“Hello World! Its me, the coding N00b” — on learning how to code as a journalist

A few months ago, “Basic HTML” was my job application go-to. I couldn’t have picked out the front end of a website from the back end in a lineup, and the most I could do when talking to a developer was to make outlandish demands about making the screen swipe away and ask them to change the entire website on a whim.

After I was part of the first group in Sydney to do the Walkley Coding Scholarship for journalists with the Coder Academy, I might still pester a developer on the swiping functionality, but now I might even get specific about it! The course was a lot of fun, challenging and rewarding for someone like me who has dabbled in many digital areas but who has always left the technical side to the geniuses.

The capacity to translate my demands into straightforward sentences that understand routes, models, views and controllers will hopefully make my demands clearer, smarter and at least a little bit less outlandish.

This new information and insight — routes, models, views and controller — are seared into my brain courtesy of a diagram from our tutor referring to it at every opportunity to make sure we understood the big picture. When I close my eyes, I see the diagram.

Oh god, it’s even in this post. It will never escape me. It’s part of who I am now.

Never forget.

Over the course of eight weeks, we learnt Ruby on Rails at the Coder Academy Sydney centre. Our group of eight journalists communicated via Slack and we had class every Saturday. We had homework too, which I would do the night before class, frantically reading the various commands, trying to figure it all out and looking like this:

We learnt about the entire ecosystem of programming and then drilled into specifics like learning the Ruby language, how to get code running on Rails and we did a lot of real world examples to see how coding in that language worked in practice. To guide us along the journey, we came up with an idea for a web application that we would attempt to build throughout the eight weeks.

Our idea was a rent-a-crowd app to source crowds for events. This allowed us to get creative and bring our media expertise to the table around the content elements of the project. The best and most solid contribution came from Katie Burgess from The Canberra Times who named the app “Mustr”.

Some of the best breakthroughs for me was I had so many “aha!” moments where I finally realised what people, such as my product and developer colleagues, had been talking about for so long.

Acronyms began to make more sense in their context like CSS, HTML, PHP etc. There were moments where it didn’t all fall into place right away, but we could always take what we did learn with us and practiced on our own time. Or we could build on the knowledge we gained in the particular areas that interested us the most. But having this comprehensive understanding of all the parts became invaluable, so there weren’t huge chunks missing when trying to build something ourselves. Like a fun little game:

“Something Happened” is my new programming motto

The first time we were able to set up a page with text on it? I actually cheered. The euphoria then disappeared as I realised that we were making simple stuff happen and it was still complex to us. It gave us some perspective in understanding how much work goes into building the sites we use everyday and the importance of having a good development team you can work closely with and who are experts in their areas of expertise.

Caption: it’s not beautiful but it’s our first page baby
nothing to see here, just some important event making happening

I feel more confident going away and hunkering down to figure out, test, play and experiment with coding. I feel empowered to start working on projects that might have felt impossible to me before. I also feel confident taking ownership of projects and working better with developers and designers. I can ask better questions now, such as is there a shortcut to getting what I need done? How can I have better, more efficient conversations about user experience and user-centric design? Do we need this fancy new feature or can we make do with better words on the page? Does this developer prefer tabs or spaces and is this a good or bad thing?

Caption: I finally get what this is about

Why does this matter for journalists and for you?

As journalists and editors, our skill sets already seem rare and out of scope for a lot of people but they’re not always valued. Technology has made journalism into a commodity. It hasn’t always shown us how journalism can be enhanced.

But as the landscapes keep changing, it’s harder to keep up with the new ways we can tell stories. Although most people understand why journalism is crucial, they still can’t see how these skills are going to work in an evolving industry driven by new technology and social media. Now is the time for us to take control and find ways to work in these new environments, to break stories faster and take ownership of the innovation.

Journalism is no longer just a one skill gig. At the very least you’re probably already a part time producer, photographer, editor, fact checker and more. Journalists who are able to code are going to be able to tell stories in new ways that capture our attention (a precious commodity) and more importantly our imaginations. Programming requires learning a language. There’s a creativity to it. Dig deep enough and who knows what you can come up with.

And at the very least you’ll train your brain to think in new and novel ways, and discover so many nifty tricks along the way. Like how to change how text appears on a live site, so you can uh, play around with existing headlines — a skill every journalist no doubt needs.

You can find out more about the Walkley Coding Scholarships for Journalists with the Coder Academy in this post.

Sign up for updates about coding and digital training opportunities for journalists here.