Our Knight News Challenge scholarship program to educate "programmer-journalists" at the Medill School at Northwestern University just won some significant external validation. The Online News Association yesterday announced the finalists for this year’s Online Journalism Awards, and two of the finalists resulted directly from the scholarship initiative.

News Mixer, the "conversations around news" site created by a team of master’s students including the first two programmer-journalists, is one of four finalists for a new prize: the Gannett Foundation Award for Technical Innovation in the Service of Digital Journalism. The site is in some pretty good company; the other finalists are two important startup companies (Attributor and Publish2) and the Associated Press (for its AP Mobile initiative). As one of the two professors who directed the project (along with my colleague Jeremy Gilbert), I am incredibly excited and proud of what our students (Brian Boyer, Ryan Mark, Angela Nitzke, Joshua Pollock, Stuart Tiffen, Kayla Webley) accomplished. There’s some wonderful student work represented in the contest’s two academic categories, but the screening judges are saying that News Mixer is in a different league — competitive with significant professional and commercial ventures.

Meanwhile, ChangeTracker, a project developed by Boyer during his internship at Pro Publica, won a finalist spot in the "Outstanding Use of Digital Technologies, Small Site" category. The award winners will be announced at the Online News Association conference in San Francisco, Oct. 1-3.

The awards announcement gave me an excuse to catch up with the News Mixer students (who dubbed themselves Team Crunchberry) to see what they’re up to now. Here’s a rundown:

  • Brian Boyer is news applications editor for the Chicago Tribune, where he leads a team responsible for creating news-based applications for the Tribune’s Web site..
  • Ryan Mark, the other programmer-journalist on the News Mixer team, works with Brian at the Tribune as a news application developer.
  • Angela Nitzke is Web content associate at the University of Chicago Medical Center, where she edits and publishes content and is helping redesign its Web site.
  • Joshua Pollock is an information technology project manager for Granite Telecommunications, where he’s using project management skills he learned with News Mixer.
  • Stuart Tiffen is working in Bonn, Germany, at Deutsche Welle, the international broadcast news organization, where he writes, edits, creates Flash galleries and manages the organization’s Facebook presence.
  • Kayla Webley recently completed a 15-nation Asia trip, including an internship with Time magazine in Hong Kong.

I was particularly excited to get updates from Angela and Joshua, both of whom told me their innovation experience at Medill played a critical role in helping them get their current jobs, and gave them skills and knowledge they are applying daily. Their experiences speak to the value of having journalism students collaborate with computer programmers; both Angela and Joshua clearly learned a lot from working on a software-development project at Medill.

It’s noteworthy, I think, that the five jobs listed above did not exist before the digital era. The Crunchberry students’ career trajectories demonstrate clearly that while there are fewer jobs in some journalism categories (for instance, newspaper and TV reporters), there are rich digital opportunities for students who have both journalism skills and an understanding of the interactive world.

Meanwhile, Brian and Ryan are showing through their work at the Tribune (such as searchable databases on pollution caused by dry-cleaning businesses and political influence in college admissions) that programmer-journalists can play a significant role in the reinvention of journalism for the digital age.

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