Why Journalists Should Learn Computer Programming

by Roland Legrand
June 2, 2010
Image by MutedNarayan via Flickr

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.

What is important is that you're able to look at the world with a coder's point of view."

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.
i-dc2344352f76edd76746c87c17cc039a-Jquerylogo copy.jpg
  • 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.


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.

Tagged: coding django php programmer-journalist programming python scripting storytelling

48 responses to “Why Journalists Should Learn Computer Programming”

  1. Marcus says:

    Hi Roland,

    thanks for your blog-post and the good links. It seems as if the debate about coding and programming is growing fast. For me – it can not be seen without looking at the growing debate about Data Journalism. I found these links quite inspiring:

    Paul Bradshaw is writing a book about Data Journalism right now: http://onlinejournalismblog.com/2010/04/21/data-journalism-pt1-finding-data-draft-comments-invited/

    The golden age of computer-assisted reporting is at hand: http://www.niemanlab.org/2009/05/the-golden-age-of-computer-assisted-reporting-is-at-hand/

    Self-Teaching Data and Programming Skills:

    What can journalists learn from a web coder:

    Is data journalism? Guardian Data Blog: http://www.guardian.co.uk/media/2010/may/24/data-journalism

    Best regards,

  2. wow, thank you for those links!

  3. So I get why. And I get how. But the question is WHERE to start. Which of the recommended data languages do I take on first? And why?

  4. James says:

    This is stupid advice. By your reasoning car salesman should learn programming too. In fact, anyone should. That’s absurdly untrue. Tools should enable journalists to tell their stories using all available resources, without writing a single line of code. Technology for the people, not the opposite.

    And yes, i’m a programmer.

  5. Travis says:

    I have to strenuously disagree with the direction of this post. Is there no room for specialization? We journalists are already asked to acquire a dozen skills, many of which require totally different mindsets — writing, video editing, photography, HTML, content management systems, page design — and now we need to spend two years learning to program, too?

    I’m a skilled writer and am handy with a Flip, can work with WordPress and know my way around InDesign. Higher math utterly befuddles me and I have zero interest in computer programming languages. By your estimation, I should quit the profession now, right?

  6. To Alana and others: I outlined some of this in my post that Marcus linked to, but I’ll say it more succintly here. The key is to just pick something, but after understanding the basics of what programming is capable of, and also understanding the basics of programming. Python, Ruby, Javascript can all help you grasp the concepts of lists, arrays and variables to name a few. Basically, understand the building blocks of programming. We (hopefully) don’t attempt the epic narrative piece until we learn how to structure a journalistic story. Same here.

    That being said, I’ve recently been gifted with the opportunity to go from the self-teaching, which is so necessary, to learn directly from already practicing journo-programmers at a news org. You will learn faster doing it every day, than on the side — that’s a given. But very few of us have that option. The experience has taught me three things so far. 1)You need to keep pushing on your own, and Googling is your friend. 2) Don’t think of the laundry list you’ve yet to learn, find what you want to do, and figure out how to do it on your own or by consulting others 3) Recognize that if you want to program for journalism, it’s a career shift, not just an additional skill. It’s not to say you’ll program like a programmer, or write articles like a journalist, but you bring both skills to bear on something completely different and new. Challenging, but invigorating.

  7. Rubens Yanes says:

    Roland, I totally agree!
    Actually I am living a similar process and I decided a couple of weeks ago to attend a Master in Computer Science. I should confess I felt like a geek… a very mad geek.
    But I believe not only journalists, but also advertising people are under pressure in these days.

  8. I’m a geek who fell into journalism. I then discovered Unix via Mac OS X, then into programming scripting languages that start with P.

    I don’t think you have to be especially good and math or even especially good at programming. (Most professional programmers would probably laugh at my code.) Programming is more about logic and the ability to break tasks down into small steps than it is about math.

