I'm part of the post-Watergate generation of journalism school graduates, and I'm watching my peers struggle to master digital tools in an effort to stay relevant to an industry that is shifting under their feet. After years of working and collaborating with computer scientists at the forefront of the digital transformation of our culture, I've come to understand that what we need, most of all, is to master the fundamentals of what computer scientists have begun to identify as "computational thinking."

The good news is there many parallels between computational thinking and the ways of knowing that are embedded in the practice of journalism.

What is computational thinking?
In a seminal piece on the concept, Jeannette M. Wing explains that computational thinking applies computing processes (human and machine) to other disciplines.

The Web site at the Carnegie Mellon University Center for Computational Thinking elaborates:

  • Computational thinking means creating and making use of different levels of abstraction, to understand and solve problems more effectively.
  • Computational thinking means thinking algorithmically and with the ability to apply mathematical concepts such as induction to develop more efficient, fair, and secure solutions.
  • Computational thinking means understanding the consequences of scale, not only for reasons of efficiency but also for economic and social reasons.

Computational thinking is more than digital literacy
Let's begin with the obvious. Journalism became a computing-dependent profession long before the online revolution upended the business models that sustained the industry since the 1830s.

Investigative journalists, particularly, have been using government databases for decades. They have been creating databases since the early 1990s, and it's no accident that many of the Pulitzer-Prize winning stories over the last 15 years rely heavily on database reporting.

There's no longer an argument about whether journalists need to be digitally literate. Today, newsgathering requires the ability to write programs that scrape public records databases and design interfaces that make the information in those databases interesting, relevant and accessible. It requires the programming and design skills to create interactive presentations that model complex public policy issues or explain social processes. It requires the mastery of social media technologies used to organize online communities around shared interests, issues and concerns. It requires the ethical grounding needed to ensure that the content generated by these advanced tools is accurate, fair, comprehensive and proportional.

However, the digital transformation of newsgathering and delivery requires that journalists become creators, not just consumers of computing technologies. I'm not saying that journalists need to become programmers. I'm saying that we need to be able to reason abstractly about what we do, understand the full palette of computational tools at our disposal, and collaborate to deploy those tools with maximum efficiency and effectiveness. That means understanding the underlying structures and processes of media creation.

What does that mean in practice?
Think about one of the basic functions of a local news operation: delivering occasional major breaking news bulletins. In the old days, an editor would tell a page make-up editor to tear up a front page to make space for a banner headline above the fold, along with a fast write-up of whatever information was available at the time, in inverted-pyramid style.

There were rules –- algorithms, if you will –- that govern the entire process, from the fact that the headline has to contain a subject and predicate to the fact that there should be a dateline, and that sources should be authoritative and quotes should be pithy. Now envision the same task in a modern newsroom.

A programming-savvy editor will likely have worked with the site's interactive editor to define a field within the site's content management system called "Breaking News." The most efficient policy would be to constrain headlines to 140 characters, and to have the RSS feed for the headlines linked to Twitter via an API. Similarly, the Twitter feed should dump to a Facebook status message, as well as to SMS subscribers' news alerts.

However, suppose the news site is a hyperlocal site without a full-time staff to actually develop the breaking news story. Assuming that the site is a member of the Associated Press or a similarly credible service that pools information, the programming-savvy editor can create a function (or have one created) that will post an AP story that meets pre-defined criteria for a breaking news story to its content management system as a draft for approval, then alert the editor. After vetting the story, the editor can release the story as is or quickly get additional value-added content. The editor’ knowledge of underlying computing structures and processes enhances the productivity and efficiency of the news operation.

Here are some additional examples of how computational thinking is already changing the way we do journalism:

Best practices for computational journalism
Infusing computational thinking into journalism alters the epistemology of the field as fundamentally as the advent of objective reporting did 100 years ago. Formal journalism education emerged as part of the effort to codify and institutionalize the best practices of that day, and to serve a news industry oriented to an assembly-line based manufacturing culture. A new journalism is emerging, grounded in computational thinking, that mimics the values and processes of knowledge production in the information age -- what some experts call remix culture. (See Lawrence Lessig, Eduardo Navas, and Henry Jenkins for more on that concept.)

As Clay Shirky has argued, that new journalism requires prolific experimentation to help us discover sustainable business models that will the civic functions of news. The New York Times seems to be one major news site where experimentation influenced by computational thinking is being encouraged. Their open source initiative is an obvious example.

In a 2007 interview with Jared Spool, Times multimedia and graphics editors talked about the process behind the design of one of their popular interactive graphics, the December 2007 debate analyzer that displayed many of the characteristics of computational thinking. For example, graphics editor Steve Duenes said the idea for an interactive tool for analyzing debates started from graphics they'd created in the past analyzing the text or earlier political speeches. Noticing patterns in the speeches that repeated themselves, they began working on a tool that, according to multimedia editor Andrew DeVigal, allowed readers to:

"interact with the transcript during the debate. In it, you can get a side by side display of video, as well as the transcripts from the debates ... And, within the transcript, you can also randomly access certain points of the transcript via a list of major topics. So, you can actually scroll through, rewind through the video, as well as the transcripts ... The second tab allowed folks to be able to actually type in specific words or phrases to search within the transcripts."

Obviously, the marketplace will answer some of our questions about how computational thinking will ultimately transform our production and consumption of the news. At the same time, we need assessment models to help us understand how the creation and presentation of online and interactive news and information affect learning, civic participation and community cohesion.

Some of this is happening, of course. Witness the work of MIT's Center for Future Civic Media, for example. Another example is the Interactive Journalism Institute for Middle Schoolers at The College of New Jersey (where I work), a National Science Foundation-funded demonstration project that uses interactive journalism to infuse computational thinking into the language arts curriculum.

This combination of marketplace experimentation and systematic documentation and reflection will yield a new set of best practices that will become the bedrock of journalism education in the future. The actual tools that we use to implement those practices will continue to change. However, if we educate ourselves properly, we can help to lead that change, ensuring that those evolving practices serve the best interests of democracy.