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Medill prepares to train journalist/programmers of tomorrow

Robert Niles
By Robert Niles
Published: July 1, 2008 at 4:26 PM (MST)
Rich Gordon makes me jealous. The Director of Digital Technology in Education and Associate Professor at Northwestern's Medill School of Journalism has developed the j-school program that I wished I could have attended when I was a grad student.

Rich GordonBacked by a grant from the Knight Foundation, Gordon and Medill have created a master's track blending computer programming, data analysis and investigative reporting instruction. So many great stories are locked away in databases, with few or no human sources ready or willing to tell them in a traditional, person-to-person interview. As I wrote, more than a decade ago, "Numbers can't 'talk,' but they can tell you as much as your human sources can. But just like with human sources, you have to ask."

Medill's new program will help train a new generation of journalists to do that, in ways far more effective that traditionally-trained journalists ever would have been able to. I swapped e-mails with Gordon last week (while I was on vacation in Orlando), to find out more about what's happening at Northwestern.

Robert Niles: Please describe the project and what you hope for it to accomplish.

Rich Gordon: We are offering the equivalent of nine full scholarships over three years to Medill's journalism master's program to people with degrees and/or experience in computer programming and Web development. The goal is to bring the skills and mindsets of programmer-developers into the world of journalism, expose them to the theory and practice of journalism, and challenge them to find interesting ways of melding journalism and technology.

Niles: Do you think it would be easier to train incoming journalism students in math and programming, or should the approach be to recruit math and computing students into journalism?

Gordon: I think both are possible and both are desirable. But I have spent many years teaching and training journalists and journalism students to use technology effectively, and I have come to believe that there is a real limit beyond which most journalists won't go (or want to go). With this program we are testing the proposition that a programmer who understands journalism will come up with different ideas for applying technology to journalism than someone who was a journalist first.

Niles: What are some of the common skills between investigative journalism and application development? On the flip side, what are are some of the skills essential in programming that one usually doesn't find among journalists?

Gordon: Investigative journalists and application developers both must build a clear road map to complete their work. In both cases, the best practitioners are smart, methodical and keep good notes. And for both kinds of work, there is always the possibility that a promising path will turn out to be a blind alley. On the other hand, I think it's more possible at the start of a programming project to map out a complete plan than it is to do the same for a reporting project. There's just inherently more uncertainty in the reporting process, I think.

In my experience, programmers think in terms of systems and the ways that repetitive processes can be effectively automated through software. Journalists think of stories, which are inherently unique and generally not replicable. Some journalists are starting to realize that *structured* information (databases) has more long-term value online than stories, but they tend to resist the idea that gathering or structuring data is part of their job. At the end of the day, though, I think the biggest difference is that great programmers really get excited about solving technology problems and take pride in coming up with creative solutions. Most journalists just aren't wired that way. I think the best people in both fields are incredibly creative, but they get excited about different things.

Niles: Who are the role models in this area now?

Gordon: The obvious one is Adrian Holovaty [interviews here and here - Robert], but there are others who are less well-known and who are doing excellent work at media companies and startups. Some of them even came originally from the journalism side -- for instance, Aron Pilhofer at the New York Times and Matt Waite at the St. Petersburg Times.

Niles: What kind of projects do you envision your students doing that aren't being done now on a regular basis, either in the school or in the industry?

Gordon: I've said from the beginning that I have no idea what will happen when we "mix the DNA" of programmers and journalists. I know that there are many news organizations who would happily hire them to develop new Web content and applications, and I believe their experience as journalism students will make them more effective in that setting than a programmer with no journalism education. But I also can easily imagine these scholarship winners joining a startup company -- or even creating a new company themselves. My only hope is that in some way they do something that in some way is relevant to the primary goal of journalism -- creating a better informed society.

Niles: What should someone interested in this program do to get involved?

Gordon: The first thing to do is make sure that you understand that you will have to meet Medill's normal admissions standards -- this means you'll need to demonstrate that you can write clearly, and will have to take the GRE exam. Beyond that, read up on the scholarship program at, and contact me if you have any further questions (

Robert Niles also can be found at

From Rich Gordon on July 2, 2008 at 10:33 AM

Hi, Robert. Thanks for giving me this platform to discuss and promote Medill's scholarships (funded by the Knight Foundation's News Challenge) for computer programmers interested in journalism.

It just so happens that one of the first two scholarship winners, Brian Boyer, just wrote a guest blog post in which he muses about future career opportunities.

Here it is:

A 'Programmer-Journalist' Contemplates Careers

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