January 6, 2016

Reporters and editors at The Daily Breeze had a big story on their hands. Waste, corruption and lazy local government — and at the center of it all, a superintendent pocketing a bloated salary.

The tale of how Jose Fernandez ended up making $663,000 per year was complicated, with key events scattered throughout the last decade. To make sense of it all, the newspaper organized its coverage into a single online package led by an interactive timeline. The result of their reporting: Fernandez was booted, the FBI launched an investigation and The Daily Breeze won a Pulitzer Prize for local reporting.

At the heart of the investigation was hard-nosed reporting by reporters Rob Kuznia and Rebecca Kimitch. But it was accentuated by Timeline JS, a digital tool created at Northwestern University’s Knight Lab by associate professor Zach Wise. At the Knight Lab, a joint project of Northwestern’s Medill journalism school and its McCormick engineering school, professors, technologists, journalists and designers work together to create digital tools for media professionals around the world.

For administrators at Northwestern, the Knight Lab and Timeline JS showcase the potential unlocked by putting storytellers and engineers in the same room. And it’s the inspiration for another joint program from Medill and McCormick that will soon see the school opening up an outpost near the heart of Silicon Valley.

This spring, Northwestern plans to open an 18,000-square-foot space in San Francisco’s financial district that places engineering students and faculty alongside their journalism counterparts in a startup-like environment. The office on Montgomery Street will be accentuated with glass, open ceilings and stocked with the type of Seussian furniture you might see in a Bay Area tech upstart. By imitating the whimsical and experimental design tenets of Silicon Valley, it’s hoped that function will follow form.

“We’re making a long-term bet on the connection between journalism, innovation and technology,” said Brad Hamm, the dean of Medill.

During the first year, about 120 to 150 graduate and undergraduate journalism students will occupy the space, with the possibility for expansion at a later date. The expansion will feature joint classes and a shared focus on melding technology and journalism with project-based learning.

Medill’s move west fits into a trend seen throughout journalism higher education. To keep pace with the demands of an industry hungry for tech-literate graduates, many journalism schools in recent years have offered programs that attempt to produce well-rounded professionals as comfortable writing code as they are writing ledes. Among them: Columbia University‘s journalism program offers a dual degree in journalism and computer science, the University of Colorado’s College of Media houses journalism alongside design and information science programs and Arizona State’s Cronkite School offers digital training as part of its “teaching hospital model.”

Expanding to media hotspots has been a part of Medill’s playbook for decades. This spring, the journalism school will mark the 50th anniversary of its Washington program, which puts students in the nation’s capital to cover public policy. The Evanston-based campus also has an office in nearby Chicago, where graduate students cover arts, culture, politics, business and sports.

Hamm says San Francisco is worthy destination for Medill for a number of reasons. The ascendency of Silicon Valley has been accompanied by increased coverage by news outlets seeking to report on the boom. The city is also home to a growing number of companies that employ graduates in engineering and media. And the region is home to a large population of Medill alumni, which the school plans to capitalize on with a donor relations office. Taken together, these factors mean more professional opportunities for students and a chance for Medill to add to its coffers through advancement work.

It also dovetails with a forthcoming specialization at Medill, “media innovation and entrepreneurship,” which will emphasize design thinking, agile development and content strategy. Students undertaking the specialization will spend a quarter in Medill’s San Francisco office and launch a business over the course of their studies.

Medill will have to be somewhat creative with the way it incorporates engineering students into the curriculum because McCormick has strict accreditation requirements that befit an industry with rigid safety standards, Hamm said. Much of the collaboration is slated to take place in a design lab, where students from the two schools will work together on projects. The space will also include classrooms, a broadcast space, presentation areas and small-group work rooms. Renovation for the expansion is already underway.

Ultimately, the goal is to create an environment that facilitates experimentation, a place where the next news app like Timeline JS can be built.

Correction: A previous version of this story said Medill students in the school’s Media Innovation and Entrepreneurship program will spend a year in San Francisco. In fact, they will spend a quarter there.

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Benjamin Mullin was formerly the managing editor of Poynter.org. He also previously reported for Poynter as a staff writer, Google Journalism Fellow and Naughton Fellow,…
Benjamin Mullin

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