Four More “Programmer-Journalists” Reach Halfway Point

    by Rich Gordon
    June 16, 2010

    Ever since the first Knight "programmer-journalist" scholars enrolled in the journalism master’s program at the Medill School, I have checked in with them around the midway point — and taken the opportunity to introduce them to the Idealab audience.

    As we mark the end of Medill’s spring quarter, it gives me great pleasure to introduce our largest cohort of Knight scholars ever: Geoffrey Hing, Steven Melendez, Shane Shifflett and Jesse Young. Including Manya Gupta and Andrew Paley, who enrolled before these four, we now have six programmer-journalist scholarship winners here at the same time. All six are accompanying me this week to the Future of News and Civic Media Conference on the campus of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.


    Here each of the four gets a chance to answer a couple of questions.



    Geoffrey Hing has a bachelor’s degree in computer science and engineering from the Ohio State University. After graduating, he worked for an Internet service provider, the Midwest Pages to Prisoners Project (which provides reading material to prison inmates), and the information technology department at Indiana University. He’s also a musician whose band — Defiance, Ohio — is touring this summer.

    Why journalism and why now?

    Through my work with non-profits and grassroots organizations, I was always engaged around the news and information in my community.  I felt like many of the roadblocks towards solving community problems that became framed as ideological conflicts were, at their roots, a result of an information gap within the community.  People didn’t understand what was happening, how government or institutions functioned, and the stories of different people with different orientations around community issues.  Journalism seemed like one of the fields best positioned to help meet the information needs of communities, and efforts such as the Knight Commission indicated that there was traction for framing the work of journalists beyond traditional news media.

    I was also becoming frustrated with my role as a technology maker. I loved coding, but it was often an experience that was isolating from other people and from important things happening in the world.  Through networks such as the Allied Media Conference, I saw that there were exciting possibilities for using technology and technologically-mediated information to engage in the world, but I needed support to move in this direction.

    What have you learned so far at Medill?

    I’ve come to appreciate the difficulty in comprehensively reporting complex topics,  not to mention the time and resources that it takes. Personally, it’s been really good for me to feel a stronger sense of responsibility for making sure that my understanding, and the understanding that I convey, is as true and complete as I can make it. The process of writing the news has made me realize that many of the things that frustrated me about the mainstream media were driven, not so much by bias, but the limitations of different media (inches in a newspaper, minutes in the nightly news) and making tough decisions about the kind of content that will help a media organization be economically sustainable. 


    Steven Melendez majored in computer science at Harvard and worked after graduation for a litigation consulting firm, reading source code and writing reports in patent and copyright cases.

    What have you learned so far at Medill?

    I’ve certainly honed my writing. I’ve also improved my multimedia skills, which were pretty much nonexistent before I started here. I’d barely used a video camera and never done any audio or video editing. I’m not an expert in these fields now, and I probably never will be, but it’s definitely nice to have some understanding of how things are done. I’ve also found myself reading newspaper and magazine articles more critically — paying more attention to how they’re arranged, who the reporters spoke to and what kind of information they’ve chosen to highlight.

    What do you think are some interesting career opportunities for people who blend journalism and technology knowledge?

    That’s a good question, and I’m as curious as anyone about the answer. I think there’s going to be tech-intensive work in migrating journalism to new platforms: smartphones, Kindles and iPads. It’s harder for me to predict what the journalism-intensive work for people with technical know-how will be. More and more information is becoming available from the government and from the Internet at large, and there are certainly stories to be told if someone can extract them. Exactly how they’ll do it and where they’ll put what they write, I’ll be curious to see.


    Shane Shifflett graduated from the University of Missouri-Kansas City with a degree in computer science. He then worked for American Century Investments, programming voice-response systems and contact center software.

    How did you get interested in journalism?

    I’ve always had a strong interest in writing and telling stories.  Some of my favorite undergraduate classes were English classes.  I gravitated to videogame development because it was a medium where outrageous stories could be told.  So part of my interest comes simply from wanting to tell stories. 
    Given my interests, experiences and the state of the industry, I feel at home working towards ways to better serve the information needs of society.  On a personal level, it felt like the natural next step; a good way to blend my programming background with purposeful storytelling. 

    What have you learned at Medill so far? How has the experience changed your outlook?

    I’ll spare everyone my soapbox, but since coming to Medill I’ve learned what incredible feats good journalists are capable of.  Being able to transmute ideas and express concepts in words concisely can be challenging.  To do so honestly and without bias is even harder.   To do it all on a deadline is … well, it’s a lot to ask for, to put it mildly.

    I  have come to the realization that it takes a lot of work, and sometimes a lot of risk, to get a good story out.  The news industry isn’t something that can be easily replaced by a cohort of bloggers and citizen journalists. A steady paycheck gives reporters the ability to do consistent, reliable work and not have to pander to their audience for approval.


    Jesse Young earned his degree in electrical engineering and computer science at the University of California-Berkeley. He worked as a developer and software engineer for MOG and Howcast

    How did you get interested in journalism?

    It was by pure chance that I came across information for the Knight scholarship through a blog post. I’m not convinced that journalism is dead, nor do I think the iPad is its savior. Now is an exciting time to be in this industry because we will eventually make sense of all this commotion.

    What have you learned at Medill?

    I’ve learned that Microsoft Word hasn’t changed much since the last time I used it in high school. Though it doesn’t crash as often as before, the grammar feature is still pretty broken. Somehow, this makes perfect sense because we’ve grown so accustomed to its interface that any changes would be anathema.

    I think the print industry is a lot like Microsoft Word. It’s so deeply rooted in tradition that any adjustments will have to be incremental lest it completely alienate its readers.

    What do you think are some interesting career opportunities for people who blend journalism and technology knowledge?

    The R&D lab at the New York Times is doing some really cool stuff with new web and mobile designs for its content. Google is also continually improving their news aggregator and experimenting with novel ideas such as Living Stories. I think these sort of jobs will become more common within media and tech companies. But, as always, there will be a demand for good content.

    Tagged: knight news challenge medill programmer-journalist

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