Should Journalism Schools Require Reporters to 'Learn Code'? No

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When I started journalism grad school in 2009, I couldn’t wait to finish so I could begin my reporting career. But this was the recession, and after I had read the hundredth news article documenting the travails of aspiring journalists walking dogs for cash or eating vitamin soup, I got a little discouraged.

And after I had what felt like my hundredth freelance pitch rejected, I grew downright panicked.

Then, toward the end of my first year, I had an idea I thought could turn my prospects around: I would learn to code, that thing everyone was always telling journalists to do, and thus ensure that I would be essential to any newsroom in America. I would sail in ahead of the hundreds of other applicants, I thought. The hiring editor would rush to the HR office clutching my buzzword-laden resume.

I’m not sure how, in my sleep-deprived, terror-stricken mind, the rest of the plan was supposed to work. I had no interest in doing web design as a career. What, that I would take a break from my news-site coding job one day to write some major story that would dazzle my boss and convince him I deserved a reporter role? It worked in that one Drew Barrymore movie, didn’t it?

No matter; the details would surely work themselves out later once I became a Zuckerbergian programming genius.

My grad program already encouraged us to learn CSS, HTML, basic Flash, and a variety of other web tools. On top of that, the school offered free seminars, access to fully loaded Macs, and had expert staff available to help and troubleshoot.

It was a wonderful resource. I should have never taken them up on it.

This weekend was the Online News Association’s annual conference, an otherwise fun, great gathering where nonetheless one really bad theory tends to rear its head: That all journalists should “learn code” so that they can better secure their places in the newsrooms of the future.

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I wasn’t there, but I shook my fist at many a tweet like this one:

Aside from a small percentage of journalism students who actually want to be newsroom developers, most j-school enrollees, in my experience, want to be reporters, writers, and editors (or their broadcast equivalents). Meanwhile, reporting and writing jobs are growing increasingly competitive, and as media outlets become savvier on the web, they are building teams dedicated solely to web programming and design work.

What I took from my experience was this: If you want to be a reporter, learning code will not help. It will only waste time that you should have been using to write freelance articles or do internships—the real factors that lead to these increasingly scarce positions.

***

There’s no reason I shouldn’t have been good at programming: I’m good at math, I can be really methodical, and I tend to enjoy figuring things out.

But coding, for me, was confusing, tedious, and profoundly frustrating, more so than even the most complicated story with the most reticent of sources.

Entire projects hinged on small, context-free details that were impossible for me to catch. Sure, there were moments of euphoria where I would test a new interactive graphic and it worked, but they were exponentially outnumbered by the number of times I would find the entire thing broke because I had used the wrong bracket on line 20, or something similarly tiny.

(Once, while styling a web site, I got it almost perfect, except it said the word “Array” in small text at the upper-right corner. After tinkering with the code for hours, I managed to make the entire upper half of the site disappear. Except for the “Array.”)

To make matters worse, my boyfriend is a programmer, so after a long night of coding attempts, I would usually find myself moping over to him, laptop in hand, and he would diagnose and fix my mistake in three seconds.

Which brings me to my next point: There are already a ton of skilled coders out there. If you’re only starting to tinker with computer code in the later stages of college, or even worse, grad school, you are behind. Real web design and data visualization jobs require people who have computer science degrees, design backgrounds, and/or portfolios of projects that aren’t embarrassing.

Instead, I made stuff like this.

Impressive, huh? I think it might be a Snow Fall killer.

Just kidding, it’s pretty lame. It also required about 16 hours of work, the same amount of time it takes me to write five or six web articles.

But I did it. And several long months later, I was also able to make Flash graphics (this is before Flash was a complete joke) and customized web sites from basic templates.

Here’s the thing, though, about larger, modern newsrooms, and even some medium-sized ones, too: They have enough resources to segment their workers into hyper-specialized teams, with most people focusing on just one function, like video, interactive graphics, or reporting.

