Megan Taylor

web developer, hack-n-slasher, freelancer, information junkie, journalist, bibliophile, Flyers fan, sci-fi geek and kitteh servant

(J)journalist/(P)programmer

Two recent events set off a discussion among the journalists whose blogs I read to the effect of: Do journalists need to be programmers?

Adrian Holovaty got a grant to go off and spend his days working on EveryBlock, and Northwestern University got a grant to provide scholarships to computer programmers who want to learn journalism.

Of course, this discussion has occurred in classrooms and newsrooms already, but this was the first explosion on the subject online. At the root, the problem is that in order to create great online content, SOMEONE in the newsroom needs to be able to work with databases (PHP), ActionScript (Flash), and CSS. But newspapers aren’t hiring, or programmers don’t get involved in journalism, or something occurs that prevents the newsroom from having access to someone who can write some code.

Here are some of the opinions that have appeared:

(A lot of people are differentiating between Programmers and programmers, Writers and writers. That’s why I use upper- and lower-cases differently.)

Matt Waite: In 2 separate posts, Matt explains the reasons newsrooms need programmers and who should/shouldn’t be learning it. His position is not that all journalists should learn to code, but that the people who have an interest in both writing and programming can bring more to the table. Ultimately, “Journalism needs all the innovators it can get.”

David Cohn: David, clearly on the side of journalists learning to code, asks where the scholarships are to teach journalists to program, and points out that the hot players in geek journalism are journalists turned coders, not the other way around.

Dan Gilmor: Journalists don’t need to learn to program, they need to learn how to work with programmers.

William Hartnett: “Journalists need to know programming. Not all of us, but some.” He differentiates between Programming and programming, and argues that some programming can be considered journalistic tasks, “clean up dirty personnel records from the school district or parse some messy addresses in crime data from the sheriff’s office.”

Scott Rosenberg: Scott supports the idea of journalists learning programming, but they don’t need to Program. More important, they need to understand the technology available for storytelling online.

Howard Owens: Howard is a journalist/programmer himself. But he recommends that journalists learn new skills that compliment their talents and individual situations. And these new skills should be applicable online. In a later update, Howard says the instead of all running off to learn to code, journalists should “figure out the niche your employer needs filled, and fill it.”

To me, online journalism encompasses all of the aspects of the Internet, be it code or multimedia. I’m not sure you can call yourself an Online Journalist if your Web page is all HTML tables and a few lines of PHP make you quiver like Jell-o. If you don’t feel comfortable writing code from scratch, you should at least be able to edit it.

I’m definitely in favor of a scholarship for journalist/programmers and programmer/journalists. I feel like some journalism students are afraid to learn code because it is associated with, or feels like, math. I’m no math genius, I never got past statistics, and the only math I’ve come across so far is adding up margins and padding in CSS and adding seconds for audio in ActionScript.

I may never be able to build anything as cool as chicagocrime.org. But I enjoy coding, in the same way that I enjoy writing. So scholarship or not, I’ll learn how to manipulate database information, build time lines and maps in Flash, and anything else that looks like a great way to spread information online.

Edit: Matt can’t seem to keep his site up and running, so you’ll have to search archives.org for his post.

11 Comments

  1. Megan,

    I think that there is a danger that journalists will become experts in everything,masters of nothing at this rate.
    Already expected to be proficient in multi media,video,futher tasks to learn will be to the detriment of a journalists main skills.

    In society in general ,organisations see multi tasking as a way of reducing costs.It leads to a detrimental effect on the main task.

  2. Megan,

    I think that there is a danger that journalists will become experts in everything,masters of nothing at this rate.
    Already expected to be proficient in multi media,video,futher tasks to learn will be to the detriment of a journalists main skills.

    In society in general ,organisations see multi tasking as a way of reducing costs.It leads to a detrimental effect on the main task.

  3. Nigel
    Funny — the tagline to my blog is “jake of all trades, master of none” — I use it to be fascitious of course.

    Bottom line: Journalists, whether they use video, audio, php or whatever are always doing one thing: exchanging information by telling stories.

    While Megan is right to point me out as being on one side of the debate — in the end, if a journalist can tell a story with code — they should. I’m not trying to say we should hand over the narrative for database coding every day. But there are times when a story can be told better by using different tools.

