So you want to build a high tech college newsroom

College newsrooms have traditionally been the launchpad for many successful journalism careers. They provide a lower-stakes environment for aspiring journalists to hone their skills, gain an understanding of the industry and make connections.

In recent years, major national newsrooms like the New York Times and The Washington Post have ramped up their tech efforts to revitalize their digital products, and there are many initiatives to help smaller newsrooms keep up with this technological revolution within the industry as well. But despite the growing importance of newsroom engineers, data journalists and graphics developers, many college newsrooms don't offer a space for students with these career aspirations.

A traditional computer science background is also insufficient for the aspiring newsroom technologistNote: there is a huge variance in the types of roles encompassed by "newsroom tech": anything from using data science in service of reporting to building newsroom tools to developing web apps and graphics.. While more traditional software engineering positions exist within the newsroom, many roles (like graphics or data reporting) have different workflows with different timelines and expectations compared to the typical software engineering job. In my experience, the hiring process also differs from traditional software engineering companies. There seems to be a greater emphasis on explaining your prior work, as opposed to the LeetCode-heavy recruiting process in big tech companies. Finally, newsroom hiring efforts are dwarfed by Big Tech, to the point where many students are likely unaware of newsroom engineering as a viable career path at all.

Over the past three years, as a student at the University of Michigan (a university without a j-school!), I've been working alongside other extraordinarily talented students to turn The Michigan Daily into a high tech newsroom: one which prepares students for the code-heavy newsrooms of the future.

Step 1: Sell the vision

In the best case, your college newsroom is the Columbia Spectator. In the worst case, your college newsroom views technology as a perversion of the sacrosanct art of journalism. More likely than not, though, your newsroom is totally unaware of the exciting possibility of newsroom tech (or they have dismissed it as beyond the capabilities of a college paper). In any case, you need to make a strong pitch.

A college newsroom has two missions: 1) deliver quality journalism and 2) develop aspiring journalists. Here are some brief talking points that address both:

  1. Data analysis and statistics skills are important to uncover interesting stories (journalism), provide a new angle (journalism) or even just critically evaluate the truthfulness of certain claims (pedagogy).
  2. The digital medium opens up many storytelling possibilities that increase engagement (journalism) while also allowing students to rapidly experiment with new technologies (pedagogy).
  3. In fact, all this is so true that major national newsrooms have begun doing this years ago!

At The Daily, we were fortunate to already have a web team when I first joined. However, it was poorly integrated and had little buy-in from the rest of the newsroom. This means projects would frequently fail to see the light of day. This underscores the importance of (first) getting the rest of the newsroom excited about your web team and (second) building out the processes and workflows to get projects out the door.

Step 2: Set up a structure

It turns out, college newsrooms work because they've had decadesif not centuries! to figure out how to operate. This includes processes like how to pitch a story, how to train new hires, how to collaborate between sections, etc. You likely have four years at most to build out these processes for what might be a brand new "web team", so you better get cracking!

The first step is to figure out how tech fits into your newsroom. At The Daily, we have a "web team", which falls into the org chart as another section alongside News and Sports and others. You may want to separate out further, since people working on newsroom tools don't produce content. Or you may want to integrate more tightly, since your graphics developers or data journalists need to work with other sections to get stories out the door. Or both. Newsroom tech is a big umbrella, with different timelines and expectations for different types of work.

You also need to determine what roles you want to fill. Since there is so much variety in the type of software you can write in a newsroom, you might want to focus on developing a subset of skills at the onset. At The Daily, we put a lot of effort initially into developing our data graphics subteam. This increased our presence in the newsroom, produced some tangible outputs and gave us the leeway to expand into other areas (like mobile app development and web projects).

Your web team doesn't exist in a vacuum, and you need to figure out how to integrate with the newsroom; what responsibilities will you take on? How will this affect the work that other sections do? For example, you might want to have a chat with the design section about how your graphics developers will fit into the current workflow and what changes might be necessary. How will you produce stories? Will your data team be working with reporters from other sections or pitching their own stories (or both)?

After you make these decisions, you need to communicate it all to the rest of the newsroom. Make sure other sections are aware of the work you're capable of doing, the work you'd like to take on and how that aligns with the work they do.

Step 3: Develop your team

While most college students have at least some amount of writing experience by the time they end up in the newsroom, that's much less likely to be the case when it comes to software engineering. The floor to entry is much higher, since there's a lot of prerequisite knowledge to start producing content. The big challenge is to provide the minimal amount of training for students to start contributing to projects, while assuming minimal prior experience.

Again, the pedagogical value comes mainly from experiential learning. That means your training shouldn't resemble or replace coursework (after all, everyone is already in college to take courses). Offer support and expertise to give students their greatest chance of success (publishing anything is better than nothing), but also provide the room to experiment and fail.

This is something we are in the process of constantly refining at The Daily. The biggest priority for senior leadership is developing a culture for newer members to learn and flourish.

Step 4: Enculturation

Just as your web team doesn't exist in a vacuum, neither does your newsroom. Try to expose your team (and yourself) to the surrounding community of college and professional newsrooms. In my experience, the "news nerd" community of newsroom technologists has been incredibly open and generous with knowledge.

Learn about the processes and workflows other organizations use, as well as the tools and technologies they employ. See what stories other organizations are producing, and how they are executing their vision. This all feeds into inspiration for your newsroom's next big project.

Impress upon your team the possibility of working in the newsroom. Make them aware of various newsroom internships for the summer or during the school year. Encourage them to apply! This gives great insight into how professional newsrooms operate and helps build valuable connections as you advance your career.

The most important thing you can do to guarantee the success of your high tech newsroom is to ingrain an inclusive, productive culture. Get your old members to teach your new members, and get your new members to come back year after year.

Step 5: Profit!

There you go. You did it. Your college newsroom now has an amazing team of software engineers and data journalists and graphics developers and UI/UX designers working on a half dozen different projects for the newsroom. Remember: it didn't start like this. It started with just a handful of people (or maybe even just you) who were excited about the idea of working where tech and journalism intersect.

And it doesn't end like this either: The Michigan Daily web team is still growing and evolving to better serve the newsroom and better serve our students. I can only hope that I helped The Daily take those first steps -- and I hope you might be inspired to take them, too.


Thanks to my former co-managing online editor, Parth Dhyani, as well as current MOEs Eric Lau and Dora Guo, who all provided valuable feedback and support (in writing this piece, in The Michigan Daily, and in general.)


If you are interested in, or have been in the process of, setting up a more tech-forward organization in the college newsroom, please reach out to me! I'd love to chat with you. You can find me @NaitianZhou on Twitter, or email me at

If you do tech + news professionally, I'd also love to hear your thoughts. And if you're hiring, I know some very qualified students who would make fantastic interns or employees :)