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Aug. 30, 2013, 10 a.m.
Reporting & Production

Columbia is launching a new post-bac program to breed journalism unicorns

After having trouble finding journalists ready for graduate-level computer science, the university is trying to build a bridge to quantitative skills.

unicorn-chasers-ccThe journalism unicorn exists. I’ve seen one — even worked with one. Maybe you know the kind: a journalist who’s as nimble and dynamic as a reporter as she is with coding.

Yes, journalism unicorns are out there, but they are rare — so rare that Columbia University has had some trouble attracting qualified candidates to a Tow Center for Digital Journalism program that offers dual degrees in journalism and computer science.

“There is something about not just being able to think and act like a programmer but also to be able to think and act like a journalist, which is quite demanding,” said Emily Bell, director of the Tow Center. “It’s an unusual skill set. Newsrooms are crying out for these skills.”

So, taking cues from the kinds of programs that help college grads complete prerequisites like organic chemistry before applying to medical school, Columbia is now launching what may be the first program of its kind in the world: a post-baccalaureate program designed to teach students computer science concepts in the context of journalistic practice — before they enroll in further graduate training. (What is it these days with journalism education turning to medicine for inspiration?)

“Rather than just saying, ‘Well, you can take some undergraduate classes and come back to us,’ we thought we would introduce a program,” said Mark Hansen, director of the Brown Institute for Media Innovation and one of the people spearheading the program. The two-semester program, dubbed Year Zero, is set to welcome its first class in the summer of 2014. (Details like tuition and class size are still being worked out, and applications aren’t yet being accepted.)

Columbia is seeking a director for the program, which will teach students data science engineering, statistical concepts, and programming. Those who complete Year Zero aren’t guaranteed admission to the Tow Center’s dual degree, which may be a good thing. It means that journalists and other professionals at all stages in their careers might be able to benefit from Year Zero. The program isn’t limited to journalists or aspiring journalists, either.

“What we found is that journalism is not the only field that’s experiencing this [need for computer science expertise],” Hansen told me. “We thought about the paths people might take — one path is to go onto the dual degree, another path is to go onto another quantitative program, or digital humanities or computational social sciences.”

Hansen, whose background is in statistics, says Columbia hired him specifically because the university wants to improve its students’ “data-slash-computing-slash-algorithmic acumen.” Doing so will theoretically help Columbia meet three of its key journalism goals: remaining one of the best respected journalism programs in the country, serving as a pipeline to the industry, and leading the way among other schools teaching journalism.

Hansen says the need for Year Zero says as much about how journalism is changing as it does about even larger social changes. Where journalists traditionally have used data to answer questions, computational literacy means being able to use data to ask them.

“Data and data technologies are fundamentally changing systems of power in our world,” he said. “And journalists need to think clearly about what that all means…I think looking at data and thinking about data is becoming, in effect, an act of citizenship.”

Photo of “Unicorn Chasers” by Timothy Krause used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     Aug. 30, 2013, 10 a.m.
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