Bill Doskoch: Media, BPS*, Film, Minutiae

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Yes, Olga, journalists really should learn to code

Some reaction has rolled in to Olga Khazan’s Atlantic essay on why journalists don’t need to learn code.

From Capital New York:

… Last night, Columbia Journalism School professor Mark Hansen offered a rebuttal during an event on the 15th floor of The New York Times building.

“Data deepens your stories,” he said, quoting Jeff Larsen, the data editor of ProPublica. “It’s an incredible resource and being able to interview data makes you a better journalist.”


Don’t get me wrong, however, I don’t want to overly fetishize the task of coding, but in part, knowing to code makes you better able to think about and work with digital technology. Being able to code is, well, code for having a better facility with technology. And that, that my friends, is ultimately about being an effective citizen in our data driven, code-ridden, algorithm rhythm world.

My answer to the Atlantic writer’s question of course is very different. I think all journalists need to code because an effective democracy depends on all citizens being able to understand and think about technology. This is not done from the sidelines. You have to get your hands dirty. You have to write some code.

According to the article, Hansen is the director of the David and Helen Gurley Brown Institute for Media Innovation. Columbia is on the verge of offering a dual degree in journalism and computer science.

Out on the west coast, Robert Hernandez of the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School of Communications and Journalism, had his rebuttal published by the Nieman Journalism Lab:

I’ve written pieces about the power of code not being just for developers and how students shouldn’t wait for j-schools to come up with a perfect curriculum. But this piece is strictly in response to Olga Khazan’s article in The Atlantic about how journalists don’t need or benefit from learning “code.” (Full disclosure: Olga is an alum of USC Annenberg and I was her professor during her time in our graduate program. In fact, we both started at Annenberg at the same time.)

can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard students complain about how useless learning that other craft is when they know they want to be a magazine writer or an on-air reporter. If they had their way, they wouldn’t take those required classes and would avoid learning those skills.

I also can’t tell you how many times students have gotten internships and jobs because they have learned those skills and how grateful they become — typically a year or two after graduating. Many of them won’t use all those crafts at their job, but the ability to do engaging stories on different platforms helped them standout from the growing pile of resumes.

This also applies to the discussion on digital and how much “coding” is too much or just enough. Let’s take a moment to define some terms:

Digital literacy: The basics of how the web and computers work. The basics in how computers are networked, especially for the Internet. In learning this, you get exposed to HTML and how to FTP into a server AND publish a web page. Every student, journalism major or otherwise, needs to know this. It’s a given, not an option. It’s 2013: Why are we even debating this?

Coding: HTML and CSS are the building blocks; I believe non-journalism students will get enough exposure to this if they have the proper digital literacy. As journalists and content creators, though, our students need to know how things are made with this level of code, and especially understand and respect the craft. But, for me, “coding” means the next level of languages beyond markup: JavaScript, Python, Ruby, and so on.

I do agree that not all journalists need to learn and master coding in JavaScript, Python, or Ruby. But they should know that it is not magic and, to be successful in their modern careers, they need to be able to communicate and work alongside different experts, including programmers. They need to be, at a minimum, digitally literate.

And, for fun, see the flow chart in Should journalists learn to code?, published at Pandodaily.


Mathew Ingram of GigaOm tossed in his two bits worth on Oct. 25:

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. …

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.



Wed, October 23 2013 » Main Page, Media