    The question is: can they learn those tools? If they can — they need to keep in mind WHY they are learning those tools. If they do — I don’t think it’s a matter of being a jake of all trades, master of none — they are a jake of all tools — and they use those tools effectively to tell better stories. Just my two cents.

  4. Nigel
    Funny — the tagline to my blog is “jake of all trades, master of none” — I use it to be fascitious of course.

    Bottom line: Journalists, whether they use video, audio, php or whatever are always doing one thing: exchanging information by telling stories.

    While Megan is right to point me out as being on one side of the debate — in the end, if a journalist can tell a story with code — they should. I’m not trying to say we should hand over the narrative for database coding every day. But there are times when a story can be told better by using different tools.

    The question is: can they learn those tools? If they can — they need to keep in mind WHY they are learning those tools. If they do — I don’t think it’s a matter of being a jake of all trades, master of none — they are a jake of all tools — and they use those tools effectively to tell better stories. Just my two cents.

  5. Nigel, there can still be specialization. I didn’t mean to say that journalists should all have the same skill set, because that would be redundant. But if an hour of Google searches makes the difference between being able to build a map and not doing so, well geez, search away!
    Some journalists will be more comfortable with Flash, others with PHP, etc. And realistically, there will always be some who run screaming from an HTML tag.
    So who loses?

  6. Nigel, there can still be specialization. I didn’t mean to say that journalists should all have the same skill set, because that would be redundant. But if an hour of Google searches makes the difference between being able to build a map and not doing so, well geez, search away!
    Some journalists will be more comfortable with Flash, others with PHP, etc. And realistically, there will always be some who run screaming from an HTML tag.
    So who loses?

  7. I think the proper response to Nigel is that few folks really complained when journalists had to learn how to use the telephone, the typewriter and the Atex terminal (well, there were some complaints about the last one). Programming is just another tool for doing journalism. Not everybody has to be an expert at it, but just as you wouldn’t want a newsroom full of people who refuse to use the telephone, you also wouldn’t want a newsroom where no one has some programming ability.

  8. I think the proper response to Nigel is that few folks really complained when journalists had to learn how to use the telephone, the typewriter and the Atex terminal (well, there were some complaints about the last one). Programming is just another tool for doing journalism. Not everybody has to be an expert at it, but just as you wouldn’t want a newsroom full of people who refuse to use the telephone, you also wouldn’t want a newsroom where no one has some programming ability.

  9. I think the proper response to Nigel is that few folks really complained when journalists had to learn how to use the telephone, the typewriter and the Atex terminal (well, there were some complaints about the last one). Programming is just another tool for doing journalism. Not everybody has to be an expert at it, but just as you wouldn’t want a newsroom full of people who refuse to use the telephone, you also wouldn’t want a newsroom where no one has some programming ability.

  10. Thanks for the link, Megan.

    @nigel: Programming skills are no different from video editing or Flash production in that people in the newsroom need to learn them only to the extent that it assists them in their specific journalistic role. A local news reporter might be asked to record a bit of audio and grab a video clip with a point and shoot camera, hardly all-consuming tasks, but we shouldn’t expect them to bother with high-end editing software or pro video cameras. (Unless they want to!) Similarly, in my job as a “computer-assisted reporting” specialist, I might need to write a bit of script to manipulate a million-record database, but I don’t need to be messing around with a Canon XH A1. (Though, as an unabashed gadget geek, I wouldn’t mind having a go on one, as long as I don’t have to pay for it.)

    @David: Still wide awake and leaving comments on blogs in the middle of the night, I see. Man, you really aren’t getting any sleep!

  11. Thanks for the link, Megan.

    @nigel: Programming skills are no different from video editing or Flash production in that people in the newsroom need to learn them only to the extent that it assists them in their specific journalistic role. A local news reporter might be asked to record a bit of audio and grab a video clip with a point and shoot camera, hardly all-consuming tasks, but we shouldn’t expect them to bother with high-end editing software or pro video cameras. (Unless they want to!) Similarly, in my job as a “computer-assisted reporting” specialist, I might need to write a bit of script to manipulate a million-record database, but I don’t need to be messing around with a Canon XH A1. (Though, as an unabashed gadget geek, I wouldn’t mind having a go on one, as long as I don’t have to pay for it.)

    @David: Still wide awake and leaving comments on blogs in the middle of the night, I see. Man, you really aren’t getting any sleep!

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