It's becoming more common for journalism schools to cater to nontraditional students, such as medical degree candidates, some of whom are pursuing journalism-infused M.D.'s. Another previously siloed relationship is also evolving, as journalism and graduate engineering students are increasingly working together.
"There is an emerging recognition in universities that these two fields—journalism and computer science—have something to do with one another," says Rich Gordon, a professor of digital innovation at Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism. "If you go back five or six years, that was largely absent. Neither the journalism side nor the computer science side really saw that the other discipline was interesting or relevant to what they did."
Medill, which entices programmers to study journalism with Knight Foundation scholarships, is one of several schools focusing on the intersection of engineering and journalism. Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism and Stanford University's School of Engineering recently received a $30 million gift to jointly create the Brown Institute for Media Innovation, and the University of Missouri's College of Engineering participates in a student developer competition for college- and graduate-level students majoring in journalism or engineering.
Although engineers can expect to make less in the news industry than other fields, some computer programmers say they want to build mobile apps that not only work properly, but also make a difference. "There's a movement of [programmers] trying to do something that's in the public interest," says Shane Shifflett, a news applications developer at the The Bay Citizen in San Francisco.
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The news industry—even if its coffers aren't the deepest—is increasingly demanding their skill set, according to computer science professionals and professors.
"If I were a general assignment reporter kind of person graduating from journalism school today, I'm not going to get a job at The New York Times, The Washington Post, or The Chicago Tribune," says Gordon, the Medill professor. "But I might very well get a job at one of those orgs right out of college if I have computer programming skills and ... some exposure to journalism."
News industry opportunities for programmers who can provide not only technical skills but who can also manage programmers are particularly "explosive," adds Brian Boyer, news applications editor at the Chicago Tribune and a Medill alumnus.
"If you're a programmer who wants to work in journalism, all you have to choose is where you want to live," says Boyer, who holds an undergraduate computer science degree from University of Illinois—Urbana-Champaign.
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Despite the opportunities, some programmers may need some coaxing to consider a field as gregarious as the news industry. "The developers that I know are the kind of people who are scared to death of picking up the phone," says Ryan Mark, news applications manager at the Tribune.
Journalism students may also find it challenging to collaborate with engineers. At Missouri, the school that runs the developer competition, communications students are often surprised to learn how complicated it is to build a mobile app, says Dale Musser, director of the information technology program.
"As we've often said to them, 'It's easy to think of something—hard to implement it,'" he says.
But it's an important skill to build, says Jonathan Stray, interactive technology editor at Associated Press. When he hires programmers, Stray looks for actual ability to build systems, rather than technical fluency.
"It's not like reading a manual on a video camera," says Stray, who holds graduate degrees in both computer science and journalism. "It's more like learning to play an instrument, and you're just going to suck at it for the first few years you practice."
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With practice, engineering students—including those who aren't studying computer science—can also benefit from improving their communications skills, says Elisa Kropat, a civil engineering graduate student at the College of Engineering at University of Delaware.
At Delaware, communications fellows—or students in journalism or communications—work with engineering students to help them improve their public speaking skills. That's been helpful for Kropat, who notes that many engineering job applications require writing samples.
"Traditionally," she says, "the stereotype is that engineers don't have good writing skills."
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