Let me begin by fessing up. I don’t know how to code and I doubt very much that I’m going to learn. But I’m blown away by journalists who understand coding and know enough about it to enhance their digital work. So I’m always interested in learning more about how and why they do what they do, even if I’m not committed to diving into jQuery or Django.
Putting aside the long-running debate about whether all journalists or journalism students should learn to code, it seems to me that a basic understanding is essential. Think of this parallel: a reporter in a TV newsroom in the early days of television might not have known how to shoot video, but he (and yes, it was almost always “he” back then) would definitely have needed to understand how it’s done.
“Code is just another language,” says Katharine Jarmul, formerly of the Washington Post, who now works for the web developer HYFN. “The more you know the more you can talk to coders.”
Andy Boyle of the Chicago Tribune puts it even more bluntly: “Know code so you know when they are lying to you.” Exactly! Know enough so you can call BS when someone tells you that whatever you’ve just dreamed up can’t be done. Besides, Boyle says, if you learn how to code “you’ll be hired and make a lot more money.”
One more why before we get to the how. This manifesto comes from Lisa Williams, who founded Placeblogger and now works for the Investigative News Network.
I’m learning to code because I don’t want anything between me and my ideas. If I have an idea, I don’t want to waste time trying to convince a more technical person to help me, or convince someone to give me money to hire a more technical person to do it for me. I want to do it myself.
Williams’ site, Life and Code, has a resource guide for journalists interested in learning code but it’s not a good starting point. If you don’t know what Python or Ruby are, for example, you’ll be lost. A better place to begin is Boyle’s guide, Learning to make the internets. If you’d rather get your hands dirty right away, try Bento, which links to online tutorials and explainers, or Blockly, a drag-and-drop programming editor. If you’d prefer a guided introduction, try For Journalism, which offers free or low-cost courses online.
IRE teaches coding for journalists at boot camps and conferences. So does Code with me. Bottom line, if you have any interest in learning this stuff you can do it on your own time. Just don’t try it on deadline.