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Robert Hernandez: Those required courses in journalism school are there for a reason

The USC professor says that even if you don’t see a big role for digital skills in your career, training in the technologies of the web is essential for all journalism students.

Editor’s note: You may have seen this story in The Atlantic Monday that prompted some discussion with its arguments and its title: “Should Journalism Schools Require Reporters to ‘Learn Code’? No.” Here, Robert Hernandez, assistant professor of professional practice at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, responds.

How journalism schools can be more digital is far from a new topic. It’s one that emerges every few months, if not weeks, and it’s getting close to the point of being tiresome.

Don’t get me wrong: It’s essential to our growth as a industry. Journalism schools play a dramatically different role than in the past — or should, if done right. Technology has disrupted classrooms as much as newsrooms, and most of us think both have been too slow to adapt.

I’ve written pieces about the power of code not being just for developers and how students shouldn’t wait for j-schools to come up with a perfect curriculum. But this piece is strictly in response to Olga Khazan’s article in The Atlantic about how journalists don’t need or benefit from learning “code.” (Full disclosure: Olga is an alum of USC Annenberg and I was her professor during her time in our graduate program. In fact, we both started at Annenberg at the same time.)

First, I want to demystify the image of students and put some things into context. I teach graduate and undergraduate students, and both are often at different stages in their lives, facing different challenges, and applying different approaches to their education.

You might be blinded by your years of hindsight, but most of us as undergrads were borderline screw-ups. We didn’t know the direction of our lives; we were adjusting to the new responsibility of living independently (“cooking” for ourselves, a.k.a. heating up ramen); and while we thought we had all the answers…we know better now.

You may have forgotten this, but once upon a time, you probably hated that you were required to take some of those general education courses — math, science, a language. But those same courses — or maybe it was philosophy, or psychology — changed the way you thought and viewed life. If you had a choice back then, though, many of you probably wouldn’t have taken those courses if they weren’t required.

My educational career began in community college and I had no direction in my life — until I walked into my first newsroom, as part of an elective. Journalism saved me.

Graduate students, on the other hand, have had more life experiences and have made the choice to return to school, for a variety of reasons — often to get a better job. They come in with a laser focus, because they know what they want.

When I transferred to San Francisco State University, I knew I wanted to be a print reporter and nothing was going to stop me. I finished the journalism program fast, but couldn’t graduate until I took more electives. Those electives, reluctantly, gave me more life perspective — and one of those late courses introduced me to the web.

While journalism saved my life, the web and technology gave me a direction. I’ve had an incredible career because I learn the power behind the phrase “Hello World.”

Now, some context about USC Annenberg’s journalism program: For about 15 years, regardless of your journalism focus, grads and undergrads have learned how to tell stories in text as well as for broadcast. They learn writing, reporting, and storytelling for both platforms. Many schools are catching up and starting to teach this way.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard students complain about how useless learning that other craft is when they know they want to be a magazine writer or an on-air reporter. If they had their way, they wouldn’t take those required classes and would avoid learning those skills.

I also can’t tell you how many times students have gotten internships and jobs because they have learned those skills and how grateful they become — typically a year or two after graduating. Many of them won’t use all those crafts at their job, but the ability to do engaging stories on different platforms helped them standout from the growing pile of resumes.

This also applies to the discussion on digital and how much “coding” is too much or just enough. Let’s take a moment to define some terms:

Digital literacy: The basics of how the web and computers work. The basics in how computers are networked, especially for the Internet. In learning this, you get exposed to HTML and how to FTP into a server AND publish a web page. Every student, journalism major or otherwise, needs to know this. It’s a given, not an option. It’s 2013: Why are we even debating this?

Coding: HTML and CSS are the building blocks; I believe non-journalism students will get enough exposure to this if they have the proper digital literacy. As journalists and content creators, though, our students need to know how things are made with this level of code, and especially understand and respect the craft. But, for me, “coding” means the next level of languages beyond markup: JavaScript, Python, Ruby, and so on.

