Knight Foundation Scholarship: Bringing Developers to the Newsroom

By Timothy M. O'Brien
December 8, 2008

Scholarship Information

For information about the Knight Foundation Scholarship at Northwestern University's Medill School, see the Knight Foundation Scholarships page on the Medill School's web site.


Interview Transcript

Rich Gordon: My name is Rich Gordon. I am an associate professor at the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University.

Tim O'Brien: Okay. And I stumbled upon your ad while using Twitterific, and it was an ad for programmers and developers who had an interest in journalism. Could you talk to me about that program?


RG: Absolutely. We made a grant application, which was successful, to the Knight Foundation through its Knight News Challenge program two years ago. And that proposal was that we would offer full scholarships using the foundation's money to our master's program in journalism to people with backgrounds, experience, academic degrees in computer science, programming, web development.

And the idea was to bring people with those skills who historically had not been journalists, certainly, and journalists historically have not had those skills, into our journalism school, immerse them in the practice and culture of journalism, involve them in some kind of innovative project where we take advantage of their programming skills and their journalism knowledge, and then turn them out into the world, hopefully to do some things relevant to the future of journalism, that might not otherwise be done.


TO: Could you talk to me about some of the projects that these students have already been working on?

RG: So let me talk to you first about the basic idea. The basic idea is we have a one-year master's program - 4 academic quarters. The first three of their academic quarters, they're really not doing anything fundamentally different than our other master's students. And our one-year master's degree, like most professional master's degree, is heavily oriented in practice of journalism. Very practical.

This is how you do it, starting with very basic writing, covering typical kinds of news stories, moving into our downtown newsroom, where they cover a beat, produce stories in multiple media formats. They have some options in terms of elective courses as well.

And then in the fourth quarter, most of our students do some kind of a capstone class. Our students who are focused on new media, who were interactive, which would include these students, take a class that right now we call the New Media Publishing Project, more generally we call it one of our innovation projects.

And the idea was, we've had these classes for nine years now. And we've done a whole bunch of different kinds of things in these classes, but what we've never been able to do before is actually program a new site or service, a digital product of some kind. We've worked with off-the-shelf software, we have mocked-up functional Web sites, but because our students are not programmers, we've never had the capacity to develop one that works.

So the idea in this class is for a team of students, including these journalism programmer types, to develop something interesting, novel, relevant to the future of media and journalism. The first two of those students are in their final quarter now, their fourth of four quarters, and they are on a - in this class, with four more traditional journalism students from more traditional journalism backgrounds, all of them majoring in our interactive storytelling sequence.

And I've kind of given them a challenge, and the challenge is better conversations around news. The idea being that online, news is not just a one-way delivery channel, that one of the things that makes online powerful as a way of consuming news is the capacity both to comment or react online, and for other people to come along and see what other people have said or reacted to.

That said, most news sites have that capability now, but probably no one is really incredibly happy with how that plays out. Problems that I think we all know are first off that 90% or more of the people who come along don't comment. They're either intimidated or otherwise not interested in providing their perspective.

Another problem is that often the comments can get, at best, off topic, and sometimes ugly, racist, people yelling at each other, essentially, online. And sort of one of the propositions we're addressing in this course is that maybe there are some, at least, more interesting ways to encourage user interaction around news and maybe foster a better kind of conversation.

So what we're doing, what the team is doing, is looking at different options, designing some different approaches, and the two programmer journalists, or hacker journalists as they call themselves, their task is to be the development team for the project.

The other four, they're doing everything from research to design, all those students are participating in, for instance, deciding what features the site will have. They're deciding who they are thinking the site would be for, who's the target group of people we're going after.

We're actually working with a company in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, that owns the newspaper and one of the television affiliates there. And using that physical place as kind of a laboratory and a place for us to recruit users who might test the things that we're building. And the end result at the end of the term should have a number of outcomes.

