Should journalists learn how to code? It can’t hurt.

I spent two months at coding school; this is what I took away.

The idea of learning how to code was intimidating from the outset. I’m a 20-something journalist who spends a large portion of my day on my iPhone and computer, but solving technological problems has never been my forte. I’m better with words, rather than numbers or codes.

But when The Walkley Foundation advertised an opportunity for journalists to learn how to code, I jumped at the chance. I wasn’t alone in my desire to try something new, with more than 100 other journalists also applying for the 10-week stint at the Coder Academy’s Sydney campus.

The Sydney Coding Factory Class on day 1, ready to learn

I studied at university in a post-global financial crisis environment where Twitter was just taking off as a reporting tool and many tutors, columnists and students often speculated about the ‘future of journalism.’ Several years later, sitting in a classroom with the other recipients of the Sydney coding scholarship, that same discussion was still being had.

Everyone had their own motivations for doing the course, from wanting to tell stories in a more innovative way, to creating their own apps. I wanted to challenge myself to learn a new skill and also wanted to harness my natural curiosity. As an education reporter I’d filed stories about primary school kids learning to code, but I didn’t even know the basics.

So, what did I learn? Firstly, that coding is very difficult and highly frustrating. Professional programmers are paid six-figure salaries for a good reason. Coding is tedious, requires extreme attention to detail and often leaves you feeling at your wits’ end. (Not dissimilar to some days working as a journalist!)

Some of our coding work using HTML in Cloud9

But it can also be extremely rewarding. Tiny victories were celebrated when I grasped basic concepts. I learned that my computer has a ‘terminal,’ and that by typing certain words into this dark square, programmes like Ruby on Rails could be installed. I learned what Gemfiles and scaffolds were, and that you could change where you were among all these files by simply typing “cd.” In a development environment called Cloud9 we manipulated website templates to make them our own. Fairly basic stuff for many people, but for me it was all new information.

Did I find it challenging? Most certainly. Can I now hack a website? No, and I probably won’t ever be able to. What I am able to do is have an educated discussion with developers about how an app or website should look and work.

Some colleagues asked me what coding had to do with my job as a journalist, something that’s been written about extensively. The publishing mechanism of the future is the Internet, so why shouldn’t journalists know more about it? I liken it to understanding the basics of how the master control room functions in a television studio. My focus is still on the story, but I now have a greater appreciation of the medium in which it will be distributed.

Learning to code can be an expensive venture if you want to commit to it full time or as a career change. The scholarship allowed us to have an intensive learning environment in a classroom, but realistically for most of us our education will continue via free online tutorials and forums. A basic understanding of coding languages like HTML can’t hurt and journalists, especially, shouldn’t be afraid to try it.

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