I remember the first day of the first Intro to Online Media class I ever taught. I did the typical why-are-you-in-this-class-and-what-do-you-hope-to-get-out-of-it introductions. My favorite answer: “It’s the future, or whatever.”

If they’d had their way, they wouldn’t have taken this required course, even though digital is “the future, or whatever.” Some students say they know what they want to be, and a digital course is just delaying that. Others are too afraid of all this tech witchcraft and think only the nerdy kids should know how to deal with computers. Those students who do dabble in tech have used it mainly as consumers rather than creators.

At USC Annenberg, all of our students get the digital literacy we would expect even if they don’t (yet) see the value. They know it’s the future, or whatever, but they think their future doesn’t require HTML. I’m surprised that Olga thinks that she shouldn’t have learned coding, even at the HTML level. I don’t agree with that.

When students hear things like “all your students must be programmers,” I can understand the sense of panic they might feel.

I do agree that not all journalists need to learn and master coding in JavaScript, Python, or Ruby. But they should know that it is not magic and, to be successful in their modern careers, they need to be able to communicate and work alongside different experts, including programmers. They need to be, at a minimum, digitally literate.

At USC Annenberg and at other schools, our goal is to prepare you for your career, not just your current job. These digital courses teach more than just a language or how to use software — those are just tools. These courses use those tools to teach you how to think, how to problem solve, how to MacGyver a solution while on deadline.

Having HTML, CSS, FTP, Adobe Photoshop, Final Cut Pro, or Illustrator listed on your resume helps you rather than hurts you. And in today’s competitive journalism job market, you need all the help you can get.

To be fair, I believe there is a difference between a modern journalist and a digital journalist.

A modern journalist needs to know how the web works, needs to be exposed to and respect all journalistic crafts (including code), and needs to know their role in working with others. And that role is an active role, not a passive one. They need to use these digital tools to produce relevant, quality journalism.

A digital journalist (or web journalist) focuses on producing journalism of the web, not just on the web. That can manifest itself in a diverse set of roles — being the homepage editor, becoming a multimedia storyteller, or developing a news app, alone or with a team. They can use the tools, but they can also build tools when needed.

If you’re a student, I’m not going to debate which path you should take. I’m not even going to debate what level of instruction in digital journalism or code you need to take. (It’s 2013 — are you really arguing against learning technology?)

But what I will say is that, like those other required parts of your education, you are better off for being exposed to it, whether in a journalism career or in life.

Photo by Jeroen Bennink used under a Creative Commons license.

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  • Raymond Duke

    I disagree that it should be a requirement to learn programming because programming just isn’t for everyone. Sure, knowing HTML and CSS basics is a given, and so is knowing the terminology behind coding. But as for getting into the intricacies of coding, no. Leave coding and programming for people that enjoy doing it. Forcing skills onto a group of people is not an effective way to for them be productive, or happy. People that want to code will write better code. People that want to be a journalist will be better journalist.

    I’ll use myself as an example. I’ve tried to learn how to code and realized that it’s futile. It’s just not for me. I dislike math and dislike how coding irritates the logical way I like to approach a problem. But I realize that for some people it makes perfect sense. Good for them. They can write the code, and I can do the things I do well.

    Lastly, I have a chip on my shoulder about the ideology behind “all x should learn how to do y” because it doesn’t factor in how easy, or difficult, it is for people to adopt new skills. It lumps people into one giant category that can be taught anything. It’s just not practical.

  • Robert Hernandez

    Hi Raymond, thanks for reading the piece and sharing your thoughts. There’s a couple things in your comment that I kinda agree with and a couple things I don’t agree with.

    First, exposing students to coding doesn’t mean they have to master it. It’s like exposing a political writer to writing sports or vice versa… they will become better writers and understand how each is different (and not as easy as they may have thought).

    At USC Annenberg, we teach everyone the digital literacy I talked about in the piece, but I don’t except everyone to become an expert. For those that want to focus on digital journalism, we go deeper… but at our school, we’re not aiming to produce programmers (yet).

    In any case, students will get different levels of exposure depending in what type of journalism they want to practice. But they must know journalism on all platforms, which includes digital, as well as text and broadcast.

