David Cohn is a smart young journalist who I met through my association with NewAssignment.Net. Today he has posted an argument for supporting the teaching of programming to journalists (this comes in the wake of a scholarship fund set up for programmers to learn journalism).
This discussion comes against the backdrop of massive business disruption in the newspaper industry, most recently with the announcement that 100 editorial employees of the San Francisco Chronicle are losing their jobs. A dozen managers got the boot this week (also here), including several I knew from my decade at the SF Examiner — the staff of which ended up working at the Chron when Hearst essentially combined the two papers in 2000.
The fear, plainly, is that print journalists are becoming the hand-loom weavers of the 21st century. But it’s not the craft of journalism that is in danger today; that remains a reasonably valuable skill. It’s the business structure of the newspaper industry (along with broadcast TV, magazines, and more) that is in trouble. Journalists are largely the drive-by victims of a media-industry transition that started to unfold in the early 90s and that could take another 25 years to play out. Society still needs their work, but for the moment, at least, its system for paying their rent is broken.
Cohn writes: “I am convinced the only thing holding me back from organizing the type of web based network journalism I want to do is my lack of coding skills.” He might be right, if his vision goes far beyond what existing software can do. But is it really going to be easier for him to thoroughly learn programming than to learn just what he needs to communicate his ideas to a pro?
In fact, I don’t think most journalists trying to find their way across the new media landscape need to acquire deep programming skills — any more than most programmers trying to write new-media applications need to master the fine art of headline writing or the arcana of copy editing. Sure, it’s great that occasionally a cross-disciplinary polymath turns up to shake things up — and if that’s what Cohn aspires to be, more power to him.
But the pressing need is not for people who can write code with one hand and stories with the other. What journalists do need is working digital literacy. They need to understand something about how the technology that’s reshaping media works, how it’s built, what its strengths and weaknesses are, and how to harness it. Journalists don’t need to study object-oriented PHP in order to do that; yet it’s helpful for them to be able to mess with a WordPress template without running in terror.
When an entrepreneur starts a company and decides to rent an office, she might need to learn about the commercial real estate market and become familiar with what’s available and what it might take to remodel a space and even how to read a floorplan or blueprint. But she doesn’t need to master all the building trades herself.
I think Cohn is on the right track in advocating more support for the retraining of a population of displaced professional journalists. I just think they can contribute in all sorts of ways without having to feel they must add programming to their resumes.
[tags]journalism, media, programming[/tags]
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“What journalists do need is working digital literacy.”
Exactly – learning code is a waste of time for journalists and anyone else starting out in new media. It’s what lies on top of the code (journalism) that is the important bit.
Blogger/Typepad have filled that gap and the next batch of word processors will no doubt do what they do anyhow – it’ll become like using MSWord. No need to start fiddling under the bonnet. That’s what the IT dept. is form, no?
“…any more than most programmers trying to write new-media applications need to master the fine art of headline writing or the arcana of copy editing.”
Indeed. It’s important for journalists to understand what happens to their work after they’ve submitted it (to prevent them under-valuing the contributions of sub-editors, typesetters and webmasters). Having them working at the coding level, however, is akin to having them set their own stories in lead type before sending them off to the press.
You have some great points: In the end, it’s probably better to have people specialize in specific areas (editorial and development).
But I want to know the in’s-and-out’s of what a developer does. What is and isn’t possible — Right now I find in many situations editorial and development speak two languages. I often act as an interpreter (people look to me and say: He knows Flash, he must be able to tell us if the developer can do this). And I’ve gotten a good sense of things, but I want to improve my language skills — maybe even speak a little myself (if I’m going to extend the metaphor).
But one person can only do so much: in the end it’s probably better to have a programmer and a journalist work hand in hand — since each niche requires full attention.
But I do want to build databases — and I also think that there is a lot of trial and error involved in this phase of social media: I want to be able to try and err myself.
Digital literacy = a great and accurate term for it.
I’m running into the same issue with a new project. I’ve gotten to where I’m sketching out things on paper, listing everything I’d like to do, then going to my friend who’s writing all the code and asking, “Can we do this?”
In my mind, it comes down to knowing who’s on your team and what they can each do, then communicating needs effectively. We all have a few overlapping skills, but teaching everyone everything is too much, and not especially efficient.