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October 18, 2010

Filed under: journalism»new_media

How J-Schools Are Failing New Media 101

If you're interested in working in data-driven journalism, or you know someone who is, my team at CQ is hiring. You can check out the listing at Ars. For additional context, this opening is for the server-side/database role on the team--someone who can set up a database for a reporting project, mine it for relevant data, and then present that information to either the newsroom or the public as a modern, standard-compliant web page.

To be honest, we're having a really difficult time filling this position. It's an odd duck: we need someone who's comfortable with computer science-y stuff like data structures and SQL, but also someone who can apply those skills towards journalism, which has its own distinct character traits: news sense, storytelling, and a peculiar tendency to pull at intellectual loose ends. A tough combination to begin with, even without taking into account the fact that anyone with both aptitudes can probably make a lot more money with the former than with the latter. So let's add a third requirement: they've got to be a true believer about what we do here.

As far as I can tell, the most reliable way to get someone with these three traits is to start with a journalist, then teach them how to code. In theory, that should be exactly what happens in a journalism school's "new media" or "interactive" program. And yet my experience with graduates of these MA programs is that they're woefully unprepared for the job my team is trying to do.

I should note here, I think, that I never attended J-school myself. GMU didn't have a journalism program, and I ended up in a different specialization in the communication department anyway. So it's possible that I'm a little bitter, given that I had to work my way into the news business via extensive freelancing, entry-level web production, and a lot of bloody-minded persistence. But I think my gripes are reasonable, and they're shared with coworkers from more traditional journalistic backgrounds.

Here's the crux of the problem, as I see it: programs in new media journalism are still teaching the Internet in the context of traditional print or television news, which stalls their graduates in two ways. First, it means the programs approach online media as outsiders, teaching classes in "blogging for journalists" or "media website design" as if they were alien artifacts to be unpuzzled instead of the native publishing platform for a whole generation now. It's the web, people: it's not going anywhere, and it's not something you should have to spend a semester introducing to your students. A whole class on blogging isn't education--it's coddling.

Second, these schools seem to be too focused on specific technologies or platforms instead of teaching rudimentary, generalizable computer engineering. There are classes on Flash, or on basic HTML, or using a given blog platform--and those are all good skills to have, but they're not sufficient. What we really need are people who know the general principles behind those skills: how do you structure data effectively for the story? How do you debug something? What's object-oriented design? Technology moves so fast in this business, someone without those fundamentals won't be able to keep up with the pace of change we need to maintain.

Maybe I'm just hardcore, but when I look at something like the Medill Graduate Curriculum (just to pick on someone at random), the interactive track looks lightweight to me. There's a lot of emphasis on industry inside baseball ("How 21st Century Media Works" or "Building Networked Audiences"), and not nearly enough on getting your hands dirty. "Digital Frameworks for Reporting" is only taught in DC? (Are government websites not available in Chicago?) "Database Reporting" is an optional elective? Not a single class taken from the graduate or undergraduate computer science curriculum, like "Fundamentals of Computer Programming I?" It looks to me like a program where you could emerge as a valuable data journalist, but it's just as likely that you'd be another Innovation Editor. And trust me, the world does not need any more of those.

I sympathize with the people who have to design these programs, I really do. The web is a big topic to cover. And worse, it's hard to teach people how to think critically--to understand about how they think, instead of just telling them what to think--but good programming has a lot in common with that level of metacognition. For the kind of data journalism we're trying to do at CQ, you've got to at least be able to think a little like a programmer, a little like a journalist, and a little like something new. If you think you can do that, we'd love to hear from you.

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