    There is a line you have that says “People that want to code will write better code. People that want to be a journalist will be better journalist.” I think you, perhaps accidentally, are saying coders that work in journalism aren’t journalists. And that is clearly not the case… while some journalists work with editing “tape” or text as their medium, others work with lines of code as theirs… and they’re all journalists.

    I agree with you that coding — as a career — is necessarily for everyone… but demystifying it and reminding people that you don’t have to love math to do it is a good thing. It helps us do better journalism in this digital age.

    Thanks again!

  • Eric Newton

    Congratulations on a great piece. To have a say in their futures, journalists need to be bilingual in the code we call English and the codes we call computer codes.

    In the stone age before the web, I learned about Pica poles, sizing wheels, page layout, newsroom budgets, hot type and cold type and virtual type production systems, including four different byzantine proprietary systems. Could not have done that without knowing something about numbers.

    Here’s a compromise idea: Introduce a strict numeracy requirement. Then make coding the EASIEST way to meet that requirement. Calculus, statistics, etc. would be other ways. Give people options. But let them know that the days of newsrooms operating at the eighth grade math level are numbered.

    Young people who code can more easily do what I did when I put together a newspaper’s front page. Now, they call themselves interface designers and make starting salaries triple those made by people who can only write in that other code we call English.

    No, jobs aren’t everything. But being employed is a good thing.

  • rtburg

    Very well said, Robert. A numeracy requirement fulfilled — at minimum — by coding is also an idea that shouldn’t be any newer than numbers. A student at lunch today was making the coding-as-foreign-language analogy. She said it was a skill she knew she needed, that she was terrified of it, and that she just needed someone to help un-stick her when she tried to learn it on her own. But my bet is that she won’t take it as an elective.

  • Raymond Duke

    Thanks for your reply.

    What I was trying to say was I think it’s better to have people specialize in the things they want to do – and more importantly, do the things they are good at. I wasn’t saying journalists are not coders – or vice versa, but there is a reason why people choose to specialize in the things that they do. At least that’s what I hope.

    I think this can easily turn into a conversation about specializations; i.e., is it better to be a jack of all trades, or someone with a honed in, niched skill? While a jack of all trades may appear better, we are living in highly connected times; thus, it’s perhaps more efficient to seek out others that are dedicated to doing one thing, instead of trying to do it all yourself. And if additional skills were to be introduced, maybe it’s best if those skills are how to work in effective, organized and productive teams.

    I agree that technology has a big impact on journalism. That is as obvious as the sky is blue. And I think that tomorrow’s leaders of journalism will filled with groups of people of diverse specialities.

    I don’t mean to say come off as disrespectful or rude. I’m sharing my point of view as it stands today. I could be wrong, right or completely off topic. But if I don’t bring it up in a conversation, how will I know?

  • Marc Cooper

    Some people will need to do coding as part of their jobs. Others will not. Most journalists will have to at least understand what it is so they can “handshake” with more experienced and dedicated coders. That out of the way, I was also Olga’s journalism instructor in three classes including an advanced News21 multimedia fellowship. From her first day to her last in the Annenberg 2-year program, Olga distinguished herself as among the brightest students I ever had. She displayed a deep capacity for critical and analytical thinking, an ability to conduct tenacious and probing reporting and she produced polished and clear prose presented in the most innovative formats. As a senior editor for our news site, she served as a discriminating and imaginative editor with superb leadership skills and the ability to imagine and manage complex projects. On the basis of these skills, I would have hired her on the spot for almost any meaningful position as reporter, producer or editor. Indeed, I had the privilege of recommending her for many of the positions she was offered (and no employer ever asked me about her coding abilities). If I did not know her personally and was considering her for a job, all it would have taken was a simple Google or Nexis search to turn up the impressive body of work she had already produced while still in school for me to immediately consider her. Looking at her more complex multi-media projects, I would have asked her if she had coded it herself or not AFTER I had hired her. Her ability to code would be an additional point in her favor alongside the number of foreign languages she speaks (the latter actually being more important for a fruitful career). Two additional postscripts: That Olga is now holding down an important job at The Atlantic less than two years out of school without using her coding is a pretty good argument in her favor. Olga has more than earned her right to help lead this debate on what is and is not taught in J School given that her coding abilities were essentially self-taught.