    In terms of tools, it depends on what you want to do. If you want to build Web sites, by all means, learn Django, Ruby on Rails, and Jquery and everything else.

    If you want to sift through data, you might want to learn SQL. The Unix command-line tools, though infamously arcane, are very useful for doing interesting things with text. If you learn nothing else, you might want to learn grep and regular expressions. It’s a very precise way to search text.

  9. You made my day with this post. I am a blogger, and call myself an extension of the journalists and a forensic dot connector:)

    My blog is called the Medical Quack and if you look around and compare other blogs, it’s in its own league. I used to code, wrote VB and years back wrote a medical records program, thus when it comes to debates on electronic records the old knowledge and spin I put on my posts is different and hopefully helpful as I try to take some very technical issues and bring them into laymans terms where everyone can get something out of it.

    With connecting dots I can talk about 2-6 different cases, incidents or comparisons at once and bring to the reader what this means to them rather than reading a statement of account on one item. Of course some old html skills are in there too from the past, but it all comes together hopefully to create a “meaningful” post.

    Thanks again and if you get curious to see what I mean, check out “The Medical Quack”.

  10. I started out 10-years ago as a journalist and about three years into the trade switched to building products (read news websites) and I can code and love doing it.

    I don’t think journalists need to learn computer programming. Sure, if they have the aptitude for it they should do that, but it should not be a must-do.

    What is required of journalists is to understand the basic building blocks. That we have a database, pages, scripts, Flash, work flows etc. This helps them better integrate with the possibility of the back end architecture.

    Frankly, I would want my team of journalists to be able to come up with creative content because they are aware of the technology that powers them, than to spend time optimizing a nested if.

  11. @Travis I understand your position. There is tremendous pressure on journalists to master about everything: video, photography, natural languages, in-depth knowledge of whatever you’re covering, editing etc.
    I do fully realize it is impossible to be really good in all that stuff.
    What I mean is that it would really benefit us journalists to understand the building blocks of programming, the state of mind of that skill.
    Yes, one can be a journalist without that knowledge or state of mind – but I also think that learning the basics of programming will help one tremendously to see new ways of journalism, of story-telling and of engaging the community.
    You won’t be as good a programmer as a professional developer, but you’ll combine your journo skills and insights with the basics of the programmer’s art, and that could very well lead to more creativity – something badly needed in our profession and industry.

  12. Your argument seems to be a defence of the VALUE of programming, not a defence of why journalists specifically have to learn it. By your logic journalists should learn every single piece of technical knowledge everyone else on their team has. This is not practical. Teams work best with delegation, and as far as I’m concerned the hack’s delegated tasks should primarily be mastery of language; specialised knowledge of subject field; interviewing skills; and competence at basic technology.

    If I had hundreds of hours to spare after refining those core skills, I’d learn another spoken language – not Javascript!

  13. JM says:

    Code is not all. I’m a journalist in an old-school newspaper, and I have some rather decent skills in HTML/CSS, PHP/SQL/JS and OO programming, though I’m not a professional developer.
    And now what? Would my skills be useful to my newpaper? I dare think so. Is my editor interested? Not at all. I’m not even sure he knows how to use a news aggregator, and he keeps on considering the Internet as a problem rather than an opportunity.
    Before inciting journalists (of course I’m not talking about pure players, but mainstream old-fashioned medias) to learn to code, it seems to me an absolute necessity to educate their editorships to digital culture. Otherwise, I fear there might be a lot of journalists with programming skills, but no more medias to pay them…

  14. @JM Or maybe one should reconsider working for such a newspaper – what’s the future of it anyway, if it considers “the internet as a problem”? And maybe coding skills come in handy if you want to venture out on your own (or better still, with others).

  15. JM says:

    @Roland Legrand
    I agree, and considering it seriously. It will probably solve my problem (feeling like an ET at work), but not that of the medias in general. Especially in France: I have the unpleasant feeling most medias and journalists here have a huge problem with innovation… And I’m afraid they won’t wake up before it’s too late.