One is some kind of functional site or service that displays some of the students' ideas and that real people can interact with, at least in a testing kind of environment. The second is a final report and presentation that provide recommendations to other media companies, to journalists, to news organizations to actually journalism education about what might you be thinking about doing differently based on the students' research and the product that they're building out of this.

So I mean, in some ways, it's a start-up software development project. This could have been done by a small group of people, a company, a couple of students, whatever. We're doing it in the journalism program, and trying to innovate in an area that is relevant to the future of journalism and media in general.

Future of Journalism

TO: So let's talk a little bit about the future of journalism, that there have been a number of layouts, I think. The Los Angeles Times just had some layouts.

RG: They did.

TO: And in general, it seems we just had the Christian Science Monitor going to a web-only strategy. What is the future of journalism in terms of technology?

RG: I think you have to separate the future of journalism from the future of the companies that have been producing journalism for the past few decades or centuries. I think there are a whole bunch of business and technology reasons that pretty much guarantee that the traditional media, the traditional journalism sources, whether those are newspapers or television networks or local television statements, they're going to shrink.

They're going to shrink for a number of years ahead of us, I suspect, because the advertising dollars are shrinking in general. They are being redeployed to more targeted media. In general, advertisers, there are now fewer and fewer advertisers who want to buy a mass audience, and they want to buy niche audiences that are most likely to be interested in their products.

And they, of course, now have tools, thanks to new technologies, enabling them to interact directly with people who are their current customers without even needing to go through an intermediary like a newspaper or a television station.

So for a whole bunch of reasons, I think the mass media, which were the dominant form of communications, and the largest single component of the media business from a financial standpoint, it's in decline. And it's been in decline, actually, probably for several decades, probably since before the Internet came along.

But that decline is certainly being accelerated by new technologies and new platforms. So if you're a media company, right now, what you're doing is you're doing everything you can to control your costs because your revenues are probably not growing and may in fact be shrinking.

You are trying to manage the decline in that business as gracefully and as slowly as you can. And you're trying to develop new products, new audiences, new businesses on digital channels. And actually in some cases, some new kinds of print products as well or new kinds of broadcast products.

Cable now is a broadcast distribution channel that didn't exist 20 years ago in a serious way. So all of the mass media are moving to replace some of the dollars being lost in the mass media category are looking to niche products online and off that can build their revenue, build their business.

And journalism has never by itself, for the most part, been a business. The product that journalism appears in is a business. So there was a really good business in local newspaper publishing for many decades that basically was a business of selling audiences to advertisers and the journalism was the - the journalism, as well as a bunch of other things, like comics and advice columns and the bridge column and a whole bunch of other things that were in the newspaper - and the sports pages - were there to attract an audience.

And then the business was selling that audience to advertisers. Well, as advertising is shrinking in the traditional channels, some of it's moving online. So that business model exists and probably will continue to exist online. There probably are and will be some new business models that support online content of all kinds, including journalism.

I've talked a lot about business models and where the money is because I think that's in fact the trigger for all of the things we're seeing in the decline of traditional journalism. I don't believe the demand for journalism is going away. Certainly don't think the need for journalism is going away. And the decline in the business is what's causing newspapers to go Web only, in the case of the Christian Science Monitor, eliminate reporting positions, shrink the number of pages in the paper, redesign the paper to be on narrower newsprint, etcetera.

The audience for newspapers actually hasn't declined all that much. And if you include the audience that's now getting news - even local news - online and add it to the audience that gets it in print, it's probably greater now than it's ever been. There's probably more news consumption overall than there's ever been, if you include news consumption across all channels.

So there's plenty of demand for journalism, and great exciting opportunities to use these new technologies to do journalism in different, better, more engaging, more interesting ways to do things online that literally are not possible in traditional media because of the capabilities that online media have.

And so there's a business model problem that's still with us and will probably also be with us for some time to come. But the need for journalism's not going away, and the opportunities for journalism, I think, are more exciting than ever. And when I talk to high school students or to new freshmen or to new graduate students, what I tell them is this is the most exciting time to be a journalist since at least the birth of television.

