Why did the Washington Post become the first media company to invest in a Northwestern University program to educate computer programmers in journalism?

"It comes down to credibility," said Greg Franczyk, who helped arrange the partnership with Northwestern’s Medill School and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation to offer scholarships to computer programmers interested in earning a master’s degree in journalism.

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"When someone has studied journalism, they are confident and have that credibility and can walk into a room of editors and journalists and make a decision. That’s what really makes the difference. They can say they’ve been where you (the journalist) are, in a real way."

The Post is the first industry partner in the second phase of the Knight programmer-journalist scholarship program. In the first phase, financed with a Knight News Challenge grant, nine people with computer programming backgrounds earned master’s degrees in journalism at Medill. All nine are now working in jobs at the intersection of journalism and computer science. In the second phase, Medill is seeking industry partners to provide scholarship aid beyond what is available through the Knight grant, as well as paid internships upon graduation.

The Post expects to provide scholarship support and paid internships to three Medill MSJ students with programming backgrounds over the next three years. It is a significant financial commitment — more than $80,000 in tuition support plus the cost of the internships. But the investment is worthwhile, Post leaders say.

"It’s part of our overall strategy to help people build their careers here at the Post over time," Franczyk said. "The target here is someone who is interested in having a career with us, but is looking for something more."

how it works

Here’s how the Post/Knight scholarship program will work:

  • Candidates apply for admission to Medill through the normal admissions process. As part of the process, they fill out a separate essay question and provide information about their technology and programming experience.
  • If they meet Medill’s admissions standards and have the desired programming background, candidates are awarded a Knight scholarship, covering half the tuition for the 12-month MSJ program).  They will also be encouraged to pursue the supplemental Post scholarship.
  • The Post will review applications and recommend those that should be awarded the Post scholarships. In return for the scholarship funding, the candidates will commit to the paid internship at the Post after graduation.

Candidates for the Post scholarships might be identified through the normal Medill admissions process. The Post also has the option of referring candidates who currently work at the company or are being recruited for engineering positions.

Mitch Rubin, sports production editor for the Post, initiated contact with Medill about the scholarship program because of his experience developing the Post’s high school sports site, allmetsports.com.

"The developers I was working with really didn’t understand the product," Rubin said. Programmers who understand journalism are hard to find, he said.

Scholarship recipients must meet Medill’s normal admissions requirements.  They complete the same 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 have an opportunity to apply their technology skills to journalism in an “innovation project” course. In these classes, teams of students create new products or work to solve a problem facing a media company.

Scholarship recipients also can consider courses in other schools at Northwestern, such as computer science classes in the McCormick School of Engineering.

They also have the opportunity to work in the school’s Knight Lab and 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, publishers and journalism audiences. Medill Watchdog reports on systemic flaws in government and public institutions.

The hacker-journalist

While many people see computer programmers and journalists as being very different, Franczyk said there are great similarities between "hacker culture" and "journalist culture" — both value passion, dedication, "improving their community and improving the world."

"When a journalist is chasing something, there’s a passion there. They are going to find the answer one way or another, whether they have to stay up seven nights in a row or travel around the world, Franczyk said. "In computer science, it’s kind of the same thing — that’s why many programmers start work at 11 a.m. They were up late trying to solve a problem."

Among previous scholarship recipients are Brian Boyer, who directs the news applications team at National Public Radio; Ryan Mark, director of digital product strategy and development at Chicago Tribune Media Group; Manya Gupta, Web technical editor for theworld.org; Steven Melendez of the data news team at WNYC, public radio station in New York; and Shane Shifflett, data engineer at the Center for Investigative Reporting.

More information about the scholarship program is available at http://www.medill.northwestern.edu/knight/.  News organizations interested in joining the Post as an industry partner may contact me at richgor@northwestern.edu.

Rich Gordon is a professor and director of digital innovation. At Medill, he launched the school’s graduate program in new media journalism. He has spent most of his career exploring the areas where journalism and technology intersect. Prof. Gordon was an early adopter of desktop analytical tools (spreadsheets and databases) to analyze data for journalistic purposes. At The Miami Herald, he was among the first generation of journalists to lead online publishing efforts at newspapers. At Medill, he has developed innovative courses through which students have explored digital content and communities and developed new forms of storytelling that take advantage of the unique capabilities of interactive media. In addition to teaching and writing about digital journalism, he is director of new communities for the Northwestern Media Management Center, where he is responsible for a research initiative focusing on the impact of online communities, including social networks, on journalism and publishing.