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    How Programmer/Journalists Craft Their Own Study Programs

    by Megan Taylor
    December 2, 2009
    Aspiring programmer/journalists: the Reservoir Dogs of the profession?

    After writing about the skills a journalist/programmer might need, I thought it would be interesting to see what college students are learning. For the most part, journalism education has not caught up with the innovations taking place in the industry. Many programs don’t offer more than an introduction to working with the web, so some students have to teach themselves.

    Remember the sidewalk scene from “Reservoir Dogs” that showed a group of tough guys walking down the street? They’re all out to do the same thing, but none of them are what you’d expect. The same seems true for aspiring programmer/journalists.

    I think that in many ways being a Swiss Army Knife-type is more important than knowing one thing or language." - Andrew Spittle

    I spoke to six college students who are combining self-taught programming with elements of journalism education. Most work at their student papers, but only two are journalism majors. These students are putting what they know and love together in ways their formal education — and in some ways the industry as a whole — hasn’t caught up with yet.

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    Max Cutler

    Max Cutler is a junior at Yale University, majoring in electrical engineering and computer science.

    Although he doesn’t have a background in journalism, he has been a freelance web developer since 2003, and is now the online development manager for the Yale Daily News. Cutler is in charge of creating and maintaining new features for the website.

    During an interview, Cutler told me that he got involved at the Daily News because he was interested in doing more creative, unique projects. To that end, he has worked on Courant News, an online publishing platform for college news organizations built with Django, the Python framework that has become popular in the programmer/journalist niche.

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    His work on Courant News also got him involved with CoPress, an organization that provides support for online college media innovation.

    Cutler’s web skills are self-taught; he learned by finding like-minded groups online and working on various projects. He’s picked up Flash development, PHP, Java and C.

    “Once you learn a couple languages, you can pick up new ones pretty easily,” Cutler said.

    Albert Sun

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    Albert Sun

    Albert Sun is a senior at the University of Pennsylvania, majoring in mathematics and economics.

    His interest in journalism (despite his majors, which he says confuse everyone) is in how information gets from one place to another.

    He worked at The Daily Pennsylvanian (Penn’s student paper) as a reporter and then as the web editor-in-chief, and just completed an internship at the Wall Street Journal.

    Sun learned to program in middle school.

    “I had a really boring French class and started programming on my calculator,” Sun said. He is also mostly self-taught, although he has had a few classes in theory and algorithms at Penn. He has experience with PHP, Python, ActionScript 3 and Java.

    Sun is also a member of CoPress.

    Andrew Spittle

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    Andrew Spittle

    Andrew Spittle is a senior at Whitman College, majoring in politics.

    He recently became interested in journalism when he applied for the web manager position at The Pioneer, Whitman College’s weekly student newspaper.

    “I kind of lucked into the job with some minimal knowledge and used it as a way to build my experience and start experimenting with things,” Spittle said. “I’ve also been working with CoPress since late Spring.”

    Though Spittle is largely a “front-end guy,” meaning he works with (X)HTML, CSS and Javascript, he has also done a lot of custom work with WordPress, is learning PHP, and is also teaching himself how to develop applications for the iPhone.

    “I think that in many ways being a Swiss Army Knife-type is more important than knowing one thing or language,” Spittle said.

    Whitman is in a liberal arts college, so there aren’t any programming classes offered. Spittle learns through trial and error, and by reading lots of online documentation. He’s interested in the intersection of programming, design, and information.

    “I would be interested in working on app and site teams,” Spittle said. “The reporting aspect of journalism doesn’t interest me as much as designing an experience and presentation for the information.”

    Daniel Bachhuber

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    Daniel Bachhuber

    Daniel Bachhuber is currently taking time off from college, interning with Publish2, a company that creates tools for collaboration and linking, and running the business of CoPress, of which he is the executive director.

    Bachhuber is almost completely self-taught. He took a high school course in C++, and also uses PHP. He wants to learn Python and has been looking at ActionScript and Flex as well.

    He learns by working on projects and picking up the core concepts along the way. His interest in programming comes from a “desire to make something cool happen,” he said during an interview.

    One of his recent projects, EditFlow, is a WordPress plugin for user and workflow management.

    Will Davis

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    Will Davis

    Will Davis is a sophomore at the University of Maine, majoring in journalism.

