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Shaping Journalism Through Drupal Development

Exemplifying the School of Communication's role as a leader in the intersection of technology and communication is alumnus James Robertson, who has been approached by Packt Publishing to write the next update for "Drupal for Education and E-Learning"—a book that shows how Drupal can be used in the classroom to enhance the learning experience.

Drupal is an online content management framework that enables organizations to easily organize, manage, and publish content in a way that allows for sharing, collaboration, and interactivity.

Robertson, who received his MA in Journalism and Public Affairs, currently serves as a junior software engineer at REI Systems, an information-technology (IT) government contractor. He is part of a team that works in the open-government section of the firm, which involves publishing important government data online. He also says that he works with Drupal all day—so this project is a definite fit.

Even though Robertson doesn't currently serve/work as a journalist, he is involved with what he refers to as "the development part of journalism"—facilitating and developing the publishing of information that journalists can use.

"Journalism is practiced in so many different ways now," said Robertson. "It's not just traditional reporting anymore—the development side of things is just as much journalism as the production side of things."

Robertson's interest in the development side of journalism was sparked while he was a graduate student at SOC, and was further honed after he graduated.

"While at National Geographic, I worked on the production side of things such as writing stories—that's when I realized I actually liked the development side of things better," said Robertson.

Robertson was first introduced to Drupal as a teaching assistant for SOC professor David Johnson.

"He asked me to create a website for the American Observer," said Robertson. "He handed me a Drupal book and told me to learn it."

Robertson has always had an interest in programming, and even came with some experience in HTML website building from his undergraduate years. But the type of programming that Drupal involved was mostly foreign to him.

"At the time, I didn't know much about systems building and how servers work," said Robertson. "Drupal uses 'PHP' (PHP Hypertext Preprocessor )which is more like a traditional programming language than HTML. So, I had to learn a programming language and Drupal and systems administration and the finer points of HTML and CSS at the same time.."


His advice for current SOC students?

"I was presented with a daunting challenge and opportunity in which I had an interest but no formal training—my advice would be to accept these challenges and opportunities if it's something that interests you and to keep pursuing it," said Robertson.

His other advice includes thinking about journalism "from other angles" since it can be practiced in so many different ways today (e.g. blogging, development, etc.).

Robertson credits SOC for providing him with a lot of the connections and relationships that have gotten him to where he is today.

"They found ways to encourage the things I was interested in and helped me to find opportunities that aligned with those interests," said Robertson.

While at SOC, Robertson interned with USAToday, the Newseum, and SOC's Institute for Interactive Journalism (J-Lab).