Early adopter: Why an incoming freshman wants to be a hacker-journalist, discovering Knight Lab

This spring incoming Northwestern freshman, Alex Duner, reached out to us in utter excitement about newsroom programming and eager to get started. He's come to this niche of computer science and journalism earlier than most, so we asked him to write about why he wants to study computer science and journalism.

Alex Duner, incoming NU freshman. Plans to study journalism and computer science.

Hello! My name is Alex Duner, I am a recent high school graduate and am looking forward to starting at Northwestern's Medill School this fall. I am passionate about technology, media, design, am a huge news junkie, and am excited about getting the opportunity to work and study with a group of really cool people at the Knight Lab.

I can probably trace my current interest in the intersection of journalism and computer science to the fifth grade when I was introduced to Microsoft PowerPoint. After creating a presentation on the Air and Space Museum—which included eighteen spellbinding slides listing every single artifact in the collection in ten-point font — I was hooked. I have always loved learning new pieces of information and sharing what I discovered; Determining how to most effectively convey that fact or story to an audience is a stimulating and enjoyable challenge.

As a member of my high school's debate team, I learned over and over that doing great research (my favorite aspect of the activity) and having fantastic evidence are necessary, but not sufficient factors in persuading a judge.

Presentation matters too.

I have minimal experience with programming and even less with journalism. I know HTML, CSS, a bit of Java (thanks to my AP Comp. Sci. class), and have been working on learning JavaScript this summer.

I had no idea this niche even existed until I stumbled across the Knight Lab website while researching Northwestern during the college application process. Journalism was one of the few fields that had stayed at the top of my otherwise turbulent list of majors I was interested in throughout the months leading up to submitting applications. Discovering the Knight Lab opened my eyes to an interesting combination of two of my passions.

During the ensuing months I have delved deeper into this small community of journalists; Everything I have seen and read has only increased my excitement about this field.

Of particular note was Dan Sinker's "Why Develop in the Newsroom?" series, which was well circulated among the developer-journalists who I now follow on Twitter.

The answer to the question that resonated with me the most was this part of what Michelle Minkoff had to say:

Journalists love learning and sharing. While, yes, there is a certain extent of sitting quietly and writing at one’s desk, there’s also a lot of fervent collaboration. No detail is too small to merit a second (or hundredth) glance. When you get excited over an intricate problem you solved, you’ll have people to share it with. And you’ll hear interesting stories from them. Asking continual whys in pair programming is not just acceptable, but encouraged. There’s a special mix of having independence in your idea. Learning technical and editorial knowledge from others is key here. You don’t need to do it alone, or with people just like you. You need resources in myriad areas, who are ready and willing to contribute.


So ten years from now, do I expect to be sitting in a newsroom writing code? Maybe.

If not, will I feel like I wasted four years of college studying some extremely niche field? Absolutely not. Because writing code, telling stories, understanding data, doing research, communicating through different media are not niche skills.

But I'm thinking — and I think it's a reasonable bet — that this will turn out to be something I love to do.

About the author

Alex Duner

Student Fellow

Latest Posts

  • Building a Community for VR and AR Storytelling

    In 2016 we founded the Device Lab to provide a hub for the exploration of AR/VR storytelling on campus. In addition to providing access to these technologies for Medill and the wider Northwestern community, we’ve also pursued a wide variety of research and experimental content development projects. We’ve built WebVR timelines of feminist history and looked into the inner workings of ambisonic audio. We’ve built virtual coral reefs and prototyped an AR experience setting interviews...

    Continue Reading

  • A Brief Introduction to NewsgamesCan video games be used to tell the news?

    When the Financial Times released The Uber Game in 2017, the game immediately gained widespread popularity with more than 360,000 visits, rising up the ranks as the paper’s most popular interactive piece of the year. David Blood, the game’s lead developer, said that the average time spent on the page was about 20 minutes, which was substantially longer than what most Financial Times interactives tend to receive, according to Blood. The Uber Game was so successful that the Financial...

    Continue Reading

  • With the 25th CAR Conference upon us, let’s recall the first oneWhen the Web was young, data journalism pioneers gathered in Raleigh

    For a few days in October 1993, if you were interested in journalism and technology, Raleigh, North Carolina was the place you had to be. The first Computer-Assisted Reporting Conference offered by Investigative Reporters & Editors brought more than 400 journalists to Raleigh for 3½ days of panels, demos and hands-on lessons in how to use computers to find stories in data. That seminal event will be commemorated this week at the 25th CAR Conference, which...

    Continue Reading

  • Prototyping Augmented Reality

    Something that really frustrates me is that, while I’m excited about the potential AR has for storytelling, I don’t feel like I have really great AR experiences that I can point people to. We know that AR is great for taking a selfie with a Pikachu and it’s pretty good at measuring spaces (as long as your room is really well lit and your phone is fully charged) but beyond that, we’re really still figuring...

    Continue Reading

  • Capturing the Soundfield: Recording Ambisonics for VR

    When building experiences in virtual reality we’re confronted with the challenge of mimicking how sounds hit us in the real world from all directions. One useful tool for us to attempt this mimicry is called a soundfield microphone. We tested one of these microphones to explore how audio plays into building immersive experiences for virtual reality. Approaching ambisonics with the soundfield microphone has become popular in development for VR particularly for 360 videos. With it,...

    Continue Reading

  • Audience Engagement and Onboarding with Hearken Auditing the News Resurrecting History for VR Civic Engagement with City Bureau Automated Fact Checking Conversational Interface for News Creative Co-Author Crowdsourcing for Journalism Environmental Reporting with Sensors Augmented Reality Visualizations Exploring Data Visualization in VR Fact Flow Storytelling with GIFs Historical Census Data Information Spaces in AR/VR Contrasting Forms Of Interactive 3D Storytelling Interactive Audio Juxtapose Legislator Tracker Storytelling with Augmented Reality Music Magazine Navigating Virtual Reality Open Data Reporter Oscillations Personalize My Story Photo Bingo Photojournalism in 3D for VR and Beyond Podcast Discoverability Privacy Mirror Projection Mapping ProPublica Illinois Rethinking Election Coverage SensorGrid API and Dashboard Sidebar Smarter News Exploring Software Defined Radio Story for You Storyline: Charts that tell stories. Storytelling Layers on 360 Video Talking to Data Visual Recipes Watch Me Work Writing and Designing for Chatbots
  • Prototyping Spatial Audio for Movement Art

    One of Oscillations’ technical goals for this quarter’s Knight Lab Studio class was an exploration of spatial audio. Spatial audio is sound that exists in three dimensions. It is a perfect complement to 360 video, because sound sources can be localized to certain parts of the video. Oscillations is especially interested in using spatial audio to enhance the neuroscientific principles of audiovisual synchrony that they aim to emphasize in their productions. Existing work in spatial......

    Continue Reading

Storytelling Tools

We build easy-to-use tools that can help you tell better stories.

View More