J-schools, computer science and the bigger picture

Written by Adrian Holovaty on October 3, 2006

With regard to my previous essay, a writer contacted me, asking "Should we be training computer science majors in journalism (or vice versa)?" I sent the following response via e-mail:

Ideally, journalism schools would address the need for journalists who can capably produce automated Web applications. But I realize that manipulating databases and writing code isn't for everybody, just as donning make-up and appearing on TV isn't for everybody. "Journalism via computer programming" is a specialty.

Furthermore, I don't think it's necessary for somebody to have formal journalism training in order to do well in this emerging field. (The heresy!) At the various news Web sites where I've worked, the best coworkers I've had were *not* journalism majors; they studied computer science or had wacky majors like literature or psychology. And, whaddya know, despite their lack of journalism background, these people had no problems understanding the basic need for ethics, fairness and accuracy. It's not like the basics of journalism are hard to learn.

Regardless of what happens in the j-schools, though, one more important thing needs to happen before "journalism via computer programming" can become widespread: Newsrooms need to welcome technical people with open arms and give them an environment in which they can thrive. Treat techies as bona fide members of the journalism team -- not as IT robots who just do what you tell them to do. Let them be creative. Give them interesting problems to solve. Trust them.

Even if j-schools start producing genius computer programmers, or if it becomes trendy for computer-science majors to seek employment at newspaper Web sites, newspapers will need to change their attitudes, culture and resource allocation if they want these people to stick around. Otherwise, they'll pack their bags after a couple of months and go work for Google.


Posted by John Resig on October 3, 2006, at 5:46 a.m.:

Thsi reminds me of the field of Bioinformatics. Many smart Computer Scientists, who happen to like Biology, migrate over into this hybrid field where they learn exactly what problems Biologists need solved - and solve them. I imagine that we'll see more of these popping up, probably including one for Journoinformatics, or some such.

Posted by Jeff Croft on October 3, 2006, at 6:08 a.m.:

> Otherwise, they'll pack their bags after a couple of months and go work for Google.

Well said, Adrian. And really, it's true for most industries, not just journalism. Almost every field needs programmers and other technical folks these days, and geeks know darn well they can leave for more technically-inclined companies where they'll be treated as equals f they're not happy where they are. At the universities I worked at, I had a couple of co-workers who left to do exactly what you said -- go work for Google.

I think there's a tendency to look at all IT people as non-creative. I'm a designer first and foremost, and yet when I held the title "web designer" for IT departments of two different universities I was largely ordered around by the marketing departments who has a hard time seeing me as a fellow creative. Somehow the word "designer" in my title was completely overshadowed by the impression that IT people were just computer geeks.

I think even I didn't realize what kind of creativity was possible in programming until I started working alongside people like Jacob and Matt. It just goes to show that no matter what the field, when people are trusted and given a bit of creative space, they tend to do a lot more impressive things than when they're micromanaged and given jobs that could be done just as well by monkeys.

Posted by Jure Cuhalev on October 3, 2006, at 7:22 a.m.:

It might be interesting for one of your further blog posts to recommend some classical reading that you would suggest to computer scientists that are becoming interested in field of journalism.

Posted by Jay Small on October 3, 2006, at 1:01 p.m.:

And I think it's important to understand that, of all the computer programming disciplines, enabling people to browse, search and otherwise use structured information on the Web is among the easiest to teach and learn. The languages, protocols, models and many of the components are well-established. It really isn't rocket science.

Posted by Joe Murphy on October 3, 2006, at 6:43 p.m.:

One of the challenges with programmers-in-the-newsroom is how does newspaper management know how to evaluate a potential programmer's skills? Journalists in management positions have a hard time with the answer "trust me."

Posted by Ryan tate on October 3, 2006, at 10:18 p.m.:

Very much agreed about treating IT as first class citizens with open arms, and soliciting and using their ideas, and promoting them to leadership positions.

However there should be a two-way street. Some of us journalist can learn to write Web applications. Maybe not write the Google search engine, but designing a data model, creating database tables, writing glue scripting code (in a "P" language or Ruby or ASP) -- with libraries and enough hard-earned know how a journalist can develop technical competence.

If your first reaction is "it won't scale," of if you just feel like reading an insightful essay, check out Clay Shirky's essay, Situated Software.

Posted by Jeff Croft on October 4, 2006, at 5:18 a.m.:

Ryan, I absolutely agree with you that some journalist may be more than capable of this and should absolutely be able to participate if they wish.

However, I feel compelled to point out that a key aspect to a lot of the really cool stuff being done with programming-as-journalism is integration. I think it would be vital that programers be leading the direction of these projects, determining the technologies that will be used, and creating the best practices for an organization such that they can ensure integration between apps they've written and ones a journalist has written. Likewise, those with journalism background should always be leading the editorial efforts, even when programmers are encouraged to be involved.

