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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  • If only this was available in Canada….

  • Thanks, Brian! For some reason, the optimistic, can-do tone of your post just made me happy… I think you and those you are able to recruit to Medill will make a marvelous impact, not just on journalism, but on the web as a larger social/political force for good.

    I’ll be watching your work with interest…


  • Problem is… news organizations are too cheap with their pay. Good coders can have better salaries and more job security elsewhere.

  • What’s covered, for the aforementioned ‘expenses’? I have a mortgage, among other things.

  • This is such an excellent opportunity, I would jump at in a heartbeat, if not for the aforementioned salary differential and mouths to feed. I saw this last year and am surprised more people aren’t jumping at the chance.

  • Regarding expenses:

    As the Medill professor who won the grant that is funding these scholarships, I’ll try to explain the financial issues.

    1) We cover your tuition in full. That’s currently about $45,000 for a one-year program.

    2) Beyond that, there is some variance depending on the applicant’s financial aid status. But in essence we seek to provide aid equivalent to what the university pays Ph.D. students. It’s not going to make you wealthy, but it should cover rent and basic living expenses.

    We certainly are aware that this doesn’t compare favorably to what you could earn in the industry. But consider doing it anyway — the society needs to have people with your skills apply them to big important problems!


  • I want to try it . it seems a high requirements. I also know some friend are good hackers. will forward this to them.

  • Rex

    Technology and technologists are not going to solve the newspapers’ problems.

    As somebody famous said: A fish rots from the head.

    Business decisions made in the 1970s through the 1990s have positioned the newspapers with so much debt that they cannot, as currently constituted corporations, survive at all. The debt must be written down or off to put them into a position where they can survive at all.

    Second, the entrenched management structure that has driven the industry into bankrupcy will likely continue to make the same bad decisions based on the same old business models and assumptions about readership habits that have brought the industry to its current state. They simply have to go. Period.

    The right thing to do? The writers, editors, IT (web) personnel should abandon the existing company and set up shop for themselves and figure it out, sans the debt of the old business, sans the stodgy thinking of the old newspaper thinking.

  • If I weren’t in the wrong country, and insanely busy with my own startup, I would so be applying to this. We’re approaching the same area in a different way, though, as you can see in the Guardian. It’s tremendously exciting to be involved with.

    I can’t speak for my colleagues, but I’ve always been a frustrated journalist, though more broadcast (student radio!) than written. Database journalism’s really inspirational.

  • Jimmy Dean

    Wow, sounds like a pretty good opportunity!


  • Travis

    Wow! I really hope this is still around in two years when I’ve finished my CS degree! This seems like the sort of thing I would be willing to dedicate my life to!

  • By the way, for those who are wondering what kind of good-paying jobs might exist in this field, read this post by Brian Boyer about his new gig at the Chicago Tribune:


  • @Rex: These scholarships aren’t about solving the newspaper industry’s problems. They are about producing a cadre of people who are bilingual in journalism and coding. What the “hacker journalists” do with their new bilingual capabilities is up to them. Some may contribute to preserving the news organizations that were most successful in the mass media era. But I sure won’t be surprised if some of them “set up shop” and create entirely new enterprises. The society can only benefit from the competition, I think.

    Whatever happens, these scholarships represent a bet by the Knight Foundation and the Medill School that people who have an in-depth, hands-on understanding of both journalism and software development are desperately needed to help us reinvent journalism and its functions in a democratic society.

    Anyone want to argue with that?

  • Nir

    This program seems brilliant, but by requiring an undergrad degree I think it’s seriously limiting the potential hacker audience.

    Many good developers never went to college, or left before graduating to work on their own projects. “Hackers” even more so – almost by definition hacking is self taught, pragmatic rather than academic.

    By choosing applicants with a college degree over those spent the same four years developing software, aren’t you leaving out the people who really *would* approach journalism in a new way?

  • josh

    This sounds awesome! Is it really just a 1 year program? Why won’t the newspapers hire regular programmers? What critical things would I learn in journalism school?

  • personne

    Because of my interests and dedication, I have a record of programming achievement and participation in diverse projects that would make many computer science and engineering graduates jealous (those that actually cared about careful innovation). I am currently taking a Master’s level program at another university. I applied to this program last year and was not accepted, because I do not have an undergraduate degree. If I had a degree in English Literature or Botany, I would probably have been accepted. I guess their definition of ‘hacker’ is different than most others.

  • John

    I heard our local paper was redesigning their site and wanted a programmer. I was going to apply until I saw the description also required the programmer to perform other tasks, including sales and the pay was horrible. Glad I passed on it because the site software they used is pitiful. If newspapers die its Darwinism. If they can’t evolve, let them go. So many of them don’t understand that the market for selling yesterdays news is rapidly diminishing.

  • This sounds great but as Nir mentioned it’s best if this scholarship was offered to undergraduate students (perhaps juniors/seniors).

    checkout this news/journalism mashup developed by a young software engineer with interest in journalism. http://www.tsmaps.com

  • The internet has enabled millions of people to be journalists. Programmers were the earliest adopters because they had the technichal knowhow to pull it off. Today with social media and blogging anyone can be broadcast their own thoughts and opinions.

    Now voicing opinions is hardly journalism, which in theory is unbiased. This of course is impossible to achieve but some people really do strive for fact over opinions reporting.

    I am 21 year old who feels unsure of what I want to do. I really should apply to this! Since I am a web developer I have started a website (http://www.twuoted.com) that shows all the great quotes from twitter. You can also follow it on twitter @Twuoted for fresh quotes all day.

