Four and a half years ago, Northwestern University and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation announced a novel program: scholarships for people with computer programming experience to study journalism in the Medill School‘s master’s program. It was such a sufficiently unusual idea that it got the attention of BoingBoing, one of the most popular tech/culture blogs, which ran a short item under the headline, "Turn coders into journalists (hint: add spellcheck, subtract Skittles)."

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Today, the idea that journalism needs more software developers is mainstream. And that’s why Medill and the Knight Foundation are announcing an extension of the scholarship program.

The three-year, $250,000 grant will enable Medill to provide scholarships to at least six more people with computer programming experience. The new grant supplements the original $639,000 grant, which has allowed nine computer programmers to earn journalism master’s degrees since 2008.

What the first nine scholarship winners are doing now:

  • Brian Boyer and Ryan Mark are key members of the Chicago Tribune’s news applications team, which has earned a national reputation for developing and deploying new technologies that inform and engage online users.
  • Manya Gupta is a web journalist for The World, a public radio program focusing on "global perspectives for an American audience."
  • Shane Shifflett is a news apps developer for the Bay Citizen in San Francisco.
  • Nick Allen and Andrew Paley work for Narrative Science, a startup company whose software constructs stories from data such as baseball box scores and economic trends.
  • Geoff Hing is an independent software developer working on a variety of civic and social projects in Chicago.
  • Jesse Young is a software engineer at Federated Media Publishing.
  • Steven Melendez is working as a reporter for the BVI Beacon, a newspaper in the British Virgin Islands.

A lot has happened since the first round of scholarship funding was announced. Just a few months earlier, Mark Glaser had written on PBS Mediashift about a few newspapers that had hired computer programmers for newsroom positions.

Now there’s a widely shared spreadsheet listing more than 40 jobs for "news developers." And Hacks/Hackers chapters — devoted to meetups between journalists and technologists — operating in almost 30 cities.

This past February in Raleigh, N.C., the Computer Assisted Reporting conference — which in previous years mostly dealt with computer software as analytical tools — featured numerous sessions on applying computer programming to mapping, data visualization and news applications. And the Mozilla Foundation, the nonprofit organization that owns the company producing the Firefox browser, has launched a partnership with the Knight Foundation to "invent the future of news."

WHY TURN PROGRAMMERS INTO JOURNALISTS?
The premise of the Medill scholarship program is that software developers with an education in journalism can be more productive and successful in news organizations than those who enter the field without a journalism degree.

Under the new grant, scholarship winners will be encouraged to develop a curriculum tailored to their interests, meeting the requirements of Medill’s MSJ degree while also having the option of incorporating advanced course work in computer science.

Medill plans to build partnerships with media companies that are interested in hiring journalists with computer programming expertise. Media partners will be asked to provide financial aid to supplement Knight’s scholarship funding, and also offer paid internships for the scholarship winners.

Scholarship winners will also have the opportunity to work in the Knight News Innovation Laboratory and Medill’s new Watchdog/Accountability Initiative. The Knight Lab, a joint project of Northwestern’s journalism and engineering schools, is developing innovative technologies to be used by journalists and publishers in Chicago and beyond. The Watchdog/Accountability Initiative specializes in investigative reporting on systemic flaws in government and public institutions.

Scholarship recipients must meet Medill’s normal admissions requirements. They will complete the same core academic program as other MSJ students. The first academic quarter is spent learning reporting and storytelling skills in multiple media. At least one other quarter is spent in Medill’s Chicago newsroom, covering a beat and creating multimedia stories.

As part of the program, scholarship recipients will be expected to apply their technology skills in an “innovation project“ course at Medill. In these classes, teams of students create new products or work to solve a problem facing a media company. Previous innovation classes enrolling Knight scholarship winners have attracted attention for developing News Mixer and Sourcerer, new approaches to journalism and audience interaction.

More information about the scholarship program can be found on the Medill website.

Image courtesy of Flickr user skyfaller.

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