  • Robert Hernandez

    Raymond, we are in agreement… we expose students to code and such, but we’re not expecting them to do a career in it. I want journalism students to focus on what they want… they’ll have a better likelihood for success. Follow your passion.

    But, also know how you plug into this modern, digital reality… know enough to be a good/useful co-worker, but also know that you might have to be the digital leader in your org.

    I think we are in general agreement, though. Thanks again!

  • Robert Hernandez

    Thanks, Eric! That’s an interesting strategy. We are also requiring a numeracy course. Data/spreadsheet journalism plus basic numeracy is essential too… and one we’re making a required course.

    P.S. I developed film by hand and was the go to guy in pasteup, armed with a wax gun and x acto knife.

  • Robert Hernandez

    Indeed. But we have to reframe the course too, so it’s not so intimidating. Journalism is fun. So is digital journalism too… really. You have so much POWER when you know more of this stuff. And, if you don’t like it, learn enough to be effective and a good co-worker rather than an outdated “problem.”

    Thanks for your comment!

  • peggy bustamante

    I have the good fortune to be teaching coding to graduate journalism students at USC/Annenberg. I have eight second-year students in one of my classes, including one very courageous long-form print/text reporter. He stayed in the class even though he let me know he breaks out in sweat just looking at technology/code (I did indeed witness this happen). Eight weeks in, he is writing JavaScript (not just HTML and CSS) and obviously gets it. He no longer panics when he sees code. I think secretly he is enjoying it. Do I think he is going to become a newsroom web apps developer? No, definitely not. Do I think he will be able to image how to present his long-form sports stories in a more engaging and compelling way? Yes, absolutely. He has said as much.

    Up until now, news websites have just been print editions plastered onto a computer screen. We are only beginning to see what is possible with this new artform that is digital journalism. Giving the journalism students the opportunity and skills to imagine what that new art form will be is not only good for their careers but is also good for journalism. Who else is going to imagine it? It’s not yet been created. Journalism is what movies were 100 years ago, when cinema was just theater recorded on celluloid, one longshot of actors on a stage. Now look at it, it has nothing in common with theater except actors, script/dialogue and storytelling. Everything else is a separate experience.

    Back to my eight grad students (my pioneers as I tell them): half of the students will probably not continue on to the next level of programming (python, ruby, php and databases). But four have expressed great interest in continuing. All of those have shown great capacity for coding and are excited about it. Incidentally, those four students are all women. Another serious problem in the news apps business: embarrassingly few women hired to join the newsroom dev teams (but that’s another subject).

    Then there are my 12 first-year students in the intro to digital journalism class. They all pushed me to teach web development. They sit there rapt when I am teaching them how the web works, HTML and CSS. They love it. I don’t know how many will become full-fledged developers, but I can tell that a number of them are already thinking of switching to digital from broadcast or print, as long as they can keep making the interwebs.

    Coding is not magic, as much as some web developers would like you to think, but it can give journalist a new tool to make magical content.
    p.s. 20 years ago, Quark XPress was the scary new technology freaking out newsroom denizens everywhere. Seriously? Page layout programs are like typing now… just a basic skill everyone is expected to be at least proficient in.

  • tchristianmiller

    To me, this is actually the most important point: numeracy remains the forgotten stepchild in coding debates. I never mastered the use of a Pica pole or HTML5. I am familiar with both, and that familiarity provides me with some appreciation of their function in my craft. However, neither tool improves my ability to gather, analyze and synthesize information – my core function as a reporter. Reporters today must – must – become better at math, statistics and the use of data. The sheer quantity of data demands it. The increasing sophistication of our readership requires it. And, most importantly, the manipulation of data by government and corporate power must find a counter in watchdogs monitoring their activity. Coding is a good enough start. But it’s not enough, by itself, to prepare today’s journalists for understanding and holding accountable tomorrow’s data-rich power structures.