And if you go back to that period of time, one of the things that you discover is, well, there were a lot of people at the early days of television who - journalists, who looked at this new medium and said, "Hmm. This is interesting." Or "Hmm. I'm not interested in this."

The group that started in television in the 40s and 50s, invented television news as we know it today. And I think that's essentially what the opportunity is now for journalism students and journalists is to invent the new forms of journalism that are appropriate for that platform.

What is a Journalist?

TO: You should have seen - related to journalism, at the Obama rally, it was insane to see how many people were taking pictures.

RG: The camera phones. Video. Yep. Absolutely.

TO: It's like everybody there.

RG: So yeah. I mean, and that's one of the things that the new technologies offer in general is that now at least when it comes to breaking news, something that's happening live, anybody can be a journalist at least in terms of capturing content and distributing. That's one - in fact, I'd probably go so far as to say in general when a breaking news event happens, the most likely person to be there to capture it on video or still pictures is going to be a non-professional.

Most of the videos that you've seen or pictures that you've seen of the destruction of the World Trade Center were not taken by professional photographers. The first planes crashing in, those were taken by people who happened to be on the street with cameras. And that's -

TO: I was there. I lived about ten blocks away. I think I took a picture with a digital camera.

RG: Exactly, exactly.

TO: We're all journalists, that is my next question. There would be people who would say we're all journalists now. We can all put something on YouTube. We can all write a book. And there would be others that say, "Hm. No. Journalism is something completely different."

What can you tell me about this new spectrum? Almost everybody at the Obama Grand Park Rally was taking pictures or capturing some video content. But there were "journalists" and there were "not journalists".

RG: Well, I mean, I think the reality is that the word journalist both historically and in the future, really encompasses many different things. So journalists cover live events and report back what happened, whether they report back by writing a story or taking a picture or shooting a video and going on TV to talk about it, that's one thing that journalists do.

Journalists also do enterprise reporting. They decide there's a story out there, and they go interview people and gather documents, and they basically create news, if you will, or create a story where there was none before. And that's reporting. And it's a different kind of reporting than going to an event and capturing on film or in text what Barack Obama said at the rally in Grand Park.

TO: So the only reason we know about, say, something like the Watergate scandal is because someone actually created that story?

RG: Or dug it up, or decided that it was important to learn something about. And that it was something that people needed to know about, and they went out and found it and documented it and produced it. And I think a lot of times, I've had some interesting discussions with technology people in the context of this scholarship program, and I talked to the guy who led the team at Google to develop Google news.

And I talked to the guy who runs Digg, the chief scientists for Digg. And basically, they both say journalism is really important but it's not what we do. Well, it's not what reporters do. But there are a couple of other definitions of journalism. One other thing that journalists do, at least as a group, is they aggregate and filter.

So the act of putting together the front page of a newspaper or a Web site for that matter or a newscast, is an act of news judgment and deciding, well, which of all the things that our readers or viewers might need to know about are they going to hear about? And in what order?

Well, that's an editing decision. And an aggregation, a set of aggregation decisions. Well, journalists historically have made those. Well now, increasingly those decisions are made by software algorithms. And then there's another function of journalism, which is creating a product that's sort of the publisher, the company that owns the Chicago Tribune or the group of people who run C-Net, you know, take two examples. Well, they have a vision for what that product is. They have a vision for who their audience is.

They have a vision for how they can make money, typically advertising. But not necessarily - some combination of advertising and consumer payments. And they build a business around a media product. That product may have news in it or journalism in it. It may have some other things in it as well, just as newspapers always have.

But generally, the first journalists, the first people to whom that term was applied, were not reporters. They were publishers. They were people who, a job as a journalist, Ben Franklin, in Colonial days, was a publisher of a newspaper. And he might well have described himself as a journalist, even though he was not out reporting, and his publication consisted mostly of opinion. And that, by the way, is one other definition of journalism, long-standing. Sometimes we get into this debate over whether bloggers are journalists and somebody wants to argue that bloggers aren't journalists because they're just expressing their opinion. Well, there's a long history - as long as there has been journalism, there has been opinion journalism.