  • Wow that’s a great offer, I’d have applied if it was available here in Japan.

  • @josh (and others curious about the nature of a master’s degree in journalism):

    Yes, this really is just a one-year program. Like most “professional master’s programs,” our program is focused on providing hands-on experience as a journalist — identifying stories, researching them through background research and interviews, and then telling stories in compelling ways using different tools (text, photos, audio, video).

    Scholarship winners take the same courses as all of our students. The idea is, essentially, walk a mile in the journalist’s shoes. Then, in the student’s final academic quarter, there is a team-based innovation project — Brian Boyer’s team developed News Mixer, referred to above. (And check out feedback about News Mixer at http://www.pbs.org/idealab/2009/01/news-mixer-generates-widespread-interest005.html )

    As for why we require a bachelor’s degree, probably the best answer is that we need to be confident that the student can succeed in a rigorous, demanding academic curriculum, and undergraduate record is a good leading indicator. It may not be fair, but we also aren’t in a position at this point to relax our admissions standards for these scholarships. Perhaps someday, for the right student …

    As for the idea of offering this to undergrads … one very real option would be for someone to do this immediately after earning his/her bachelor’s … in which case it would essentially be part of a five-year curriculum, four years of computer science, one year of journalism.


  • Brett

    Does it require GMAT or GRE?

  • Anonymous

    i would love to be a journalist but i am not a hacker…does this mean i need to go to computer school first before i can become a great journalist? I am confused as to what is happening now with journalism? I know how to type so why do journalist suddenly need to have programming skills?

  • Jack Scarborough

    I’m a hacker, but I’ve never been to school for it. (College is too expensive no matter what the major is). How does this program decide who is and isn’t a “hacker”?

    Furthermore, who the hell wants to work for the completely-biased mainstream media, that expects its journalists to hold certain political views that serve the very powerful, or else they don’t get promoted, or even get fired? Who wants to participate in the conspiracy of always keeping silent on the fact that it’s the corporations, not the government, that have all the real power?

  • michael schrage

    umm, great offer if you think there’s real value in a journalism degree…

    …pssssst: there isn’t…..

    …the products of j-schools such as medill and columbia (not missouri so much) are the ones who are in no small part responsible for the crapulous and non-credible coverage of politics, economics and – yes – pop culture…

    …i write this as an ex-washpost reporter, la times & fortune columnist…

    …trust me: run away, run away…and if you REALLY want to ‘save journalism’ be more demanding of journalists and be an active commenter and ‘fact checker’ for what you read and view…and if that inpsries you to write your own stories and craft your own journ0-genre of links, good for you! (and us)

  • personne

    I’d still be interested in the programme, because I like to be involved in change, and journalism is still a relevant part of our lives. If I had a degree in English Literature (Not that there’s anything wrong with that) from 1989, that I barely managed to complete with an extra year of studies, and had a reasonable career of hacking I would have qualified for the program (from my correspondence – “We don’t require a specific area of study, but we do require a degree as a prerequisite for graduate level study”). But with my long career of effective hacking (including international recognition) and no undergraduate degree I don’t qualify. Weird.

    I think calling this a program for “hackers” or “coders” is deceitful, and it is part of a hegemonic institutional perspective that is glaringly separate from trends such as citizen journalism.

    By the way, it’s too bad because the majority of recent CS programmes are going to be preaching “Web 2.0” (does that sound dated to anyone else? I consider the whole era dallying while inclusive semantic technologies are worked out). I can tell you from experience, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to do a mashup, combining real representation with effective technology is the more difficult job.

    (God, I love proselytizing, it’s probably for the best I didn’t get into this programme).

  • SeeClearly

    The journalists [gov’t stenographers] say, “Oh, we want to have a lively discussion about political choices and their effects on the teeming masses.”

    Where’s the dissent? If you try to speak out and talk about the exorbitant pressure local, state and fed. gov’t are placing upon taxpayers (people who work) then the journalists [gov’t stenographers] say, “oooh, that’s mean-spirited.”

    So what is journal-ism?

    [Journal] = A record of a person’s ideas, experiences or reflections
    [Ism] = related to a distinctive doctrine or cause.

    What is politics?
    A bunch of people who *think* they know the answer, talking.

    What is journalism.
    A bunch of people who *think* they know the answer, writing.

    Another definition for politics comes from the latin:
    [poli] meaning many and [tics] meaning blood-sucking parasites. :-)

  • What a brilliant idea! The journalism industry badly need more innovative thinking like this.

    As to Brian, congratulations and thank you for writing about this. I can empathize with your description of the “introverted, google-first, face-to-face-as-a-last-resort programmer nature”. It must be a tremendeous personal growth for a geek to practice journalism.

    Going back to the topic about mortgage, I begin to get bitter and see it as a shackle. Not only is going to back school out of question, it also hampers me from looking for more risky but innovative startup opportunities.

  • SCT

    Can you be a bit more specific about what you mean in this article? Why would you need computer programmers or hackers in journalism?

  • syam

    i get more information regard this links plz send hacking tricks ,tutorials
    thanks for this information

  • Congrats for this nice post!

    I do agree with you: today, Journalism is about providing added value to information.

    The following example illustrates that very well:
    EMM parses news from hundreds of sources, organises them in ‘stories’ and makes them searchable according various criteria. Nice technical solution to perform what any good journalist should do: “cross-check information!” http://press.jrc.it/NewsExplorer/home/en/latest.html