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Nieman Journalism Lab
Pushing to the future of journalism — A project of the Nieman Foundation at Harvard

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.

What to read next
Mark Coddington    Aug. 22, 2014
Plus: Controversy at Time Inc., more plagiarism allegations, and the rest of the week’s journalism and tech news.
  • Andy Boyle

    And my former boss is incredibly right, as per usual.

    For those looking for a place to jump in and start learning the basics, I will promote this super long thing I wrote while in Miranda’s employ:

    Learn how to make the internets. You will get a job. If not in journalism, than in any of the thousands of businesses that are starving for developers and designers.

  • Gina Goodman

    I went back to school recently to become certified in social media. But if I had time to take more courses it would be in learning code. Seems like it could be very helpful in many facets of communications, not just in journalism. A skill like that helps anyone become more employable for sure. Thanks for the 

  • Michelle Johnson

    Miranda, first sorry you’re not in Boston anymore because this would be the perfect pitch for a course here at BU. :)
    I agree. We’ve got to get students more immersed in coding. We do a tiny bit in the classes that I teach, but it’s not nearly enough.
    Problem is how to wrap this into an already jam-packed curriculum. If we do it as a separate course we’d have to do some hard-core recruiting to get enough students signed up for exactly the reasons that you cite. I can count on one hand the numbe of students I’ve had who are interested in the “back end.” And, yes, they got jobs immediately when they graduated.
    Second issue is, who’s going to teach it? We’d have to go outside of the department. I know enough code to be dangerous, but I wouldn’t put myself out there as a hard-core code instructor. 
    Do we send them over to the computer science department? Do we partner with CS? I dunno. Would love to hear some ideas on how to implement this.

  • Dylan Smith

    That there are recent college graduates in any discipline who are ignorant of basic HTML/CSS/JS is embarrassing, but in journalism it should be downright shocking.

    But, tellingly, it’s not.

  • Arcticgrayling_ne

    A possible solution:

  • Digital Journalism

    Journalism students need to be code-literate, but don’t need to be code expert. A realistic goal for teaching code to journalism students is so that they can better communicate with the real programers and, at times, tweak some ready-made codes to make it work for a job at hand.

  • rslawsky

    Sorry to say I don’t agree with this at all. I’ve been working online journalism for years and rarely if ever have the need to code. The news organizations I’ve seen use a template-based system. I’m sure there are opportunties on the development side, but they’re completely separate from editorial.

  • Tim H.

    I strongly disagree. Basically you are trying to save media companies money by making working journalists do a technician’s job. Why not ask them to handle sales, advertising, and marketing as well? That way they could “understand the medium” better, right? You’re selling out to the corporate bottom line.

  • Scott B Bradley

    Tim, as a software engineer working in this space, I can say with 100% certainty that the goal is not to get journalists to do a technician’s job. In fact, the latent potential that will inevitably be realized is the need to open up more and more technical positions in the newsroom. The fact of the matter is that journalism is becoming a more technical industry by the day. And if it is to realize the potential of ever more dynamic and engaging media experiences, then this is necessarily so.

    This shift is not unique to journalism. I have seen it, for example, in biology, where more and more scientists must become software savvy in order to do their job.

    It is true that in the midst of this shift we are seeing more non-coders write code, and many a biologist, journalist, and numerous others, have even made complete career transitions. But the offloading of coding responsibility to non-coders is not at all the point. What is the point is that as an engineer, I need to be able to engage with non-developers in a way in which I can begin to understand and to solve the problems they have. In biology, this means I have to have at least some understanding of things like sequence alignments, phylogentic trees, etc. In journalism, it is about the problems that journalists face — wrangling data, presenting the data in new and interesting ways, content management and distribution, etc.

    This engagement is a 2-way street. The more sophisticated of an understanding a journalist has about software and software development, the more intelligently he or she can engage in this conversation. I need for journalists to have this sophistication, the ability to nuance the problems they have, because that is how I am going to be able to help them to solve their technical problems.

  • John Zhu

    “Problem is how to wrap this into an already jam-packed curriculum.”
    Perhaps the key is cultivating in journalism students an appreciation for the importance of lifelong learning? There’s no way for schools to squeeze in every single skill that students will need into the curriculum, and chances are new skills will become necessary in just a few years after they graduate. Some professions have continuing ed requirements, and coders need to keep updating their knowledge to avoid becoming obsolete. It seems like that should become more of an emphasis in journalism.

  • Brian McNeil

    Ye-gads! You’re spot-on-the money!
    Over on Wikinews, we’ve had two universities assign getting published on the news-based Wikipedia sister project as coursework. Their biggest complaint?

    “Layout and wiki markup is ‘hard’”.

    Folks, it is simpler than HTML and CSS; you either learn these sort of skills, or potential employers will seek out the literate geeks. Software design and development, systems analysis – and IT troubleshooting – they’re all skill-sets that encourage asking the same sort of questions any good journalist should be posing.

    Your first job in journalism is always going to be some sort of apprenticeship. Smart employers will start looking for techies with writing skills if you throw up your hands in horror at the tiniest computer error. The ‘apprenticeship’ may last six months to a year longer, but the technology will never stop something being published.

    If you look down your nose at the technology you’ve to work with every day, you’re forgetting a very old saying:

    “A bad workman always blames his tools.”

  • Richard Francis Gaspar

    I teach at a large community college in Florida. I have been teaching PHP for the past 3-years. This year, we now offer a lab class that focuses on creating web pages using PHP an WordPress. It is not only necessary that students learn some basic coding, it is expected.

    Dr. Rick Gaspar, Professor of Journalism, Hillsborough Community College

  • Lizabeth Hannaford

    Thank you for putting this argument for journalists to learn code so clearly.  I’m trying to push this idea (gently) but a lot of journalists are sceptical.  I get a few replies from people saying they simply don’t understand what a journalist could do with code and others who worry about journalists being forced to become a jack-of-all-trades.  
    No room on the current J-school curriculum?  Why not ditch shorthand?  (I KNOW that will get me a load of angry replies :-)  

  • Barry Kort

    “Learning to program not only provides a practical skill — it also teaches problem solving.”

    Indeed, many of the best thinkers in the field of educational technology have widened their view from earlier notions of teaching basic programming to a more modern view of teaching what is now called Computational Thinking.

    Computational Thinking is defined as a combination of Critical Thinking, Creativity, Problem Solving, Communication, Collaboration, and Computing. 

    Narrative Storytelling is one of the frontiers of Computational Thinking, because it also calls for a new and emerging branch of computing called Affective Computing — processing information that arises from or relates to affective emotional states. 

    Affective Computing supports the complement of Computational Thinking, which we may characterize as Empathic Thinking. Narrative Storytelling is our culture’s traditional means of promoting Empathic Thinking.

    Just as computer technology provides the tools for computational thinking, so does storytelling technology provide the tools for communicating the seeds of empathy by which we are better able to relate to one another in our diverse society.

    How can storytelling — the bardic arts — be enhanced by 21st century computer technology? Here are some of my further thoughts on that question…