A thoughtful article on MediaShift today by Roland Legrand makes a compelling case for journalists learning programming. Though he starts by reciting a long list of reasons not to code, he ends up fairly adamantly arguing the case for making it mandatory. The only exception he admits is any journalist who plans to quit the business before 2020.
Personally, I don’t need convincing. I’ve shared this view since the late 1990s, and have a shelf of Perl, PHP, and MySQL books to prove it. That’s not to say I ever developed much expertise in these languages, but that’s not the point. As Legrand says, the goal is not to “do a lot of the programming and data structuring yourself.” The benefit of learning some programming is in understanding the medium you’re working in, and in being able to converse with and, more importantly, influence the technical staff that manage it.
Journalists back in the dark ages (the 1980s and earlier) were expected to learn about spec’ing type, doing layouts and pasteup, and other technical details of the print medium. Why should we expect less of journalists who work online?
But though Legrand’s argument makes perfect sense to me, I wonder if it’s a realistic prescription for most current B2B journalists. A reading of the recent ASBPE-Medill Survey on Digital Skills and Strategies suggests some of the challenges.
It’s clear from the comments in that survey that there are still a few of Paul Conley’s untrainable “print guys” that haven’t yet been introduced to his baseball bat. But it’s just as clear that most of the respondents recognize their need for training, but despair of getting it.
The first requires the employer to make digital expertise mandatory. Only then will the time be made for the employees to learn the skills they need.
If that doesn’t happen, the only option is to write off your employer and seek training on your own. The sacrifice this option requires—giving up your free time or even your job—makes it unpalatable for many.
In contrast to a few years ago, I think most journalists today would agree with Legrand’s advice. The challenge now is not understanding it, but acting on it.