Still Seeking Coders Interested in Journalism

    by Rich Gordon
    May 26, 2008

    It’s now been almost exactly a year since we announced (thanks to a Knight News Challenge grant) that programmer-developers could earn full scholarships to study journalism in the master’s program at the Medill School at Northwestern University. We’ve got plenty of scholarship money still available — but we have not been overwhelmed with applications.

    Here’s where we stand: Two scholarship winners are now almost midway through their Medill studies. A third candidate will enroll next month. And we still have the equivalent of six full scholarships yet to award.


    From the beginning, I’ve felt that this project’s biggest challenge would be finding the coders who would be intrigued by the idea of spending a year studying journalism. We’re not looking for career-switchers — programmers wanting to leave coding behind in favor of reporting. We’re looking for outstanding programmers who want to explore the theory and practice of journalism — and might, as a result, find novel ways of applying their technology skills and interests to improving journalism in the digital age.


    Our best recruiting tools so far were several posts about the scholarship program to technology-oriented blogs, including BoingBoing and Adrian Holovaty’s site. We’ve also been getting the word out about the scholarships to undergraduate computer science programs and via banner advertisements on technology-oriented sites. We can tell from our Web site analytics that these efforts are getting some attention, but we need to do more if we’re going to make this scholarship program successful.

    I’m hoping that readers of this blog might have some ideas about what we can do — either to improve the scholarship program or to market it more effectively. Here are some questions to consider:

    • Where should we look for coders who might be interested in these scholarships?
    • What’s the best way to get their attention?
    • Is there something wrong with our pitch?
    • Is the idea of practicing journalism (for instance, interviewing strangers and doing a lot of writing) intimidating to coders?
    • Or does journalism just not seem intellectually demanding?
    • Could we make this program more appealing by incorporating non-journalism classes — in computer science or other fields — in the scholarship winners’ curriculum? (Truth is, this is possible already — Medill allows any master’s-level courses at Northwestern to count toward our MSJ degree.)

    Or could it be that the whole concept is flawed? Certainly, some people have observed that it might be more productive to teach journalists how to write code. And I actually think that’s a great idea. But that’s not what the foundation gave us money to do.

    Please let me know what you think. Post your responses below, or email me at richgorATnorthwestern.edu

    Tagged: marketing medill programmer-journalist promotion scholarship
    • For starters, the pitch is way too lengthy.

      Many good coders, in my experience, are
      profoundly anti-social people, although pleasant enough to be with. Going out and talking to strangers is something they religiously avoid.

      The fundamental problem is that anyone who’s any good at coding would be taking a year out of his / her life to earn, upon graduation, one-third to one-half of their previous salary with no realistic possibility of ever catching up to where they would have been in the coding world.

      I suspect that studying journalism would also subject them to ridicule by their peers and friends, many of whom believe that the subect matter of jouranlism can be digested over a long weekend.

    • Apologies for the typo.

    • I’m interested in the program but as i,m a international student, the scholarship is not available. very sad…

    • Dan Schultz

      I’ll be graduating next year, maybe I should look into it;) eh?

    • Hello, Rich,

      I read your post last night, and am still sorting out the details, so I apologize in advance if these thoughts come out half-baked.

      WRT your pitch: I think it’s good — you are subsidizing a year of education at an excellent school, in an innovative program. A person who is a good fit for this program (as I understand it, anyways) should have no problem going through it. It also gives an overview of the ideas behind the program.

      WRT the more central issue, teaching developers journalism skills, or teaching journalists how to develop apps, I don’t think this is necessary in all cases. More critical: having journalists who understand what the web can or can’t do, and having developers who are intimately familiar with the needs of media. In short, a journalist should be able to get pretty far along when it comes to articulating a spec, but, IMO, they should not be the ones implementing it — not all web developers, or journalists, are created equal. A journalist who understands the web, paired with a dev who understands journalism, can do far more than one person with crossover talent.

      With all that said, there are people for whom this program would be a great fit, and I’m surprised you haven’t had people beating your door down — I’d recommend looking within open source communities. For example, the Drupal community has a Drupal in Newspapers group, and there are people there who are well connected in both development and journalism communities. I’d leave a link, but I’m leery of the link triggering a spam blocker — If you google “drupal in newspapers” you’ll find the group.

      BTW, you are mentioned in the group twice :) but nothing about this project.



    • Thanks to all who’ve commented thus far.

      I want to respond to one point made by my friend Joe Zekas, whom I respect a lot (and did some paid consulting/writing work for a few years ago).

      I think he’s wrong about the pay issue. Yes, a “career-switching” coder — someone who wants to leave computer science and go to work as a reporter — would probably come out of Medill making significantly less money than he or she was making in programming work. (Of course, there are other rewards besides financial ones — and I would never discourage someone who wants to be a reporter, because it’s a great job.)

