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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.

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  • MrKellyGraham

    I currently hold dual degrees in computer science and journalism. I returned to school after spending a decade as a code monkey to pick up a journalism degree. I did so purely out of interest. I don’t regret it but after receiving my journalism degree I promptly returned to the world of software development.

    There is very little incentive for a person to get both. If you are at all interested in writing code why wouldn’t you just get a comp sci degree? The benefits include less time in school, better work hours, much better pay and much better job prospects.

    After graduation I seriously looked around for a job that would allow me to utilize both degrees but I didn’t find much. Although I believe news organizations would benefit from unicorns they certainly don’t seem all that interested in them yet.

    Despite holding dual degrees I can’t imagine many people would want to follow in my foot steps, nor would I recommend it, unless they have a burning passion for journalism.

  • Rich Gordon

    Hi, Kelly. As the instigator of a scholarship program at Northwestern U. ( geared to CS majors interested in journalism, I would like to take a stab at addressing your comment.

    Our scholarship program, as well as this new initiative from Columbia, have a common premise: that news organizations and media companies want and need people with a combination of journalism and computer science skills. What they want are team members who (1) love, and are good at, writing code; and (2) understand how to apply code to the problems of journalism, publishing and audience engagement. The mix of journalism vs. computer science in these jobs varies. Some jobs (for instance, “news applications developers” or “data visualization specialists”) involve applying code to reporting and storytelling — what audiences see when they are reading, viewing or interacting with content. Other positions look more like traditional software development positions, but as applied to publishing systems, API’s, etc.

    Someone who “just get(s) a comp sci degree” will likely have the programming skills needed for these opportunities, but what we hear from news organizations is that it is incredibly helpful if a person entering these roles has a practical understanding of journalism, how it’s done, how journalists think, etc. That’s exactly what a student gets from the best journalism degrees — and it’s possible to earn a degree in journalism in a year or less of full-time course work.

    I don’t know from your comment when you studied journalism and tested the market for opportunities where you could use both degrees. But if it was more than a year or two ago, I can understand your point. Not that long ago, news organizations generally didn’t realize the need for these kinds of people, didn’t define compelling and significant job roles for them, and didn’t pay enough to attract the best candidates. I believe the landscape has changed considerably, just in the past year or two. The jobs are interesting, the pay has competitive, and the recognition is real in the best news organizations that journalists with programming skills are critical to the success of a 21st century news organization.

    You might want to check out these posts:

    (1) What the Washington Post says about the importance of journalism education for the developers they hire:

    (2) What Brian Boyer, a leading “hacker journalist,” says about why developers should consider journalism:

    Kelly and others like you: If you are happy doing the kind of software development you are doing, and feel like it’s making a difference in the world around you, that’s great. But if you want a job in software development where you’re serving the public interest and helping people understand the world around them, you should consider opportunities in journalism and media. And studying journalism, whether through a few courses or a full degree, could help you maximize your impact in this emerging field.

  • AFF

    The reality is, if this doubles the price of attaining a journalism degree from Columbia, no one who they are trying to attract should enrol. Nor should they. I’m not convinced that there is enough of a return on investment.

  • MrKellyGraham

    In my original post I forgot to admit that I’m canadian.

    I graduated 14 months ago. I worked on a data driven investigative journalism project that was the first student project to be nominated for a national newspaper award in Canada. And while a student I had an article published in a national newspaper.

    I enjoyed the experience and I believe I embraced it fully.

    However, after school I took a serious look around and didn’t find any exciting job opportunities. I found a lot of people saying that I would be valuable to “some one”.

    Many people suggested that if I was willing to put time in doing small reporting jobs–hey we all have to start somewhere–eventually someone would have confidence to let me do things that interested me.

    Others suggested I start my own news site/organization.

    I know I’m only a sample size of one, but I wasn’t able to find anything that excited me.

    But I have no regrets getting my journalism degree. I picked up many skills that I use everyday.

    If nothing else, I’m definitely a much better storyteller.

    I haven’t given up hope either. I keep an eye out for job postings looking for my particular skill set, but so far nothing.

  • Rich Gordon

    I’m encouraged that you don’t regret the journalism degree – that comports with the Knight scholarship winners’ experience at Northwestern … they know that whatever they do next, the j-experience made them much better communicators. Hope you find the right opportunity – journalism needs you!

  • rick131

    Columbia continues to be ahead in the game and remains the best school of journalism in the world.