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

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