Turning inner space into outer space

March 7, 2013

A little bit of code is more than enough for journalists

Why would a journalist need to learn programming? Here are a few answers I’ve come across. First up is Mindy McAdams, who teaches university courses about online journalism, in an article called Get started with Web coding. Part 1: HTML and CSS.

I’m not saying everyone needs to memorize massive quantities of HTML and CSS, or master these to the extent that you could code an entire 10,000-page website. No. I am saying you need to understand how this stuff works, because all the Web uses HTML and CSS.

I’m not convinced. But in the same article she links to a couple of supporting arguments. Miranda Mulligan is the executive director of Northwestern’s Knight News Innovation Lab. The title of her article says it all: Want to produce hirable grads, journalism schools? Teach them to code:

I am not arguing that every single writer/editor/publisher who learns some programming should end up becoming a software engineer or a refined web designer. The end goal here is not programming fluency. However, there’s a lot of value in understanding how browsers read and render our stories. Reporting and writing a story, writing some code (HTML, CSS, Javascript), and programming complex applications and services are all collections of skills.

The phrase “collections of skills” seems suspicious. Reporting and writing are already important skills.

The second reference is to Martin Belam, founder of a digital consultancy, in Do journalists need to learn to be programmers? Yes. And no:

For example, being able to spot the difference between a small technical change that has a big impact on story-telling, and what appears to be a small change but which has a hugely expensive technical impact, is an essential skill for someone setting the requirements for changes to a website or a CMS.

The common thread here is that journalists should learn some HTML, CSS and Javascript so they are at least familiar with its potential. I can see where they’re coming from, but I’m still not persuaded.

I’ve been able to code with HTML and CSS for several years now. I’m familiar enough with Javascript and PHP that I can take other people’s code and use it properly. I’ve built several websites from scratch, including this one. But would I recommend editors and reporters learn it? It might look good on a resumé, but in reality it’s just not practical.

Top priority for a journalist has to be the ability to tell a story. This in itself can be a skill that takes a lifetime to build. It seems strange to even have to say this, but it often seems forgotten in the rush to keep up with the latest and greatest.

Other skills are only helpful if they can be used as tools for storytelling. If technology can be used to do that, then by all means use it. That’s why I get excited by something like Vine — I can see how six-second videos could be used to tell stories in a new and interesting way.

But I’m just not sure how knowing anything about the programming that went into the Vine app could in any way be helpful to a journalist. I know how to take the a snippet of code and embed it into HTML so a Vine video can be displayed on a website, but I’d hardly call that a coding skill.

If you’re a journalist with a passion for learning technology, your best bet might be to learn some HTML. This is the basic code that can be used to build a web page. It might not look great without the styling provided by CSS, but it functions.

The code shown at the top, is the HTML for the first paragraph of this article. You can probably figure out that “p” stands for paragraph and “a” stands for anchor or link. It’s not that hard.

But honestly, unless you’re thinking about starting up your own news site, delving into Javascript and other programming languages is probably a waste of time.

Explore new technologies and how they can be used to augment stories, but don’t get hung up on how they work.