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Journalists Should Learn to Write… In Code

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The internet has become a powerful tool for journalists.  It contains large amounts of data from around the world that can be accessed by anyone with the proper know-how.  It also allows for independent journalists to build their own brand of news like Arianna  Huffington or Matt Drudge and their respective websites, The Huffington Post and The Drudge Report.  While I doubt that Huffington did any direct programming for her social media empire, I would be surprised if Drudge didn’t do any of the early work on his website when it launched in 1997. There are plenty of webmasters and computer programmers employed by news organizations that attend to the technical needs of running and maintaining a website, but there are still valid reasons for journalists to learn at least a bit of programming for the web and for sorting through data.

10,000 Words wrote an article in 2008 that listed several good reasons for journalists to learn code.  It helps journalists create basic online content with knowledge of HTML and CSS, it makes the journalist less dispensable when almost anyone can report the news, and it gives journalists an edge when competing for jobs that traditionally trained computer programmers have an edge on even if they lack necessary journalism training. While knowledge of HTML and CSS is becoming less relevant with advanced backend for posts (such as the user interface for WordPress), many of these skills are extremely useful for journalists.

The article doesn’t think deep knowledge of the Django framework, which requires knowledge of Python; PHP, a scripting language; or Ruby on Rails, a framework based in Ruby, are necessary for journalists, but I disagree on this point.  Scripting languages are an extremely powerful tool for sifting through large amounts of data.  Imagine if you wanted to index a website to look for a specific file automatically without knowing how the data is laid out.  It can be done easily with a scripting language and the right know how.  Knowledge of a general programming language can allow a programmer to create powerful tools to simulate potential outcomes, process data, and perform many tasks based on the programmer’s needs. C is an extremely popular and versatile programming language to learn.  It’s been around for a long time and a variety of places online to learn it.

There are downsides to learning programming languages and crafting applications and websites to suit your needs.  Knowledge of how computers work and more specifically how operating systems, web-applications, web-browsers, and other programs interact with each-other are important aspects to understand when writing a program.  It can be overwhelming, but it is also extremely rewarding.

I would definitely recommend anyone wanting to be a journalist to at least look at HTML, CSS, and interactive web-applications like Flash, Java, Silverlight, and HTML 5.  All of these are useful languages and applications to have knowledge of if you wish to work in social media.


Written by Christopher Siler

2011/06/07 at 09:28

Posted in Uncategorized

2 Responses

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  1. I am a journalist and I can write in AS2, AS3, HTML,CSS and others but not Ruby or similar languages. There is a high need for reporters to learn some code so they can think beyond the orginization’s CMS but there since few will be in a position where they will be able to use Ruby in their reporting and publishing a greater focus should be on multimedia reporting where some of the more basic codes can play a large role.

    Joshua Altman

    2011/06/07 at 21:00

  2. Those are more communication protocols and markup languages than real programming code. They’re definitely useful to know about when you’re only worrying about writing for the web, but full programming languages have a lot of additional advantages if you find yourself sifting through large databases frequently.

    Imagine quickly sorting through massive amounts of data by writing small applications or using a short script. It’s not useful for some aspects of reporting, like working on a breaking story about a fire, but it could be useful for investigative reporters that need to sort through massive databases looking for a specific thing. I knew a guy in college that accumulated over 100 gigs of images while working on a web-crawler that would index websites and then send the result to an automated downloader. Imagine if he were looking a specific type of post on Twitter. Not only would he have found what he needed, he’d have each post’s address and the ability to download it without having to click on each one. You could also apply this to any public database or digital database you create to help sort data

    We already perform basic searches when we use Google or search functions on Twitter. It’s all a matter of whether or not you’ll need the skill and if you want to spend the time learning about how to do it.

    Christopher Siler

    2011/06/07 at 21:39

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