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Oct. 23, 2013, 10:49 a.m.

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.

POSTED     Oct. 23, 2013, 10:49 a.m.
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