An Online Initiative to Help Journalists Gain Basic Coding Skills

    by Cindy Royal
    February 25, 2014

    I am working to improve digital awareness and skills among journalists, journalism students and faculty by developing an open-source website with training modules that will help them learn to code. As data visualization becomes a legitimate and important means of storytelling, the demand for people with programming and data skills will increase. Journalists who understand basic programming techniques will find ways to improve their access to data, new ways to tell and share stories and will generally have new insights to drive newsroom innovation.

    How will your approach answer the journalism challenge you are trying to solve?

    There is a range of technology skills that journalists should possess to complement storytelling. They should be able to modify basic HTML code in a content management system, set up a website for a side project, scrape a website for data or understand how to use an application programming interface (API). They may need an understanding of JavaScript to work with visualization tools, or be asked to collaborate on a team that includes technologists. Who knows? A journalist may realize that he or she has a strong technology inclination and wish to continue learning to join the ranks of news application developers.

    "There is a range of technology skills that journalists should possess to complement storytelling."



    In order to create a training hub that will be useful to journalists, I have been observing the ways programming is taught in the Computer Science discipline and filtering the specific skills that are needed to accomplish journalistic goals, configuring examples that are relevant in a journalism context. For example, after becoming comfortable with basic Web design and programming topics, users will learn how to create an interactive graphic. They will be introduced to libraries and tools that will allow them to modify code without having to start from scratch. Most importantly, they will gain a problem-solving mindset that will allow them to seek out solutions for their own projects and needs.

    How is your approach different from what already exists?

    Lynda.com, CodeAcademy.com and CodeSchool.com offer general purpose programming training. For Journalism, Source and Code With Me each offer a different approach in teaching journalists to code. And a cottage industry has emerged providing short courses in Web development, as in Austin’s MakerSquare. My project will fill the need for those just getting started with coding, introducing simple projects and tools in a distributed, online platform. The modules could be used to “train the trainer,” as supplements in college curriculum or by individuals as needed for specific newsroom projects. This project is helping to define which skills are feasible and relevant for journalists to have and what knowledge they need to be able to work and collaborate with technology resources in their organizations.

    What elements of your proposal have you already researched, tested or created?

    I have spent the past several months taking computer science courses, attending seminars and conferences and meeting with professors and professionals. Thus far, I have created the overall curriculum plan and started developing content. The plan consists of moving the user through basic Web development skills, interactivity with JavaScript, a scraping tutorial using Scraperwiki and introductions to popular data visualization tools like D3, Chart.js and High Charts. The program culminates with a step-by-step lesson in developing a news application using a Web framework. Future content could include mobile application development.


    What are your immediate next steps and your estimated timeline for completing them?

    In the coming months, I will be completing content and initial testing of the tutorials. The tutorials will be hosted on a website, and I will begin working on video and other platforms that will aid in the learning process. I plan to further test the tutorials with students when I return to my teaching position in the fall, with a year-long project planned around telling the stories of the Austin music community. As technology tools and platforms evolve, I will modify and develop tutorials to keep the modules up-to-date.

    What resources or advice do you need to complete those steps?

    The next steps will require time and focus. I will be testing some of my approaches with Knight Fellows this quarter. I am currently taking a Web Applications course in the computer science department at Stanford. This course is providing the knowledge I need to develop the most comprehensive and advanced aspects of the platform.

    Please list any collaborators, partners or significant outside advisers on your project.

    I have greatly appreciated the advice of professors and professionals that include Dr. Jure Leskovec of Stanford, David Wright and Simon Rogers of Twitter, David Cohn of Circa, Burt Herman of Storify, Rosental Alves, Robert Quigley and Jeff Linwood at The University of Texas, Katie Zhu of Medium and the support of the Knight Fellows and Fellowship Staff.

    Have suggestions or questions about this challenge? Post your comment below or email [email protected].

    Fascinated by a co-worker’s demonstration of HTML, Cindy Royal started her first website in 1996, a concert review site called onthatnote.com. This hobby inspired a career change focusing on the effects of the Internet on communication and media. After 13 years with NCR Corporation and Compaq Computer, she enrolled in the journalism program at The University of Texas at Austin, earning a Ph.D. in 2005. She now teaches Web design and leads digital media efforts as an associate professor at Texas State University. Royal is most proud of her students’ accomplishments, with many having gone on to careers at The New York Times, Digital First Media, Austin American-Statesman, Blackbaud, Spredfast, Homeaway, SXSW and more. She has been recognized with several teaching awards, including the Presidential Award for Excellence from Texas State University in 2013 and the Statesman’s Texas Social Media Award in 2010. Royal is a member of the 2013-2014 Knight Journalism Fellowship class at Stanford. More information on her background and activities can be found at cindyroyal.com.

    This post originally appeared on the blog for the John S. Knight Journalism Fellowships at Stanford.

    jsklogoThe John S. Knight Fellowships at Stanford University fosters journalistic innovation, entrepreneurship and leadership. Each year, 20 individuals from around the world get the resources to pursue their ideas for improving journalism.

    Tagged: coding journalism knight programming stanford

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