  • Aaron Chimbel

    Good stuff, Robert. Exposing students to code is key. Just like in a liberal arts education, students need an understanding of all major areas of journalism, especially ones like this that will be around for the foreseeable future. How do students know what they want to specialize in unless they are exposed to a
    variety? Also, you and most others are not advocating for every student to be an expert programmer and to be required to take a series of classes on it. However, as you describe, a REQUIRED introduction is important. There’s nothing wrong with forcing our students to eat their vegetables.

  • M. Edward (Ed) Borasky

    As someone who has earned a living being both a programmer and applied mathematician, I can tell you that ‘digital literacy’ – being able to fix someone’s broken HTML or CSS on a deadline – and *numeracy* – being able to tell when a PR person or politican is lying to you with numbers – are both vital and different skills. But if I had to pick just one, it’s numeracy hands down.

    The CMS is supposed to handle all of that HTML/CSS horsecrap for you, and if it doesn’t, somebody in purchasing probably wasn’t numerate enough to recognize a lowball bid. ;-)

  • Gary Kebbel

    I think of colleges of journalism teaching code in the same way that I think of most universities requiring four semesters of a foreign language: You’ll never be fluent, but you will know how to respectfully say hello and ask about food, drink and the toilet. A foreign language introduction also teaches you about people, cultures and other ways of thinking. Someone with an introductory knowledge of Spanish wouldn’t apply for a job at Univision requiring Spanish fluency, however. Just as someone who learned a little JavaScript in J School would not apply for a programmer’s job. Likewise, I’m glad I’ve taken a photography class or two, but no one in their right mind would make me the photographer on a major project. They would, however, be glad I had a few skills if I were the only person around when major news broke. Required classes often introduce students to new skills they end up loving and being good at.

  • Hostile Negress

    I understand both sides and agree that we need no new
    journalists who call it “The” Twitter or show other signs of digital
    disability. However, I’m with her, journalists do not need to learn how to

    I say “program” because saying “learn code” like there’s one
    type, just underscores the issue in my mind – that you have a bunch of people
    talking about and interacting with something they don’t understand and really don’t
    want to understand because others are doing it. That’s the definition of a fad
    and that’s exactly what this code for journalists things is and has been for
    the last few summers.

    Learning a programming language can indeed help exercise your mind and build
    key problem-solving skills. So can learning the ins and outs of Google
    Analytics. So can learning Six Sigma. Hell, so can learning how to crochet a
    blanket. Nobody is insisting on journalists learning those skills because that’s
    not what’s “in” right now. Remember when the big thing was video, video, video
    the other year? Oh I do – I sat in a Finalcut Pro class behind that. Never got
    me a job.

    And that brings me to my core issue: That we continue
    selling this carrot on a stick idea that if journalists bust their ass getting just
    one more magical skill, the world would open up to them. If only you knew javascript!
    If only you understood Ruby on Rails! If only you had these skills … you’d
    still be in a stack with 100 other people being put through Dante’s circles trying to get an insecure job
    paying less than $40k.

    But what about all those great journocoder jobs? I call
    bullshit on those. Pure unicornery. Anybody who has the level of programming
    skill to create these sprawling concoctions newspapers think will save them
    likely lacks either the time or skill to do award-winning journalism too. The
    reverse is also true. You’re overwhelmingly one or the other – and you can be
    effective at either of them independent of the other.

    But more importantly, why do we keep insisting that the
    issue is journalists’ skills? We need to instead focus on holding these
    publications accountable for knowing what they want, creating sustainable,
    practical, secure and well-paid jobs – not going along for the ride everytime
    they insist that if only we added a little more alphabet soup to our resumes,
    they’d have a job for us.

    I say “we” with a grain of salt: I left the industry in 2012, ironically, for a
    job that involves programming. If you
    love programming, by all means do it. But let’s stop selling journalists on
    this mythology that “coding” will save the world. It’s disingenuous, silly and
    even a little cruel.

