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10 Years of Technology + Media at Medill

Partnership with Knight Foundation fosters tremendous success for alumni programmer/journalists

September 13, 2021
Two women talk and laugh on a couch while a man works beside them on a laptop.
Emily Chow (center) meets with colleagues at The Washington Post. Photo credit: Austin Graff for The Washington Post.

EVANSTON, ILL. -- This year marks the tenth anniversary of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation’s transformational investment at Northwestern University to establish the Knight News Innovation Laboratory in partnership with the Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications and the McCormick School of Engineering. The grant built upon a ground-breaking collaboration that began four years earlier in 2007, when the Knight Foundation launched a scholarship program at Medill meant to spark innovation in media by fusing journalism and computer programming. It was one of the first efforts to solve the problems confronting journalists, publishers and media consumers through computer science.

Today, the Knight Lab continues to thrive as a media and technology incubator that allows students to better understand how technology changes the way we report, consume and share news and information.

"Students and faculty at the Knight News Innovation Laboratory at Northwestern's Medill school are constantly re-imagining the future of news and journalism with product thinking, design and engineering skills," said Karen Rundlet, Knight Foundation's Director of Journalism. "The public now interacts with journalism so regularly on digital platforms. The industry can't afford to ignore these critical skills."

When the initial scholarship program was created, it wasn’t widely accepted that news organizations needed people with computer programming skills, says Medill Professor Rich Gordon, who applied for the grant as part of the Knight News Challenge competition.

It’s clear that programming and engineering are as essential to journalism as reporting, storytelling and digital publishing. Major news organizations like the New York Times and Washington Post now employ hundreds of people in software development roles.

Today, the Knight Lab’s open-source tools, built by faculty, staff and students, have been used by more than 300,000 people and reached more than 160 million readers, according to Knight Lab estimates. One of the most successful projects to come out of the Knight Lab is Timeline JS, a tool that enables any storyteller to build visually rich, interactive timelines using nothing more than a Google spreadsheet.

“The Knight Lab challenges Northwestern’s faculty, staff and students to explore what society needs from media and how technology can be part of the solution,” says Jeremy Gilbert, Medill professor and Knight Chair in Digital Media Strategy. “The Lab is growing, expanding its reach and refining its focus. We will remain committed to continuing to challenge the university, profession and society with exciting new solutions that solve difficult problems.”

Success Stories

But the biggest successes of the Knight grants are the students who graduated — both the scholarship recipients and the Knight Lab alumni.

Brian Boyer (MSJ09) was one of the first two scholarship recipients, starting his Medill studies in 2008. After graduating, he led the news applications team at the Chicago Tribune, the digital visuals group at NPR and the product team at Spirited Media, a startup company that launched local news sites in several cities. In his writings and presentations, he also helped inspire other people with computer science backgrounds to move into media and journalism.

“I encourage technologists, product managers, project managers and anyone from outside the industry to come to the news because we need you, and your democracy needs you,” Boyer says.

Sarah Adler Hartman (BSJ13) is an Entrepreneur-in-Residence at the New York Times, where she works to build new standalone digital subscription businesses outside of the core news offering. Currently, she’s exploring a product that parents can purchase for their kids.

“The Knight Lab at NU was where I learned about the potential of the intersection of technology and journalism,” Adler says. “Back then, digital subscriptions hadn't really been proven yet, and work like ‘Snow Fall’ was just suggesting that digital-first journalism had the potential to be exceptionally engaging. Now, I spend my time deep in both journalism and product, building apps so rich that people will pay for them.”

Emily Chow (BSJ12) is Director of Product, Site at the Washington Post. She oversees the end-to-end core reader experience from newsroom tools to the website and apps.

“I vividly remember Jeremy Gilbert providing me an assignment to conduct competitive analysis and audit the usability of various websites showcasing election results, which helped me develop critical thinking skills and refined my understanding of how to think about user interfaces and user experience.”

