A completely arbitrary list of takeaways from two unconferences

This past weekend, I attended Spark Camp: Data, an unconference in Austin focused on using data to tell stories, whatever they may be. A month before, I was at News Foo, an unconference at Arizona State University that brings technologists and journalists together to talk about … whatever they want to talk about regarding the future of news. Both conferences included a lot of chatter about journalism schools and what they should be doing. People I talked to were all fascinated to hear I teach programming and data at a journalism school.

At both, listening to this discussion going on, I came away with some random thoughts about journalism school curricula, programmer-journalists and the future. Here they are in a completely unnecessary and arbitrary list.

  • The number of things Journalism is asking its journalism schools to teach could fill three degrees plus a couple of minors. Business, law, economics, entrepreneurship, computer science, data science, and also all the journalism fundamentals. We have no idea what The Future is, other than that it’s wildly different from the past, so we’re tossing everything into What Journalism Schools Should Be Teaching and the list is starting to look a little silly. Especially when you consider we have 40 credit hours to work with.
  • I view this as a challenge, not a lament.
  • You are number 114 on the list of people who have asked me if I have any students who are budding journalist-developers ready to start busting out apps in your shop. You are also deep on the list of people telling me you’re looking for people and having a hard time finding them. There’s 10 fish in this pond right now and everyone has a line in the water.
  • The number of students I have seen who are budding journalist-developers ready to start busting out apps in your shop: 0. Why? Comes down to passion. I haven’t seen that student take what we talked about in class and run off on their own. It seems they’re still waiting for something. I don’t know what that is.
  • Where are these future journalist-developers who will Save Us All? What can we do to find them? I don’t know. I think more about it every day.
  • I think the problem with finding these students starts with reward structures. Students are told from even before they walk on campus that being a journalist means Being a Good Writer, Being a Good Editor, Being a Good Photographer. No one is telling them they could be an application developer, or a data journalist, or a media entrepreneur. Or if they have heard it, that voice is getting drowned out by traditionalists. A disturbing amount of time, the traditionalists drowning those students out are other students. Until we can attach a reward to this — until it cracks the consciousness of students that there are jobs in this path — I think we’ll continue to struggle. 
  • I still believe you can teach journalists to be programmers and people like that will be vital to the Future of Journalism, but I’m also starting to think more and more about what a journalism minor for a computer-science major would look like. 
  • A potential archetype of a journalist-developer student? That kid who messed around with programming in high school and loved it while having a blast on the student paper. But they came to college and thought they had to get a CS or similar degree because that’s what They told them. You know They. They tell people a lot of crap. I’m looking for that techie carrying regret in their heart for not pursuing journalism. I can unburden that regret. And get you a job.
  • The pipeline of techie/journo students to internships to jobs is a problem that is going to be with us for a while. There’s not enough students right now. Plain and simple. And I worry that because of this supply problem, the internships and jobs will go away. And just when that happens, we’ll solve the supply problem and have the reverse.
  • Problems I would love to have to talk about: What is the career path for a developer in a newsroom? There isn’t one right now. Who will be the first to hire a developer as an assistant managing editor or above? I ache for the day we have to discuss this instead of the scarcity of talent. I long for the day when we have to debate turning over editorial strategy to someone who came into the newsroom to build apps. That will be a great day.