Creating hacker journalists: Medill and WaPo announce partnership

Last week the Washington Post and Medill School of Journalism announced a partnership to offer programmers scholarships to study journalism at the school.

The hope, of course, is that those programmers will eventually bring their technical skills to news organizations around the country.

“We need to have more technologists who speak journalism and have hands on experience with it,” says Rich Gordon, a Knight Lab co-founder and the Medill professor who founded the scholarship program.

The Washington Post will assist the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation — which helped originally fund the program — in paying for the education of three scholars over a three-year period. After graduating, the scholars will work a paid internship with the Post’s tech team.

Mitch Rubin, the Post’s sports production editor and now the program’s fellow administrator, latched onto the idea of partnering with Medill when he noticed similar partnerships between universities and industries that require deep science educations.

At the same time, the Post’s tech department was looking for programmers, but losing out to Silicon Valley developers.

“We’re trying to get really qualified people to help build tools for both the journalists in house and for users to digitally present and enhance the journalism that reporters are creating,” Rubin says.

In a way, the scholarship faces the same challenge as the news industry does — attracting talent.

“Part of the future is to attract people into our field with a different profile than historically have been interested,” Gordon says. The question is how.

Kavya Sukumar was a software engineer at Microsoft before enrolling in the program last fall. She’s the 10th scholarship recipient to  go through the program — industry leaders Brian Boyer, Ryan Mark, and Nick Allen among them.

But just where to find more like Sukumar — and compete with startups and more lucrative jobs in other industries — remains an open question.

For now, the relationship between Medill and the Post is strengthened by shared philosophies of cooperation and learning among developers and journalists to improve the media.

“I think the model we’ve started to use is the embedded development model where the developers are in the process with the journalists. It allows it to happen more organically,” says Rubin.

This organic way of thinking begins in the classroom, says Sukumar. Participants often find themselves working on projects with students from a solely journalistic background. The result is a symbiotic relationship, where each party gleans knowledge from the other to further understanding between realms, she says.

The hope is that this new partnership will inspire more graduate-level programmers to apply, as well as attract other news industry partners to keep the program progressing. Partnering with the Post is a good start, and the respected reputation is sure to boost interest and foster positive correlations between programming and journalism.

“What was wonderful to discover was that this is an organization where people who run technology see the value in their technologists learning journalism,” says Gordon of the Post. “That’s not always there.”

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