Fear of Coding

Why every new journalist should learn how to code, no matter how hard

Let me tell you what I did today at work. I wrote a few things. I edited a few things. I deleted a bunch of <span> tags that had inline styles that were messing up a template I was trying to work with. Huh?

Look, I’m going to come at this discussion from a peculiar place. From 1998 to 2006, I was a web developer and designer. I’ll bore you with a one-sentence description of the technologies I was working in. I used, mostly, PHP, VBScript (which is the code in all those .asp pages you used to see everywhere), a bunch of SQL flavors, all of the HTML, some of the CSS, and a smattering of Javascript. Even though I am thrilled I am now a journalist who has had the privilege of working with and for some of the best people and companies in media, I regret letting my coding skills atrophy.

At the time I “left” development to pursue “writing” (whatever that meant at the time), it seemed like the dominant new thing I would have to learn to stay relevant in tech was Flash. Yes, the thing that plays your browser videos. There was a once upon a time when people were trying to use Flash to build websites and menus and front-ends to databases, and, and. It was not the right tool. I didn’t want to learn it. So I didn’t. And I had another career on the brain, so I went after that. But there was a coding rebellion underway, one that I was not aware of. Today code is once again a beautiful and powerful thing, and people can really do incredible stuff in not a lot of time at all.

Primarily in Javascript (real stuff, not mousover stuff), but also in Python, Rails, even crazy old Java, not to mention all the mobile stuff, coders reinvented the tools available to themselves to do their work. They were breaking down the barriers between code, data and design. They were making it possible to spin up a web page and do sophisticated stuff in tens rather than hundreds of new lines of code. They were taking triangular stones, rope, and sticks, and making themselves svelte hammers and axes. As a pretty rudimentary-level coder, I just didn’t know about it.

I wish I had. Knowing how to code is extraordinarily powerful today. That knowledge lets you sit in a room and understand the conversation happening around technology. It’s great to be unafraid of the lingo. I understand that learning to code and coding is a full-time job; it was mine for nearly eight years. That said, I was never a true engineer or developer; I learned what I needed to do my work, and not much more. But the concepts that basic coding ability exposed me to were invaluable.

What journalists traffic in is information. They might not have to ever build a website, but they might have to learn how healthcare.gov works. They might not have to spin up a server, but they might want to understand how Amazon makes money on its cloud service. They might not be coding an interactive, but they might need to strip out bad html tags in code view when copying from Google Docs to a newsletter WYSIWIG editor.

So, I’m sorry, but Ms. Khazan, is wrong about journalists not needing to know how to code. Until journalists gain control of the tools they use to tell stories, they will be at a distinct disadvantage competitively, with those who do know what they’re doing. These journalists don’t have to be the ones writing the code every day. But they have to understand what the coders are up to.

An analogy: In the world of print, it’s ultimately not the art director or the production manager who approves the final layout of the pages before they go to print, even though they or their minions are the ones moving pixels around the page. It’s the section editor, or the Editor in Chief, who calls the shots. And they do so because they understand the art of the possible.

But in the digital world, there’s no such thing as closing a page before it ships. Rather, what’s possible is constrained not by what you see on paper, but by your (and your coder’s) imagination and capabilities on the screen, which is like moving from two dimensions to three. So the only way to know what’s possible is to be able to get in there with your own hands and massage the digital heart to life. You are not David Remnick with his ninja production team. You are Ben Franklin with a creaky printing press that takes hours to rebuild each page and the plate gets your hands dirty and the paper smudges and type cracks, and, yet, you have a thing at the end of the night, for the world to see.

And that’s where I’ll grant Olga Khazan some sympathy. I understand her argument against spending expensive postgrad credits learning to web. But whether she learned it in 2013 or 2009 or 2006, the fact that she mentions “basic Flash” as part of her curriculum tells me that the fault lies not only in herself but in her curriculum. Journalists are storytellers, and storytellers should be learning, as Jake Levine put it so well,”how to build something.” As Khazan’s former professor says, journalists “should know that [code] is not magic and, to be successful in their modern careers, they need to be able to communicate and work alongside different experts, including programmers.” That involves journalism schools doing a much better job of establishing relevant coursework for students.

As Chase Felker writes in “‘Everybody’ Does Not Need to Learn to Code,” a scientist learns to write scripts to extract data relevant to her job: “She doesn’t just ‘learn Python.’” What is probably missing for Khazan and many students is the idea of applied, practical coding lessons using modern technologies, relevant to their chosen profession.

Another analogy. The first thing many broadcast journalist students learn to do is set up a camera shot by themselves, and the next thing they learn to do is edit their footage into a coherent piece of storytelling. That’s not just because if they manage to find a TV job they will likely be working for peanuts at a strapped local station without any production help. That’s because if they happen to become the next Keith Olbermann, they need to understand what goes into making the shot so they can have an intelligent conversation with their producer and crew about what they want and need, technically, in order to tell their story.

The medium of print has moved beyond ink and parchment into a digital world as complicated as the one inhabited by broadcast journalists, video game designers, Hollywood directors and Silicon Valley hackers. Journalists — even reporters, not just web producers— have to learn about their new technical capabilities and limitations if they are to have any hope of not being swept away by them.

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