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Retha Hill Fellows Q&A: J-Schools and the Language of Technology

CGI Q&A with ASU Fellow Retha Hill
Director, New Media Innovation Lab
Professor of Practice, Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication

CGI: Please share a little bit about your work or research.

Professor Hill: I look at how universities, particularly journalism schools can help the journalists of the future get there now from learning how to be entrepreneurial and intrapreneurial-minded,  through building skills in product develop development from inception to completion, and by helping students think about monetizing in their projects. It can be a huge problem, the notion of monetizing whatever it is a journalist is proposing. It’s something that journalists have traditionally shied away from because we didn’t want conflict of interest. So part of what we do at the lab is provide the support and space for students to build an understanding of emerging technologies so that some of the journalists can do basic development work on their own.

CGI: Why is this important for journalism students?

Professor Hill:
An issue with some journalism and media funding initiatives is that they give money to journalists that come up with a fabulous idea, but there are gaps in project execution and/or product delivery because the awardees do not understand enough of the technology. For example, the journalist cannot do the development and they spend much of the budget hiring a developer who also does not deliver. This can happen because of disconnects in the journalists ability to assess the technical needs of the project, the communication of those technical needs, and even the capabilities of the developer. There may also be a gap in the development community of people who say they can do something, and people who can actually do it. Then, there may also be issues with finding the right people who can understand your business. Of course, many developers can probably do an iPhone application, but if the journalist can’t walk them through the project and explain what they really want, then they get a project or product that has cost a lot of money and is less than ideal. I think it is incumbent upon the journalist, and the journalism students, to really understand enough of the technology to have a productive conversation. It’s like, if I’m speaking in Spanish, and you’re speaking in Russian, then we can’t understand each other. But, if I have some rudimentary Russian and you have some rudimentary Spanish, then we can probably carry on some kind of a conversation and get closer to what we need.

CGI: So, what does it mean to bridge the language/communication gap between journalists and technologists?

Professor Hill: It’s basically doing some of the work yourself. The lab has a student who is a broadcast major and he’s actually creating a mobile application for the Society of Professional Journalists that would be a mobile source book for all of their diversity sources. He’s taught himself jQuery mobile, which is not that hard, but now he has to build a backend. Now, Micah, our developer, has been teaching him python and he’s been reading these books on python. Will he get to the point that he’s a python expert? Probably not. But if he can build a simple backend, and he’s very entrepreneurial in his thinking, let’s say 6 months from now he’s walking down the street and has an idea for something, he can probably cobble together at least a minimally viable product and he can take it to a developer, or maybe even to a funder, and say, “This is where I think I want to go…” Then, he can get X number of dollars, he can then hire someone who could do the more complex iPhone application that uses Objective-C or some of the programming that you need for Android, or Blackberrry.

In another example, our students are learning GIS, they’re learning about database manipulation and creation, these are the kinds of skills that will serve journalists well in the future. It will certainly help Cronkite students beat the competition. Cause nowadays, typical journalism student a major j-school will know how to report, they know how to do multimedia, they can shoot video, they can edit it themselves, they can post it, they can do social media, they might even understand SEO. But where we were maybe more cutting edge with that 4 or 5 years ago, now not only entrepreneurship, but being able to do some of the programming will give these students more of an edge in getting that job. In a small market, why not hire the journalist who can report the fire, and then in her spare time maybe work on a mobile application for the market? It saves the organization from having to hire a developer and pay $50,000 for it.

CGI: What are your thoughts on the intersection of Journalism and Games & Impact?

Professor Hill: I think two things: One, journalists across the country are still trying to figure out how to use games to teach people. It’s the same issue with education, it has to be fun, it has to be interesting, it has to bring people back. So, as journalists we’re always trying to teach complex issues to our readers, whether it’s the housing swaps, the economic meltdown, or what happening in the Middle East…  I think most journalists who have thought about this have tried, and failed, to come up with interesting ways to gamify the news. There have been a few successes, most of them failures. So that’s one issue. But, two, the other issue is, How can journalists use game technology to teach people about our industry, what it is that we do, and the decisions that we need to make as journalists? People have a view, especially in the last 10 to 15 years, that journalists are biased, and we put our biases out there, as opposed to understanding the choices that we have to make when we’re in the field.