Will Columbia-Trained, Code-Savvy Journalists Bridge the Media/Tech Divide?

Columbia-at-night-660x387 Eliot Van Buskirk in Wired:

The Columbia program, which will accept its first 15 students (tops) in the Fall of 2011, seeks to attack the barrier between journalists and the increasingly-important IT professionals whose web and digital savvy are crucial to any form of news gathering, reporting and delivery. Everyone knows the problem: Users really don’t know what to ask developers for (or how), and developers have no real idea what their software will need to do in the hands of the users.

“The IT Department [at a news organization] comes up with software programs that the journalists don’t use; the journalists ask for software that is computationally unrealistic,” said Julia Hirschberg, professor of computer science at the Columbia’s Fu Foundation School of Engineering and Applied Science. “We aim to produce a new generation of journalists who will understand both fields.”

Bill Grueskin, academic dean of the Columbia School of Journalism, told us that although students generally know their way around the web by virtue of being young, creating these sorts of powerful new tools requires a different, deeper skill set — one that, to date, has been missing from university journalism and technology departments and underrepresented in the field at large to a damaging extent.

“Some people coming out of high school or college possess technical savvy, but more often than not, the skill set is bordered by an ability to use Wikipedia, Facebook and Gmail,” said Grueskin, noting that while Columbia journalism students are taught to edit multimedia and maintain websites, “almost all of those skills rely on using existing software or programs to do digital journalism. We hope and expect that graduates of this program will be more able to innovate and create the solutions the news business so sorely needs.”

The concept makes sense, the problem it addresses is real, and Columbia is capable of taking on the challenge. But we were most fascinated by the technologies these professors hope their graduates will contribute.