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Sept. 5, 2012, 11:39 a.m.
Reporting & Production
internetsigncc

Miranda Mulligan: Want to produce hirable grads, journalism schools? Teach them to code

The executive director of Northwestern’s Knight News Innovation Lab says j-schools need to teach students to be open-minded about their skills — and that means learning at least the basics of programming.

Editor’s Note: It’s the start of the school year, which means students are returning to journalism programs around the country. As the media industry continues to evolve, how well is new talent being trained, and how well are schools preparing them for the real world?

We asked an array of people — hiring editors, recent graduates, professors, technologists, deans — to evaluate the job j-schools are doing and to offer ideas for how they might improve. Over the coming days, we’ll be sharing their thoughts with you. Here’s Miranda Mulligan — new executive director of the Knight News Innovation Lab at Northwestern, formerly digital design director for The Boston Globe — arguing that journalists need to learn how to code if they want to become better (and employable) storytellers.

Learning how to make software for storytelling and how to realize news presentations into code are currently the hottest, most pressing skillsets journalists can study. There has never before been more urgency for our industry to understand enough code to have meaningful conversations with technologists.

And yet if you attend any event with a collection of jouro-nerd types, inevitably the same question will come up. Someone will ask — philosophically, of course — “How can we tell better stories on the web?” and proceed to bemoan the tedium of reading a daily newspaper and a newspaper website, likening it to Groundhog Day, the same stories presented the same way, day after day. Sooner or later others add their frustrations that “we” — in 2012 — are still writing for the front page instead of the homepage.

It is our job as educators to remove fear of learning, a fear notoriously prevalent in journalists.

We’ve all had this discussion a thousand times. But now, it’s not just the visual journalists complaining about the stagnation of online storytelling and presentation.

For me, there’s only one response to this: Journalists should learn more about code. Understanding our medium makes us better storytellers. For an industry that prides itself on being smart, tolerating ignorance of the Internet is just stupid.

The time is now for our future journalists to learn about code. We need to innovate our curricula, really looking at what we are teaching our students. Learning, or mastering, specific software is not properly preparing our future journalists for successful, life-long careers. No one can learn digital storytelling in a semester. Mastering Dreamweaver and Flash isn’t very future-friendly, and having a single mid-level “Online Journalism” course offered as an elective does more harm than good. We should be teaching code in all of our journalism courses — each semester, each year, until graduation.

The list of jobs for designers and journalists who can write code is growing — seemingly exponentially. So, let’s all grab our copies of The Art of War and attack this problem from every angle: We need to teach our students to be more technologically literate. We need to teach them how to learn and how to fail. That, my friends, is making the Internet.

I am not arguing that every single writer/editor/publisher who learns some programming should end up becoming a software engineer or a refined web designer. The end goal here is not programming fluency. However, there’s a lot of value in understanding how browsers read and render our stories. Reporting and writing a story, writing some code (HTML, CSS, Javascript), and programming complex applications and services are all collections of skills. A fundamental knowledge of code allows for:

  • More significant conversations about digital presentation, ultimately leading to better, more meaningful, online storytelling. Understanding your medium makes you better at your craft.
  • Deeper thought and understanding of data. Learning more about what goes into writing and programming software teaches you to think in terms of abstractions, functions, parameters, components, frameworks, object classes, templates, and more.

Journalism needs hirable graduates that can create sophisticated visual presentations and can realize them in code. But many students are intimidated, not excited, by the tools now fundamental to visual storytelling. In fact, the prevailing sentiment throughout journalism and communications specialties is that “we” are still intimidated. Maybe this attitude is trickling down to the universities — or maybe up from them. But “we” have all got to get over our fear of the Internet.

Last September, I participated in a half-day student seminar at the Society of News Design’s annual workshop in St. Louis. To be brazen and speak for my panel-mates, we were all shocked by how apprehensive the students were toward HTML, CSS, and Javascript. In fact, after three hours of nudging them to make the time to learn some code, a female student boldly asserted that she really didn’t care about digital design and wanted advice for students hoping to break into print design.

It’s our job as educators to remove fear of learning, a fear notoriously prevalent in journalists. HTML is not magic. Writing code is not wizardry; it’s just hard work. Learning to program will not save journalism and probably won’t change the way we write our stories. It is, however, a heck of a lot more fun being a journalist on the web once “how computers read and understand our content” is understood.

Learning to program not only provides a practical skill — it also teaches problem solving. Students are learning more precise and nuanced thought processes, and the depth of their understanding of information and data will only grow. Also, for visual journalists, teaching code is teaching information design. Both news designers and web designers are burdened with the same responsibilities: organizing and rationally arranging content, illustrating ideas to deepen the understanding of a story, and working within the constraints of the medium.

I believe the most important thing an instructor can ever do is inspire students to be open-minded about their skills. No one knows what the storytelling landscape will look like in two years, let alone a decade from now. As educators, we can make becoming a digital journalist feel accessible and attainable. Graduates should leave armed with a skillset that includes the ability to learn quickly and adapt, to be open to new ideas and solutions, and to take initiative like the self-starters they were born to become. They will never get bored, and they will always be employable.

Our journalism pedagogy should inspire future digital journalists to be Internauts, to continually grow, constantly teaching themselves the newest storytelling tools and techniques, instilling processes for life-long learning.

Image by Steve Rhode used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     Sept. 5, 2012, 11:39 a.m.
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