Journalism students today should learn some computer code. More important, they should get a glimpse of the value for themselves and their newsrooms of greater computer literacy.
A post on The Atlantic yesterday by global editor Olga Khazan unleashed a lengthy and vigorous discussion yesterday on Twitter about the value — or lack of value — of requiring students to learn computer programming. I considered — and briefly started — curating the discussion, but it was a heavy volume and I was enjoying a day off. Even so, I retweeted a sampling of the discussion. Check my Twitter feed for yesterday, and you’ll get a taste, if you missed it. Mindy McAdams Storified a bunch of the discussion (though she missed a couple late-night threads I was involved in).
I won’t try to summarize Khazan’s argument here, except to say that she dismissed the value of coding for most journalists:
If you want to be a reporter, learning code will not help. It will only waste time that you should have been using to write freelance articles or do internships—the real factors that lead to these increasingly scarce positions.
She couldn’t be more wrong. And I say this as someone who knows little coding. I took a web design class in the 1990s but forgot most of it. I can cut and paste embed codes or other snippets of code and sometimes I can find or fix a problem in the HTML version of a post. But one of the most glaring holes in my skill set is my ignorance of coding. Filling that gap is on my someday list, but my somedays have been too rare and my list too long.
If you’re a journalism student, fill that gap now, even if you want to be a reporter (or whatever you want to be). If you’re on a journalism school curriculum committee, insist that your students fill that gap.
Here are six reasons why J-schools should teach students to code:
- Journalism students don’t know how their careers will unfold. I took classes in photography and copy-editing when I was a student at TCU many years ago. I didn’t plan to be a photographer or a copy editor. I was wrong about being a copy editor. I spent a couple years on the copy desk of the Des Moines Register, important years that helped shape the rest of my career. And I had to carry a camera for many of my years as a reporter. Both skills were more important to me than I could have imagined as a journalism student (and remain important today).
- Journalism graduates need a well-rounded education. Even if my career unfolded in different directions and I never used those photography and copy-editing skills (and others), they were things competent journalists should know. Computer coding is at least as important today as those two skills. They are part of literacy in a digital newsroom (and every newsroom is growing increasingly digital, or will).
- Some journalism students don’t really know what they want to do. Part of the value of a journalism education is that it helps students see the possibilities of their careers. I don’t think many people come into J-school aspiring to be copy editors. They want to be reporters, columnists, news anchors, the most visible positions in journalism. But they fall in love with editing or design or something else (or at least learn that that’s what they are good at) as they are getting a well-rounded education and they change directions. Give students at least a taste of coding so that it’s part of that well-rounded education for everyone. And some will fall in love the first time they build something cool and become actual hacker journos.
- Journalism students need to offer value to employers. If you want to be a reporter, that’s great. So did I, and I enjoyed many good years of reporting. But supply exceeds demand right now in reporting jobs. The reporter who can build something to make the fruits of her reporting interactive is more valuable to a potential employer than a reporter who’s just good with words and videos. The reporter who understands coding is going to be better at talking with the newsroom’s developers (or with IT’s developers) to execute a great digital package. Journalism schools that turn out reporters with coding skills will find more jobs for their graduates, even if they all become reporters (which is ridiculous, of course; they will pursue multiple paths and coding should be one of those available to them).
- Journalism schools need to offer value to students. A j-school education is damned important. Cost will vary depending on your school, but we’re high in five figures or likely into six figures by the time a student graduates. As noted above, supply and demand are on the employer’s side for graduates looking for reporting jobs. But supply and demand tip a bit more toward the graduate if you have some basic coding skills. And if you have a strong combination of journalism and development skills, supply and demand become your friends. (I suspect the coding skills Khazan finds useless might have looked attractive to an employer who hired her to report.)
- We should teach and plan for the future. Consider how much value coding skills have gained just in the three-plus years that today’s seniors have been in school. That growth will accelerate in the time today’s freshmen are in school. If Khazan’s arguments make a shred of sense today (they don’t), they’ll be outdated by the time those freshmen graduate. Journalism schools need to be updating curriculum constantly, and universities have slow processes for updating. Any view to the future should recognize the growing value of programming skills.
Update: I invited Khazan to comment, which she did below and in this comment by email:
Aside from the photo, which I maintain was a joke that some (for maybe good reason) didn’t get… If you accept that time is a finite resource, and you want to get a job as a reporter, I still think the best thing is to have great stories and internships. For the most part, people who are concerned about not getting to be reporters aren’t worried about how they’ll communicate with tech teams later on or expand their roles to be more digital once they’re already working somewhere. They just want to get that initial reporting job. Then, once you’re a metro reporter at some mid-size paper, sure, do all the Code Academy you want on weekends.
I appreciate the response. I disagree, but I think we’ve both made our points. Thanks!
Update: A question and answer from Twitter.
@ellenkobe Some tweeps yesterday recommended CodeAcademy. Have heard good things about that (it’s on my someday list).
— Steve Buttry (@stevebuttry) October 22, 2013
Unrelated side observation
The photo that accompanied Khazan’s blog post was laugh-out-loud funny. It’s like a photo I might have chosen to discredit the post. Look: There’s a person writing on a clipboard — not even a reporter’s notebook or legal pad, the reporter’s most common places for taking notes. And an old IBM Selectric from the 1970s is in front of her, with a computer terminal of the same era behind her. Really? You want to use this photo to illustrate a point about journalism education in 2013?
One of my greatest weaknesses as a blogger is that I don’t make good enough and frequent enough use of art to illustrate my posts. But this piece illustrates my point that you can’t just throw any damn picture in there to illustrate.
Update: I see in the Atlantic piece’s comments that Khazan acknowledges the photo was a joke. Still a bad choice, in my view, but at least she didn’t think it fit.