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***

My paltry coding abilities weren’t enough to qualify me for a job making the amazing interactive games and maps you see on most news sites. Instead, I was just an especially impressive candidate for various lower-level web producer positions that mostly involved being the horse-whisperer for some cantankerous content management system and attempting to increase pageviews by linking stories together online and making photo slideshows.

Occasionally, these jobs “let” you write. Usually, however, writing comes on top of your unrelated, full-time production duties. You usually don’t have a beat, and you don’t have dedicated reporting time. And as a young journalist, you will likely need those more than the veterans do.

I eventually got profoundly lucky: My first production job was so low-volume that I was able to use almost all of my time for reporting and writing, and I built up a substantial portfolio of clips. Other web producers I’ve known have not been as fortunate. That job allowed me to become a better writer and editor, but I rarely used my coding knowledge for work.

Some argue that those with both coding chops and killer writing skills have a better shot at a handful of rare, hybrid roles in smaller newsrooms. But even if you land a gig as a combination blogger/infographic guru for a web site, you still won’t really need to “code,” per se.

HTML and CSS determine the visual look of every web site. CSS stands for cascading style sheets, and it dictates things like colors and fonts. If you’re a journalist, you don’t need to learn CSS because your newsroom boss is never going to run up to your desk and ask you to immediately change all the site’s text from black to teal. And the back-end of your company’s content management system usually has enough self-explanatory buttons (as in, “if it looks like a horizontal line, it will make a horizontal line”) to help you navigate all of its various HTML options, so feel free to forget that one too.

Instead, if you’re truly a Web Journalist of the Future, you’ll be trying to create visuals—videos, GIFs, charts, and graphics—that enhance or even replace text stories. Software like Adobe’s Photoshop and Illustrator can help you make charts and maps, but frankly, I haven’t even used those in years. There are so many free, easy-to-use online tools now that I typically just use those to create whatever visual aids I need. Sure, using JavaScript instead of Google Docs can make them prettier and more customized, but if you do work on a small staff in a fast-paced web environment, you don’t have that kind of time anyway.

The backlash to “everyone learn to code” has already begun, but I think it’s actually not a bad strategy for other professions. If you work in a small PR shop, for example, jumping in to create a customized web site for a client could be handy.

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This is not the case in journalism. Not to sound like Malcolm Gladwell, but impressing editors who are hiring reporters, or even progressing in your reporting/writing career, just requires a mind-boggling amount of practice at writing and editing. If you truly want to compete with the hundreds of other j-school applicants for a reporting job, you should be writing stories until you dream in active verbs, not making ugly code creations.

The other argument often made by the code-boosters is that learning to program somehow makes you a better writer. But so does reading great books, traveling to exotic locations, or getting yelled at by your editor because your lede is boring. If the end goal is in fact better writing, why not do something that is more directly applicable?

I also frequently hear the justification that learning code helps print reporters understand what’s possible as far as digital projects go. Makes sense. Here’s the JavaScript Wikipedia entry. That ought to save you 40 or so hours you can better spend writing stories.

An exception to this is if you went to journalism school because you want to work on the data or design team of a major newspaper, doing interactive graphics. Then yes, by all means, media outlets need you for making cool projects. But the only thing you’re going to be writing is going to look like this: var fruits = ["Banana", "Orange", "Lemon", "Apple", "Mango"].

There are also those people who went to journalism school and don’t care whether or not they become reporters—they’re just happy to work in journalism, period. To them, I say, get thee to Code Academy. The digital jobs in newsrooms in many cases pay more than the reporting jobs and are far more plentiful.

Another exception is, of course, if you are already a master coder—either through school or your own initiative—but you have an affinity for journalism and you’d like to join our beleaguered profession by creating snazzy interactives. In that case, bless you, and welcome aboard! You may not be rewarded monetarily, but at least you can relish being worshiped for your ability to fix all the tech issues that are beyond our grasp—for good reason.

Olga Khazan is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where she covers health.


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