Fisk hall, one of the journalism buildings at northwestern / WIKIMEDIA.ORG

Re-thinking J-school

When I tell people I’m studying both computer science and journalism, a frequent reaction I get is amazement that such a joint program exists.

Well, it doesn't.

In fact, the degree requirements for my two majors couldn't be further apart. The respective buildings are even located at the polar opposite ends of campus.

So I've been walking alone. Quite literally.

At the risk of sounding like I have a huge chip on my shoulder, let me say that there's a pretty awesome niche of hyphenated types (programmer-journalist, designer-developer, you know) who have been invaluable and a big reason of why I'm in even in this field.

But I've also experienced ample frustration in my choice of double majors.

And the frustrations aren't with the lack of explicit courses that teach technical skills for doing journalism in the age of the interwebs (think data visualization, news application architecture, scraping, design principles and their implications for technical decisions). I've found my foundation for that elsewhere, and cherry picked a few classes to supplement accordingly.


My frustrations are with the rigidity of my actual degree requirements – the credits I have to take in order to graduate. The credits for which I've wasted hours of email back and forth, running around getting signatures, and filling out petition forms in order to get them to line up with my little degree chart so I can check off the appropriate boxes and graduate on time.

My frustrations are with the lack of an applicable concentration that reflects the state of the news industry in 2013.

How is it okay that journalism students are able to graduate without ever taking a real statistics or mathematics class, given the crazy demand for data journalists? Or without ever taking a programming class?

The field of journalism has always been interdisciplinary, though traditionally this has been with the non-technical disciplines – the humanities, economics, political science.

But times have changed, and the fields of mathematics, statistics and computer science are ever more important to the emerging fields of data journalism, information graphics, and news applications. That's where the jobs are. That's where the industry is heading (arguably, it’s already there). That's the new quality and standard to which we need to hold journalism.

We're never going to fill these jobs or really make impact in this space and push forward if we don't properly teach and prepare the young’uns coming up. Myself included.

So it's time we took a long hard look at the way we're teaching journalism – are we really being prepared in the best way possible for the journalism industry?

I don't think we are.

News organizations are not hiring as many editors or reporters. In fact, some places are doing the opposite of hiring them.

Having technical skills makes you marketable, but I'm not in it for the money or the jobs. I'm in it because I truly believe knowing how to express myself in code makes me better equipped to tell stories in new and exciting ways. It makes me better positioned to imagine novel approaches to the way people produce and consume information.

But let's go back to school.

Because I can honestly count on one hand (okay, a finger) the number of journalism professors who get it. Who have taught me valuable skills I've applied in my internships on news applications teams, who teach from an approach of storytelling on the web, who have exposed me to the overlap of journalism and fields of statistics, computer science and other technical disciplines.

One professor.

I've learned a lot from my peers. From extracurriculars. From internships. From my own side projects.

But a lot of people I talk to have this false conception of how integrated my journalism program is with the technical side of things and that's simply not the case. There are a few exceptions, to be sure, but on the whole, my journalism program does not foster a true, technically integrated education. In fact, it's pretty much near impossible to double major in our engineering school and journalism school if you don't want to shell out another year's worth of tuition. And for those who do, it's nothing short of killing yourself and taking 5, 6 credits a quarter to be able to get it done and graduate on time.

Why is this the case? Why is there not more room in the curriculum for computer science or statistics specialities? Maybe allowing students to choose between either a humanities or social science concentration or an engineering one?

While I agree the classes within the journalism school also need to catch up to this Internet age, I think the bigger issue is leveraging the existing resources (outside of the j-school) at universities to supplement journalism curriculums.

Let’s re-architect the distribution requirements so we can get rid of this notion that journalism and engineering (and the sciences) are at odds with each other. Because journalism needs to move forward.

And you know, we’re already doing it.

“Information design” is just a fancy, non-scary word for statistics.