In fact, a blogger who expresses his opinion has every bit as much right, I believe, to claim to be a journalist as a journalist who expresses their opinion. There may be some differences in how they do original reporting, how well reasoned is their position? is their reason based on fact? or is it on stereotypes and preconceptions? But at the end of the day, to say that you can't be a journalist if you express opinion is clearly not consistent with what we have historically thought journalists did.

TO: So what is the accepted thing? Is it something like - not the Federalist papers, but something like Thomas Paine's Common Sense, is he considered to be a journalist?

RG: You know, you'd get an interesting debate over that. What I can tell you is that I feel very confident in saying that if Tom Paine were around in 2008, he'd be a blogger. And that many of the people we now think of as bloggers, if they were around in 1775, they would have been putting out pamphlets.

And so I think it's worth pointing out that when the founding fathers wrote the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, the first amendment that we think of as protecting freedom of the press and journalism as we understand journalism, was written at a time when the idea of objective journalism didn't even exist.

The world that the founding fathers lived in was Tom Paine's world, and it was a period of a cacophony of voices, most of them strident, opinion-based, harsh criticism of politicians for their failings or perceived failings, lots of inaccurate information being thrown around, and that was the world that the founding fathers looked at and said, "We need to protect that."

So again, the people who grew up in the late 20th century may think of journalism as objective reporting mass media. But that's not the roots of American journalism.

Collective Intelligence as Journalism?

TO: You mentioned Digg. There are sites like Digg. There are sites like Reddit, that might be more of a technology niche site. I'm not sure. 20, 30 years ago, you could have said that one of the most powerful people in the world would be the editor-in-chief of the Washington Post or the Chicago Tribune or the New York Times.

But more and more, people aren't being forced to read that story about starvation in Africa or war and famine. Is there a danger that as we move to collaborative filtering, people will just filter out all the bad stuff they don't want to think about?

RG: Well, first off, people have never been forced to read anything or view any stories.

TO: I mean - if it's on the front page, they at least had to choose to ignore it. How's that?

RG: Well, if they picked up the paper. If the paper was delivered to them. If they made time; if they thought, it was a sufficiently important part of their day to make an appointment with the front page and scan it. And there have always been people that did not feel that way and did not make that time. So the mass media era in some ways was a better world because - a better world probably in a lot of ways for working journalists because the business model was clear.

These television stations and networks and newspapers were very, very profitable. And you had a guarantee of an audience, at least a large group of people, who, in the case of newspapers, agreed to have it delivered to their doorstep every day. Or in the case of television, made it part of their routine to sit down and watch the 6:00 news.

And yes. Because of those habits, because of the process of subscribing to the newspaper, there were stories that people came across without seeking them out. And yeah, in the digital world, it's much easier to ignore the things that we're either not interested in, turn us off, that don't conform to our political preconceptions, and yes, it's a big risk, I think, to the society.

But, I think - I have a couple of caveats, I guess. One of them is that period from 1950 something to 1990 something, when maybe 1980 something, when that was the world we lived in, where every community had one newspaper and three network affiliates. And that was the only source - those were the only sources you could get.

Well, that's the anomaly in our history. That's not the norm. It happens to be the one we grew up in. But it's not the norm. The norm is much more like all those pamphleteers in Philadelphia or 1908 Chicago when there were 34 daily newspapers in Chicago, four of them written in Bohemian. A much more fragmented media landscape, a much more fragmented society.

And a couple of things. First off, even in those fragmented societies, there were media businesses, newspapers, in 1908 Chicago or in 1896 New York when there were 29 daily newspapers, that actually managed to become the biggest by having the best content, by having the best marketing, by having the best outreach to multiple segments of their audience.

So it can still be possible to build a large audience and have a news product that has things in it that you didn't go looking for.

