Two Coders Head Off to ‘Fix Journalism’

    by Rich Gordon
    January 16, 2009

    There are a lot of words I could use to describe Ryan Mark and Brian Boyer, but perhaps the first one is: fearless. About 21 months ago, they heard (Ryan through a friend, Brian on Boing Boing) about a new scholarship program offering computer programmers a chance to earn a master’s degree in journalism at the Medill School. Neither of them had journalism experience, and neither of them had ever considered studying journalism. But they decided to apply anyway, and as of December they became the first "programmer-journalists" (or "hacker journalists") to graduate from Medill.


    The vast majority of programmers wouldn’t think the idea of studying journalism was even an interesting idea. Some would say journalism isn’t worth their intellectual energy; some would be terrified by the prospect of doing what journalists do, like interviewing strangers or having to do a lot of writing. But Ryan and Brian dove right in. Not only that, they excelled in our program. I was half-expecting that at some point, one of my faculty colleagues would ring me up and say one of these guys just wasn’t cutting it in our reporting and writing classes. Instead, I heard nothing but positive feedback.


    They also left behind some really nice work: articles produced (by Ryan and Brian) in our Chicago reporting program, the EnviroVote site (read more about it here), and News Mixer, the "capstone" project they developed with fellow master’s students Angela Nitzke, Joshua Pollock, Stuart Tiffen and Kayla Webley. I also really appreciate this post that Brian wrote for the Idealab blog, describing nine possible careers for programmers with journalism training.


    I remember reading Tom Wolfe‘s "The Right Stuff," a book about the Gemini Mercury astronauts. The leaders of the U.S. space program recruited the nation’s first astronauts from a pool of ace pilots, even though what they would be asked to do was nothing like piloting a plane. In choosing the first astronauts, NASA looked for a lot of other qualities: for instance, they had to be comfortable doing public speaking, because the leaders of the space program realized they needed to build public support.

    The way I see it, Ryan and Brian were the Gemini Mercury astronauts for the programmer-journalist scholarship program. They’ve proven that programmers can succeed in a journalism master’s program, and that people with programming skills can help develop solutions to journalism’s challenges that people with more conventional journalism backgrounds wouldn’t come up with.

    Soon Ryan and Brian will be back in the working world, and it will be interesting to see what they do with their unusual blend of journalism and programming skills. The time seems to be right; programmer-journalists (even those not named Holovaty) are starting to get noticed. For instance, read this New York Magazine article on the team of developers working on Web applications for The New York Times, Mark Potts on Politifact.com, or Eric Ulken and Dan Honigman about the Times team. (By the way, coders: We still have scholarships available! More information here.)

    Ryan is spending the next few weeks traveling, and will be looking for work when he returns in February. Brian has a 3-month gig at Pro Publica and hasn’t figured out exactly what will happen after that. On their way out of Medill, they both agreed to answer a few questions about their experience:

    What do you feel are the most important things you got out
    of your Medill experience?

    Mark: I got a new skill. I learned how to write and report, something I had no idea how to do before I started. I feel confident enough about what I learned that I could go out and report for a living. Also, I got to work with great people. I have never worked with a group of such talented, driven, capable people before.

    Boyer: In many ways, Medill is an old-school institution, and I learned the
    old-school way of practicing journalism: from the laws and ethics to slugs and nut grafs and inverted pyramids. This is the sort of knowledge software designers rarely have about their users. Now that I’m a journalist, I can write tools for myself — and that’s the easiest way to get it right. In addition, participating in the program has put me in touch with an amazing community of journogeeks. There are a mess of brilliant folks doing great work to further journalism online, and during my time at Medill, I’ve been able to connect to that community, in person at conferences and via blogging and Twittering.

    Why should someone with solid programming skills consider a master’s degree in journalism?

    Mark: Because journalism needs them. There are so many tech-capable people in journalism, but few who have logged the time to understand computer science and software development. A person who does not want to just write code for whoever pays them, and actually come up with and execute interesting software projects, the journalism experience will help you. This program got me out of my element and gave me first hand experience that will help me relate to others in the field when i’m not elbow deep in code.

    Boyer: Because it’s fucking important. Cable television and the Web disrupted the business models of the big, important journalism organizations: newspapers. Now, the importance of a daily paper is debatable, but that democracy requires journalism to function is not. And so, for the sake of democracy itself, it is imperative that more nerds join the fight to save the news. We need to invent new business models, reinvent the newspaper, and create new forms of media. Plus, an all-expense-paid trip to graduate school in sunny Chicago, Illinois, is also a very nice way to weather a recession. And the smart, passionate classmates make for some pretty good parties and great conversation.

    What contribution can programmers make to the future of journalism? Or, why does journalism need programmers?

    Mark: How do we deliver news and information on the Internet? Access to timely, truthful and in-depth information is necessary for our open, educated and democratic society, and is the core goal of journalism. Newspapers, magazines and television are slowly being replaced by the Internet. The Internet is built by programmers, and only those with understanding of computer systems and programming know what the Internet is capable of, and how to make things happen.

    Boyer: Journalism and democracy are facing problems that aren’t going to be solved by MBAs, IT departments or bean counters. Journalism needs engineers, computer
    scientists, and usability wonks, badly.

    What do you hope to do in your career, and how have your career aspirations changed since studying journalism at Medill?

    Mark: Since I have tech skills, I can pick an industry to work in. Now, in addition to the tech skills, I have a deep understanding of media and what is actually involved in gathering and distributing the news. So I’ve picked an industry. And it’s an industry that has meaning, something I can feel good about. This isn’t telecom or sales. The work I can do in journalism has the potential to change people’s lives for the better. This isn’t a path to a fat paycheck. This is something that can give you opportunities to get excited about your job, and give you a sense that you’ve done something good and meaningful.

    Boyer: I came to Medill because I wanted to make a real impact in people’s lives. Instead of making software for investment groups or law firms, I wanted to do something good for the world. My time at Medill has clarified that vision. I want to use my skills as a technologist to fix journalism. As for career specifics, I’m less certain. I don’t do five-year plans. My next stop is ProPublica, a fantastic new non-profit investigative journalism organization. Following that, it’s less clear, but I plan to keep writing and designing software, and to do so as a journalist, at journalism organizations, and for the public to experience. Software may be my first love, but I’m for certain not planning to abandon my newfound writing skills. I enjoyed writing stories, and will continue to do so. And I’ve got an idea for a non-fiction book, about neither journalism nor programming, and I now feel qualified to make it happen.

    Tagged: academics future of journalism media technology programmer-journalist

    2 responses to “Two Coders Head Off to ‘Fix Journalism’”

    1. Kathleen Nelson says:

      “The Right Stuff” was about the Mercury astronauts not the Gemini astronauts.

    2. Kathleen Nelson is 100% right, and I have made the correction.

      You know, when I was a newspaper reporter and editor, that kind of bonehead error would have probably been caught by a copy editor.

      In today’s digital world, our readers are our copy editors.

      Thanks, Kathleen!

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