In a recent piece for The Atlantic, Olga Khazan argues that learning to code is a poor use of time for most aspiring journalists who could instead be using that time honing their other skills. Like many of my colleagues who have committed acts of code in a newsroom, it really rubbed me the wrong way, for two main reasons.
First, the author doesn’t seem to have done any reporting for the piece beyond a second-hand tweet and extrapolating from her personal experience. She could have picked up the phone to test her assumptions or gain outside insight. She could have asked hiring managers in newsrooms how much they actually value coding skills. She could have asked j-school faculty why they were or were not adding more technology education to their curriculum. She could have asked news developers what their experience is like working with reporters and dividing up roles on a project. She could have asked journalists-turned-coders how and why they chose to learn. Had she done any of these things, I imagine the piece would have been a lot more accurate, interesting, and constructive.
Second, and more importantly, the article falls victim to a lot of fallacies about code and journalism that keep coming back up in this whole discussion. To name a few:
Conflating learning to code, learning to make things for the web, and technological literacy
One of the most maddening parts of this debate is the way every possible thing that might involve a computer ends up lumped together under the umbrella of “coding.” Let’s introduce some nuance. Broadly, you have at least three different categories where a journalist might seek (or be nudged) to improve, and they’re only loosely related.
Technological literacy - Understanding your medium is valuable. When reporters or designers don’t have any sense of the constraints or tradeoffs in making things for the web, everybody loses. The resulting work is worse, and all sides waste a lot of time due to poor communication and mismatched expectations. I also think a lot of journalists working on web projects overestimate how neatly “technical” decisions can be isolated. Supposedly “technical” decisions tend to have real editorial and design implications, especially when they have to be made hastily on a deadline. If you can’t have an informed conversation about those decisions, you’re handing over the keys to the people who can.
Learning to code for research and analysis - Khazan talks a lot about positioning yourself to get hired and a lot less about whether technical skills might help you keep the job by actually being good at it. If you want to work on a subject like school performance, crime, government spending, or any of the countless others that involve complex data, having a technical toolset is important. A little bit of code can give you a big leg up in terms of finding, cleaning, and exploring data. If you think you can compartmentalize the “data” work and give it to someone else, or that you’re fine only reporting stories you can find browsing Excel, someone else is going to eat your lunch.
Learning to make things for the web - If I set aside my own bias as a web developer, this is probably the category I’m least sanguine about for a broad audience. I certainly think a basic working knowledge of HTML and how the web functions is necessary, but I’m willing to buy the argument that we shouldn’t send journalists who really are just looking to write too far down the web rabbit hole. This is mostly because, whereas a journalist who dabbles in using code to analyze data can get real immediate value out of a few tricks, the same is less true of the web. Once you get past the frisson of excitement you get the first time you switch from web consumer to a person who just made a real live web page, there’s a long road before you can make something complex that could go on your news organization’s website. You have to put in a lot of reps before you can wrestle with all the little gotchas of making something for public consumption on every imaginable browser and device.
That doesn’t mean I would discourage a young journalist from poking around with web technologies. Far from it. I love the web, and I happen to think it’s a lot of fun even when the stuff you’re making kind of sucks. But if it turns out not to be your idea of a good time and you want to draw the line at the basics, more power to you.
Arguing against “every journalist must learn to code”
There are some people out there who make it sound like all journalists have to become software developers. This is a silly position. And I sympathize with Khazan that the people who beat the “learn to code!” drum indiscriminately do everyone a disservice, and may even put more people off coding than they draw in. But I don’t think it’s fair to claim that “everyone” is “always” telling journalists to learn to code; arguing against that reductive version is a straw man. Last I checked, journalism schools don’t exactly suffer from a dangerous glut of technical education.
Of course “every journalist must learn to code” is a silly proposition, just as “no journalist should learn to code” is. Journalism is not a monolith. It depends on what sorts of stories you’re trying to tell and in what media. I will freely grant that some journalists have goals that won’t benefit much from technical savvy or coding skills. Khazan may be one of them. But it’s strange to take an anecdotal case and just suppose that it applies to a majority, or even a substantial minority, of young journalists.
"Serious coding is for people with computer science degrees"
I run into this assumption a lot, that people who code in newsrooms must largely be trained computer scientists. It’s really not true. Anecdotally, very few of the newsroom coders I know have a computer science background. I’m pretty sure Chris Groskopf dreams in Python, and he was a philosophy major.
But don’t take my word for it, I actually tried to gather some data on this subject since it keeps coming up. What did I find? Only 1 in 4 news developers studied computer science in school, and nearly half of them didn’t start learning to code until the end of college or later. The sample wasn’t perfect (if anything, I suspect it actually overcounts computer science majors), but it’s probably a lot closer to the mark than idle speculation.
This makes sense: if you’re the kind of person who decides to study computer science and sticks with it, you probably have a talent or affinity for the inherent puzzle-solving of programming, and will be right at home working at a software company solving hard technical problems (where you’ll make a lot more money). Coding in the newsroom tends to be less about deep technical puzzles and more about storytelling and design, and attracts people who are interested in the world and just happen to use code as a tool while they figure it out. Think MacGyver, not Edison (the web: it’s paperclips all the way down).
Treating learning to code as an all-or-nothing proposition
A lot of people have unreasonable expectations about what learning to code actually looks like. Despite what the latest crop of “teach yourself to code” hucksters will tell you, you don’t get to go from zero to web developer in 4 weeks. Learning this stuff is a long, challenging, humbling process. There may be a few people who have such a supreme aptitude for it that they glide right through and never struggle, but I have yet to meet one. The frustrations Khazan describes felt very familiar to me, as I suspect they would to any developer. Ask the most hardcore coders you know and they’ll tell you that they too get stuck and then want to tear their hair out when they realize they wasted an afternoon over one lousy semicolon.
But here’s the thing: learning to code is not all or nothing. There seems to be this sense that deciding to learn to code is a radical act of self-redefinition, that you are embarking on a dramatic journey. If you think of it this way, and you think that you have to slog through for three years before you get any value out of it, I can understand why you would look at the investment required and say “no thanks.” But it really doesn’t work like that. There’s no blood oath, I promise.
Journalists and journalism students (and journalism professors) should quit thinking about “learning to code” in the abstract. Instead, think about the stories you want to tell, and to the extent there are ways that code would help you tell them, learn what you need for the situation. Different journalists will benefit, or not benefit, in different ways. Don’t sit down with a big boring book and an online course and declare you’re going to learn Python. You’ll probably get stuck, get bored, and give up. Set out to build something you like, or explore some data you care about, and figure out what you need to learn to make that happen. And don’t go it alone; ask your developers for help, or find a community of other learners to collaborate and commiserate with.
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