The second thing to remember is that I don't think that we can really, truly say that during the mass media era everything was just perfect. There were voices that were unheard. There were stories that were untold. And the flip side of today is it's a lot easier for stories to get told and for voices to be heard in this much more open media landscape.

And so there are pros and cons and the positives and negatives in each era. I choose in part because I think I don't have any choice but to choose, to look at the bright side. And look for the ways that these new technologies can potentially improve our news environment, our civic engagement, our understanding of the world around us.

While certainly also understanding that there are some risks and that as journalists and as people concerned about a democratic society, we should worry. And we should do what we can to keep people from retreating into their echo chambers and closing themselves off from stories they don't want to hear about or perspectives that they disagree with.

There's certainly a risk that that will happen.

TO: Or maybe it already has happened in some sense?

RG: I do think one of the things we constantly have been - I ran the Miami Herald's Web site starting in the mid-90s, late 90s, and so for a long time, I've had a lot of people say to me, "Oh, the Internet changes everything. And how dramatic the changes have even because of the Internet."

Well, the reality is most of the trends that we see today predated the Internet. I mean, there was online before there was the Internet. There were already people getting news online before there was Internet. There were people having conversations about news online before there was the Internet. The fragmentation of the media audience started before the Internet came along.

It started with cable television, and it was not caused by the internet. The tendency to look for content sources that you have more of an affinity to, that predated the Internet. We had niche magazines and niche cable channels and Fox news and all these things. Yes. There's a fragmentation of the media audience, and it started before the Internet.

And that fragmentation creates some enormous potential challenges to a democratic society and to the role of journalism in that society.

TO: So in a downturn, in a recession, it looks like we're going into a recession now. It's pretty clear to me at least on a personal level to hear about people being laid off, programmers. In a recession, applications to grad school usually increase. Have you seen more or less interest?

RG: You know, I don't have any current data to tell you that. I think that, yes, in general, applications to grad school go up when the economy goes down. I would say that all journalism schools that I'm aware of are also at least watching with concern, and in some cases actually seeing declines in interest because frankly all the signals in the outside environment that someone who might be thinking about getting a masters degree in journalism would hear.

They get a lot of negative reinforcement right now. They see jobs being eliminated. They see people saying that newspapers are going to disappear, which they're not, I don't believe, any time soon. They see the declines in the industry. They see people's media behavior switching over to online.

They know that online's not as good a business at this point as traditional media is. So there's plenty of external signals that can affect people's decisions about what they're going to do in a down economy. I do think, I can tell you at an undergraduate level, we have an undergraduate program as well. Applications are up and growing, both to Northwestern in general and to the journalism school in particular.

There are certainly some different dynamics for undergraduates than for master students. Master students tend to be out of school for a few years and tend to be spending or borrowing their own money instead of their parents' money. And so they probably - if there is going to be an impact, on applications and enrollment in journalism master's programs, that's the reason it's going to happen.

It's going to happen because they're making a calculation about whether it's worth spending the money in terms of what they're going to get coming out. And what I see in the landscape is yes, there are fewer jobs for newspaper reporters and local television reporters than there were a year ago, three years ago, five years go.

On the other hand, there are new jobs being created for people with journalism skills and backgrounds. I talked a lot about one of my former students who spent several years as home page editor for the Washington Post. Well, that's a big journalism job. It requires news judgment. It requires writing and headline writing and all kinds of - it's not a reporting job.

But it is an important journalism job, and for the right person, I think they'd be extremely excited by that job, and it didn't exist ten years ago. Now it does. And our students ought to be among those candidates who are going to get those jobs. So we have to look at our curriculum, for instance, and make sure that we're preparing them with the right skills for the right opportunities.

TO: I've worked with a few news organizations, and tech is always viewed as a back room operation. I know you've been working with Adrian Holovaty?

RG: Mm-hmm.

TO: He used to work for The Washington Post.

RG: Yes.

Technology of Journalism

TO: Is it time for newsrooms to let a technical developer into the news discussions?

