Yes, journalists should learn how to program. No, not every journalist should learn it right now — just those who want to stay in the industry for another ten years. More seriously, programming skills and knowledge enable us traditional journalists to tell better and more engaging stories.

Programming means going beyond learning some HTML. I mean real computer programming.

As a journalist, I’m fully aware of the reasons why we don’t learn programming — and I’m guilty of using many of them. I initially thought there were good reasons not to take it up:

  • Learning to program is time-consuming. One look at the thick books full of arcane code and you remember why you became a journalist and not a mathematician or an engineer. Even if you are mathematically inclined, it’s tough to find the time to learn all that stuff.
  • Your colleagues tell you you don’t need it — including the professional developers on staff. After all, it took them years of study and practice to become really good developers and web designers, just like it takes years for a journalist to become experienced and knowledgeable. (And, if you start trying to code, the pros on staff are the ones who’ll have to clean up any mess you make.)
  • Learning the basics takes time, as does keeping your skills up to date. The tools change all the time. Should you still bother to learn ActionScript (Flash), or just go for HTML5? Are you sure you want to study PHP and not Python?
  • Why learn programming when there are so many free, ready-made tools online: Quizzes, polls, blogs, mind maps, forums, chat tools, etc. You can even use things like Yahoo Pipes to build data mashups without needing any code.
  • When Megan Taylor wrote for MediaShift about the programmer-journalist, she asked around for the perfect skillset. One response nearly convinced me to never think about programming ever again: “Brian Boyer, a graduate of Medill’s journalism for programmers master’s track and now News Applications Editor at the Chicago Tribune, responded with this list: XHTML / CSS / JavaScript / jQuery / Python / Django / xml / regex / Postgres / PostGIS / QGIS.”

Those are some of the reasons why I thought I could avoid learning programming. But I was so wrong.

Why Journalists Should Program

You’ve heard the reasons not to start coding. Now here’s a list of reasons why you should:

  • Every year, the digital universe around us becomes deeper and more complex. Companies, governments, organizations and individuals are constantly putting more data online: Text, videos, audio files, animations, statistics, news reports, chatter on social networks…Can professional communicators such as journalists really do their job without learning how the digital world works?
  • Data are going mobile and are increasingly geo-located. As a result, they tell the stories of particular neighborhoods and streets and can be used to tell stories that matter in the lives of your community members.
  • People have less time, and that makes it harder to grab their attention. It’s essential to look for new narrative structures. Programming enables you to get interactive and tell non-linear stories.
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  • You don’t have to build everything from scratch. Let’s take JavaScript, which is used for creating dynamic websites. Tools such as jQuery, a cross-browser JavaScript library, enable people to create interactivity with less effort. Web application frameworks such as Ruby on Rails and Django support the development of dynamic sites and applications. So it can be easier than you thought.

A Way of Looking At the World

Maybe you’re not yet convinced. Even though jQuery makes your life easier, you still need a decent knowledge of JavaScript, CSS and HTML. Django won’t help you if you never practiced Python. All of this takes time, and maybe you’ll never find enough of it to get good at all this stuff.

Still, we must try. The good news is that it doesn’t matter if you become proficient at the latest language. What is important, however, is that you’re able to comprehend the underpinnings of programming and interactivity — to be able to look at the world with a coder’s point of view.

I’m still just a beginner, but I feel that this perspective provides you with an acute awareness of data. You start looking for data structures, for ways to manipulate data (in a good sense) to make them work for your community.

When covering a story, you’ll think in terms of data and interactivity from the very start and see how they can become part of the narrative. You’ll see data everywhere — from the kind that floats in the air thanks to augmented reality, to the more mundane version contained in endless streams of status updates. Rather than being intimidated by the enormous amount of data, you’ll see opportunities — new ways to bring news and information to the community.

You probably won’t have time to actually do a lot of the programming and data structuring yourself. But now you’re equipped to have a valuable and impactful conversation with your geek colleagues. A conversation that gets better results than ever before.

So, even though it’s probably a bit late for me to attend the new joint Master of Science degree program in Computer Science and Journalism at Columbia University, I can still learn How to Think Like a Computer Scientist using the the free MIT OpenCourseWare, take part in the Journalists/Coders Ning network, and find help at Help.HacksHackers.Com).

And so can you.

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Are you a journalist who has taken up programming? A programmer with advice for journalists? Please share your experiences and insights in the comments.

Roland Legrand is in charge of Internet and new media at Mediafin, the publisher of leading Belgian business newspapers De Tijd and L’Echo. He studied applied economics and philosophy. After a brief teaching experience, he became a financial journalist working for the Belgian wire service Belga and subsequently for Mediafin. He works in Brussels, and lives in Antwerp with his wife Liesbeth.

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