Journalism in the Open: Are our systems for learning making the grade?

This is the third in a series of five blog posts this week dedicated to thinking out loud about the opportunities for the Knight-Mozilla News Technology Partnership in 2012. It will culminate in Friday’s post announcing the 2011/12 Knight-Mozilla Fellows. Yesterday’s post dealt with the the need to build community around the open-source code being written in journalism.

I had a brief exchange on Twitter yesterday, with ProPublica’s Scott Klein, about how high school poets end up as journalists and how he hopes that high school mathletes start to follow the same path. The basic idea was that kids are turned on to something at a young age and then search for viable career paths to follow. So for a high-school poet, they look around and think “I like to write, what professions are going to let me become a kick-ass writer.” Traditionally, journalism has absorbed a lot of those folks and has been stronger for it. Now, posited Klein, with the ascendancy of data journalism and the growing need for high-level developers to break news by crunching numbers, the hope is that kids that are switched on to math will draw the same conclusion and wind up revolutionizing journalism. But, I countered, how many high school newspapers are doing data journalism right now? Because that’s the first step. My guess? Not many—and that’s a loss.

Because Klein is right: there is ample space for math geeks, stats nerds, number-crunchers and many more in journalism. It’s a place they should be playing. And you can see, with each stat-heavy report, with each number-savvy data visualization, that some are starting to. But nowhere near enough.

So how do we get them interested? I think we do it in two ways: By leading by example—doing kick-ass, math-heavy journalism (of course)—but also by creating opportunities for learning. Because it’s really by demonstrating that the problem sets in journalism are compelling ones, and offering avenues to learn more about them, that we’re going to start to attract the talent that we need.

But as someone who spent the last three years in journalism education, our J-schools aren’t currently tooled to work with those problem sets. They are, by and large, teaching the other side of the equation: the writers.

Yet even on the writer’s side we need to be teaching beyond the now accepted j-school norms of Soundslides, iMovie, and maybe a little (shudder) Flash. We need to be building out more fully-realized skillsets that include basic coding, an understanding of editorial UX, working with data, and a lot more contextual understanding of storyelling and reporting that is of the web, and not simply an extension of print.

But again, the speed of change in the academy isn’t meeting the speed of innovation on the web.

And this is true well beyond the high-school and college level—journalists at all levels are hungry to retool. We need to rethink how we approach these things: How can we do learning at scale that can speak fluently to these different constituencies (and there are plenty more beyond the two examples above), while also bringing them closer together—not so that one can become the other (because, believe me, in the Hacks/Hackers equation, it’s a much quicker route for the hacker to become the hack than vice versa), but because the two need to understand just how powerful they can be when they collaborate together?

Of course, at the end of the day, we’re fostering different skillsets that compliment each other in the way that the best multidisciplinary teams can. And so one thing to think about is what the baselines for those skillsets are. The math geek doesn’t need a primer on statistics, but may need to know how a FOIA request works, or how to interpret census data, for instance. While the reporter may need to learn how to extend her database skills beyond Excel or how to take a map beyond Google MyMaps. These are simple examples—the bare minimum of a bare minimum: What do you think the baseline of learning for these (and other) constituencies should be?

Because that’s where we need to start: We need to start figuring out how engage different groups of people that are crucial to the advancement of journalism at their level, in their language, and then move them beyond. And I think that we can’t wait for the institutions to catch up, I think that we have to actively recruit each other to do it. Because as individuals, we are brilliant, and we have the ability to share that brilliance with others.

That’s a lot, to be sure, and there are plenty that are taking a stab at it (it was exciting to read just today that Poynter’s NewsU passed its 200,000 registered user mark), but I think that there are real strides possible at the peer-to-peer level, at journalistic learning that’s driven by people excited about sharing their own knowledge to the types of folks that they’re already comfortable speaking to. I want to see a ton of amazing classes bloom, and the outputs of those classes be new people in the journalism community.

There are a lot of different directions to take this: Where do you want to see learning go in journalism?

Tomorrow: We’re all makers now.

note: in a jetlag-induced editing frenzy, I brought this down in length a bit from the original posting.