Training the Journalists of Tomorrow: The Data Journalism MA at Tilburg University


“There is something about not just being able to think and act like a programmer but also to be able to think and act like a journalist, which is quite demanding. It’s an unusual skill set. Newsrooms are crying out for these skills."

Emily Bell, director of the Tow Center for Digital Journalism, made this statement recently in a Nieman Journalism Lab article about a new post-baccalaureate programme the Center is offering, which teaches computer science for journalism.

This belief, that students need to be able to manage computer and data science as well as journalism in order to be well prepared for the media world they are graduating into, is starting to reshape journalistic education around the world. Several pioneering institutions are embarking on such initiatives, including the University of Hong Kong, Tilburg University in the Netherlands, the Rey Juan Carlos University in Spain, Columbia and New York University in the United States, and others.

In this series of interviews, we will take a behind the scenes look at some of these programmes. For our third interview, we talked to Stefania Milan, Assistant Professor and coordinator of the Data Journalism Master's programme at Tilburg University, the Netherlands, which was inaugurated in September 2012.

Why a data journalism MA?

Stefania Milan: We are a bit of a special department for a data journalism programme. We are actually based in the Humanities School and are not, so to speak, a classical journalism school. Instead we have a strong faction engaged in data mining, computational linguistics, and more generally, applied informatics. We thought this would be a good setting in which to shape the journalists of tomorrow, by exposing them to all the technical skills needed to find stories in complex data sets.

The idea, therefore, was not to open a journalism school, since for us, journalism is a craft that you basically learn in the newsroom by doing it. Rather, we wanted to provide students with the technical skills that cannot be taught in the newsroom.

The philosophy behind the programme is to produce journalists who can find stories within complex amounts of data. We want to give our students flexible tools that will allow them to navigate a job market that’s becoming a lot more complex. The media field itself is changing rapidly. There are less and less jobs, which means people need to be specialised in skills that are uncommon, or that are difficult to build on your own. With our course programme, we tried to bridge over this gap.

Stefania Milan (©National University of Singapore)

What does the curriculum look like?

SM: We have eight fundamental courses, which students can choose from: transmedia journalism, user interface design, journalistic data mining, precision journalism, digital storytelling, interactive visualisation, social signal processing, and data journalism practice. The last course is a traineeship, during which our students are embedded in a newsroom.

Some of our teachers are journalists, but the majority are computer scientists or methods experts. All the method courses, in which students are exposed to advanced statistics and advanced qualitative methods, are applied to journalistic projects.

In addition to the courses we offer in our MA, students can also select courses from other programmes, since our MA is just one specialisation of the university’s Master's in Communication and Information Sciences. Students can therefore choose from over 60 other courses, ranging from online marketing, to linguistics and data processing.

What impact did the course have on your students’ professional prospects?

SM: Our students are usually very well received in the professional world. Out of the four students we had in our first year, two are working as data journalists for the Volkskrant, one of the Netherlands’ biggest newspapers. Another student is working with us, as a research assistant, and as a freelance journalist. The story she was working on during her internship was recently published by Wired’s Italian edition.

Tell us about your initiative associated with this MA, the Data J Lab.

SM: The Data J Lab is a relatively new initiative intended to promote data journalism skills and techniques. It is managed a little bit independently from the university and allows us to get out of the academic environment and into the world, engaging in research projects with other organisations, and promoting projects and partnerships.

All of our data journalism students are members of the lab, as are five of our faculty members. Together, we do research on data journalism topics, working in collaboration with other colleagues, who are, for example, computer scientists, or tax experts.

For the moment, we are mostly busy with two projects. One of them is the Climate Data Lab, which we run in partnership with Inter Press Service, the global news agency, and ODI, the Overseas Development Institute in London. The ODI brings together a number of development, environment and climate experts, who work with data based on these topics. However, the ODI members themselves don't necessarily have the capacity to engage in the data analysis needed to combine different data sets. They have therefore made their data sets available to our students and lab. We then analyse the data sets to try and find stories, which will subsequently be published by Inter Press Service.

Our lab gives the students a lot of room to create, and often, they are the drive behind many of the things we do. For example, the idea to feature tutorials, which now appear on the resources part of the lab’s website, and the idea to develop an open data hub, on which we are currently working, both came from students. The intention behind the data hub is to share the skills that we gather with the outside world, in line with the open information principle.

In what directions would you like to take the programme at this point?

SM: I would like to expose our students to more critical thinking that approaches data as a new epistemology of reality, not just as numbers in which we have magic faith. Data is also a form of power, involving certain legal statuses. We would like to bring this vision into the programme by engaging more with lawyers or sociologists, and subsequently broaden the picture of data that is given throughout the programme beyond the focus on technical skills.

We would also like to work more with journalists and bring our students on the field to learn from practitioners and gain a broader perspective. In journalism, you learn a lot by interacting with other colleagues and we don’t want to make our students wait until they enter the work market to do this. Instead, we should provide them with the opportunity to begin now.


This interview was edited and condensed for clarity.