Where’s the Money to Teach Journalists How to Code?

Like so many other journalists, I’m happy for Adrian Holovaty and the Knight Foundation News Challenge grant he received for one million dollars to create a new form of local journalism coverage.

More than that — I’m intrigued by Medill’s grant to take coders and turn them into journalists.

But I’m also a little bitter. Yes, Mr. California Sunshine, Digidave, is a little bitter.

Where’s the grant to teach journalists how to code?

There’s a lot of talk about changing the way we teach journalism.
This is a step in the right direction, but it also sends a statement to journalism students. There are two skill sets in this equation: journalism and coding.
Both are needed in the new media landscape. But rather than create a
program/grant to teach reporters how to code (people who are already
motivated and interested by the end goal of journalism), a grant is
created to show those with coding skills how to do journalism. The
statement I get from this: It’s easier to teach journalism than it is
to teach coding.

But in the end – I still believe it comes down to motivation. Journalists need to learn how to code — and there are a lot like me that want to learn, but don’t have the time (or the money to get that time).

Ryan Sholin from what I know, was a journalist turned coder. In fact, Adrian Holovaty, the poster boy of geek reporters, was a journalist who learned coding second. So it’s obviously possible.

I’m dying over here! I’m 25, maybe I’m beyond learning Spanish — but I know I could learn how to code. I have to much of a yearning — If given the chance I wouldn’t give up on that (Spanish on the other, Yo no understand-o…sorry).

Until I learn to code in PHP, Django, Ruby on Rails or some other programming language, I won’t be happy. Nor will I reach my full potential. 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.

Which means I either need money to hire a coder that will obey my every command, or a sponsor so I can take a few months/classes to teach myself how to code (which I’d prefer, because I’m a work-a-holic and no coder, I think, would ever be willing to keep up with my every command).

I learned these skills in the last year:
Design: (InDesign, Photoshop), Video (Final Cut Pro), Audio (Pro-Tools, Garage Band), I’m moderate at Flash, and I got advanced html down pat. I learned the CMS Drupal inside and out in the last few months — well everything except the freak’n coding of course.

I was a philosophy major in college — so I took logic (which I’m told pre-disposes one to coding).

So where’s my angel grant? Is there even a grant that I can apply to? Anybody want to sponsor a young, born-on-the-net journalist while he learns how to code in one of the following (if not all): PHP, DJango or Ruby on Rails?

Maybe you’d want to talk with me, make sure I’m worth the investment — that’s fine. I got credentials, recommendations, a history to prove I work hard. So where’s the grant to teach journalists how to really geek out? I love the fact that there is a grant for geeks to get some journalism chops, but I would love it (and I’d apply in an instant) if there was a program to do the reverse.

Relevant Reading:

Journerdism — a Medill alumni

Reprtr.Net –

PJNET’s Post

For thoughts from another disgruntled young journalist: The Editorialiste

19 thoughts on “Where’s the Money to Teach Journalists How to Code?

  1. Hey there,

    Small correction — it’s inaccurate to say I’m a “journalist who learned coding second.” I’ve always been into tweaking computers, since I was a kid playing around with the Commodore 64. If anything, I “learned” journalism second. But does it really matter?

    For the record, it’s a lot easier to teach journalism than it is to teach computer science. I’m not sure that can be disputed. :-/

    Adrian

  2. “If anything, I “learned” journalism second. But does it really matter?

    No — probably not. And I think I knew that you were always a bit of a computer hacker, but form some reason I always hear the adage “Holovaty was a journalism grad student who taught himself code..” which makes it sound like you learned how to code second.

    As for teaching: Computer science probably is harder — all the more reason why journalists need a grant to take the time to learn it.

    Hard, fine — impossible is nothing. A young journo like myself, motivated and with the potential to learn — all that’s stopping me is time and money

    But thanks for stopping in Adrian — as I’ve said before: yours is a new type of journalism — an information architect — and it’s very powerful and I myself — am a big fan. Sorry you caught me in a bad mood — I’m just thinking about what I want to do — and what stands in my way. Coding is a big one. But it isn’t for lack of want.