I guess the point I'm trying to make is just that these things can't happen in a vacuum, or a lot of the integration will be lost. If a journalist wishes to write some code related to his or her story, that's awesome -- but they need to do so in-line with whatever IT setup has been established at the new organization.

Just to give an example -- if a journalist came to us at World Online with a PHP/MySQL app they'd written, it would likely serve very little use outside the context of itself, as it wouldn't easily integrate with the other technologies we have in place.

Posted by Ryan Pitts on October 4, 2006, at 6:18 a.m.:

Great post, Adrian. I've been thinking quite a bit recently about the same things you mention, and some of the issues that have popped up in the comments, too. It came up for me after spending a day doing a seminar for journalism students from a couple of universities in the area.

My job was to talk about the ways we do online journalism in my newsroom -- a two-hour small group session, repeated three times over the day. And it's not that the students weren't perfectly bright and interesting ... but I was pretty amazed at how little interaction there was from the students. Maybe I shouldn't have been surprised, but I've done similar talks with working journalists, and there have always been plenty of questions or ideas getting batted around.

At first I attributed this to early-morning coffee pangs, but over the course of the day I became pretty convinced that the things I was talking about were things they simply hadn't been asked to consider in the course of their journalism education. Both school newspapers have websites where some students are doing some blogging, multimedia, etc., but after talking to profs from the two schools, I learned that neither makes online journalism a significant element in the curriculum. One discusses writing for the web in a writing class, and the other doesn't really have much of an online component right now, but hopes to build it out thanks to a recent hire.

It's not like I was talking about crazy things, either -- just identifying the strengths of the web you can leverage to do good journalism, and toolsets that help make it happen. The students were obviously comfortable with the technology we were talking about, but I got a strong sense that their idea of journalism was almost entirely wrapped up in the story package. So we talked a lot about blowing that model up, and getting down to the idea that as a journalist your job is collecting, organizing and distributing information. Sometimes that's best done with an audio file, a sortable list of data, or whatever else ends up being applicable. But man, when we started talking about databases, and the value in storing information in really useful ways ... well, it just seemed like most of the students didn't have any context to evaluate that kind of journalism with. Very few of them were even familiar with what a database was.

It was a little disheartening, to be honest. I'm not sure how easy it's going to be to start injecting thinking like this into j-school curriculum in a meaningful way. At the class level, but more importantly embedded into classes throughout the course of a journalism education.

But like you said, not all people get into newsrooms via journalism degrees. I was a lit major who happened into what I do, and now I wouldn't trade my job for anyone else's in the newsroom. The creative freedom to make interesting things happen is addictive. Obviously there are plenty of people out there like me -- it's just a matter of getting newsrooms to make more room for them.

Posted by Robb Montgomery - CEO on October 4, 2006, at 11:34 p.m.:

Adrian, You are correct, sir.

News editors need to embrace comupter science and the people who can help tell stories with scripts and APIs and mashups and custom applications. Some of the best new media story examples I use in my presentations to editors and publisher are stories that were not produced by news artists, or even professional journalists. You should see their jaws drop when I tell them they were created by curious computer science students.

These 'kids' were using their native tools (code, databases and Web servers) to answer questions or explain things in a way that pure text or any fixed media could not. The experience for the end user is also very satisfying becuase they are in control of the entire, custom presentation. That positive reinforcement to the story interaction is key. Something that a good coder slaves to get right.

I know some computer science majors and they posess the same curiosity and dedication to gathering facts and presenting them well. Journalism embraced Sociology when it helped journalists to better understand individual and group behavoirs - tomorrow's journalism leaders will come to embrace computer scientists, too. And they better hurry.

Posted by djang on October 14, 2006, at 6:11 a.m.:

I think there is already a backlash. Look at the number of documentary movies, underground news sites and sites like Digg. People want to hear more, they want to hear the stories the media doesnt go into, they want some control and abilty to sort down the flood of information.

In a way I think its too late to grab some of those readers again.

Posted by Bob Stepno on October 16, 2006, at 6:40 p.m.:

No answers, just questions:

Are computer science or information science departments teaching the skills that would enable their grads to tell stories with those scripts and APIs and mashups and custom applications? Any examples? (Links to syllabi, for instance?)

Would some of IRE's workshops (http://ire.org) --or a variation on them-- help programmers develop more ideas about the news applications of their skills? (One thing IRE knows about is *getting* the data for data-driven reporting.)

How do you avoid a "to someone with a hammer, everything looks like a nail" syndrome? Or is that even a problem?

Posted by Brad on October 19, 2006, at 2:50 p.m.:

The internet has flooded everyone with too much information to handle and these sites like digg, reddit, and others allow for the users and readers to determine what is worthy of being read. Getting reader like the newest version of Google Reader and subscribing to a site that filters all the news for you is the best way to go about sorting through the wasteland of information and getting exactly what you are looking for.

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