  16. @JM that is so funny “feeling like an ET at work”, I guess many of us know exactly what you mean…

  17. Logan says:

    Rather, programmers should learn journalism. Of the two disciplines, journalism is much easier to master and if the Internet has taught us anything, it’s that the artificial barriers between professional and citizen content creation are erected by protectionists and not realists. Good coders, even those who do it fulltime, are still difficult to come by. And remember, the major transformations that have hit the media industry in the past 15 years are nearly all originated by technologists (Google, Facebook, Twitter, etc.), not English majors. Power to the geeks!

  18. I am a writer and a programmer. My programming skills, which are focused on specific software, SQL, and web publishing needs, only help for those specificities. I cannot, without siginificant study, generalize them into new areas.

    Learning some type of programming skill may help if you know what skills are needed for a specific project. Unfortunately, programming skills cover a wide-range of topics. Professional programmers tend to be dedicated to specific skill areas (which don’t include writing and photography) and the people who hire those programmers are very picky about backgrounds. If you do not program daily for long hours (then spend the rest of your hours studying the never-ending waves of new techniques), you will not be considered for the job.

    In many cases, “true” programming rules are hidden from the user who works on some type of user-friendly interface, which spoon-feeds the decision-making process. Knowing how to program in Javascript is just fine, but the chance of you really doing so line-by-line is remote, no matter what your web editing software suggests.

    Writers should thoroughly understand image processing (a big subject) and perhaps video editing (a huge subject). Even here, your knowledge might be limited to a few popular software programs, such as represented by Adobe’s product line.

    It is a great idea to set one’s self apart from the pack by learning more software, including software that promotes programming (logic), but you have to stay current with the writerly pack, too. If you thin your attention to include more publishing (programming) skills, you might lose everything. Of course, it can be done. The media flogs our attention with news of jackpot winners. The only reason stories about extreme winners capture our attention, however, is because they are so rare.

  19. I’m an editor at Popular Mechanics, deeply immersed in the creation of iPad apps, working closely with a team of talented programmers with an average length of, say, 10 years each in their profession. Sorry, but there’s no way a dabbler in this could do an acceptably high level of work. I do think it’s worth people in my position learning enough about programming to have some half-way intelligent conversations about it.

  20. i’m a public radio reporter and producer working in the web world now (for TV shows) and i’ve begun learning code through http://www.lynda.com/ . seriously, to the people wondering where to start, i can’t recommend this site enough. i’ve heard w3 schools recommended in the past, but lynda is far more professional and really takes you step by step. an hour a day with a CSS tutorial goes a LONG way.

    i have to agree with Karen Little that programming skills are a way to set yourself apart from the pack. i got my first internship, at The New Yorker, because i happened to know Pro Tools. any extra tech skills you have will be desired in time of thinning budgets because programming work is simply so valuable to the survival of media outlets (well, those that have a clue).

    there IS time to do it all. it can hurt to take a break from storytelling, but it’s worth it to learn new skills.

    and by the way, i believe journalists are natural programmers. you’re curious about how decisions get made in local government, but you’ve never wondered how how the text you’re typing goes from your computer to the web page? please.

  21. Danny Fenster says:

    Wow. I am loving this conversation.

  22. Mike says:

    @Roland: So did you learn to operate the press, too, when you worked in print? I didn’t think so.

    I firmly believe that journalists should understand all the different ways their stories can be told to the public via all new media, and the tools that are used to do so.

    However, I also believe journalists should spend their time getting the story, not “operating the press.” Leave that — just as newspapers did — up to the “pressmen.”

  23. Ed Smith says:

    I am against it except in a very narrow niche of someone needing to set up their own small niche operation. Coders and writers are two different personality types and the need to stay current in each area would be a killer. Thanks, Ed Smith conductknockoutbroadcastinterviews.com/blog

  24. @Mike This is not about a particular “machine”, even not about a specific programming language. It is about our ability to analyze structures of narratives and of information.

