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Nieman Journalism Lab
Pushing to the future of journalism — A project of the Nieman Foundation at Harvard

Brian Boyer: Welcome to Hacker Journalism 101, take your seats

Boyer, the head of NPR’s news apps team, puts on his professor hat and offers a syllabus for “making useful things for people.”

Editor’s Note: It’s the start of the school year, which means students are returning to journalism programs around the country. As the media industry continues to evolve, how well is new talent being trained, and how well are schools preparing them for the real world?

We asked an array of people — hiring editors, recent graduates, professors, technologists, deans — to evaluate the job j-schools are doing and to offer ideas for how they might improve. Over the coming days, we’ll be sharing their thoughts with you. Here’s Brian Boyer, the head of NPR’s News Apps team, describing a course he’d like journalists to take — and the reading you can do to keep up.

Thanks for signing up for Hacker Journalism 101! In this course, we will explore a range of topics, from the origins of computing to making useful things for people to the awesome power of making your computer work for you. The intent of this course is not to teach you all the skills necessary to program in a newsroom, but to lay a solid foundation for learning those skills.

This is a reading-heavy course, covering widely varying material. It will be easy to fall behind. Keep up! There will be little lecturing during class time. Instead, we will discuss the reading, do some show-and-tell, and work on practical exercises. So please, be prepared or don’t attend. Also, there is a bit of summer reading, but it will be fun.

And remember the virtues of a programmer:

  • Laziness: I will do anything to work less.
  • Impatience: The waiting, it makes me crazy.
  • Hubris: I can make this computer do anything.

They will serve you well in this course.


A class in which you’ve learned some basic HTML/CSS.

Summer reading: How we got here

The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood by James Gleick
Hacker journalism is an unusual craft. Our medium — data — is information. And the tools we use — software — are information as well. And what do we make? Websites, applications — it’s ones and zeroes all the way down. Gleick’s fascinating history of information theory is required reading for anyone in the business of pushing bits around.

Distrust That Particular Flavor by William Gibson
Great science fiction is about the present, but Gibson, the man who probably said “The future is already here, it’s just not evenly distributed yet,” seems to have had a pretty good handle on what’s coming up. His nonfiction essays from the last couple of decades are sort of an alternate history of today.

Mother Earth Mother Board by Neal Stephenson
Our medium might be ephemeral, but the Internet is not floating in the clouds. It is a real, physical thing that people made. (Also, “hacker tourist” sounds an awful lot like “hacker journalist,” no?)

Extra credit: Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson
Got some extra time at the beach this summer? Take on Stephenson’s great piece of historical fiction about World War II and the origins of computing.

Week one: Let’s make your computer do things

CSVKit tutorial by Chris Groskopf
The command line is your new best friend. Any task that requires pointing and clicking is slow, error prone, and hard to repeat. Groskopf’s tutorial will teach you how to use a tremendously useful toolkit, and, even better, teach you how to use your computer more effectively.

Weeks two and three: Learn to program in Ruby

The Bastards Book of Ruby by Dan Nguyen
This is not just for reading. Please follow along as a fellow hacker journalist guides you through the basics of programming in Ruby. As a bonus, Nguyen guides us through how to turn somebody else’s web pages into data you can use, a process we call “web scraping.” It’s an invaluable tool to keep on your belt.

Week three and four: Learn to program in Python

Learn Python The Hard Way by Zed Shaw
Now that you’ve learned the basics of Ruby, learn the basics of Python. Why? Because there’s more than one way to write code, and it’s up to you to decide your path.

Extra credit: Introduction To Git
Remember that time that Word ate your homework? You’re done putting up with that shit. Smart programmers use version control.

Week five: Craft on the web

Web Standards Solutions by Dan Cederholm
The prerequisite for this course is a course with basic HTML/CSS training, which means that you’ve already developed bad habits. Time to unlearn what you have learned.

Show and tell: Once you’ve read the book and worked through the exercises, find a web page with good markup (right-click → View Page Source) and be prepared for show-and-tell.

Extra credit: Responsive Web Design

Week six: Web usability

Don’t Make Me Think: A Common Sense Approach to Web Usability by Steve Krug
The book on web usability.

Show and tell: In class, we will critique websites. Bring to class URLs of (a) A website you think is well-designed based on Krug, and (b) the opposite.

Extra credit: The Design of Everyday Things by Donald Norman

Week seven: Design principles

Designing for Emotion by Aarron Walter
Design is so much more than making beautiful things — it’s our job to make things that are useful and compelling. Walter will teach you how to make websites that people love.

Universal Principles of Design by William Lidwell, Jill Butler, and Kritina Holden
A wonderful compilation of design principles, backed up by scientific research. Sometimes it feels tricky, using the innate preferences buried in people’s brains…but remember, everything is designed. Most stuff is just designed badly.

