There’s a crucial point at the heart of the journalists-and-coding brouhaha — it’s about the future

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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

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