If there is one theme from the Journalism Interactive conference, which is aimed at journalism educators, it is that data journalism is important. So the “capstone course” session on computational journalism seemed just right.
The power-packed panel included Rich Gordon, a professor and director of digital innovation at Northwestern, Matt Waite, a Pulitzer Prize-winning data journalist (for PolitiFact) who now teaches at Nebraska, Sarah Cohen, a professor at Duke who also won a Pulitzer Prize in reporting. It was moderated by Deborah Nelson, a Maryland professor who also won a Pulitzer.
Cohen said “computational journalism” is about applying new methods and new techniques to reporting. “Journalism has always been slow to adapt things from other disciplines,” she said. But she said that’s for good reason because it takes a while to prove things. “Computer-assisted reporting only took 10 or 15 years after the rest of the world. At this point, we’re catching up a little bit quicker - we’re 3 to 5 years behind.” She says that’s not a bad thing.
Cohen teaches at Duke, which does not have a journalism school, so she approaches things from a public policy standpoint. She’s working on something called “The Reporter’s Lab,” which is expected to launch in January. It’s going to be a tool for journalists to help report on public affairs. She said it will be focused on accountability and investigative reporting (it will not be producing content).
She talked about how academics can work toward making tools that help reporters more efficiently do their jobs. Her lab will create open source, free versions of its software for reporters.
Gordon said he was here to talk about what is computational journalism and explain what Northwestern has done.
Gordon said he has found it’s easier to define “computational journalism” than it is to define “journalism.”
Here’s what he came up with in a nutshell: Journalism should be defined “very broadly.” It is more than reporting and presentation, he said. “It’s a nugget of information that people need and I recognize it. I’m even going to go out on a limb and say it’s journalism” to think about how to make money off of journalism. He said William Randolph Hearst was considered a journalist in his time. Now we call him a publisher “among other things as well.” More on his definition of journalism: Applying “technology in ways that engage users/consumers and motivate them to be informed about, and to participate in, the public sphere.”
Here’s what Gordon has tried at Medill:
What didn’t work: Teaching short “programming for journalists” mini-courses in new media journalism courses. Encouraging students to take introductory computer science courses (He said the reactions have generally been that they were “scared to death” and did not want to do it. Those who did didn’t like it). Giving joint appointment in Medill and computer science to junior faculty members.
What has worked: Northwestern adjunct Emily Withrow converted their “Flash course” into an introduction to programming using ActionScript. “I was blown away at how successfully she had gotten” the students to learn computer programming. They also got a Knight grant to bring computer programmers to get a master’s degree at Medill. They worked with the Chicago Tribune on an app, released code that others have built on. Since 2009, they have offered joint classes, equal number of computer science and journalism students, co-taught by computer science and journalism faculty, and gave the students something to build. “We facilitate their learning in their teams,” Gordon said. As an example, he showed off an app students created called “NewsFeed” that gives off news content in time increments. He also showed off a “machine-generated sports” program that generates narrative sports stories based on the data. It has turned into a startup, which mostly generates business stories based on data. Medill also got Ph.D students of computer science who love teaching to teach classes on coding to journalists.
Lessons learned: “Generally, computer science courses don’t work for journalism students,” Gordon said, attributing that to lack of obvious relevance. However, he said the principles of beginning programming can be taught in journalism courses “without calling it programming.”
“It’s absolutely as important that we teach programming to journalists, but let’s figure out how to teach journalism to programmers. If we want to save journalism, the key is to turn out people who are bilingual in technology and journalism,” Gordon said.
To make all of this work, “You have to find out where the students are, and you have to make it relevant to them,” he said. He said many students are actually proud of their lack of computer literacy. To defeat that thinking, Gordon said you have to show them how programming applies to journalism immediately, giving them a reason to see the relevance.
Waite, who said he still “carries around new-guy status at Nebraska,” which he calls “Harvard of the Plains.” He’s teaching his first semester after a career in professional journalism.
“A lot of what I’m going to tell you is born of abject failure, but that’s a positive because it means I’m learning,” Waite said.
Waite is teaching a new media course, where he focuses on product development (something he did when he created PolitiFact). He said he thought he would always be a reporter. In 2006, he looked at the data he had collected for reporting, and he asked his editor if he could go play with that data to make it available on the web. He taught himself how to do it.
“Throughout that process of building PolitiFact, I saw myself saying over and over and over again, ‘Well, I didn’t learn this in journalism school.’”
So, when Nebraska asked him to teach, he said he thought back to what he kept saying and decided he was going to do something about it.
He broke his class into three things: Thinking, talking and doing. He said they touch a lot of bases that aren’t being touched, from mobile to social to programming.
“I tell (students) day one that this class is going to be hard, and you’re going to be confused and frustrated, and you’re going to wonder why the hell you ever signed up for this, and then it’s going to click,” Waite said. He has them developing their own product to the prototype stage in his 16-week course.
He said when they built a prototype for PolitiFact, editors started getting serious about it. “The whole conversation shifted with an unveiling a prototype.”
He teaches Python/Django. He teaches Python because it’s a (relatively) simple language.
He said he doesn’t want anyone to worry about their grades. He said everyone has an A until they produce a prototype. Instead, he wants them to worry about them learning how to program. “If you show up, shut up and do the work, you’ll do fine … God, if millennial students aren’t able to do this,” he said.
He said when his journalism students are confronted with a technical challenge of any kind, they back down quickly. He says professors should never say something like, “I’m not good at computers.” He said this is the new “I’m not good at math.”
He said we need to instill swagger in his journalism students, much like the swagger that computer science students have. He said it just takes time and effort.
Waite said he’s “freaking out” that journalism students are scared of tech. “Journalism needs smart, technical people for this digital future. If we don’t, we’re hosed,” he said.
“We should assume that our journalism students have zero tech literacy,” he said. “They are users of technology they do not understand. We have trained a bunch of people to swing a hammer, we haven’t taught carpentry.”
We need to teach computation thinking, Waite said. He said big problems are just a series of small problems, and if you divide it up, it’s not as intimidating. He said this is no different than traditional reporting - if you’re doing a story on city crime, you call individuals and work on it in pieces.
He said even basic data literacy is foreign to students. “They’ve all used Excel, but they have no idea what they’re doing. To them Excel is Word with columns.”
Waite said, “I’m happy to entertain the argument that teaching full-blown programming to journalism students might not be the highest, best use of some students. Some students aren’t going to do this. Fine, I’m willing to have that argument.” However, he said, “Even if they don’t, at least they now have a level of understanding that they didn’t have before.”
Gordon, who returned to the mic after Waite, mentioned Waite’s recent blog entry on the “I can’t” problem, and then said that he thinks journalism schools should figure out “what kind of people they really are.”
Gordon said not every student can do video as well as written, photos as well as video or data as well as everything else. To that end, he thinks we should get students to get in terms of roles - and then create programming education based on those roles.
In other words, reporters would focus on “screen-scraping” and data interpretation to help with reporting. Others might get more instruction on JQuery, ActionScript and visualizations. While others might focus on installation and customization of content management systems.
Gordon gave tips on overcoming the “I can’t” problem:
* Show them the examples first to inspire them
* Be forthcoming about the difficulty
* Encourage them to become experts among peeers
* Stay away from computer science jargon in the beginning
* Make it fun
* Never, ever, take over the student’s keyboard
* Prove to them they can do it. Make them produce something immediately.
And with that, I’m done blogging from Journalism Interactive. It was a great conference, and I highly recommend it for journalism educators (and students and professionals, for that matter).
- Robert Quigley