To code or not to code: What do journalism students need to know?

Journalists should know at least enough to recognize this as HTML, not Sanskrit.

Journalists should know at least enough to recognize this as HTML, not Sanskrit.

Olga Khazan has stirred up the “should journalists learn to code” argument with an article on the Atlantic that says, bluntly, no. This must mean that the debate had been shifting toward the “yes” side, since the Atlantic sites are among those that have gone past search-engine bait and even social-media bait right to contrarian bait, the next frontier of online journalism.

Everyone likes a good pick-your-side Twitter fight. But reading between the tweets, this sounds like one of those battles where both sides have to work very hard to ignore the fact that they don’t disagree on much. Do the no-code people really believe that technical skills won’t play an increasing role in journalism? Of course not. Do the code people believe that inability to use MySQL will keep a great reporter from getting a job? Lord, I hope not.

So, while the Twitter debate continues, here’s my boring, humble take.

What does “code” mean?

Khazan lumps together HTML, CSS, Flash, javascript and on into further reaches of obscurity. Let’s organize that into three rough groups: design, interaction and data/site structure. HTML and CSS are largely design tools. Flash and javascript are useful for basic interactivity. Move on to Java, Ruby on Rails, MySQL and beyond and you’re deep into the coding woods. (Of course, there are overlaps.)

HTML is ubiquitous and CSS is getting there, so a knowledge of those would apply to any site. And they’re both well-established; knowledge of HTML today will probably continue to serve you for many years. Flash, on the other hand, is on the way out, especially because it’s not supported on iOS devices; javascript may have much more life in it, but is shunned by basic WordPress installs. Go beyond that and, if you’re working in a corporate environment, you’ll have to hope your IT department is supportive.

My take: Knowing HTML and CSS these days is like knowing proofreader mark-up was when I got out of journalism school: potentially useful and relatively easy to grasp. I did all my professional journalism on computers rather than typewriters, but we still marked up proofs. As an online editor, I worked with a site whose fairly rigid template was set by corporate, but we still used HTML and CSS to add things to individual stories. And the blogging software we used wasn’t perfect; it was very helpful to be able to look at the source code for a blown page and figure out what went wrong.

Going beyond that coding, I start to have doubts. Given our rigid site template, there were strict limitations on what we were allowed to do. Even working with javascript required approval project by project, to ensure that things played nice with the overall site and on all platforms.

What does “learn” mean?

Do journalists need to know how to put an entire website together with HTML and CSS, or is it enough to know how to make a box float to the right side of a story? Do they need to know how to create an interactive chart with javascript, or is it enough to be able to inspect the code on a broken chart and figure out by logic where the error might be? Do they need to know how to write in Ruby on Rails, or just know its capabilities?

My take: Once you have a grasp of the basics of HTML and inline CSS, it’s easy to fill in the gaps in your knowledge or memory with quick online searches. Once you get into actual programming it can get more frustrating. And if you don’t use those skills, they will slip away. I wouldn’t be much impressed by a jobseeker who said she had a javascript class in college; I would pay attention if she could show me projects she’d done in the real world within the last year.

Will they ever use code on the job?

Khazan offers a couple of arguments: First, that in larger newsrooms, coding is a separate job from reporting; second, that in smaller newsrooms, free online tools eliminate the need to code and are as good as you’ll need them to be.

A counterargument is that jobs are changing: Reporting is more than writing; newsrooms are shrinking so the idea of separate coding staffs will die.

My take: I can’t see a day when even a bare majority of people working in journalism will need to know real programming to do their jobs. On the other hand, there are already reporting jobs for which programming, if not a requirement, is certainly a major plus.

I got a minor in computer science in college partly because computer-assisted reporting was becoming popular. Turns out I neither worked on CAR nor used the specific programming languages I learned, but basic skills I learned — debugging, programming essentials — helped me pick up HTML, CSS and Flash scripting more easily later on. Similarly, the four years of Latin I took in high school don’t have a direct use today, but they’ve helped me do reasonably well at understanding signs in Paris and Barcelona.

Similarly, the databse software I first used is extinct. But the principles of database work — cleaning up data, creating calculations and comparisons — remain with me and enable me to figure out what we should be able to do with today’s software.

Where and when should learning take place?

One of the questions in journalism education now is the extent to which coding should be part of the curricula. Khazan suggests that time spent on coding is time taken away from more important skills:

[I]mpressing editors who are hiring reporters, or even progressing in your reporting/writing career, just requires a mind-boggling amount of practice at writing and editing. If you truly want to compete with the hundreds of other j-school applicants for a reporting job, you should be writing stories until you dream in active verbs, not making ugly code creations.

On the other hand, school are under pressure to produce job-ready graduates, and my decades in newsrooms don’t give me much confidence in the ability or willingness of editors to provide on-the-job training.

My take: Software doesn’t have the shelf life or portability of good interviewing skills. Programs change; different companies adopt different software. I think of college as providing knowledge and skills that will last longer and be universal.

There are plenty of ways — cheaper than college tuition — to learn specific programs or programming languages. And there are lots of free, simple tools that would allow students to learn the principles of interactivity and multimedia reporting without having to learn how to build things from the ground up.

On the other hand, learning one sophisticated tool can, like my college COBOL, provide a strong base to acquire other skills later on.

This question leaves me the most conflicted. I know that pro-level software produces the most polished product, just as a pro-level camera can produce a better image than an iPhone. But: If I teach students to use a pro-level camera and high-end video editing software to produce a TV-quality story, how many of them will use that skill? On the other hand, if I teach them to produce web-quality video with an iPhone and Videolicious, how hard would it be for those who want to do more to find other ways to upgrade their knowledge?

Even if we put aside the question of whether time spent on coding and specialty equipment or software is time taken away from more basic skills, I’ve got another worry about coding for college journalists: The fear factor. Programming is hard; mistakes are easy, and the consequence of even minor errors can be fatal. Back in my day (he said, tugged on the long white whiskers of his beard), we did our programming on punchcards, wrapped the stack in a rubber band and put it into one of the hundreds of slots in the wall of Northwestern’s Vogelback Computing Center. Then we’d sit around drinking Mr Pibb, eating Doritos and waiting. Eventually the stack of cards would be shoved back into the slot with the printout of results wrapped around it. The relief of finally having a result would be tempered by fear of a Goldilocks error — a printout that was too slim (fatal error) or too thick (infinite loop) rather than just right.

I’ve worked with excellent journalists for whom even basic HTML was panic-inducing. I hate the idea that people who could do terrific journalism would get disenchanted in journalism school because they were failures at Final Cut or couldn’t pass PHP.

All of this leaves me in the same place as most people (from what I can tell via Twitter reactions and such):

  • Journalists should be familiar enough with website coding to recognize it and repair simple mistakes.
  • Journalists should have experience with databases.
  • Journalists do not need to know any one particular programming language, but experience with some programming language is a plus.
  • Journalists are more likely to devote time to learning in college than on the job, and opportunities for graduates with technical skills will be wider than for those without.

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