Northwestern Magazine
Fall 2008HomeAlumni NewsCampus LifeMailboxPurple ProseBack Issues
Submit a Class Note
Class Codes
Submit a Purple Prose
E-mail the Editor
Back Issues
Update Your Address
Advertise with Us
Contact Us

Techies Take Up Journalism

A few years ago, computer programmers Brian Boyer and Ryan Mark had little thought of steering their careers toward journalism. But when they heard about a scholarship encouraging web developers to break into the world of 21st-century reporting, they decided to take a detour.

Boyer of Birmingham, Mich., and Mark of Libertyville, Ill., were the first to receive full scholarships to the Medill School's graduate program as part of an initiative encouraging technologists to apply their skills to the changing landscape of online journalism.

The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation gave the Medill School a $639,000 grant to fully fund graduate-level journalism education for nine web developers over a three-year period. The grant was the fifth-largest award given out in 2007 as part of the Knight News Challenge, a competition encouraging applicants to develop creative ways to move journalism into the digital age.

"With a programming background you can do anything with computers," said Mark, who earned his undergraduate degree from Augustana College in computer science. "The whole point of this program is to bring people in who understand the computers … to see if there is something that can be done that would help inform the public or help journalists do their jobs."

So far, Boyer and Mark, and a third programmer, Nicholas Allen, have entered the program, but it has been an ongoing struggle to find qualified applicants interested in leaving a world of coding for journalistic writing.

Boyer and Mark admit it's been a difficult adjustment.

"I hadn't been asked to write anything for a grade since I was a freshman in college," says Boyer, who graduated from University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign with a bachelor's degree in computer science in 2000. "It's very, very different from what I was doing before."

This fall Boyer and Mark will combine their training in journalism with their programming backgrounds when they collaborate with traditional graduate journalism students on an "innovation project" to create an original product — a web site, online community or other media tool — to bring communities closer together.

"Typically different types of people become technology developers and journalists, and so here are a couple of guys who have a strong track record in computers who are really interested in journalism," says Rich Gordon, associate professor and director of the Medill School's new media program. "We have no idea what's going to happen. … In the end we think they'll do some interesting things."

— Lauren Price (J08)

Printer-Friendly Format
Ryan and Brian
Medill School graduate students Ryan Mark, left, and Brian Boyer received Knight Foundation-funded scholarships created to encourage programmers to explore journalism.Photo by Nick Infusino (WCAS08)