RG: It is time, I think. I mean, I think when it comes to technology in journalism and media, the two intersect in any number of different ways. One of them now is that most media are now using a delivery platform, the Internet, and mobile, that is at the core technologically driven. You can put text or video or audio on a Web page, and it can be an alternate distribution channel for something that you might have otherwise put on imprint or on air or on the radio.

But what makes these digital interactive channels truly special, different, is that people can interact with them. And generally, when you interact, you're interacting with a piece of software. And so media companies need software developers who can help create engaging media experiences through digital platforms.

And I would say it seems very clear that many traditional media companies have not made the appropriate investment to do that.

TO: It seems like the usual equation of power is a newsroom needs something called a "content management system". And they talk to the IT department and say, "We need a content management system." And there's no real communication channel between the two departments. And there's a content management system that doesn't meet the needs of the newsroom.

RG: Yes.

TO: That needs to be redone with about a two- to three-year frequency.

RG: Yes. And some of that is these traditional media companies have really not made the transition to being "information" companies, platform independent, that understand how to store, aggregate, package content in multiple forms based on different people's needs.

Most newspapers came along, and they said, "Oh, it's another edition of the newspaper." And we can maybe do some other things with that edition. We can publish more frequently. We can put audio-video with the stories. But at the end of the day, it's just another edition of the newspaper.

So they bought a content management system that made it possible to take text and photos and publish them on the Internet as pages. Well, that had to be replaced pretty quickly if you were going to take advantage of the true capabilities of the medium. Some papers have gone back to the core and rethought what they're doing.

And say, "We actually need to go back to the basic question of how do we store our content? And what content do we store? And how do we tag it so it's interrelated? And how do we make it possible to generate new products, whether those are print or broadcast or web... out of content we already control?"

What do we do when we have an opportunity to partner with a Yahoo!, say, and they would like to have a feed of events in this community to publish on Yahoo!. Well, can we even deliver them that feed? Do we even have the technology to do it? Do we have the information structured in a form that can be easily redeployed, can be redistributed to others, can be tagged, can be parsed by software to produce interesting things.

And I think most traditional media companies have not gotten there yet. And it's part of the reason why they're struggling, to create a new Web site ends up being a whole new thing, a whole new project, and often benefits very little from the work that's been done to date on other products.

And that's because they haven't been very smart about how they deploy technology. So absolutely, that's a big challenge. I think then beyond sort of the company level, go to the newsroom, go to the journalism where the journalists are doing things, clearly there are new opportunities to tell stories, deliver information, analyze information, that can make for better journalism.

And most newsrooms are very ill equipped to do these things because they don't have people with programming and development skills at their disposal. They may have an IT department, typically the IT department in the old days, well, their primary responsibility was making sure the payroll got out, making sure that the advertisers were billed properly.

Those were the systems that they supported. Now, most news organizations have built at least some technology infrastructure to support their Web publishing efforts, and there's need for developers and programmers and technicians and other IT people to keep those system up and running, to tweak them and improve them.

But they're not really at the disposal of the newsroom either. So what do yuo do when you've got an opportunity to do something with data, for instance, on your Web site, you're going to need someone who's got those development skills. And at this point, frankly, the general history of how this was done was you started to train your journalists to have some technology skills.

And I think that's a valuable thing to do. I think more journalists should have technology skills, but most of them are not at the core ever are going to be great developers.

TO: They're probably not going to learn how to program Django.

RG: You know, there's some very interesting examples of journalists have learned to program Django. I mean, I don't think it's that they can't. I think -

RG: I think it's that they don't - it's not what they got into the business to do. It's not what they want to do, whereas I think there are lots of developers who really like the discipline and the science and the art of writing code and developing something that works and making it work, and they're not thinking of journalism as an outlet for their talents.

And so part of the premise of the scholarship program was we're going to dangle with free journalism education in front of you and get some people who might never have considered, some developers. Some really talented coders, who like coding and like developing Web applications, for instance, and redirect their interest and energies into the world of journalism.

