Q&A with Eric Ulken, professor and data visualization expert

Eric Ulken, formerly of the Los Angeles Times, specializes in database journalism. He’s given talks on that topic and others (including writing headlines for the Web) for The Poynter Institute, the American Copy Editors Society and the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication. In this Q&A, conducted by e-mail, Ulken discusses his latest job as a professor at the University of British Columbia.

Q. Why the move into teaching?

A. First, I should say that I love and miss the newsroom, and I hope to get back there soon. But I thought this would be a good time to be away from daily news for a while and explore the changes in the field with students, who are approaching things with a fresh perspective.

The grad students I’m working with are really sharp — they’re thoughtful, tech-savvy and open to new ways of doing journalism. And I expect to learn as much from them as they will from me.

Q. One of your courses is called Integrated Journalism. Describe that course — does it have an editing component?

A. Integrated Journalism is the foundation course that all first-year students take. It’s an intensive, team-taught exploration of all facets of journalism.

Most weeks it consists of three hours of lecture and discussion and about six hours of lab work, in addition to independent reporting and production assignments. It is a full-year course, and I’m arriving right in the middle of it, but I’m gradually catching up.

Most of the first semester was spent on basic reporting and writing for print and radio. This semester we’re focused on TV, online and entrepreneurship. The online and entrepreneurship components, which I’m responsible for, include blogging, social media, data journalism and visualization, alternative story forms and the new information economy.

There is a copy editing component to the course, but most of that took place before I arrived. When we cover blogging, I plan to go into some depth on SEO and headline writing for the web.

Q. You’re known as a leader in database journalism and data visualization. How effectively are newspapers and magazines at this type of information gathering and reporting?

A. Gathering information is something journalists do naturally, but most of the time we really stink at organizing and presenting it. It’s a competency that legacy news organizations desperately need to develop if they want to compete online. Unfortunately, this kind of work requires skill sets that news organizations traditionally haven’t valued — namely, skills in software development and information architecture.

I should point out that I am neither a developer nor an information architect, but I do understand how they work, and I enjoy helping news organizations apply those skills to their problems.

Q. You’ve been in online media for more than 10 years and have seen lots of changes. What do you think the next 10 years will bring?

A. I hate making predictions like this, because I’m sure they’ll sound silly in 10 years. But if I suppose if I keep them vague enough, I stand a better chance of being right. So here goes:

The next 10 years will bring cheaper and near-ubiquitous wireless connectivity, as well as more powerful mobile devices, making mobile the most important medium for real-time information sharing. That’s a no-brainer.

Now I’ll go out on a limb and say we will start to see successful geo-targeted online advertising models that can support high-quality local journalism from a wide variety of sources. Among those sources will be some companies currently in the newspaper business, but they will have plenty of competition. And that can only be a good thing for journalism.

Follow Eric Ulken on Twitter and check out his Web site.