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Summary:

The debate over whether journalists need to code is a lot like the argument over whether bloggers are journalists — a sign of how quickly the field is being disrupted, and of how much we still have left to learn

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I wasn’t planning to write about the recent debate over whether journalists should learn how to code, if only because the topic seems to come up with such depressing regularity — much like the “Are bloggers journalists?” question that dominated the conversation in the online-media sphere just a few years ago. But much like that earlier debate, there are a couple of crucial points about journalism at the heart of all the sturm und drang about coding, and they are part of the reason why it keeps resurfacing so frequently.

As far as I can tell, arguments about whether journalists should learn to program date back to at least 2007, when Matt Waite wrote a post looking at the issue and said “The idea is to create new forms of journalism with whatever tools we can, and if they don’t exist, create them too.”

The most recent eruption of the debate occurred when Olga Khazan wrote a piece for The Atlantic arguing that most journalists don’t need to learn how to code, and in fact doing so could be counter-productive. As she put it:

“If you want to be a reporter, learning code will not help. It will only waste time that you should have been using to write freelance articles or do internships — the real factors that lead to these increasingly scarce positions.”

Journalism is no longer just about writing

This triggered an occasionally passive-aggressive back-and-forth among various media players on Twitter, as well as a number of flowcharts for deciding whether you need to learn how to program including one from 10,000 Words (which is embedded below). But my favorite take probably came from Andy Carvin of NPR, who re-imagined the debate as though it had occurred during the time of Benjamin Franklin and the pamphleteers of the early 18th century:

“IT HAS COME TO THE ATTENTION OF THIS AUTHOR that Essayists across the Thirteen Colonies have been up in Arms, as it were, ever since the Boston-based broadsheet The Publick Salon published a commentary entitled Nay: Thou Does Not Have To Learn How To Operate A Printing Press.”

As funny as it is, I think Carvin’s post gets to the root of the important part about the coding and journalism question, which is that it’s more crucial than ever that journalists be multi-taskers or auto-didacts — in other words, that they know as much as possible about all the aspects of their profession (or craft, or pastime) instead of just knowing how to ask irritating questions, take a photo, or string a few words together and send them off to an editor for checking.

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Specialization is for insects

Science-fiction writer Robert Heinlein argued that specialization is for insects, and his point is a good one when it comes to journalism. The days are numbered (if not over) when a journalist could just write without having even a passing knowledge of other parts of the media process, from the way a content-management system works to how ads are sold. Look at some of the Knight-Mozilla OpenNews fellows — those are the kinds of journalists who will own the future.

Obviously there are other skills that are also necessary for journalists, like learning how to read a balance sheet, or learning some statistics so you can read survey results properly, or understanding the way the stock market functions. For some, it might be learning a bit about hardware and operating systems, or maybe electrical propulsion, or how to construct a logical argument.

As a number of media writers and programmer/journalists have pointed out, programming doesn’t have to mean learning the ins-and-outs of Ruby or Python and hacking together a script for turning video clips in animated GIFs (although that would be pretty cool). It could mean understanding how HTML works so you can fix a blog post, or resize an image, or put together a slideshow — or maybe figure out an interesting journalistic use for Twitter’s API.

Now more than ever, knowledge is power

More than that, it means having an appreciation for how technology affects the way media and content are being produced, consumed and distributed — and if you don’t understand or appreciate that, or you think it’s someone else’s job to do so, then you are truly screwed. I don’t know whether David Cohn or Anthony De Rosa at Circa understand all of the intricacies of how their mobile app works, but I can guarantee that they know more about it than I do, and that knowledge is pretty crucial to appreciating how readers’ habits are changing.

Using data in interesting ways is also becoming more a part of what journalists do, as the amount of information increases exponentially and our ability to process remains unchanged. That’s why it’s important to have journalists like Jonathan Stray at Associated Press or EveryBlock founder Adrian Holovaty — who more or less helped invent the data-journalism field in 2006, with efforts like the Chicago crime map and essays about how data changes journalism (be sure to read his response to “Is data journalism?”).

So does every journalist need to become a programmer? No, just as every programmer doesn’t need to learn the intricacies of journalism in order to be effective. But it would probably help a lot. If you prefer to remain ignorant of the entire field of programming or data, and want to rely on someone else to handle all the technical details — as you rely on someone else to take photos or design a page or sell ads — then good luck with that. Enjoy your retirement.

Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Shutterstock / patpitchaya

  1. The problem with journalists is they don’t know how fundamentally useless their basic university trained skillset is. The net, specifically pageview metrics, are starting to clue them in to how few people actually read their stuff and how fewer care. Most are gunshy to find out how few pageviews they get, fewer still are willing to incorporate feedback into their stories and even fewer are willing to interact with their audience to get to a higher plane of truth. That’s been made very difficult by an industry that optimized for literary flourish at the expense of domain knowledge, depth of understanding, and even logical structure.

    While they flourished in the incestuous closed garden of the “classifieds” model (where the barriers to entry encouraged the bad habits that define the culture), the rubber really hits the road today.

    All one has to do is follow the reporting on the “latest study” on any of the majors to see how intellectually bankrupt journalism is. The “latest study” has become a euphemism for “someone’s ax-grinding BS”. The provided information almost always fails the sniff test and is universally bad scientific method, but gets reported as “fact” for which the journalist takes no responsibility. The result, of course, is that the casual reader believes it and incorporates it into their world view. Society is left with unvaccinated kids dying from 19th Century maladies all for wont of a reporter who washed out after 10 years in the medical field.

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  2. I think the key is not to be dogmatic either way. There is plenty of up-side to knowing a thing or two about how your content is handled from a technology point of view. It certainly gives you greater insights into what’s possible. But I maintain that a formula one driver will only be slightly improved by having a strong understanding of the mechanics of his engine or the tuning of his suspension. The bottom line is that she still needs to be a superb *driver*. If you’re the owner of the team, you don’t hire her based on her in-depth knowledge of compression ratios and the finer points of limited-slip differentials, you hire her because she’s got a serious chance of getting around the track faster than her competitors. Would I like my writers to be experts at photoshop so I never have to crop another photo for their articles? Sure, that would be nice. But if they’re a crack writer who can turn around clean copy under a short deadline that makes me smile as I read it, I don’t care if they have to submit their words via carrier pigeon.

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    1. Also – the “specialization is for insects” quote is not helpful. Let me ask you this: When you need open-heart surgery, are you going to ask your GP to do it, or the thoracic surgeon who has performed the exact surgery you need over 400 times? Me, I’ll take the specialist.

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  3. I think that Andy Carvin used the wrong analogy. While it may not be necessary to understand how the printing press works, would anyone argue that knowledge of using a keyboard is important in this day? No, it wasn’t necessary in 1700, but, guess what, time change. Core skills change. Those who don’t change get left behind.

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  4. Great discussion. I’m currently developing a course in “entrepreneurial journalism” (which I’m hoping will eventually be embraced by Carleton University.) I’m building into this course a coding bootcamp. An interesting model is http://codewithme.us — a coding bootcamp for journalists in the US. Some profs don’t think there’s any need for coding in j-school. Thanks for reinforcing this argument for me!

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  5. That second-to-last sentence stuck out for me in a not-so-good way.

    “If you prefer to remain ignorant of the entire field of programming or data, and want to rely on someone else to handle all the technical details — as you rely on someone else to take photos or design a page or sell ads — then good luck with that.”

    Diversifying your skillset is great. No argument there.

    Computers are the present and future. No argument there.

    I like being able to have a halfway intelligent conversation with our IT guy about coding stuff. In collaborative environments — as so many journalism ventures are — knowing how to talk to your peers is crucial.

    But I believe what’s scary to a lot of people — and something your sentence shows — is that generalization is being rewarded over specialization. The result, I fear, is OK stuff being passed off as acceptable.

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  6. Valentine North Saturday, October 26, 2013

    There’s scripting … and there’s programming.
    With scripting, you can write a few lines after reading only the first chapters in any programming book.
    You can use that knowledge to create simple scripts that take screenshots of your desktop, or check a website every 5 minutes and save it locally if it changed. etc.
    The same knowledge you can use to create advanced filters for your mail/rss feeds, or just spreadsheet formulas.
    Once you understand those basics, then you will be free to move in any direction you choose.

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  7. woodwardandbernstein Sunday, October 27, 2013

    Show up with whatever skills you can get. The real danger to those seeking good employment as journalists, is that the jobs are all now structured around a terminal glass ceiling that one reaches in about 2- 3 years. So at 5 or 6 years in the biz you will hopefully quit, and another newby can move in. This keeps it forever cheap, and you never develop a name.

    The real conundrum going forward is that it just isn’t the kind of job that buys a house and raises a family as it once did. Jobs are there, but they are not based on the exclusive media industry that we once had. Everyone can publish now. Supply and demand.

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