Hackers wanted! Scholarships available to coders who'll come to journalism and help save democracy

Guest blogger Brian Boyer is a hacker journalist who writes about the intersection of technology and journalism. He’s worked at public-interest journalism site ProPublica and is now at the Chicago Tribune, building their new News Applications team.

It’s not news that journalism is in crisis. CNN turned newspapers into first-day fishwrap and Craigslist killed the business model. Solutions are scarce, and our democracy is at risk. I don’t have a chart to guide our way through the darkness to Citizenry 2.0, but there are some who can navigate the singularity.

Journalism needs great hackers. Not just nerds, but programmers who care — about the values of journalism and the power of a free press to hold government accountable. Luckily, hackers are a freedom-minded bunch. The free software movement is rooted in many of the same principals that guide journalism. But news organizations aren’t very sexy places to work — especially now, as layoffs, bankruptcy and closures plague the industry. So how can we bring nerds to the news? One old-skool school is trying.

Free beer school!

Tell your programmer friends: The Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University is giving away full scholarships, plus expenses, to software developers.They can get a masters degree in journalism, gratis, from one of the most prestigious J-schools around.

I recently graduated from the year-long program, during which I studied with with one other hacker and ~45 brilliant ‘normal’ journalism students. I interviewed lawmakers, farmers and shopkeepers and wrote stories about agriculture, waterways, and the diabetes epidemic in Illinois. It was difficult to shake my introverted, google-first, face-to-face-as-a-last-resort programmer nature. But it was also thrilling.

Journalism is an info-geek’s dream. You’re constantly learning new topics, speaking with experts, and distilling real-world issues to their essence — all in the mission of informing the folks who don’t have time to soak up all that data. It’s like being paid to write a new Wikipedia article every day.

We also wrote some software. My programmer colleague and I banged out enviroVOTE in a frenetic weekend of coding and coffee in the days preceding the election. The night of, we were tied to our keyboards, tallying results and tweeting updates while the rest of the world was watching TV. Such is the life of a journalist.

For our final project at Medill, the two coders and four non-coder new-media students built NewsMixer, an experiment in integrating social networks with news coverage. It was one of the first applications to roll out on Facebook Connect, and remains one of the only apps that explores its full potential. All the code is GPL’ed and has already spawned other open-source projects.

This is the time to remake journalism

Programmers have been making an impact in the news world for some time, but until recently most innovation in this space has been in creating new ways to present the old style. With a few shining exceptions like the datavisuals by the New York Times, most online news could have been written on a typewriter and mailed to Google for indexing.

Then, something amazing happened: Software won a Pulitzer Prize. Created by hacker journalist Matt Waite and other fantastically clever folks at the St. Petersburgh Times, PolitiFact is form of news that could only exist online. Aron Pilhofer, leader of the innovations team at the NYT, put it perfectly:

But is it journalism, some people asked? There’s no lead per se, no narrative and no pyramids anywhere to be found, much less the inverted sort.

Journalism is about helping people make sense of important issues, and how those issues affect them personally. It’s about uncovering that which someone wants to keep hidden. It’s about holding people we place in high public office accountable. And by those definitions… PolitiFact more than meets the test. It takes a traditional form of newspaper reporting — fact-checking what politicians say — and scales it up in a way only possible on the web.

The NYT’s Represent and its open-source cousin, Repsheet, are innovations much in the same vein, and their existence is a sign of the times. The tools now available to hackers are so great that we can think far beyond content management systems. The moment has come when a couple of great hackers can knock out a fully-fledged new form of media in a matter of weeks. Tell the Twitterati: there are lights in the distance.

Hackers wanted

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.

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