    It does not mean that you should be able to build the CMS of your newsroom, but for instance that you can take some issue or topic or beat you are covering, analyze it’s components and the relationships between those components, and map that in such terms that your colleagues/programmers can build (program) ways to cover those issues in innovative ways.

  25. CD says:

    Great post. I am a web developer and an avid news / book / magazine reader. I agree that learning a bit about how the web works is great for journalists. I don’t think that we’re going to see the death of print but having said that the web is going to be a big platform for journalism going forward and knowing how the plumbing works only helps.

    Roland makes a great point about the modularity of programming tools nowadays (especially web). Learning a blogging platform (like WordPress) doesn’t require programming skills and gives you an instant web voice. Writing a couple plug-ins to extend the functionality using JQuery also isn’t heavy lifting.

    I think anyone who doesn’t want to learn new skills these days (whatever the profession) will lose ground.

  26. CD says:

    Great beginners book to learn web programming is Head First XHTML & CSS (Head First publishing).

  27. alex says:

    if you have a website (and journalists know they should, if they don’t already), how can you possibly be “against” learning code? it’ll only improve what you have.

    whether you want to learn code or not, you’re going to be working with programmers from here on out…and they can be smug. learn some code, or deal with being talked down to and not knowing what the heck is going on. better yet — take control away from them, and put it in your own hands.

    i just don’t understand why someone wouldn’t want to do this. it’s so empowering, and exciting to learn new things.

  28. hairlessOrphan says:

    I don’t really think the practical benefits of learning to program are this obvious. It doesn’t make a lot of sense to me to say, “you should learn it so you can build your own website,” or “you should learn it so you can talk to geeks.” Learning to program is not like chasing a fad, relevant to the here and now but with an expiration date timed to whatever new paradigm is coming in ten years.

    If journalism is still about the Essential Questions (who, what, when, where, why, how), then Computer Science is a natural partner to the field. CompSci is still about the intake and organization of information. Breaking down problems, identifying what’s relevant, and seeing new ways to relate it to other information you have in hand, these approaches are the foundation of CompSci.

    There are two distinct layers to programming. The first is the actual syntax of a programming language. The second is learning the philosophy or the approach to problem-solving that CompSci engenders. The former is necessary only so you can practice the latter. Even if you never intend to actually build a functional program or website, CompSci still teaches you how to approach the essential questions.

  29. Fleurdamour says:

    There is a reason for division of labor. It’s efficient and takes into account the strengths and weaknesses of different people on a team. There is also a reason why technology has become so much more user-friendly in the last decade or so – most of us are incapable of using it otherwise. If I were inclined toward programming, I’d be making a lot more money doing that than writing.

  30. yelvington says:

    Some of the comments here are quite entertaining. Is there room for specialization? Of course, and this is one of them. Should used-car salesmen learn programming too? Of course not … but they might protect their futures if they learned something about cars.

    No, not everybody needs to know both journalism and programming. But there is significant unmet need in the industry — jobs begging to be filled. We’ve had a journalist-programmer position sitting open for months. We had two slots. I found one good hire from the U of Ky — double major, CS and journalism. If I could find another one like that, I’d be delighted.

    If you want the work, learn to do the work. Or if you’d rather take your fear of technology and your magazine journalism degree down to the mall and apply at the food court, go for it.

  31. Chase says:

    Whenever I teach programming to journalists, I always make the same point: You don’t need to come away knowing how to build the next Google, but you should leave with a better understanding of what’s possible, and, maybe more important, how much work it entails. Division of labor is great, but there is often a huge gulf between a journalist’s vision and a programmer’s execution. Reporters don’t need to be crack programmers, but anything to help bridge that gulf leads to better projects in the long run.