And I'll give you just one example, this week, the first two guys we have in this program, who have, by the way, done very well in this program. They've gotten very good grades. They've been fully part of the student experience. One of them was recently chosen by our graduate director as one of three of our masters' students to speak to incoming master students because he's so gung-ho.

He's so excited about the future of journalism and what he contributes to it. But we had the election this week. And as a side project, 50 hours, they calculated, of coding, they built a site that basically took the results of the election and displayed them through the prism of how environmentally friendly are the candidates, and as the results came in, overall, has the congress gotten more or less environmentally friendly?

And this is based on basically which candidate in each race was endorsed by the environmental groups. So they - you could actually - you can go on the site right now and see, okay, well, with all the results in, 137 races were won by the environmentally friendly, the more environmentally friendly candidate. And by the way, this means congress will be 14% more environmentally friendly based on the representatives who've won compared to who they're replacing.

Well, this is something you could imagine a news organization wanting to do, even before the Internet, you could imagine the New York Times doing a big story the week after the election that said overall Congress is much more environmentally friendly. And they might have done exactly the same calculations that our students did.

But that's very different than putting up a Web site that allows people to track that in real time on election night, and to be able to click around and see which candidates are more environmentally friendly and which ones won, and see more data. An interactive experience.

And this is something that two guys who are experienced Web developers could whip up in a weekend, essentially, that a newsroom ought to be able to do in today's day and age.

TO: It seems like if something like that were going to be done by a major news outlet, they would spend substantially more than 50 hours on it.

RG: Absolutely. The New York Times is a good example. The New York Times now has a team of eight or nine people who pretty much are doing original technology development for news. And it's everything - they develop APIs. They have developed - one of the applications I was looking at on Election Day was very simple, conceptually, but basically, people could come to the Web site and write in one-word descriptions of how they felt on Election Day.

So, anxious and fearful and excited and optimistic and hopeful. And then basically from all that, assemble essentially a tag cloud of these terms and allowed you to filter them by whether they were from Republicans or Democrats, Obama supporters or McCain supporters.

Pretty simple application, really. Not with a whole lot of - I don't know, journalistic heft to it. But interesting. And certainly, I think engaging. I think people, I can tell it was getting quite a bit of usage just from how slow it was to respond when I went there. And does it educate people? I don't know.

Does it entertain people? I don't know. Is it an interesting idea that's only possible online? I think absolutely. And if you have a team of developers in your newsroom, you can do projects like that with a fairly short turnaround, and at low risk. In fact, to learn, whether this is something that people like and to see whether you want to do it again.

Of course, because of course, if this works, probably the next election, you have to do very little additional coding, and you can redeploy it.

TO: It looks like we're going to have an administration that's committed to transparency and work with organizations like the Summer Foundation to make their data more accessible. Tell me a little more about what you know in terms of news outlets working with data from the government. Is it a good idea to have a newspaper dependant on the government for its data, just for like a stream of XML, possible, potential pros and cons?

RG: Well, my background, before I got into online publishing in the late 90s, my background was in the discipline that journalists called computer-assisted reporting. And computer-assisted reporting goes back to the 60s, long before you could easily get access to government data in a structured form. And the basic premise of computer-assisted reporting was that in data, there is often truth. Or at least knowledge that is not available by interviewing people, for instance, or looking at reports or documents.

And so what we did as computer-assisted reporters or precision journalists, we sometimes would call ourselves. Precision journalists.

RG: The point is that you could do some things with data that you can do with humans. And what we did was we got government data. Sometimes we had to get it on paper and type it into a computer, and sometimes we got it in electronic form, and then we would analyze that data to find storage, to find knowledge and insight into what's going on.

So in my day as a journalist, we looked at property assessments and whether they're fair and whether they're equitable by different values. We looked at the criminal justice system in Miami to see basically from arrest to sentencing, and everything in between, what happens and where is it falling apart?

We looked at drunk driving convictions in Florida County were I worked which was basically designed to - we basically were trying to figure out what happens to drunk driving cases as they work their way through the system? How many of them are plea-bargained? How many of them are thrown out?