    That’s all I’ve got!

  • Kat Bee

    I am a recent graduate (May 2013) of the Specialized Journalism MA program at USC — and I found that the most successful Annenberg graduate students were the ones who either already had a solid understanding of coding and general digital media skills, or those who actively sought to become more digitally literate. Although it often seemed like Annenberg was struggling to figure out how best to introduce students to the “scary” world of HTML and SEO, I feel confident that the school is moving in the right direction and am excited to see how the graduate (and undergraduate) programs will continue to incorporate the digital side of journalism into the curriculum. Because I have been building websites since high school, a lot of the coding instruction I received was fairly remedial — but I witnessed firsthand how beneficial and eye-opening that instruction was for other members of my cohort who lacked coding experience. I have no problem admitting that, out of all my classmates, the ones who are most successful post-graduation are the ones who made coding and digital production a major part of their educational experience.

    Speaking for myself, I know the primary reason I have the job I do now is not because of my skills as an editor or producer, but because I knew how to code. I definitely understand why the concept of a “digitally literate journalist” makes a lot of people (especially the “old guard”) uncomfortable — but I hardly feel like online competence has the capacity to detract aspiring writers and editors from also improving their writing and reporting skills. I’d argue that becoming more digitally literate made me an even better reporter; it forced me to think about how I could better enhance my stories through multimedia elements, how to tailor pieces for a variety of mediums and audiences, and how to market my pieces online to reach the widest audience possible. I’ve used these skills more regularly in my career as an editor for a major website than any of the skills taught in my “traditional” reporting classes — as much as I loved those, too!

    Thanks for writing this, Robert. Now I’m just disappointed I was never able to take a class with you!

  • Robert Hernandez

    Thanks for the kinda words… but feel free to reach out whenever. I work for USC and USC Alums.

  • Robert Hernandez

    Gary, that’s a great way to frame it!

  • cikyanzone
  • cikyanzone
  • Carrie Brown-Smith

    Thanks so much for writing this, and I completely agree.

    I love the distinction you make between graduate students and undergraduates, and I love what you said about being blinded by hindsight. What tends to annoy me in these endless discussions about what journalism students should learn among people who don’t teach is that they seem to forget that undergraduate students are not adult professionals with 15 years under their belt working at an elite national news publication. They don’t always make the best decisions about what to pay attention to or study at age 18-22, but many of us didn’t either.

    No matter what we do, and especially those of us at non-elite schools, we are not going to turn out graduates who are perfect, idealized experts in ANYTHING, from coding to writing, I’m afraid. I do my damndest every day to find ways to increase students’ expertise, but to some extent these debates swirl around and around and seem to neglect that fact that learning is an ongoing process and that journalists, whether they are in school or not, need to keep studying and learning if they want to be great.

  • Peter Erikson

    As journalism jobs vanish and the whole industry teeters, students should first ask themselves: With so few opportunities available, is this a good field? Assuming it is, one must know everything digital, including code. Not a math person? Learn it.

    Writing and editing skills were once critical, and while they still are to a degree, HTML, CSS and whatever flavor code you prefer are vastly more important. In fact, students would be wise to get a good grounding in decidedly non-journalism areas, such as economics, computer science, business and politics.

    I wish I could do it all over again. All those journalism classes I took at San Francisco State back in the old days? Worthless. But we didn’t know that the whole foundation of the craft would topple.

  • Robert Hernandez

    This is exactly right… and written from the honest perspective of a professor from the front lines. Thanks for commenting!

  • Robert Hernandez

    Worthless for you, perhaps… but priceless for me. Those classes at SF State helped make me the digital journalist and professor that I am today.

  • Peter Erikson

    That’s the answer I figured I’d get. All those journalists who toiled for years and then were thrown out with the trash? If you weren’t privileged enough to get a professorship, then what? Sit idly by?

    What I’m saying is that journalism schools have always structured their departments in a very rigid manner, without any outside exploration. It’s time for that to end.

    Essentially, I learned to put together the horse and buggy. I wish I had been pushed. But I never thought that a high-level journalist would understand.