Leave journalism. Learn to code.

Why software and journalism are more similar than you think.

Note: My comments about journalism should be taken with a grain of salt. I was a journalist for many years and loved the work immensely. Good journalism helps us understand the world, and those that continue to produce it should be praised for the personal and economic sacrifices they make to keep us informed.

Everyone knows that journalism is in very bad shape. Newspapers are dying, real salaries and ad revenues are declining, and the pressure to produce more content in less time continues to mount. And yet, journalists put up with these horrible work conditions because the work is fulfilling and they can’t bring themselves to join the “dark side” by taking a job in marketing or PR.

As a journalism survivor who jumped ship for a marketing gig and then jumped ship again to learn how to code, my advice for disillusioned journalists is to have an open mind and broaden your search for meaningful work.

Don’t limit yourself to PR or content marketing just because you already have many of the skills those jobs require. Remember that writing is just one of many arrows in a journalist’s quiver. Finding valuable information, quickly understanding unfamiliar systems, distilling complex ideas and expressing them clearly, concisely and on deadline… those skills are more transferable than your measly paycheck would lead you to believe.

But rather than simply taking your soft skills and applying them to more-lucrative-but-less-fulfilling ends, why not acquire new, harder skills that will allow you to impact the world in other ways?

The parallels between journalism and software engineering are stronger than you think

Newspapers used to be the way that information moved around the world. Now, we have the Internet and APIs. If writing and reporting were the skills needed to wield influence in the age of newspapers and network television, doesn’t it follow that writing code and understanding open-source frameworks would be the most effective way to enact change in the era of Facebook and Google?

I can tell you that it is not easy to leave journalism. But if you understand why you got into journalism in the first place, you might be surprised to find that building software can be as creative and fulfilling as breaking a story on A1.

Why journalism?

If all you care about is getting paid to put words together, then yes, maybe writing ad copy or press releases is a viable alternative to journalsim. But if you became a journalist because you wanted to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable, writing copy that’s not fair and balanced will feel like playing tennis with the nets down.

It is a journalist’s job to inform. If you think advertisers entice, marketers manipulate, and PR agents influence, then you probably won’t like working in those industries, no matter how sparkling your copy is. Words are just a means to an end. If you don’t believe in the ideas or the mission behind those words, you won’t enjoy the journey.

Of course, journalism is not the only honorable profession out there. There are myriad ways you can parlay your journalism career into other meaningful work. But there’s no reason to limit yourself to the humanities.

One of the advantages of being a poor journalist is that no matter what industry you relocate to, entry-level positions are likely to pay as much (if not more) than the job you’ve held for the last 5 years with no raise. One of the many advantages of learning how to code in 2017 is you can learn for free online, gain experience coding for non-profits, or a pay $12,000–18,000 for an accelerated three-month bootcamp.

It won’t be easy, but you’re a smart-ass journalist with a chip on your shoulder. If you can make it as a journalist in the Internet Age, you can make it anywhere.

Why code?

The reasons I love building things with code are the same reasons I loved being a reporter:

  • I am directly responsible for creating (rather than selling) the core product
  • I learn at least a dozen new things every day
  • I work with incredibly smart people
  • I feel that my work has an impact

Personality-wise, journalists have a lot more in common with software engineers than you might think. Both groups are passionate and opinionated about their area of expertise, and both have an inflated-and-not-entirely-unjustified sense of self-importance: coders because they are paid too much, journalists because they are paid to little.

Truth be told, the nail in my journalism coffin was the realization that no matter how relevant or well-reported my stories were, I could not fight the laws of supply and demand. Ultimately, there are only so many ad dollars chasing so many eyeballs. When those eyeballs were reading newspapers and paying for subscriptions, news publications could support the kind of reporting that topple presidents and inspire young people to enter the profession. Now that most people’s eyeball time is spent on free digital platforms powered by a relentless tide of user-generated content, the economic and socio-cultural influence once wielded by the owners of the printing presses has passed into the hands of technologists.

If you work in print, you may have a dim view of technology and its role in shaping our future. But just because digital technology has disrupted your industry doesn’t mean that you can’t learn to harness the power of those same technologies.

From problem-identifier to problem-solver

During my first post-journalism job interview, the recruiter said, “We are looking for problem-solvers, not problem-identifiers. In what ways has journalism prepared you to work at a startup?”

The question confused me. Filling a large, metropolitan newspaper full of interesting, relevant and factually correct stories seemed like a pretty significant problem that journalists have to solve every single day. Clearly, this person had never worked a breaking news story, coaxed information out of a skittish source, tracked down a public document or done any of other countless scrappy things journalists do to “get it done”.

I still believe that journalism is excellent training for solving problems. But now that I’ve acquired some of the Jedi powers that code affords, I can’t tell you how empowering it is to be able to have an idea and the skills to turn that idea into reality.

The idea for my first full-scale web app actually came from an old source from my days as an education reporter for the Orange County Register. As an administrator for the county’s special education department, this source was complaining about how tedious it was for teachers to keep track of their students’ progress. By law, every student enrolled in a special needs program must have an individualized education plan (IEP) that contains a list of behavioral and academic goals that are unique to that student. An IEP is a legally binding document, and parents can sue a school if it does not live up to that agreement.

Since a teacher could have 10 or more students, with each having as many as ten goals, the dirty little secret was that teachers are forced to fudge the data. It is just too unwieldy to carry around 100+ spreadsheets and keep a runny tally of the progress.

As a journalist, there may have been a story here: “Inadequate technology and excessive bureaucratic demands on teachers leads to suboptimal care for students with special needs.” I could have dug up numbers on how many times the county had been sued when schools failed to effectively monitor and enable student progress, got quotes from teachers and irate parents, and then built a story around the issue.

As a programmer, I was able to learn about the challenges teachers and administrators were facing and then build a solution — a web application that makes it simple for teachers to manage goals and to track student progress in real time simply by clicking a few buttons on their phone.

In conclusion…

Identifying problems that code can solve requires the same insight that sourcing interesting and relevant news stories does. The difference is what you do after you’ve identified the issue. If you enjoy putting words to paper and creating meaning out of chaos, you may enjoy building software that makes the world run more efficiently.

Further reading….

Click here to read my post about the IEP Goal Tracker

Screenshots from www.iepgoaltracker.meteorapp.com