      But we’re really not looking for career-switchers with with this scholarship program.

      We want people who still love coding, but may not have considered journalism (or journalism sites/services) as a place to apply their technology skills.

      I used to lead the Miami Herald’s Web publishing division. Since coming to Medill, I continue to talk regularly with people who run newsrooms and online publishing ventures. They are hiring skilled coders and are paying competitive salaries. They would much prefer to hire coders who understand what journalism is and how it’s practiced — who “know the language” and can communicate effectively with journalists and others in their companies.

      Beyond that, we can see many examples of online ventures (Google News, Wikipedia, Craigslist, etc.) that were built by technology professionals and now live in the same space with journalism and other forms of media.

      Through this scholarship program, our goal is to immerse some skilled coders in the theory and practice of journalism, to give them a deeper understanding of what journalists do, why they do it, and what challenges they (and their companies) face that technology might help resolve.

      Joe may be right that many coders think journalism is a trivially simple job. If so, I believe a year in journalism school will teach them otherwise. I also am quite confident that a skilled coder with a master’s in journalism will be extremely marketable — at very competitive salaries. And that this kind of person will find work that’s more fulfilling than a lot of other kinds of programming jobs.

      It’s also entirely possible that our new “programmer-journalists” won’t want to go to work for a news organization. Nothing would thrill me more than to see them take what they’ve learned at Medill and invent the future — say, the next killer app for online news.

    • @Bill

      I had already gone ahead and posted Rich’s open need to http://groups.drupal.org/knight-drupal-initiative and http://groups.drupal.org/newspapers-on-drupal

      Hope some people come out of it, the program looks great…

    • I know this is from a year ago, but my article about journalist-programmers in MediaShift looked at a lot of these issues, and the ensuing discussion was interesting:

      Biggest takeaway is that there are plenty of reasons for programmers to get involved in journalism projects that go beyond money. Helping keep communities strong or making sure there’s a strong free press are two very good ones.

    • Hi Rich,

      Try pitching this at undergraduate programmer/designers working on Information Visualization. That’s a tricky specialization to pinpoint in any one department, though. You’d need to look for people housed in HCI, Design, Art, as well as CS and the like. NYU, CMU, Georgia Tech, and USC would all be good recruiting grounds.

      Also get in touch with sites devoted to “serious” or “persuasive” games such as Watercooler Games http://www.watercoolergames.org/ or the IGDA’s serious games SIG. That field tends to attract technologists with a more documentary or journalistic inclination.

      I’m happy to offer game industry contacts via email if needed!

    • Eli Dickinson


      Have you considered targeting your pitch towards graduating undergraduate Computer Science majors? I think there are a fair number of talented and creative programmers who would be interested in continuing their studies… but perhaps not in Computer Science. (At the Graduate and Post-Graduate levels, Computer Science often has more to do with calculus than programming.)

      Journalism may be exactly the thing that they never knew they were interested in.


    • I know it isn’t the point at all, but Joe Zekas is just plain wrong. His stereotypes about programmers are tired and insulting.

      The questions I asked on your earlier post — I’d still like to know the answers to at least some of them. I get it, mostly, but I’ve been following this conversation for a while. I think your pitch is kind of heavy on Holovaty (not everyone swoons at online crime blotters) and light on information about who you are looking for.

      I think it would be worth inviting questions and offering to support people through the application process. I’d put your contact information in a more inviting sentence: “If you’re interested but not sure whether this would be a good fit for you, we’d love to hear from you and we’re happy to answer questions about our expectations and yours. Email Rich …” — that sounds like I could really write to you and say “this is who I am, is it worth applying?”

      Plenty of solid programmers, people who love a technical challenge, are genuinely interested in journalism, and in finding ways to make their careers interesting and engaging. Some aren’t, but those are not the droids you are looking for.

      I would have jumped at an opportunity like this ten years ago. Which kind of has me wondering … maybe you are looking in the wrong places still. Young people who want to work in journalism look for opportunities on Idealist and Media Bistro. I’ve always found the Feminist Majority Foundation job board a great resource. If I was looking for thoughtful, engaged candidates for any opportunity I’d post on those sites. I don’t see why you shouldn’t list your scholarships there as well.

    • Doug Fisher at the University of South Carolina does a nice blog post in reply to Rich’s here:


    • As a programmer and a journalist (at least in my self-identification) who knows several other programmer/journalists, I find the idea that there is no overlap or that the cultures don’t mix is pretty sill.

      Both avocations, pursued professionally or not, are time consuming, however– and there is a limit to hours in the day.

      Getting the word out about anything is still hard. Solutions to that problem is something we (especially us programmers and journalists!) should be thinking about as an important part of an improved, human-needs-meeting media system.

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