Starting in 2011, Columbia University will be offering a new combined degree between the journalism school and engineering school, which will aim to blaze a trail in the future of online journalism and bridge the divide between computer techs and journalists—who increasingly work together in this digital media world, but don’t always speak the same language. CJR’s Alexandra Fenwick checked in (separately) with Bill Grueskin, dean of academic affairs at Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism, and Julia Hirschberg, professor of computer science at Columbia’s Fu Foundation School of Engineering & Applied Science, to find out how computer engineering and journalism can combine to create a whole new breed of cross-disciplinary techno/journalist ninjas.

Alexandra Fenwick: Are the people in this new program going to be engineers first or journalists first?

Bill Grueskin: In order to be part of this program, they’re going to have to meet the admissions standards of both schools. To get in the building here, you have to write well, think cogently, and have a real appreciation for what journalists do. It’s a little more subjective whereas in the engineering school, it’s a little more objective, there’s certain courses and there’s more clearly delineated definitions about what you need to have taken to get into the master’s level. It’s more… do you have the academic and practical background to handle the load at the engineering school. So it will be a fairly small number of people. We view this as twelve to fifteen students a year. They will take the RW1 journalism essentials class, but will also take a seminar and a workshop specifically designed for them… Both sides wanted this to be a real dual program. Our plan is to have the students living in each school each semester, so you take some courses here, and some courses over there each semester.

AF: So you’re looking for that rare breed of engineer who can communicate well and a journalist who can speak in computer code?

BG: I’m not sure it’s quite as rare as we think it is. I don’t think we can cull a class of 200 students, but worldwide I think we can find twelve or fifteen people. And once it gets running, if you know this is out there, it might affect the classes you take earlier on.

AF: Is this an attempt to fix the broken business model of journalism?

BG: This is not a partnership with the business school, but I think some of the innovations that are going to help journalism through this rough patch are going to be more technologically based than economically based. If journalism is going to survive, it has to deliver information to readers and viewers or listeners in a much more effective way. And one way you go about doing that is providing ways of surfacing information that is much more effective. [“Surfacing” in tech speak, is a verb that means bringing to the forefront, or to the surface.]

AF: Database mining has been discussed as one area that this hybrid degree could focus on. But sometimes it takes someone to actually sit there and read through every single document in a database, especially if it’s a poorly organized one. (See: the Los Angeles Times analysis of sudden acceleration complaints registered by Toyota, Lexus, and Scion drivers with the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration.) Can that hard work, that sweat equity of journalism, which doesn’t come cheap and takes a long time, be fixed or corrected for with a quick computer program?

Julia Hirschberg: There are well known technologies for text classification that allow you to put information in bins so you can spend less time reading it, a whole field of computational linguistics which studies how to get computers to understand language and generate it.

AF: What is something that is already out there that could be an example of the sort of thing that could come out of this dual degree program?

JH: Newsblaster (developed by colleague Kathleen McKeown) is a program that uses automatic summarization that helps you decide if you want to read something. It looks at lost of news sites every day, clusters them and then summarizes the thread by picking out sentences from different articles.

(Reporter’s note: This isn’t the first collaboration between the ink-stained wretches at Columbia’s journalism school and the calculator-wielding set at the university’s engineering school. Back in 2002, upon Newsblaster’s launch, journalism students were called in to fact check the program’s summaries, which, though largely accurate, admittedly sometimes included major errors.)

Alexandra Fenwick is an assistant editor at CJR.