Swabbing the Decks of the Titanic: Why You Should Learn Programming

Image of the Titanic sinkingLast week journalism professor Matt Waite wrote a blog post worrying about the typical defeatist reaction of journalism students when faced with a coding challenge, whether in HTML, JavaScript, or other language: “I can’t do this,” they tell him. “This is impossible. I’ll never get this.” When I tweeted a link to the article, I wrote “”Journos: If you fear coding, you fear the future.”

That prompted a response from a practicing trade journalist and former colleague, who asked “I can see why knowing things like HTML and CSS can be helpful but do most journos need more than that?”

His question wasn’t one I could answer easily on Twitter, because for me, at least, there’s no clear and simple answer. Does a typical mid-career editor on a print publication today need to learn software programming? From that perspective, it’s hard to come up with a compelling argument for it, though I’ve certainly tried.

Waite’s blog post, however, wasn’t about veteran editors but about the journalists of the future. Those journalists, he says, must be able to “construct, manipulate, and advance digital distribution of content and information.” If they don’t have a positive, can-do attitude towards programming, they won’t succeed.

Does this mean that most journalists will need to be experts in one or more specific programming languages? I don’t think so. My guess is that while the ranks of programmer-journalists like Jonathan Stray, Michelle Minkoff, and Lisa Williams will continue to swell, most journalists won’t become similarly hyphenated. There will always be some degree of specialization in journalism. But in the new-media era, to be a good journalist, to master your craft, you must at the very least learn enough about programming to understand it.

As my former colleague implied, even for veteran journalists there’s a benefit to understanding code like HTML and CSS if they do any work online. There’s nothing new about needing to comprehend the means of your production in order to perfect your message.

As an analog example, consider how easily in the traditional print world you can lose control of your editorial content if you don’t understand at least the basics of what your art director and your production manager do. The decisions they make can strongly influence your content, and if you don’t know what to ask for and to explain why you’re asking, your content will suffer.

Likewise, in the digital medium, studying what’s under the hood gives you greater flexibility in presenting and distributing your content. If you work with web developers and programmers, you’ll have a better idea of what to ask for, and better chances of getting it. And if it’s just you and WordPress, you’ll be better able to customize the code yourself to get the result you want.

But there’s another reason that journalists of the future should want to get their hands dirty in code. The value of learning how to program is not just in better understanding their jobs, but also in better understanding the world they write about. As Roland Legrand puts it,

“Every year, the digital universe around us becomes deeper and more complex. Companies, governments, organizations and individuals are constantly putting more data online: Text, videos, audio files, animations, statistics, news reports, chatter on social networks. . . . Can professional communicators such as journalists really do their job without learning how the digital world works?”

This trend toward digitization in all human endeavors has given rise to another journalistic specialty, computer-assisted reporting or data journalism. Though it may never account for the bulk of what most journalists do, knowing how to extract, manipulate, and present data will be an increasingly valuable skill. Even today, it’s possible that you’re sitting on a rich lode of data that, if you just knew a little programming, you could help mine.

If you are well advanced in your career as a journalist, maybe you don’t need to learn anything about programming. You’re set, right? But that’s probably what the crew thought as they swabbed the decks and polished the brightwork of the Titanic.

Why not play it safe? Your job as a journalist may not require you to have any familiarity with programming today. But one day, perhaps sooner than you think, it will. Why not prepare yourself by finding out more about data journalism,  by learning some programming basics at as site like Codecademy, or by joining a cross-disciplinary group like Hacks/Hackers?

As I’ve noted recently on this blog, some journalists are worried that their role will one day be eclipsed by software. If you don’t want to become an algorithm’s slave, you have only one choice. You must become its master.

2 thoughts on “Swabbing the Decks of the Titanic: Why You Should Learn Programming

  1. I am now convinced that it could be very helpful for journalists to know coding. True, HTML isn’t really a language. But I’ve still use my 1990s-era knowledge of it all the time when creating articles to customize them. CSS comes in handy from time to time, too. I dabbled in customizing WordPress themes before and also found that helpful. It makes sense that knowing even more than that about coding would be that much more helpful (and empowering).

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