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Why journalists should learn to code (and why some shouldn't bother)

In this era of new media and technology, journalists are being asked to acquire skills beyond reporting and writing, probably the most daunting of which is learning basic computer programming. Some argue that coding skills are an essential part of working in a new media environment, while many traditional journalists balk at the idea, saying computer programming is not why they signed up for the profession.

Both sides have valid arguments: learning basic HTML, CSS or other programming languages helps journalists create their own online content and understand the parameters of technical journalism. On the other hand, refusing to learn coding may be more than just stubbornness or old media thinking.

Being both a journalist and a programmer/coder requires use of both sides of the brain. The left brain, which relies on logic and analysis, is more apt for synthesizing computer processes; the right brain relies more on intuition and creative thought, essential skills for a successful journalist. Because journalists are more likely to be right-brain thinkers, asking a writer to code is basically asking someone to rethink the way they think (To find out what kind of thinker you are, take this short quiz).

This is why such skills are at odds with each other and learning coding is not as easy as just picking up a book. One must tap into both hemispheres of the brain and think both analytically and intuitively to thrive in the new era of journalism.

So why should journalists bother to learn coding? If anything, learning how to build online and interactive stories gives journos a greater understanding of how web-based journalism is created and how they can enhance traditional print or broadcast stories. As with all multimedia skills, journos are more likely to be invested in the technical process if they have an idea of what’s possible.

Also, learning computer skills makes journalists less dispensable and, for the unemployed, more marketable for future employment, which — let’s be honest — can’t hurt in the industry’s current tumultuous state. Many journalism jobs now require someone who has both coding skills and writing experience, the latter of which many traditional computer programmers lack. Because many coders and developers aren’t exactly rushing out to learn about inverted pyramids and cutlines, this gives the coding journalist an advantage.

There are many working journalists/programmers, some of whom are more fluent in one side or the other, and with computer programming being taught in J-Schools, even more should emerge in the coming years.

Learning HTML/CSS is useful for building web-based projects and knowledge of ActionScript is necessary for working in Flash environments. But unless you’re planning a career as a developer, a deep understanding of Django, PHP or Ruby on Rails is not required.

It’s encouraging to see participants at the Knight Digital Media Center training workshops and other similar efforts take the basic web design skills they pick up and go on to create their own online stories or web-based projects.

For those interested in learning basic computer programming, start with the online tutorials at W3Schools or any of the books in the For Dummies series. Additional online tutorials can be found at lynda.com, News University or any of the sites listed in this previous post.

There are journalists whose prowess remains in the written word and they shouldn’t be admonished for sticking to what they know. Those who choose to adhere to long-standing forms of print or broadcast journalism shouldn’t fret, but know that there will come a time when basic coding will become an integral part of a journalist’s duties. It’s better to jump on the bandwagon now than to be left in the dust later on.


Also on 10,000 Words:

Essential multimedia tutorials and resources for do-it-yourself training
What is…? A handy guide for the new media novice
Journalists: Change starts with you
Multimedia Picker: Choose the right medium for your message
Why J-Schools matter

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