How do people who get convicted get sentenced to jail, etcetera etcetera. And in those days, that was pretty much all we could do. We do a property assessment equity story. We could do a big story as we did in West Palm Beach Florida that showed in fact basically the poorer you were, the less expensive your house, the more you were basically being screwed by the property assessment system.

And it was a pretty good story, but the logical question everybody would have had after reading that story is well, what about my house? Am I being screwed? And we couldn't exactly run the assessments and what would be a more accurate assessment figure for every home in Palm Beach County, Florida, in the pages of the newspaper. Well, now we can.

We can let you look that up yourself. We can let you explore and see if your property is more equitably assessed than your neighbor's or than a comparable house across the street. And so yeah. Absolutely. I think we should do that.

I think in an ideal world, the government would make it easy for anybody to do that. And what I think though is that the best we can really hope for from most governments is that they will recognize that they are obligated to make it available. Then anybody, including journalists, can do additional analyses and presentation of that data in ways that are useful or relevant to people.

One of the political candidates in Florida when I was there had to release their campaign contribution reports. And of course, what everybody wants to do is to figure out, well, who's giving the most money to the campaign and to look at groups of people who are giving large amounts of money more than any one person can give. Can aggregate the stuff.

Well, this particular candidate, who was one of the candidates for governor, he was not obligated to turn over electronic information. He just had to give paper. And he produced the paper reports on his campaign contributions and alphabetized them by first name. And the reason he alphabetized them by first name was, frankly, it makes it a lot harder to figure out, say, families who are each contributing a lot of money.

Or, say, alphabetizing by employer, which would make it easier to figure out what companies are most interested in this candidate. Well, in the old days, that was pretty much all you could do. If you as a news organization had that alphabetized by first name list, well, you had to go keyboard that in to actually find the patterns in the data.

Now, of course, this data is available electronically, and there are organizations like the Center for Responsive Politics, that do additional - add additional value to that day by doing additional research and then making it available to news organizations and citizens and advocacy groups that want to do more with it.

And I think that's clearly part of the function. To me, it's just another form of reporting to go out and get data instead of quotes and to figure out how to make that data available in ways that people find relevant instead of writing a story designed to be relevant to people.

TO: Okay. Well, I think we're done. If you're a programmer, and you're sitting at your desk, and your boss is calling a special meeting in the conference room to talk about who's going to get a pink slip, think about coming to Northwestern and get your master's degree in journalism.

RG: Yep. Absolutely. And just as a pitch, you know, first off, we have not been overwhelmed with the number of applications to this program. And I think we know that not every programmer would find this even interesting let alone exciting. But I know there are thousands of developers out there who ask themselves, every now and then at least, is what I'm doing contributing to a better world?

And I think the exciting thing about applying your programming development skills to media and journalism is these are important parts of a democratic society. We need to do journalism and media better and in different ways, and we need the skills of people who have - we need people who can do programming Web development.

What you will get in our program is, you're going to learn the practice of journalism, the culture of journalism, why you might want to do things. You get a whole bunch of ideas about how to use your code, to do something relevant to the future of journalism, and then in these innovation project classes, you'll actually work collaboratively with some of our other students to build something interesting, novel, relevant, attention-getting, and hopefully along the way, after you come out, you're so excited about the future opportunities for the intersection of journalism and technology, that you'll go out and do something in that field.

Whether that means working in a media company, where I guarantee you there are jobs today for people with these skills, or starting up your own company. I mean, I think Dig or Google news probably would have been better products had journalists had some involvement in them. At least that would be my theory.

And it would be interesting to see what would happen if somebody with the technology skills of Google or Big decide to build something with the motivation of making a better informed society or increasing people's level of engagement with news or ensuring that people have the information they need in a democratic society. All of those are huge challenges that we need technology professionals to help us meet.

TO: Okay, great. Thank you.

RG: Thank you.

[End of Audio]

You might also be interested in:

News Topics

Recommended for You

Got a Question?