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.

Nine Keys to a Robust Editorial Career in Social Media

For B2B journalists and editors, the transition to the social-media era can be daunting, especially if they rely on their employers to lead the way. As an ASBPE-Medill survey of B2B editors showed last April, traditional publishing companies have offered little new-media training or guidance.

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Social media is in part about the empowerment of individuals, and if publishers are letting their employees go it alone, so much the better. Stepping into the breach, the American Society of Business Press Editors has worked to ease the transition to a social-media world by, among other efforts, sponsoring a number of Webinars for B2B editors on this and related topics. As part of my presentation in their most recent event, held last month, I identified the following nine tactics B2B journalists can use to take control of their careers in the new-media era.

1. Be media neutral.

Unless your goal is to become a museum piece, you will need to be open to all types of media. Your background may be in print, but you must stop thinking of yourself as a print person. In the social-media era, people expect to interact with editors and journalists in a variety of media. If you aren’t yet comfortable with things like podcasting or screen captures or video blogs, you should start investigating them now. If your employer isn’t interested in supporting you in this effort, then do it on your own time.

2. Be employer neutral.

Just as you need to open yourself up to different types of media, you should also be open to different types of employers. In a world where everyone’s a publisher, you don’t have to work for a traditional B2B publisher to be a B2B journalist. There’s potentially a role for you in any B2B enterprise, and not in doing PR or traditional marketing work, but in practicing straight journalism.

One journalist who’s already experienced this shift is the well-known B2B editorial consultant and blogger Paul Conley. In a recent blog post, he noted a dramatic change in the source of his work. Less than a year ago, he said, “most of my income derived from traditional publishers practicing traditional B2B journalism.” Today, though, he works entirely for commercial concerns, creating, as he puts it elsewhere, “pure editorial that is, in and of itself, a lead-gen tool”.

3. Be an entrepreneur.

It there’s any potential employer you shouldn’t be neutral about, it’s you. Even if your paycheck comes from someone else, you are ultimately working for yourself. So start thinking of yourself as an entrepreneur. Initiative, creativity, and passion are central to making yourself valuable in social media. As it happens, those are the exact traits that entrepreneurs need to succeed as well.  If burdened with an old-media mentality, your employer may not appreciate entrepreneurship–but that road to nowhere is all the more reason why you have to practice it whenever and wherever you can.

4. Be a brand.

In the social-media world, being entrepreurial means managing yourself and your career as if they were a brand. By now, most B2B journalists have heard of the concept of personal branding, and the majority of those are probably still uncomfortable with it. By their nature, editors tend to be fairly cynical about marketing and branding. But in social media, as Gary Vaynerchuk has said, there’s no avoiding it: “Everyone—EVERYONE—needs to start thinking of themselves as a brand. It is no longer an option; it is a necessity.” To be effective in social media, you have to be in control of your identity. Thinking of yourself as a brand is one way to achieve that control.

5. Be a social-media marketer.

Of course, to nurture your brand, you have to market it. And you do that through the social web. You’ve probably heard the horror stories about people leaving compromising or questionable information about themselves on the Web that ends up damaging their job prospects. What that means, of course, is that the opposite is true as well: The record you leave on the social Web can benefit you just as much as it can hurt you.

To quote Vaynerchuk one more time: “Your latest tweet and comment on Facebook and most recent blog post? That’s your résumé now.” This is one reason the ranks of LinkedIn have been swelling of late, and why you should sign up if you haven’t already.

6. Be a social-media networker.

To be clear: the point of social-media marketing is not simply to promote yourself. It is really about taking part in a conversation by collaboratively participating in networks. To do this, you will need to actively embrace social networking tools. Although LinkedIn is the most obvious one for business purposes, Twitter and Facebook may be more valuable, depending on the industries you’re involved in.

At the very least, you should be networking with at least two groups: other journalists and media people, and one or more of the industries you cover. And within those industries, you should be connecting with both readers and advertisers.

7. Be a blogger.

In addition to using networking tools, you should also be blogging. Junta42’s Joe Pulizzi puts it bluntly: “I don’t hire anyone that doesn’t blog.” While that may be an extreme position, there’s no question that blogging experience is becoming a de facto requirement for B2B job applicants.

It’s not enough, though, if you simply blog on your employer’s site or Twitter account. You should own at least one blog and Twitter account of your own, and use them regularly. That’s a key not only to developing your own brand, but to keeping it intact when you leave one employer for another or go out on your own.

8. Be an author.

Although not essential, a brilliant way to build your brand is to write and publish a book. If that sounds daunting, it shouldn’t. Writing and publishing a book these days doesn’t require hiring an agent and finding a publisher. There are plenty of tools to do it yourself. And it doesn’t require hundreds of pages. You can put together an e-book of 30 or 40 pages, distribute it on your blog, and get many of the benefits of traditional book publishing. One accessible and inspiring model is A Brief Guide to World Domination, a personal manifesto by  blogger Chris Guillebeau. While he wrote it to help others achieve their goals, it has earned him enormous career-building exposure as well.

9. Be uniquely essential.

Finally, in whatever you do, you should strive to be someone who’s uniquely essential to your business—what Seth Godin calls a linchpin. As he told Michael Hyatt  in an interview after the publication of Linchpin, “Cogs see a job, linchpins see a platform. Every interaction, every assignment is a chance to make a change, a chance to delight or surprise or to touch someone.” If you see what you do as a job, you’re replaceable—and your career prospects aren’t so hot. But if you see your work as a platform for achievement—even if you don’t always fulfill it—you will be indispensable.  In the social-media era, true success comes not from fulfilling your job description but by adding value.

Should Journalists Learn to Code?

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.

Efforts like ASBPE’s webinar tomorrow can help, but, as I’ve argued before, real progress requires disruptive change, in one of two forms.

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.