5 things I think journalism students need to know about technology

I was invited to talk at City University this evening about what I think journalism students need to know about technology. This isn’t a transcript of what I said, it is the five bullet points I wrote down in advance that I wanted to tell them…

1: Know some HTML and JavaScript

“Should journalists learn to code?” is one of the most boring debates in the history of the universe so here’s my crucial #LukewarmTake that everybody really needs…

When I am hiring, I am surprised if someone who wants to be a digital journalist doesn’t have a basic grasp of HTML, CSS and JavaScript.

I don’t mean that they need to be able to make production-ready code, but that they should understand the materials they are working with. And then consequently not ask developers/product managers/UXers stupid questions.

A coding mentality can also help you with your work. I couldn’t have turned this article around so quickly if I hadn’t known how to grab source code from Twitter, then remove loads of the repetitive bits of codey gubbins because I can recognise mark-up, to just get a look at the content of what people had actually tweeted.

Know your tools.

HTML, CSS, JavaScript, and being able to play with the basics in spreadsheets are as vital to journalists today as the contact book and the phone have been in the past.

2: Understand the Facebook algorithm

Not the entire nuances of the thing, obviously. I’m not sure that even Facebook’s engineers understand it in totality to the nth degree.

But you need to understand the impact it is going to have on your journalism. In the last five years, the biggest article/quiz/game successes I’ve seen online have all been massively driven by traffic from Facebook.

Treat every bit of content you publish to Facebook like an A/B test.

You post it to your page. If nobody interacts with it — by sharing or liking or commenting on it — it’s already failed. If the first few people to see it engage with it, then you have a chance that Facebook will show your content to more people.

So how can your piece pass that first test?

Ask yourself who is going to share that article, and why are they going to share it? If you can’t answer that question about your own story, you’ve done it wrong.

3: Know something about analytics

We’ve got brilliant digital tools for measuring the impact of our articles. Why wouldn’t you use them?

The old idea that you filed your copy and then assumed that every single person in your accredited circulation figures read every single word of your articles is a nonsense. And you can no longer rely on someone on a street corner shouting “READ ALL ABOUT IT!” to sell your stories.

So, learn about how analytics packages measure what you publish, and remember that you are what you measure.

If you constantly chase lowest common denominator traffic because it does well on Chartbeat, you’ll end up with a lowest common denominator online brand. If you constantly do worthy pieces that are read by nobody because they are important journalism pieces that you definitely think that you need to do but ultimately only you care about, you’ll go out of business.

You need to understand what you are measuring, and what that means for your content strategy, and strike the right balance between the two.

4: Learn how to make GIFs

This might come across as quite a flippant skill to expect from journalists, but I genuinely think that knowing how to make a GIF is important.

It is a symbolic skill. Here’s why:

  1. You need to be able to spot something GIFable, like an eye-roll in The Apprentice, or a bizarre thing happening in the crowd behind some sports action.
  2. You need to know how to get that clip from some rando video source onto your computer in a format that you can edit and manipulate.
  3. You need to understand the length and visual rhythm that makes a GIF entertaining and shareable.
  4. You need to understand how to export it into a GIF file size that isn’t going to kill somebody’s mobile data allowance or take 15 seconds to download.

Those steps all teach you something valuable about making content with digital tools that will appeal to a digital audience.

5: Understand how media law applies to the web

Now I’ve got lots of strong opinions about how media law should apply to the web, but the statute book and common usage don’t always match up, and it’s important to understand when you are taking a risk.

And learn about how press regulation and social media work together too.

I’ve had people complain to IPSO about something I’ve written and include in their complaint that I’ve blocked them from my personal Twitter account. This stuff can happen.

The internet is not outside the law, and if you are acting on behalf of a publisher you need to know that law.

Oh, and two other important things…

Conrad Quilty-Harper was on the panel too tonight. I worked with him on Ampp3d and he made two points that stuck in my mind this evening…

“Be as curious about trying technology as you are curious with finding stories.”

…and…

“What I can do at my desk with a computer today would have taken an army of journalists 50 years ago.”

Martin Belam is a journalist & designer who has worked for the BBC, Guardian, Sony and the Daily Mirror. He helped start UsVsTh3m & Ampp3d and runs digital consultancy Emblem. Follow Friday Reading on Medium to get a selection of links to interesting media, tech and politics stories once a week.


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