Sun, 09/25/2016 - 11:40

Posted by Tamara Baluja on February 06, 2014

By William Wolfe-Wylie

Two years after beginning this journey, I'm more intimidated by what I don't know than when I started. That's what learning code will do to you.

In January 2012, U.S. startup Codecademy issued a challenge called Code Year. Learn to code in one year, it promised. So I signed up.

Well, it turns out that phrase “learn to code” doesn't mean much of anything. Just as there are an infinite number of problems a journalist could want to solve, there are an infinite number of solutions computers can offer to solve them.

Developing custom interactives with HTML, CSS and JavaScript involves learning three different languages and how they interact with one another. Web scraping to circumvent having to file tedious access-to-information requests and gathering corporate data requires knowing a bit of Python and Regular Expressions. More complex web applications for newsrooms could involve even more difficult server-side languages.

I quickly learned there would never be a point when I would sit up and declare: Finally! Now I've learned how to code!


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Just like journalism, it's a long process of learning new tools, tricks, ideas and languages. Learning to code expands your horizons, twists your brain into thinking about problems in new ways and opens up new solutions to old problems. It’s an eye-opening and world-changing experience. But it's still just another tool to get stuff done.

It's from this reality that the debate about teaching code in journalism schools arises.

In my class at Centennial College, in Toronto, I teach multiplatform journalism. The final unit is an introduction to programmatic concepts, and students write Python programs to scrape data from the web. We use existing services like Google Charts, Fusion Tables and Excel to visualize that data and turn it into stories.

I take this approach with students because I believe it brings them a deeper understanding of how the Internet works and keeps their brains focused on gathering information rather than making it pretty: the foundation of good journalism.

I do not believe that every student should learn these skills. Programming is an intensely logical process. Not everyone's brain can be twisted in that direction. Brilliant researchers, editors and writers should not be told they have no future in journalism because they failed to create? a Python web scraper or a D3 data visualization.

Similarly, people who excel in these technical fields should be able to find their niche in journalism by proving their abilities to scrape the dark corners of the web for exclusive stories and question them critically.

The modern newsroom will necessarily include developers working side-by-side with journalists. Often, they will be journalists themselves. They will be talented minds who will make or break news teams.

Also part of those news teams will be talented videographers, talented writers, talented designers and talented interviewers. To expect a single person to master each of those skills is simply unreasonable.

Instead, journalism schools should focus on helping students understand their strengths and customize their learning to play to their strengths. Journalism schools should help students recognize their invaluable roles in the modern news team, how flexible they’re capable of being and where they’re most passionate. Sometimes that will be as a newsroom developer. Frequently, it will not be.

Should every journalist know how to code? No. But every journalist should know someone who knows how to code, and they should be resources unto each other to create stronger teams. Journalism schools need to offer their students the opportunity to become that resource. 

William Wolfe-Wylie is the homepage editor at Canada.com and the closest thing that website has to a newsroom developer. He previously worked with Sun Media and Canadian University Press. Follow him on Twitter @wolfewylie. 

 

 

 


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Comments

We'll teach whatever skills the industry needs, including any kind of coding it requires. That's easy, and there are no shortage of people who can teach these, including our existing faculty. However, at this point, the only sector asking for these very specific skills (a few big dailies) are simulaneously laying people off, even those with multimedia and online skills. So the question begs to be asked: why turn our curriculums in knots for an sector that's not hiring our grads with the latest skills, and which is laying those staffers off with up-to-date skills? I'm not saying we don't teach coding, but I don't yet see a broad demand for it among the papers hiring our grads.

 

Ian - Agreed, digital literacy is a core component of modern journalism, especially as many of our core coverage areas overlap with technology (Canada student loands misplacing student information, target store databases being hacked, cyber-wars, etc. etc.). A basic digital literacy goes a long way to covering these issues credibly.

Joe - As those layoffs hit deeper and deeper for modern newsrooms, staff who are multi-talented are able to survive longer than those with single skills. Look at Stewart Thompson over at the Globe, who began as an internet and is now one of the core multimedia developers making the site look awesome. He's still in his mid-twenties and now teaches at Ryerson. The question of layoffs and skill sets can be extended to almost anything we teach in journalism schools (why train photographers when everyone is being laid off? Copy editors, when it's all being out-sourced? Page designers?) There might not be a high demand for it because employers haven't quite caught up with the times. But because they have these skills, your grads will have more longevity and versatility in the field than their counterparts from other schools.

J-Source and ProjetJ are publications of the Canadian Journalism Project, a venture among post-secondary journalism schools and programs across Canada, led by Ryerson University, Université Laval and Carleton University and supported by a group of donors.