Lecture hall

The courses could follow a US university lab format, but are aimed at everyone, not just students

Credit: By sidewalk flying on Flickr. Some rights reserved.
Just over a month ago a new project which aims to offer training for the "next generation of news-application developers" launched on crowdfunding website Kickstarter.

At the time of writing, with just under two weeks still to go, For Journalism has raised 80 per cent of its target of $32,000. Last week it also secured its second newsroom backer in Digital First Media. According to Dave Stanton, who is overseeing the project, NBC News was the first newsroom to back to project.

"I was floored when both of them happened," Stanton told Journalism.co.uk.

"I definitely think it shows from the organisations that picked it, the value that they're placing both on the necessity of broad staff knowledge of technical skills and it's also showing that there's a gap in the market that nobody's providing this yet, so that's the big thing that I see."

Jim Brady, editor-in-chief of Digital First Media, told Journalism.co.uk that the company pledged its backing "because when you get the chance to expose your entire company to training provided by some of the sharpest minds in the journalism development community, you take it".

"Development is still sadly under appreciated in many newsrooms, but thanks in part to this training, our newsrooms won't be among them. We're excited to get the benefit of this training and knowledge."

The project so far has 250 backers, ranging from those who have pledged the minimum of $5 through to the two newsroom-level backers which, according to the Kickstarter page, have to pledge $5,000 or more.

There is still one level of backing above the newsroom level available however, and that is university level. This requires backing of $10,000 or more. If the project is successful, a university backer will see "every student, faculty and staff member" given access to all the training material.

"As a bonus, we'll work with you to see how and where you can strategically add coding and data topics into your curriculum," the project page adds.

"Now I'm just waiting to see who's going to be the first university to jump in," Stanton said.

"We clearly have got a couple of newsrooms, and other newsrooms that have talked to me about how they think it's an awesome idea and they're mulling it over and looking at value and how they could make it happen. So there's definitely some traction there and I can't wait to see if we can get a university jump on."

The 'pipeline problem'

Looking back Stanton, who is also managing developer at smartmediacreative.com, said in recent years he has noticed a "pipeline problem that we had for tech skills in journalism".

"There were lots of great programmes geared around design and digital publishing, but not around using data to tell journalism."

Stanton said this prompted him to start "tinkering with this concept of what would a hacker journalism masters programme might look like."

He sought feedback from "pretty much every news apps developer that I knew", asking what courses they would have on their "ultimate hacker journalism masters programme".

After whittling the ideas down to 14 courses, he again asked the developers to rank them based on how important they felt the courses would be to "journalists that you would want to hire in your newsroom, to work on your team".

He also asked the developers who they felt would be "most qualified to teach this course".

The focus when it came to teaching was to look at the many "enthusiastic professionals that are great at these topics", many of whom may already "give workshops to professional organisations", he added.

"So that's the journey, how it came from this concept of there's a pipeline problem, did some surveys and now we ended up with what I think is a pretty good format of what we're trying to accomplish with For Journalism and our initial course offering."

The end result was eight courses to start with, which, according to the Kickstarter project page, will offer trainees an ebook, screencasts, code repositories and forums. The subjects being covered include Django, Ruby on Rails, charting and visualisation, responsive design and mapping.

Training 'for pretty much anybody'

While the idea is to operate the courses in a way which might follow the structure of a typical US university lab schedule, the training is far from just aimed at students.

"Almost all of the backers so far have been professionals, and that's kind of what I expected, that's kind of what the team expected," Stanton said.

We're really hoping that it's the start of an ongoing, online masters-level curriculum that we can sustain for the foreseeable futureDave Stanton
"The audience is not just students. The audience is not just working professionals or people who have a hobby interest in journalism, it's for pretty much anybody but for the scoping of the course and the pacing I'm taking special interest in how we can structure the content, that it would fit really nicely in a university, at least an American university lab format, where you'd meet once a week for two hours and you generally have an hour of instruction and then an hour of independent work."

He added that the training will also not just be made available to those who backed the Kickstarter campaign.

"You'd absolutely be able to sign up afterwards. Exactly what platform we use for that [is still] to be determined. Will we build out our own ecommerce thing so you can just pay your $20 for the course right on the ForJournalism.com site? That's the likely scenario, but we'll see.

"But this is definitely not something we're just creating this for the Kickstarter... We're really hoping that it's the start of an ongoing, online masters-level curriculum that we can sustain for the foreseeable future."

Getting started with Kickstarter

The crowd-funding goal of $32,000 is "the absolute minimum that we think we can get it done", he said.

"It doesn't really account for a lot of the other forums and collaboration stuff that we would want to build, and so we're still exploring, hopefully we will exceed funding.

"We've got some other stuff in the works of how we might be able to fund that. But the number that we put was what we needed to be able to capture and produce the content of those nine courses, without the online collaboration portion."

He added that the idea to use Kickstarter at the start "was the obvious choice".

"We can put out what the vision is, see if it has traction, do some essentially pre-selling and if that's the case then we create the product and bring it to market and we can do it our way versus having a lot of hoops to jump through and a lot of bureaucracy to deal with since we don't exactly know how this is going to go.

"We want to make it as loose as we can while still being predictable of what we're going to create."

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