    That said, if you enjoy it, there are definitely benefits to being able to play in both worlds. Steve Yelvington mentioned jobs: Good journalists who can program are an extremely hot commodity. A few others mentioned the intellectual value of solving logical computing problems: I can say without a doubt that my background in computer science has made me a more thorough, structured investigative reporter. At the end of the day, our job is to make information available in the best possible format. Sometimes it’s a story, sometimes it’s audio/video, sometimes it’s the Web. No harm in being good at more than one.

  32. April says:

    OK, if it’s so important for the gulf to be bridged between journalists and programmers, why is no one asking programmers to learn the ins and outs of journalism? This post basically proposes heaping yet one more set of tasks on the shoulders of professionals who are already severely overworked, thanks to the public basically demanding quality content for not even a penny. At some point, it just becomes ridiculous. After all, the saying is, “Jack of all trades, master of none.”

  33. Hi all here. I am a journalist. I am a graphic designer. I am a web programmer. Since graduating from journalism studies in 1992 in Australia I have been pushing the boundaries of communication design and technologies. I always wanted to be in control of the complete communication delivery. What evades me however, is making a living right now. A year ago I hand built and launched the international New Science Journalism Project, an independent online magazine, to give fledgling science writers across the globe a professional outlet for their work. I have not made a cent from this project to date. Perhaps Roland you can also shed some light on strategies for making a living as an entrepreneurial journalist-programmer. This is a genuine question, as I would certainly rate my skills as a journalist and programmer as extremely valuable.

  34. Journalists should learn some coding skills for a few simple reasons:

    1) The world we cover is increasingly digital and web-based. The information we collect is as often in electronic files, documents and code as it is collected from people. The ability to parse, collect and analyze digital information allows you to “interview” it the same way you interview a human source. Those journalists who cannot speak the digital language must rely on a translator. If one’s available, great. If not, you miss the story.

    2) Journalism is increasingly fractured organizationally, and those journalists who can set up and maintain their own web sites have great opportunities. See http://www.anthonydebarros.com/2010/05/31/the-new-journalism-mosaic-3/

  35. Gabe says:

    Journalists don’t need to learn code.. Like April said a few posts above, make the Programmers Learn Journalism.

    Graphic Artists are now supposed to know how to build huge interactive projects even though many of us graduated with print-based degrees ten years ago.

    Automotive dealers who utilize the web are probably getting more sales, but it wasn’t the mechanic that learned the code.. they were smart enough to hire someone who knew code.


    People who know code AND whatever other main skill they preform every day at work should demand a higher salary if they are good at both.
    Companies would rather waste money on two people doing so-so jobs at both even instead of two individual specialized positions.

    In summary. Learn a little code, and hire someone smart when it comes down to the nitty gritty.


  36. Great discussion. In fact, I appreciate it a bit better than the post, because the post doesn’t really deliver justifications for journalists learning specific technologies. It instead kind of brings us to the edge of programming, points and jumps up and down. I think there’s a reason for that, which I’ll mention below.

    I started my first web development company in 1996. Today, I train and write for a living, some of which is journalistic. I am working on a book that covers the overlap between traditional writing and online writing. I bring to my work online communications and community experience that begins in the middle 1980s.

    The one thing the original post says that I strongly agree with is the need for journalists to be far more literate than they commonly are in the practical applications of software, hardware and network technology. That much is essential to be able to map out (within the context of their stories) technical structures, customs, expectations, ownerships, licenses, legacies, and other hidden digital realities of the institutions journalists should do their best work in investigating.

    This is a far cry from learning how to code. This is instead learning what code does and doesn’t do in specific and in context, where code is and isn’t, why code is, who writes code and when. (Hey look – journalism!)

    I do not speak against learning how to code – I caution against presuming that learning how to code helps a journalist in a general sense. In my opinion, it does not. Learning how (and why et. al.) code is written certainly does help. I help people with that all the time.

  37. yelvington says:

    April asks “why is no one asking programmers to learn the ins and outs of journalism?”

    As I was taught years ago: Don’t assume.


