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

  • 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

  • How to translate live-spoken human words into computer “truth”

    Our Knight Lab team spent three months in Winter 2018 exploring how to combine various technologies to capture, interpret, and fact check live broadcasts from television news stations, using Amazon’s Alexa personal assistant device as a low-friction way to initiate the process. The ultimate goal was to build an Alexa skill that could be its own form of live, automated fact-checking: cross-referencing a statement from a politician or otherwise newsworthy figure against previously fact-checked statements......

    Continue Reading

  • Northwestern is hiring a CS + Journalism professor

    Work with us at the intersection of media, technology and design.

    Are you interested in working with journalism and computer science students to build innovative media tools, products and apps? Would you like to teach the next generation of media innovators? Do you have a track record building technologies for journalists, publishers, storytellers or media consumers? Northwestern University is recruiting for an assistant or associate professor for computer science AND journalism, who will share an appointment in the Medill School of Journalism and the McCormick School...

    Continue Reading

  • Introducing StorylineJS

    Today we're excited to release a new tool for storytellers.

    StorylineJS makes it easy to tell the story behind a dataset, without the need for programming or data visualization expertise. Just upload your data to Google Sheets, add two columns, and fill in the story on the rows you want to highlight. Set a few configuration options and you have an annotated chart, ready to embed on your website. (And did we mention, it looks great on phones?) As with all of our tools, simplicity...

    Continue Reading

  • Join us in October: NU hosts the Computation + Journalism 2017 symposium

    An exciting lineup of researchers, technologists and journalists will convene in October for Computation + Journalism Symposium 2017 at Northwestern University. Register now and book your hotel rooms for the event, which will take place on Friday, Oct. 13, and Saturday, Oct. 14 in Evanston, IL. Hotel room blocks near campus are filling up fast! Speakers will include: Ashwin Ram, who heads research and development for Amazon’s Alexa artificial intelligence (AI) agent, which powers the...

    Continue Reading

Storytelling Tools

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

View More