Alumna Perspective: Trailblazing Code in the Newsroom

By Jacquelyn Elias, news app developer at The Chronicle of Higher Education in Washington, D.C., graduated cum laude from SMU in 2018 with a B.A. in journalism, a B.A. in creative computing and a B.A. in computer science with honors in the liberal arts. While at SMU, she was a Meadows Scholar, an Engaged Learning fellow, a member of the SMU Hyer Society, the online editor for the SMU Daily Campus, president of the SMU chapter of National Residence Hall Honorary and a resident assistant in SMU’s Armstrong Commons.

Pursuing a career in journalism, you get accustomed to the constant cycle of deadlines, pushing through the heart-racing moments when you have just minutes to perfect a piece. In particular, one of these moments made an imprint on my memory.

It was back in the fall of my senior year. I was one of around 20 participants in the student newsroom of the Online News Association (ONA) Conference in Washington, D.C. I sat in a room among dedicated budding journalists. One student had done a fellowship in South America. Another exposed corruption in his school’s athletic department. Each aspiring reporter in the room excelled in their craft, blending traditional journalism with that of the digital age using multimedia such as podcasts, video, interactives and data visualization. To put it lightly, it was an impressive and rather intimidating group.

For the past two days of the conference, I had been aggregating the locations of the conference’s attendees by writing a computer script to gather the information from Twitter to put on a map.  The deadline to publish the map quickly approached and was just minutes away.

My eyes darted over my code on my laptop screen. Two professional mentors peered over my shoulder, and two student reporters sat next to me. We refreshed the browser. No map. Someone behind me made a suggestion. One of us hit a few keystrokes. I refreshed. Seconds ticked. Still no map. I peered behind us as the editors made their final edits on other pieces. I took a deep breath.

Eventually, these long minutes passed, and we successfully finished the project before quickly pushing it along to the editors to be published. Together, we had combined our expertise to troubleshoot.

To me, the stress of the moment is not what was memorable, but rather the realization that came with it. Through this conference, I learned not only that I wanted to pursue interactive journalism, but also that SMU had prepared me to do it well.

At the time, I was pursuing a triple major in journalism, creative computing and computer science. Professors like Ira Greenberg, director of SMU’s Center of Creative Computation, and Jake Batsell, Meadows Division of Journalism associate professor, recommended interdisciplinary courses from statistics to engineering, and they connected me with extracurricular opportunities to broaden and practice my skill set.

My academic courses varied from GIS mapping to database design to directed studies in data journalism. My assignments ranged from developing a search engine to reproducing digital art to investigative reporting. My opportunities were countless, from studying abroad twice in London, to researching and visualizing the media’s coverage of Brexit through an Engaged Learning Fellowship, to interning on the data and interactives team at The Dallas Morning News.

If I told you I knew what I wanted to do when I entered Meadows, I would be lying. I had enjoyed writing since the days I was just learning to form sentences. During high school, I also balanced interests in design, science, coding and several other areas. Initially when entering college, 17-year-old me decided to pursue both creative computing and journalism out of a stubbornness to pursue all of my passions. Fortunately, my experiences over the next four years opened doors to combinations of these fields that I had no idea existed beforehand. My first exposure to the entire field came from Professor Batsell, who sent me a job description for a computational journalist role early in my academic career. This message sparked an interest that has led me to continually experiment with combining code and reporting.

Like many trailblazers, I doubted my abilities to apply my knowledge in a professional setting. It was at moments like those at the ONA conference that I realized not only could I practice what I was learning, but, due to the flexibility of my curriculum, I also had more breadth on these subjects than several of my peers who came from well-known j-schools. My academic journey was not paved by a course catalog, but rather through a curiosity to explore as many areas as I wanted to that would best prepare me for the future.

Now, I am working in an area of journalism that I had no idea existed before starting at SMU. After graduating, I jumped into an internship with the data team at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and later accepted a position as a news app developer at The Chronicle of Higher Education. Each day I combine my journalism and technical training to crunch numbers and visualize stories in engaging ways. Looking back, I still credit those four years at SMU to helping me discover my passion and providing mentors to guide me along the journey.