J-Schools, Invest in CAR

By on April 11, 2013

With less than two months to go until I graduate from the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism, I’ve been looking back at my experience over the past two years. I’m among a handful of students at the school who are really interested in data journalism and making pretty and functional online news packages. It’s made me think about how J-schools need a more structured and thorough track for us computer-assisted reporters, for lack of a better term.

This isn’t to say I was disappointed with my grad experience — quite the opposite; if it weren’t for dedicated faculty like Jeremy Rue and Len De Groot, other CAR-passionate students and a responsive atmosphere at the school, I wouldn’t be where I am now: already gainfully employed as a Web Manager at EdSource, which has big plans for education reporting, and chosen as one of the first-ever AP-Google Scholars. But I would like to see more J-schools nationwide seriously consider the need for more structured CAR programs, especially as data and interactive online apps become increasingly popular.

If I had my way, a CAR track would introduce or reinforce core skills like data analysis, data visualization, Python for scraping and automation, front-end development to create awesome interfaces to explore data and other media, and web design aesthetics. It would focus on collaboration and open source as core principles, enlisting the help of programmers, designers and others from within the school and in the community (think hackathons). It would also prepare student journalists to be critical consumers and presenters of data, while recognizing that a project is best served with the assistance of others.

There is an economic argument for this. While journalism jobs are in a general decline, it was made abundantly clear at NICAR’s recent Computer Assisted Reporting conference that the demand for data and interactive journalists outweighs supply; it is essentially “raining jobs.” I doubt that will change anytime soon. As I write this, AP, Al Jazeera, NPR, the McClatchy Company and the Seattle Times all have job openings for either data-centric or news app development positions. And that’s just a brief survey. It seems likely that the starting pay for these jobs will be higher than for the more typical journalism positions. The Columbia Journalism Review also recently weighed in on the growth in data journalism jobs at both large and small media outlets.

Based on how well data-driven projects share on social media, people really seem to enjoy them. Whether it’s consuming data on homicide rates or exploring the warming of the Earth due to climate change, these projects help cut through the noise and reach eyeballs.

Every journalist, no matter the primary media, should know the basics of HTML/CSS and data analysis. In this day and age, these are critical assets as media continue to transition to the digital realm and data gains more importance and interest. Not every journalist may want to be a web developer or focus completely on data journalism, but this niche in our industry demands more serious consideration at the J-school level to effectively prepare student journalists for the real and digital world.

This is the latest in a series of blog posts from the first ONA class of AP-Google Journalism and Technology Scholars describing their experiences, projects and sharing their knowledge with the ONA community.

John Osborn is a graduate student at University of California, Berkeley, working on newsgames that explain the U.S. political system.

John Osborn

John Osborn

John graduated from Humboldt State University with a degree in Journalism. While there, his leadership as Editor-in-Chief helped earn its college publication — The Lumberjack — a California College Media Association award for Best Back-to-School issue and third place in General Excellence in 2007.