Show and tell: Bring in two examples from the wild of design principles explained in Lidwell.

Extra credit: Mind Hacks: Tips & Tricks for Using Your Brain by Tom Stafford and Matt Webb
Gain first-hand experience in cognitive neuroscience! You’ll learn about yourself and be a better designer.

Week eight: Chartjunk

The Visual Display of Quantitative Information by Edward Tufte
Tufte wrote in a different era, but the principles in this seminal work still apply. Yet folks still aren’t listening.

Show and tell: Bring in three examples of charts Tufte would hate, and one he would like. Be prepared to explain why.

Week nine: Getting to done

Agile Manifesto
In the good old days, the processes we followed to make software were rigorous, perfectly obvious, sensible, and totally wrong. Agile software development is an often counterintuitive approach to planning and executing projects that accepts, even embraces, the notion that everything will go pear-shaped half-way through your project.

Getting Real by Jason Fried, David Heinemeier Hansson, Matthew Linderman
In the newsroom, we’re developing on a deadline. Like startup teams, we don’t have the luxury to get stuck in the usual crap that bogs down big organizations. Getting real is about cutting the crap.

Extra credit: The Lean Startup by Eric Ries
Between the tight deadlines and dwindling budgets, you’ve gotta work lean in a newsroom. Ries’ book on product development is currently required reading in the startup scene.

Weeks ten, eleven and twelve: Final project

Your final project might incorporate the visual display of data, but it will be more than a data visualization. You might use video or audio, but it will not be a multimedia storytelling experience. You will make a useful news application.

Recent examples:

Questions to ask yourself

  • Who is our audience?
  • What are their needs?
  • What can we make to fulfill those needs?

First, you’ll distill your idea to the smallest useful thing, then you’ll build it. It will be fun.

Hope to see you in HJ201, Advanced Hacker Journalism.

Image by David Gandy used under a Creative Commons license.

What to read next
Ken Doctor    Aug. 25, 2014
America’s largest newspaper company says it’s building for the future. But it’s hurting its own value proposition in the process.
  • Abraham Hyatt

    Another good possibility for Summer reading: Tracy Kidder’s “The Soul of a New Machine,” which followed a team of engineers in the late 1970s as they raced to create a new microcomputer. The technology is a little dated, but Kidder was really writing about the human drama behind the tech and it remains brilliant narrative nonfiction (it won a Pulitzer and the American Book Award).  Excerpt:

  • Stephanie Vatz

    This is fantastic. As a young web manager, I find it incredibly useful for other hacker journalists to provide new ideas, instruction and direction in what is an incredibly exciting field to be in.

  • kegill

    More summer/related reading:

    * The Deadline: A Novel About Project Management by Tom DeMarco — fun and funny, more approachable than The Mythical Man Month.
    * The Design of Everyday Things by Don Norman — if you use your eyes to see interactions in the physical world you can better create in the digital one
    * Rainbows End by Vernor Vinge — a look into the near future world of ubiquitous computing

  • Adam Popescu

    More good reading: Tubes by Andrew Blum. The hidden, connected world of the Internet. Definitely worth it!

  • Adengler

    Brian, what an excellent approach. Now what you (and perhaps the rest of us) can do is set a discussion board and pretend we’re taking a real online course. I also like the suggestions posted on the other comments. All the best.

  • Mindy McAdams

    I love this approach, but would you agree that out of a normal sample of students enrolled in a journalism major — anywhere in North America — very few (maybe 1 or 2 percent) would sign up for this course if it were an elective? (Don’t get me wrong — I would sign up!)

  • Joshua Benton

    I’d wager higher than 1-2 percent — maybe 15? — but point taken.

    I think the bigger issue is that the jobs North American journalism students want have roughly zero relationship to the jobs that will actually be available for them to pursue post-graduation.

    If there was, the U.S. journalism industry would be 25% fashion writers, 30% travel writers, 35% sports columnists, and 10% foreign correspondents.

  • Mindy McAdams

    I agree with you on the jobs-to-desires conundrum … and you forgot to mention all the would-be movie reviewers. :)

    I don’t mean to be critical of Brian’s syllabus — I love it! But it would be pretty tough to entice students with the desires you listed into seats in that course. So we have to think hard about how to produce people to fill the real journalism jobs.

  • Amazon Cz

    I will be interested if Im there but its quite far for me to get there.

  • isomorphisms

    Love this list! But I think your timeline is unrealistically short.

  • Ray Daly

    You missed it and it was right in front of your eyes. There is more JavaScript on the ‘front pages’ of news orgs than text. Yet your course does not even mention it. JavaScript Journalism.