    He helped start a newspaper in high school and learned PHP in order to build the website. Davis served as the online editor and is now the executive editor of The Maine Campus. He also works with CoPress, and his desire is to use his paper’s website to engage readers, rather than just put print articles online.

    Davis developed a custom theme and plugins for WordPress, including Courier, a plugin that manages email editions. He created custom tag pages for the site, called Campus Currents, which draw from a wiki that anyone can edit. He is always looking for ways to increase interactivity.

    He wants to be a full-time reporter and have a role that enables him to create special online features.

    Andrew Dunn

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    Andrew Dunn

    Andrew Dunn is a senior at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, majoring in journalism.

    He uses programming in his reporting. For example, Dunn has used Python to parse databases and clean up data. He is currently teaching himself Django.

    Dunn’s interest in programming comes from his father, a programmer for IBM. He has also been inspired by the work of Matt Waite of the St. Petersburg Times.

    “I really love old shoe-leather journalism,” Dunn said. But he sees programming as another tool for reporting.

    Dunn created a Data Center for The Daily Tar Heel, where he is editor-in-chief.

    In “Reservoir Dogs,” Mr. Pink is the only one to survive the carnage of his craft. But these students are more likely to follow their paths to success because they have the initiative and drive to learn the skills that are largely still untaught in journalism.

    Megan Taylor is a web journalist whose work focuses on combining traditional and computer-assisted information-gathering with multimedia production to create news packages online. Megan tells stories in English, HTML/CSS/, ActionScript, PHP, photos, video and audio, and blogs at her personal site.

    Tagged: journalism education journalism skills programmer-journalist programming
    • K. Sullivan

      I would like to see women on this list – I know several hard-working female student journalists that inspire me in their initiative to go beyond the traditional journalism education to learn programming and development skills.

      Allie Ghaman at the University of Michigan is one!

    • I hope I didn’t come across as discriminatory – I’d love to do another round like this and highlight female programmers as well.

    • Also, I should note that I have been working on a Twitter list of journalist/programmers: http://twitter.com/selfmadepsyche/journalist-programmers

    • Megan, you could have gotten Lauren Rabaino. She’s also in the copress crew.

    • I would also suggest out EIC Shannon Morgan. She is in her second year and was brought back to reatructure the newsroom and change the mind set for how media is disbursed.

      It has also been a challenge for those of us professional staff who are not tied to an academic department to grow the program. I’ve had to push boundaries and often have had to walk fine lines with academic departments who are hesitent to change.

    • regina marchi

      Interesting information, but what really struck me (like a pan over the head) was the absence of women or any students of color. I know someone’s already mentioned this, but precisely because these populations are generally underrepresented, it is important to include them in such articles and reports.

    • Thanks everyone, I will be doing a follow-up post soon.

    • Yes, it was a nice list. But with the lack of women and minorities, I’d say there’s a need to get some diversity in that area. Meanwhile, good for those guys on the list. They are certainly carving a niche for themselves.

    • I’m super-curious, Megan, if you realized as you were writing your (excellent) piece that all of the jo-pros (or pro-jos) profiled were men or if it didn’t occur to you. I noticed it right away and wondered if it accurately reflects gender imbalance in geek journalism or was just an oversight, or maybe you are part of the post-gender generation…if there is such a thing.

    • @Julie,

      Actually, I didn’t notice. I was really paying attention to what these students are doing, learning and working on, so the gender issue (if there is one) didn’t come up.

      I will definitely be looking at gender imbalance for a future post though.

      I arrived at this list just by asking my sources on Twitter to recommend college students who are combining journalism and programming. I talked to everyone who was recommended, and ended up with this list of people who were doing the kind of thing I wanted to profile.

      After this was published and people started asking about the all-male list, I asked Twitter again to recommend females who are doing similar work. I now have a list twice as long as the one I had for this piece, which I will be using for a follow-up post.

      What is the post-gender generation?

    • Interesting article, and I look forward to your next article about featureing female journalism and programming students.

    • great post!
      this is exactly what we find with our blog. & like what we’ve just done with our christmas card http://barringtonarch.com/christmas.html

    • dcollins

      I would like to know how young journalists are training to manage ethical requirements when their public profile now extends into the Web and much of it is permanently archived.

    • very lovely post … i really got impressed by stories of few students. You might have worked hard to collect this stuff. In the end i must say… HATS OFF to you .. !!!

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