Groundbreaking journalism scholarship seeks two more software developers
Knight scholarship winners have had outsized impact in journalism, media and technology
Eleven years ago, when a journalism foundation and a journalism school announced free-tuition scholarships for software developers to earn a journalism degree, it was such a strange idea that people in the tech community joked about it. “Add spellcheck, subtract Skittles,” said the headline on the BoingBoing tech/culture blog.
It’s not a joke any more — in a world where The Washington Post is becoming a tech company, where ProPublica’s data-driven journalism has won four Pulitzer prizes, and where (as of the day I’m writing this), The New York Times has 35 open technology jobs.
This also is no joke: After turning out more than a dozen “programmer-journalists” — many of whom have had enormous impact in the field — the Knight Scholarships program is about to wrap up at the Medill School at Northwestern University.
There’s enough money left for just two more skilled developers — people with computer science degrees and/or software experience — to spend a year earning a journalism master’s degree at Medill, tuition-free. Candidates who want to start their Medill coursework in June or September 2019 will be the last applicants eligible for the scholarship awards.
The Knight scholarships were funded by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation as part of the first Knight News Challenge in 2006. When the history of interactive journalism is written — well, actually, it has been written, and the author of Interactive Journalism: Hackers, Data and Code says the scholarship program was a significant development.
The scholarships “popularized the idea that a journalist could learn to code and a programmer could learn journalism within an educational setting, underscoring just how distinct this subfield was from other forms of journalism,” Nikki Usher wrote in her 2016 book.
The Knight scholarship winners “have gone on to have an outsized role in interactive journalism,” Usher wrote. Capsule biographies of a few of 15 scholarship awardees:
- Brian Boyer: One of the first two scholarship winners, he went on to launch and lead the news application team at The Chicago Tribune and oversee the visuals team at NPR. He is currently VP of product and people for Spirited Media, which runs local news sites in Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and Denver.
- Kavya Sukumar: A former Microsoft software engineer, she was data and interactives editor for The Palm Beach Post and then won a Knight-Mozilla fellowship, which enabled her to spend a year working at Vox Media. She is currently a senior editorial engineer for Vox.com.
- Nick Allen: In his last term at Medill, he was part of a student team that developed StatsMonkey, software that generated baseball game stories from box score data. Ultimately, he would become a co-founder of Narrative Science, a Chicago-based company that specializes in turning data into explanatory text.
- Shane Shifflett: After leaving Medill, he developed news applications for the Bay Citizen hyperlocal news site in San Francisco, then became a data engineer, reporter and editor for the Center for Investigative Reporting and the Huffington Post. He is now a data reporter for The Wall Street Journal.
- Ryan Mark: Also one of the first two scholarship winners, Mark worked with Boyer at the Tribune, where he ultimately became director of digital product strategy and development. He joined Vox in 2014 as editorial engineering director and now serves as data editor for Vox.com.
Knight Scholarship winners take the same courses and have the same curriculum options as other MSJ students, including the choice of which specialization to apply to. (The last three scholarship winners have chosen Sports Media; Social Justice & Investigative Reporting; and Media Innovation & Entrepreneurship.)
What scholarship winners have told me they’ve gotten from the experience of earning a journalism master’s degree: A deeper respect for reporting, an appreciation of what makes a good story, an immersion in the culture and vocabulary of journalism, and an understanding of the people they’ll be collaborating with in the world of journalism and media. They also say they’ve learned to be better writers.
Sukumar, in a 2015 post entitled “Developers, proceed to the newsroom,” said this was what she discovered about working in journalism:
For starters, you work with a lot of different people. Not just engineers. You get to work on big impactful projects with truly inspiring people.
A big change for me was the length of the projects. Most projects are short. You learn new technology faster because every project is different and new projects come by very often. You get to make more opensource contributions and secretly revel in the growing star count on your GitHub repo.
And the best of all, the journalism tech community is very welcoming and awesome.
Boyer, besides his own work in journalism technology, has been a vocal advocate for “hacker journalism” — a term he may have invented in a blog post he wrote while at Northwestern — and probably has done more than anyone to get software engineers interested in journalism. He’s been the subject of journalism magazine profiles, presented at conferences, shared his lessons learned and preached the gospel of journalism to his fellow developers:
“The news is waiting to be saved. We have the technology, all we need is more nerds. So ditch your boring corporate gigs and come to journalism! Democracy is one hell of a fun problem to hack.” — Hackers wanted! Scholarships available to coders who’ll come to journalism and help save democracy, O’Reilly Radar, 2009.
In 2016, at a conference of journalism educators, Boyer described his transition into journalism, starting with the introduction, “I’m Brian, and I used to be an unhappy programmer.” He was writing software for bankers and lawyers, but was looking for an exit, perhaps graduate school in law or public policy.
“I loved the craft of making software. But the work, at the end of the day, was just soul-sucking s — t. My job was making rich people richer every day,” he recalled. “I wanted to use my skills to make the world a better place.”
After seeing the BoingBoing post, Boyer searched Google for ‘journalism’ — “that’s a true story,” he said to laughter from his audience.
“I read about its mission, I read The Journalist’s Creed,” he said. “It struck a nerve with me, and I realized that law and policy were sort of top-down solutions, and the idea that journalism was something from the bottom up, that it was about informing people so they could better self-govern, really got me going.”
“So I dropped everything and went back to school.”
Are there two more Brian Boyers out there?
To be eligible for the Knight Scholarship, candidates must apply to, and be admitted to the Medill School’s MSJ program. Application deadlines: Dec. 3, 2018 for students starting in June 2019; Jan. 3, 2019 for those starting in September 2019. Information about the scholarship program is here. For questions, contact Rich Gordon.