Manya Gupta (MSJ10) works as a senior UX designer for the City of Seattle and is currently working on a customer-facing portal that enables residents to make all utility-related transactions in one place. On any given day, Gupta is involved in UI design, content strategy and overall product design while balancing business and customer needs.

“When I entered Medill, I was a person who could code,” Gupta explains. “When I came out of the program, I had a unique blend of technical, design, content and customer research skills that I could mix and match and apply to a variety of different roles.” She adds, “Every single job that I have had since leaving Medill, I have relied on the fundamental skills that I learned during the program.”

Gupta came to Medill from Bangalore, India, where she was working as a software engineer at a startup. Since graduating with her master’s in journalism, she has held a variety of interesting roles. Immediately after graduation, Gupta went to WGBH Boston where she was a web content editor for the daily news show “The World.” From there, she moved to the external communications team at Fidelity where she focused on simplifying complicated financial concepts via infographics and simple writing for customers. Gupta relocated to Seattle in 2017 and got a job at a startup that was creating a project management tool before moving into her job with the city.

“These are just a few snapshots of things that I was able to learn because of the Knight Scholarship Program,” Gupta says. “It was Professor Gordon’s vision that offered me an opportunity to learn skills that I otherwise wouldn't have learned and equipped me with tools that I could use in this constantly changing digital world to my advantage. My growth as a person and as a professional in the last 10 years is a testimony to the success of the program.”

Kavya Sukumar (MSJ13) works as vice president of products at Hearken, Inc. Prior to attending Medill, Sukumar was a software development engineer at Microsoft.

According to Sukumar, although trained engineers have the skills to create technology-enabled products, they often lack news judgment and empathy for the newsroom.

“I often feel like learning journalism is harder than learning to code,” Sukumar explains. “While news judgment can be learned at journalism schools, engineers can learn through practice and exposure on the job. Less a skill than a mindset, engineers working in journalism should develop empathy for the newsroom,” Sukumar says. “This is particularly helpful for programmers working in product management, who must understand their internal users to develop products they will be using.”

Chris Williams (MSJ14) is a computational journalist at the Philadelphia Inquirer. Prior to Medill he did web development consulting with a specialty in custom databases and content management systems. Williams went straight from Medill into an internship with the Washington Post, where he helped develop an internal tool for reporters to make their own charts and graphs. Now, at the Inquirer, he performs analysis and develops software tools to help reporters in the newsroom. He credits the Medill program with helping his writing become clearer and more concise. “I learned how to take myself out of my writing,” Williams says.

When Shane Shifflett (MSJ10) graduated the Medill program, his first job out of grad school was working for a nonprofit newsroom in San Francisco covering nine Bay Area counties. There, his primary role was developing "news applications" that included a bike accident tracker to catalogue the Bay Area's most dangerous intersections for cyclists. Today he is a reporter for the Wall Street Journal. At the WSJ, Shifflett works as an enterprise reporter focused on finance and the economy using data analysis and open records to report compelling stories.

“I've worked on data-intensive, multi-story projects where I've built web scrapers to collect data, analyzed unstructured corpora like securities documents and websites to find entities and connections and invested significant time to report out examples,” Shifflett explains. “One such example is a series of stories I co-authored detailing Amazon's anticompetitive practices and the company's failure to police third-party sellers on its platform and stop them from selling unsafe or deceptive products.”

He adds that the Medill program pushed him to be much more proactive and learn to communicate efficiently. “The practical experience of the downtown newsroom is core to my success as a reporter,” he says. “The insights and support from professors were also crucial to my understanding of how to navigate relationships with editors and sources.”

Steven Melendez (MSJ10) currently works as an independent journalist based in New Orleans, regularly contributing to a variety of local and national publications. Prior to studying journalism, he worked at a company that provided technical analysis for legal cases. For Melendez, a lifetime connection to the Medill Network is one of his key takeaways from the program. “It was a great introduction to the art and craft of reporting and connected me with great friends, colleagues, and instructors, many of whom I am still in touch with,” he says.

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