Can Computer Nerds Save Journalism?

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Word to those who think the Internet spells the end of traditional print media: "hacker journalists" have arrived to save the day. (Read "The State of the Media: Not Good.")

A cadre of newly minted media whiz kids, who mix high-tech savvy with hard-nosed reporting skills, are taking a closer look at ways in which 21st century code-crunching and old-fashioned reporting can not only coexist but also thrive. And the first batch of them has just emerged from Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism. (See 10 ways your job will change.)

They've just completed a new master's program at Medill — with scholarships from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation — aimed at training programmers in basic journalism so they can better understand how technology is impacting the industry and trying to engineer change down the road. Medill isn't the only higher-education institution blending computer programming and journalism; at other schools such as the Georgia Institute of Technology and the University of California, Berkeley, traditional J-school programs are incorporating a dose of tech-thumping. Spurred by the success of content-driven websites such as Digg, which creates a front page of news stories based on what readers deem most popular each day, the brains behind these new programs are trying to capitalize on ways in which sophisticated programming can make the delivery of news more accessible.

Programmers and journalists may seem like strange bedfellows; many criticize the Internet for the layoffs, buyouts and bleeding bottom lines that characterize the news business today. But, as emphasized by a report released last month by PricewaterhouseCoopers and the World Association of Newspapers, traditional news outlets must "cross the digital abyss" if they wish to survive. The problem, of course, is scraping together the capital to invest in new technologies. (Read "How to Save Your Newspaper.")

These kinds of forecasts prompted Rich Gordon, director of digital innovation at Medill, to convince the Knight Foundation in 2007 to start funding the new curriculum. Recognizing that traditional news platforms are struggling to keep content relevant online, Gordon, the former new-media director for the Miami Herald Publishing Co., approached the problem a different way. "Instead of media organizations always playing catch-up, the objective should be for them to incorporate data in new and different ways from the very beginning," Gordon says, noting that, in addition to Digg, websites such as ProPublica, EveryBlock and PolitiFact have achieved this goal successfully. "It makes perfect sense to have programmers involved with this effort from the very beginning." (See the 50 best websites of 2008.)

One of Medill's new graduates, a 31-year-old software developer named Brian Boyer, starts in June as the inaugural "news applications editor" at the Chicago Tribune. In this job, Boyer will be writing applications for the paper's website to accompany investigative reports and present data to readers in formats such as searchable databases and interactive charts. "The forms of journalism might be changing, but the role of the media to inform the public and hold government accountable remains the same," says Boyer, who coined the term "hacker journalist" to describe this new breed of newsman. "That's where technologists can help."

Coursework in Medill's new program is rigorous. For most of the first three academic quarters, students take classes at the school's Chicago campus that emphasize news reporting, content creation and the needs of media consumers. In the final quarter, scholarship recipients team up with students from more traditional journalism backgrounds and develop an application or service that addresses specific problems; Boyer was part of a team that built a prototype to improve readers' experience when posting comments on the Cedar Rapids Gazette's website. In an e-mail, he said of their News Mixer project: "It is, IMHO, still the only application that explores the full potential of Facebook Connect."

At the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta, a three-year-old program in "computational journalism" helps computer-science majors study how journalists gather, organize and utilize information, then take these workflows and see how technology can make the processes easier. Says Professor Irfan Essa: "We're trying to get people aware of what computations and software programs can do for their day-to-day work. This kind of thinking has enabled technology to streamline workflows in dozens of other industries. There's no reason it can't work in journalism, too."

Meanwhile, the journalism school at the University of Missouri has started introducing graduate-level journalism students to programming with computer-assisted reporting that delves into the basics of database management. Similarly, the University of California, Berkeley, requires students in its graduate school of journalism to take a six-week, boot camp–style course in Web development, during which they are taught the basics of XML, HTML and other coding languages commonly used on websites today.

"While the core skills of journalism will always be solid reporting and clear writing, it's not just about storytelling anymore," says Berkeley's director of new media Paul Grabowicz. He adds that although some old-school media companies may be "slow" or "hesitant" — or too broke — to hire techies, they will be forced to do so in order to compete with more entrepreneurial ventures.

Boyer, the original hacker journalist, prefers to put it differently, likening the paradigm shift to the old adage that if you can't beat 'em, join 'em. "If the source of the tumult in the news business is technology," he says, "then journalism needs more nerds."

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