will not come naturally to many people from the technology world. Some are going to be skeptical that journalism school can teach them anything they can't figure out by themselves.

But I'm convinced that the journalistic skills learned at a place like Medill can help technologists gain important insights into how to apply technology in ways that inform people and make information relevant and engaging. I also think it will be valuable for our more traditional journalism students to be exposed to technologists' ways of thinking. I'm looking forward to seeing what happens when journalists and technologists work together in our classes.

Applications for admission to Medill and a chance to win the new scholarships are being accepted now, for admission as early as September 2007. To be eligible for the scholarships, students will apply through Medill's normal admissions process.

Scholarship recipients will complete the same one-year academic program as other MSJ students. The first academic quarter is spent learning reporting and storytelling skills in multiple media. At least one other quarter is spent in Medill's Chicago newsroom, covering a beat and creating multimedia stories. As part of the program, all of the scholarship recipients will also be enrolled in an "innovation project" class such as the Media Management Project, New Media Publishing Project or Magazine Publishing Project. In these classes, teams of students create new products or work to solve a problem facing a media company. Scholarship recipients will have the opportunity to apply their technology skills to these projects. They also will be able to choose among a variety of elective courses.

For more details about the scholarships and how to apply, go to: www.medill.northwestern.edu/admissions/programmers.html.

You can read about the other Knight News Challenge winners here.


By Rich Gordon (richgor@northwestern.edu)
Rich Gordon is Associate Professor and Director of Digital Technology in Education at Medill School of Journalism, Northwestern University.


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