    However, as someone who works with programmers every day, I can say with confidence that much of what goes on in a newsroom is as opaque to a programmer as entity-relationship modeling is to someone working the cop beat.

    I do not suggest that everyone needs to learn to code — on the contrary, I’m doing everything I can to empower journalists to do great work on the Internet without even having to know HTML.

    But we need — journalism needs — people who can use technology to communicate in new ways. This is invention-space. It’s just not enough to implement a great CMS and then go back to writing like it’s 1999.

    If you want to be engaged in the creative, leading edge of journalism in this century, you’d better open your mind to technology.

  38. Pierce Presley says:

    You don’t have to learn code. You are free to wallow in whatever level of knowledge or ignorance you desire. You are free to continue to believe that all those precious journalistic skills you’ve amassed will surely be worth something to somebody somewhere. You can keep on thinking that there’s some deus ex machina that will come down from Olympus and hand out a business model, a income stream, and a heaping helping of good ol’ give-a-shit for the politicians, the managers and the hoi polloi so that they might once again revere journalists as it was in the golden ages.
    If it is simply too much for you to learn, then don’t learn it. But don’t bitch if you find yourself competing against and losing to people who did take the time, if your fevered dreams of salvation and redemption don’t come to pass, if time and technology march on as they’ve done since the agricultural revolution.

    I’m not saying journalism skills aren’t valuable. I’m certainly not saying that journalists have all the time and resources in the world to learn this stuff, because we don’t. I’m definitely not saying that it’s all on journalists to learn programming and programmers don’t need to learn journalism.

    But the days of ink-stained wretches who new nothing beyond the platens of their Underwoods and regarded teletype as voodoo are not just over, they’ve been obliterated. Clay Shirky has at least one valid point in Here Comes Everybody: technological change will leave people behind and fighting for the protection of a superseded past is a quick ticket to obsolescence. So maybe don’t learn how to parse a comma separated values file into SQL commands to create a relational database in the third normal form, unless you need it for something. But don’t let your first reaction be that of the Luddite. Because there aren’t many of them left, are there?

  39. kob says:

    Great post.

    I hope this advice is incorporated in undergrad courses and informs extension college programs as well.

    But how technically sophisticated need to be?

    In my view, the goal for a journalist should be to acquire enough skills to accomplish this:

    Solid graphic design skills that will allow you customize the look of your page, create art of the fly.

    Video and photo editing.

    Enough HTML, CSS etc., skills to be able manipulate a page;for instance, take Word Press and redesign the page layout and customize and fix problems.

    The goal isn’t to be a professional Web designer, but to have enough capability to do some basic things and do them well.

    You don’t need a computer science degree and journalism degree, and, in truth, a lot of journalists have serious eye glaze issues when it comes to the underlying math skills involved with programming.

    The goal of training should be to develop a practical set of skills and ability to work with the tools that help short-cut some of the pain.

  40. This is a good post and a good discussion.

    I have two things to add. I was teaching computer productivity tools when CD ROMs and interactive programs like Director and Authorware were “hot.” I volunteered to learn multimedia, and found that as I used Authorware, I needed to learn to program it, as well as use it as an authoring tool. As a person with a degree in education orginallly, this took time and effort. I still remember the thrill of dreaming about the code I needed to complete a particular interactive sequence. And then BOOM. Along came Mosaic, the Web, HTML, and who needed interactive CD-ROMs anymore?

    I can’t say that learning to code in Authorware, or learning HTML, or CSS has made me rich or thinner. However, coming to understand the logic of programming and how a rush of chaotic information might be systematized into a dataset has helped me in my job as a teacher, consultant, and journalist almost every day.

    What I am saying, is that I agree with all the commentors who say you just need to get a feel for programming to become an effective journalist today.

