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Is Learning HTML/CSS ‘Like Learning How to Use Commas’?

How important is it for journalists to know HTML/CSS? How about for journalism students, who will be entering a job market with more digital and fewer traditional job choices? This point has been discussed and debated to death. We’ve talked about it and covered sites and organizations that aim to help teach journalists to program.

But reading a recent post by University of Florida professor Mindy McAdams, it occurred to me how these skills have increasingly become expectations for job-hunting journalists. It’s not been enough for a long time to be a writer or a photographer, you need to be very good at something and at least good enough at others to be competitive in a world where writer’s send standups back from crime scenes and photographers produce slideshows, with intros and captions on the fly. But HTML? CSS? Javascript?

Her post is primarily aimed at journalism educators and why they should learn and teach HTML and CSS so their students are better equipped. But it’s beneficial to all journalists. She writes:

The system we use to present information on Web pages begins with HTML, a markup language that structures the content of the page.

I’m starting with HTML because I know a heck of a lot of journalism educators have never tried to learn HTML, and that’s just wrong. You know how to use a comma? Good, I would expect that. The basic use of HTML is just as important as correct use of commas, and it’s certainly not harder to learn.

The web is littered with comma splices, so certainly not everyone learned that skill. Nor will everyone be willing to learn HTML and CSS. (I say willing because I agree with Mindy that’s they’re very learnable. I taught myself starting when I was 10.) But she’s right, if a journalist wants to be competitive, to place themselves in the best position to land and keep a job, to have the best and most opportunities open to them, they’re going to want to know the basics or be willing to learn.

Here’s the best part, and one of the things I love about Mindy, she doesn’t just say, “You need to do this!” She gives you to the tools in a post with a quick intro to HTML and CSS, and she promises Javascript is to come. (As she points out, HTML/CSS are about formatting the words and pictures on the page, and journalists work with these elements all day, so it’s an easier jump from the page to the code editor to see how HTML works.)

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 sure I’d go quite as far as to say learning HTML/CSS is “like learning how to use commas” as Mindy does at the end of the post, but I see her point. Ready or not, they are part of the building blocks of digital literacy for journalists. (You can even take an HTML and CSS  class at Mediabistro.) So if you’re not ready, now’s the time to get ready. And Mindy’s post is a good place to start.

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