Nick Allen, a computer science student who got intrigued by journalism as a college senior, is the third "programmer-journalist" enrolled at the Medill School through the Knight News Challenge scholarship program. The first two (Brian Boyer and Ryan Mark) graduated in December. As he approaches his final-quarter "innovation project" class (like the one in which Brian and Ryan helped invent News Mixer), it seemed like a good time to introduce him to the Idea Lab audience. (And to re-emphasize that we still have scholarships available to our one-year journalism master’s program to people with backgrounds in computer programming.)
1) Tell us about your background.
As an undergraduate, I studied computer science at Oregon State University. They have a couple degree options for CS majors there. You can stick to the theoretical track, or do work in a related field. I always knew that I was more interested in the practical side than the theoretical one, so I started studying new media after a brief flirtation with business. In the new media program, I took courses in video production, Web design, animation and writing for the media.
I found that I loved the expression that you are able to put into media production. For one class I spent about two solid days editing one minute of video. Oregon State also has a top-notch new media faculty.
I was also teaching myself the basics of Web development on the side, largely by doing projects for student groups. That was a slow process, with a lot of trial and error, but eventually I ended up being a teaching assistant for the introductory Web design course.
2) How did you get interested in journalism?
As I was wrapping up my undergraduate degree I knew I wanted to work with media, and I had broadened my news consumption quite a bit. I took a particular interest in podcasting and radio, and jumped at a chance to intern at the public radio show "Radio Open Source" after graduation.
Open Source was trying to convert a mass media channel into a truly two-way media system through techniques such as looking for and discussing show pitches from the audience on its blog. Even shows that take call-ins are essentially one-way conduits. On those shows, the vast majority of the audience still consists of non-participants. Genuine two-way communication was new, and intoxicatingly interesting.
Also, a couple of world events have defined my brief adult life and developed my interest in journalism. The first was the rise of the Internet. I doubt any technically-minded person of my generation could have looked at the Internet as an adolescent and not seen its huge potential. Journalism is one of the fields where this impact will be most interesting, and there is something alluring about the opportunity to embrace the zeitgeist.
The other transforming event was the rise of terrorism in the American consciousness.
I was fortunate to see David Ropeik speak at Medill on the news media’s ability to analyze risk, which he says is not very good. The media’s narrative about the risks of terrorism is an illustration of that problem. Your risk of being killed by a drunken driver is vastly higher than being killed by terrorism in the United States, particularly if you live outside of a major city. Yet we do not see media panic about drunken drivers, and advocates of policies designed to curb drunken driving at the expense of civil liberties would see much more heated objection than was raised to anti-terrorism measures earlier in this decade. Instead we get things like the duct-tape and plastic fiasco.
The framing of these issues has as much to do with pressure to monetize news as an objective evaluation of the story or any kind of institutional political bias. That isn’t a very good way to engage in public policy debate. The terrorism story is just the most egregious example. You can read the news every day and see this happening. How many important stories are buried on A17 and chopped to 300 words while the triviality of the day leads? And of course a lot of papers don’t even have an A17 page anymore.
We know that the economics of news are changing, and we know that economics have a big impact on news organizations. What we don’t know is how these economic changes will change news decision-making. That is a question I am very interested in.
3) What have you learned by studying journalism so far? How has the experience changed your outlook?
Producing good journalism is a lot harder than it looks. I remember reading a few stories before coming to journalism school and thinking, “What a terrible story. That came straight from a press release.” Reporting on a deadline makes you realize that finding stories is a real challenge.
Journalism school also makes you appreciate newspapers. As journalists argue that the death of papers will also kill most original reporting, I don’t think many media consumers realize how hard that will be to replace. We talk a lot about the quality standards that “professional” journalists have, but the ability to find The Story is probably their most important role. To the extent that we can finance that kind of work in a digital media world is a critical question.
As a developer, you kind of regard the Web as a vehicle for new opportunities. The journalism world sees the Web as a leech, which is a viewpoint journalism school has made me come to terms with. Meanwhile, social responsibility is something that web companies ought to be thinking about more. “Don’t be evil” is not the same as “be beneficent.“ The idea that Google or Microsoft might have a news department of some kind is not a whole lot stranger than GE owning the NBC Nightly News.
At the same time, there is no question that journalism organizations need to be thinking about the Web in a more opportunistic way. In the last few weeks we have seen a lot of different ideas for revenue models kicked around the web, which is a really positive sign. If newspapers start closing, we are going to see a lot of creatively funded entities stepping up to fill the news void in those markets.
Another great thing about studying journalism is that you get to refine a lot of valuable skills. Being a technologist, I tend to emphasize the value of technological tools, but there is no doubt that the value of basic journalism competencies, like strong writing skills or the ability to craft a narrative, is not going away. Studying journalism is, hands down, the best way to become a better writer.
4) What do you think are some interesting career opportunities for people who blend journalism and technology knowledge?
We all know that programmers can live in the basement of your news building and build fun Web gadgets, but someone with strong programming skills can play many roles in a journalism organization. Here are a few jobs that "programmer-journalists" can bring special knowledge to:
- Web Editor: A programmer-journalist is a perfect match for a Web editor position. The modern Web editor needs to be able to look over a news budget and instantly see what stories call for multimedia content, what that content will look like, and what tools should be used to produce it. Her or she should be able to hack things together on the fly. Your next content management system will be open source. Your next Web editor should know its guts.
- News Innovator/Web Evangelizer: Keeping a news organization ahead of the competition technically will be a constant battle. The news innovator’s role will be to invent, scout, and borrow innovative tools and techniques.
- Multimedia Director: Bringing together reporters, graphic artists, and programming talent for multimedia project is a daunting task. Programmer-journalists understand enough of each of these disciplines to fit all the pieces together.