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Dan Schultz

December 2011

Alum Q&A: Dan Schultz

Dan Schultz received a B.S. in Information Systems in 2009. Schultz is currently a graduate student at the MIT Media Lab, studying in the Information Ecology Group and the Center for Civic Media. At the beginning of November 2011, he was announced as one of five Knight-Mozilla News Technology Fellows that will help newsrooms solve real technology problems. Schultz will be embedded in the Boston Globe’s newsroom for ten months. He will blog regularly about what he’s working on and learning and release the code he creates into the open-source and journalism communities – because the goal of the fellowship is to make tools that benefit all of journalism and beyond.

Congratulations! What will you be working on for the Boston Globe?
Thanks! This is the first set of Knight-Mozilla Fellows so it’s all new territory at this point, and the specifics are being worked out. The hope is that the fellows will be able to work together to help our host newsrooms understand the potential of open collaboration despite being spread across the world. I do know for sure that I’ll help The Globe build out new features on the recently released HTML5–based bostonglobe.com, work with journalists to do data-driven reporting, and hunker down in the “Globe Lab” which is a brand new operation based on the New York Times’ R&D department.

In your opinion, what are the biggest technology challenges for newsrooms?
Newsrooms are finally starting to see an end to the “blind panic” phase that seemed to be going on years ago. You can tell because traditional organizations have really begun stepping up to the plate and show a bit more willingness to evolve and master technology. With that in mind I think that the biggest challenges are far less technological and far more cultural: newsrooms need to get used to being comfortable with collaboration, openness, and designing for reuse. From the perspective of the fellowship this means using and creating open tools and datasets.

This all makes sense: If an industry is strapped for resources nobody can afford to re-invent wheels, and nothing re-invents the wheel quite as well as a bunch of duct taped proprietary systems.

How did you get interested in journalism technology?
I’ve been interested in "community" technology since High School, when I built up a first version of the Globally Personalized Forum, but my first formal step in to mass media thinking was through Interpretation and Argument. In 1938 there was a radio broadcast of War of the Worlds (an epic tale about a Martian invasion). Despite the fictional nature, thousands of people thought the broadcast was actually an alien attack. 67 years later my first semester at CMU was spent trying to understand how this could happen by reading up on the ways that people consume and share information (fun fact, my thesis project at MIT, an automated BS detector, is inspired by this NPR story).

My big break into journalism came from winning the Knight News Challenge my sophomore year. I was taking Professional Writing with professor Necia Werner and we had to write a proposal as the final project: I wrote mine for Knight, submitted it, and 6 months later I was thrown into the ring.

In 2007, you won a Knight News Challenge grant to write about “Connecting People, Content and Community.” What was that experience like?
It was a little bit scary, but I suppose that’s how opportunities work. Most of the winners of the News Challenge were professionals, academics, and veteran hackers (e.g. the guy who invented Django). Meanwhile I’m sitting there with a year and a half of college under my belt. I just made sure to spend a lot of time going over every word I wrote before hitting publish. Attending conferences was the most difficult – it’s hard to network when your business cards were clearly just rush ordered from Kinkos.

This was all intentional on the part of Knight of course. This was the first year of the News Challenge; they were experimenting, and I was an edge case. As a result I got to learn about a field riddled with interesting challenges while offering the perspective of a millennial technologist in return. It turns out the experience set me on a path that I have continued to follow. I’m at MIT thanks to the Center for Civic Media. The Center for Civic Media was originally funded by -- you guessed it -- a Knight News Challenge grant.

How do you feel that your degree from CMU’s Information Systems (IS) Program prepared you for graduate school and this fellowship?
The program gave me the chance to explore (and discover) my passions. I’ve already mentioned two courses that have essentially defined my career, and there were plenty of others; I wouldn’t have taken any of them had I been in a different technology program. In a more general sense the breadth helped me develop as a creative thinker while the technology courses helped me develop as a maker. Combining two concepts will always result in some pretty spectacular potential.

What advice would you give to current IS students?
You’re in a great spot. Everybody has problems that can be solved with technology. With that in mind, find something interesting about everything you do – always be on the lookout for ways to tie your courses into whatever it is you care about. If you can’t design and build your dream systems in class for some reason, make sure you design and build them on your own. And, of course, take wild shots in the dark even when you have no hope of hitting – just make sure you take them with passion and an eye for perfection.

What do you miss the most from your time at CMU?
I have to say dorm life. Or maybe I just miss kicking everyone’s butt at smash brothers. I’ll go with both, as they were definitely related.

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