  41. I’m frequently asked this question, and my answer is always the same:

    1) You don’t need to learn to program, but it certainly couldn’t hurt — for all the reasons cited above. It’s not as if this is zero-sum. If you feel it’s important, you’ll find time. I’m sure if you looked hard there would be something in your life you could give up in order to find time.

    2) As a journalist, I’ve never regretted any skill I’ve learned — technical or otherwise. Every one has made me a better reporter. Try it.

    3) Many of you are saying roughly the same thing — that journalists really need to just understand what’s possible on the web. My question: Without a fundamental understanding of how the web works, how those building blocks fit together, how do you know “what’s possible?” How does a journalist with a minimal understanding of technology, web standards, UI/UX know “what’s possible?” Or maybe I should ask, what’s the best way to learn these things? I’d say hands-on, but maybe others have a different perspective.

    There are many benefits, and very few drawbacks, to learning technical skills as a journalist. No one says you need to become a rock star developer. But knowing your way around some code, understanding how all the building blocks *really* fit together, and adding a few new skills to your reporter’s utility belt sure feels like a win, win, win to me.

  42. It shouldn’t hurt to learn some programming, but if you learned some programming, you will have almost no more time more for writing.

    And…. there are many programmers out there. What happens if they all learn to write?
    You will loose your job!

    But seriously… these are two different disciplines and hard to combine (IMHO)

  43. SteveH says:

    A journalist should learn some programming for the same reason that a scientist should learn some statistics and an engineer should learn to write. This doesn’t make the scientist a statistician, and it doesn’t make the engineer a writer: it simply makes both of them better at their jobs.

    Part of the debate hinges on your chosen definition of “learn to program”. There are worlds of difference between learning about fundamental concepts like sequence, choice, iteration, decomposition, encapsulation, and information hiding, and teaching yourself how to hack together the code to solve a problem. If you do not understand these fundamental principles (and quite a few more besides) you are not really a programmer, because a programmer is somebody who can identify where such principles can and should be applied, and apply them in any programming language and development environment.

    Programming also involves detailed problem analysis, creative problem-solving, rigorous testing, and the ability to find and correct errors (bugs). None of these are easy things to do, and all of them require skill and experience to do well.

    So, if you learn Java (or Python, or PHP, or Ruby, or C#, or …), or even if you learn to program in Java (or Python, or PHP, or Ruby, or C#, or …), that does not make you a programmer. Any more than learning when to use a two-tailed t-test, and how to conduct one, makes you a statistician, or learning when and how to use a semi-colon makes you a writer.

    However, learning how to solve simple (and not so simple) problems using Java (or Python, or PHP, or Ruby, or C#, or …) may well make you more productive, and puts you in a better position to appreciate what is, and is not, achievable. At the very least you should be better equipped to spot when other people are making excuses or bullshitting. And who knows, you may discover you have a talent for programming and learn some of the more transferrable skills as well.

  44. Coder says:

    Yes, journalists should learn to program!! Thanks for posting this! :-)

  45. Liam says:

    Perhaps this sort of thing will become a pre-requisite for journalists entering newsrooms in the future as yet another wave of ghastly cost-cutting emerges. Obviously it’s handy to know your way around a computer to a certain extent, but computer programmers with real degrees and knowledge and experience in the area should probably be left at it.

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  47. I’m a student on the Interactive MA at City University where we learn loads of the basics of data journalism. Despite having no real background in coding it quickly became clear that you really need to get to grips with it to do data journalism well.

    I have tried to teach myself the basics of a few coding languages so I can scrape data – although it is relatively intimidating at first, it quickly becomes fun. It also, as you say, changes the way that you look at the world. You start seeing potential stories in places that you would not have touched before and that, simply put, is really quite exciting.

  48. James Ritchie says:

    Journalists need to learn to program if they want to be able to write about programming. This is not a bad thing, and there is no such thing as bad knowledge. A journalist should learn how to do anything he wants to be able to do.
    But does a journalist NEED to be able to program? No, of course not. Not now, and not ten years from now. It’s silly.