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Want to be a reporter? Learn to code

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Prospective journalists need to do more than dig up dirt and craft a good lead. They need to know how to program or at least learn about programming, according to Miranda Mulligan, executive director of Northwestern University’s Knight News Innovation Lab.

But journalism students show what she sees as a lack of desire to learn about JavaScript, HTML, CSS and other tools to help tell a story on a web page, rather than the front page, Mulligan wrote in the Nieman Journalism Lab blog. It’s probably never been easier for students of any age to actually learn to code — there’s free or near free online coursework from Codecademy, the MIT/Harvard EdX program or Coursera. But Mulligan’s recommendation is that J-schools need to integrate these coding courses — or at least teach students about how web pages deal with or render their stories — into the base journalism curriculum.

Mulligan wrote:

We need to innovate our curricula, really looking at what we are teaching our students. Learning, or mastering, specific software is not properly preparing our future journalists for successful, life-long careers. No one can learn digital storytelling in a semester. Mastering Dreamweaver and Flash isn’t very future-friendly, and having a single mid-level “Online Journalism” course offered as an elective does more harm than good. We should be teaching code in all of our journalism courses — each semester, each year, until graduation.

There is growing belief in many quarters that software programming is no longer just for programmers — New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg has promised to learn how to code; 6-year olds in Estonia may soon do the same. And with more news flowing through the web rather than print, what Mulligan proposes here is not surprising at all.

It’s our job as educators to remove fear of learning, a fear notoriously prevalent in journalists. HTML is not magic. Writing code is not wizardry; it’s just hard work. Learning to program will not save journalism and probably won’t change the way we write our stories. It is, however, a heck of a lot more fun being a journalist on the web once “how computers read and understand our content” is understood.

What is somewhat surprising, in my view, is the reluctance she sees among young would-be journalists to learn these skills. From what I’ve seen over the past few years, many young reporters are impressively proficient in these skills. It’s the geezers (ahem) who have a hard time with coding. But here’s the thing: Even geezers can learn. And if they want to stay employed, they will do so.

Feature photo courtesy of Shutterstock user argus

16 Responses to “Want to be a reporter? Learn to code”

  1. Well there’s udacity and the newest player Looks like coding will soon become the universal language to communicate cutting across geos and professions! Nicely writte tho Barb

  2. Dan Tobias

    This is the craziest idea I have ever heard. I guess next everyone should learn to be a mechanic to fix their car and everyone should learn some surgical skills to operate on their internal wounds. Maybe we should learn some mechanical and electrical engineering the next time our dishwasher goes on the blink.

    Programmers should build applications for journalists so they don’t need to code, they can use the app to create and publish content in any format. The problem here is that software programmers aren’t doing their job. Their job is to code so we don’t have to.

    Journalists should learn to write and tell a story first. Check that, learn to think first. Then let’s talk about coding.

    • Agreed. Asking a content creator to also acquire the skills to present that content is nonsense. Do the past Pulitzer Prize winners know how to typeset and operate a modern printing press? I doubt it.

      There are monkeys all over the globe that can write code at the level you’re asking of these journalists, but very few can create written content worth reading. Let the journalists do what they do best – write, not fumble around with HTML and JScript.

      A software engineer of 20+ years.

  3. I don’t doubt the utility of such a skill set for journalists, or even the the population at large. But the need is somewhat mitigated by the several CMS’s out there (WordPress, Buddypress, Joomla, Drupal). Coding for apps will fast become just as important as coding for the web. The former should already be taught in junior high on up, IMHO.

  4. It seems to me that this article is suffering from confusion about the skills that journalists need to tell “data-driven, visual stories”.

    Data-driven journalism requires the ability to compile data sets and analyse them — where HTML, CSS and Javascript is of no use whatsoever. Sounds more like a job for Perl and PHP.

    Unless, of course, telling “data-driven, visual stories” means embedding a graphic generated by Excel using the HTML IMG tag.

    • thanks nick… i actually think there’s demand for both basic coding (html etc.) and still more demand for more specialized skills along the lines of data analysis …. not sure any publication can afford to train its reporters to be
      data scientists but there’s some middle ground there, no?

      thanks for your comment.

  5. Same holds true for everybody.
    Learn to code becomes as essential as writing and speaking.
    Pretty much work had shifted to computers and this is only a beginning. Thus, we all need to know, how to communicate with computers in order to get our stuff done…

  6. paul martin

    As you say coding (like any language learning) is hard, especially for oldsters. I was at the British Science Festival at a talk on Active Learning (elsewhere called Design Thinking, possibly) and I wonder if the penchant for adding programming to the should-be-taught-at-school ever growing list is that its clearly a successful business; the upper class feel they can refer to it without fear as they can punt questions on detail to when they get around to getting tips on the matter from Johnny; the UK political class have gone Google, allegedly.

    Education is all about fashion and when [email protected] was introduced it was not a massive success because people could see that this was fun but shallow . The benefit of Computer Science is that there is always (to misquote Tom Hanks at Yale 2011 Commencement) something to look at, someone’s programs to check – so yes I support the idea as there is nothing worse than a student saying “I am bored”.