Who invited them? Innovation party crashers keep coming as Northeastern launches new journalism program

Professor Jeff Howe will direct a new graduate program in media innovation at Northeastern (Brooks Canaday/Courtesy of Northeastern University)
Professor Jeff Howe will direct a new graduate program in media innovation at Northeastern (Brooks Canaday/Courtesy of Northeastern University)

First the musicians, now the reporters. Sorry, tech types. There’s another crasher at your innovation party.

Northeastern University’s School of Journalism has received a $250,000 grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation to help launch a new graduate program focused on media innovation.

Beginning in the fall, the school plans to enroll experienced media professionals who will devote much of their studies to non-journalism subjects, such as computer science and game design. The unorthodox curriculum is a response to technological advances that have made skills like managing large data sets and creating interactive infographics as important to contemporary news reporting as writing and interviewing.

“Today’s journalists must not only report and write the news, but also deliver stories in print and online, and supplement them with images, audio and video,” said Xavier Costa, dean of Northeastern’s College of Arts, Media and Design.

The announcement by Northeastern follows the January launch of the tech-centric Institute for Creative Entrepreneurship at Berklee College of Music.

So now we have bassists trading jam sessions for hackathons and journos writing lines of code, instead of prose. What’s going on in this town?

Actually, it is not essential that journalists learn programming languages — though they can if they want, said Jeff Howe, an assistant professor who will direct the new course of study.

“We need journalists to learn to think like a coder,” Howe told me. “Yes, we need to transplant those skills into journalism, but what’s more important is that we transplant those ideas and attitudes.”

Basically, everyone wants to experiment with the Kendall Square formula, including the Knight Foundation, which has created a Prototype Fund designed to help “media makers, technologists and tinkerers take ideas from concept to demo.”

The grant to Northeastern is much larger than the $35,000 prototype awards, but “this is an extension of that philosophy,” said Michael Maness, Knight’s vice president for journalism and media innovation. “Jeff has an idea around what it would look like to have an interdisciplinary master’s program in journalism, so let’s give it a shot. And if there’s something there, let’s scale it.”

Students will work on long-term projects of their choosing, with the aim to be published or aired by major news outlets, like The New York Times and NPR. They also will serve as collaborators on projects inside and outside the university, such as Homicide Watch, a crime-tracking initiative that started in Washington, D.C., and is now attempting to create a database of every Boston murder.

Where was this when I was a graduate student at Northeastern?

The school will begin by offering media innovation as an alternative to the professional track in its existing master of arts in journalism program, and plans to develop innovation into a separate degree program starting in the 2015-2016 academic year.

Northeastern’s goal is to position itself as a leader for the future of journalism education.

“I want us to have the best journalism program in the country in five years,” Howe said.

Cal Borchers is a business reporter for the Boston Globe. Reach him at [email protected].
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