  3. I’m a journalist first and a coder second, but I’m not sure how being able to code proficiently has made me a better journalist. When I’m coding an application, such as a map interacting with a database, that takes time from reporting…I don’t know if it’s more efficient than for the reporter to just hand over the data to a hardcore coder…just as it is often ideal to have a designer and programmer build a website together without either one having to be proficient at the other’s job.

    It doesn’t hurt to learn programming, but I agree with Adrian that learning it can be quite an investment compared to other just-as-useful skills (such as…Spanish). Although it’d be ideal if journalists were trained in the fundamentals of the internet, such as some HTML and things like the difference between a static and a dynamic webpage.

    It sounds like you’ve got a good start already on tech, more than what I had when I started my college programming classes. Have you considered taking a community college class? That, and the massive number of well-written online tutorials, could bring you up to speed.

  4. Hi Ryan,

    I’m not a journalist, but I am a computer scientist. I think you labor under the false premise that you need another person (either a colleague or the instructor of a formal training/college course) to teach you how to program. Or that it really requires anything more than just some of your free time.

    The tools you need to learn to program are all absolutely free, assuming you have a computer and an internet connection. Here’s what I’d do if I were in your shoes:

    1. Install Linux an a computer that you have. As long as you have some free hard-disk space (about 4-5 GB should be plenty), it’s pretty easy. I recommend this version because it’s easy to install and easy to use, but in no way waterred down in terms of power:

    http://www.ubuntu.com/

    (This isn’t absolutely necessary. If you have OS X, that’s a good platform because most open-source development tools are available for it. If you only have Windows and really fear installing Linux, then you can get by on just Windows, but you’ll be missing out on a lot of great free tools.)

    2. Decide on a simple programming assignment with which to get your feet wet. Maybe a simplified version of a tool that you’ve wanted to have for your reporting work. It’s important to keep this first assignment simple so that (a) you don’t get discouraged, and (b) you’ll already be busy learning the ropes of a programming language, so you don’t want to have to think too hard about what you’re trying to accomplish with the program.

    3. Select a programming language to start with. My recommendation would be Python. It’s very easy to use it in a basic manner, but it’s also powerful enough that you could probably accomplish all of your career’s CAR using just Python.

    4. Find tutorials on the language you’ve chosen. I don’t know whether or not these are suited to where you’re at in terms of knowledge, but if you go with Python you might want to look here:

    http://en.wikibooks.org/wiki/Non-Programmer's_Tutorial_for_Python/Contents

    As an alternative to 3. and 4., you could work through an introductory programming book, such as one of these:

    http://www.amazon.com/Learn-Program-Using-Python-Self-Starters/dp/0201709384/ref=sr_1_1/104-0404726-4582317?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1181147728&sr=8-1

    http://www.amazon.com/Python-Programming-Absolute-Beginner-Michael/dp/1592000738/ref=sr_1_3/104-0404726-4582317?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1181147728&sr=8-3

    5. Subscribe to an online discussion forum specific to your programming language of choice. Usually, as long as you’re polite and not asking questions you could easily answer on your own, these are tremendously helpful communities.

    Here’s one example:
    http://python-forum.org/py/viewforum.php?f=3

    Long story short – Don’t be inert, lazy, or act like you can’t learn this stuff without other persons’ money. Do something like what I described above and you’ll be fine!

  5. I hear your pain. I taught myself ColdFusion, a bit of Flash, HTML, CSS, SQL, Ruby in the past year. But I could only do it because of a sabbatical year I could afford to take. I don’t believe you can see possibilities until you understand the technology and the problem with a lot of senior newspaper people is that they have to take other people’s usually out-of-date word for what the technology can do or will be able to do. That puts huge limits on what they can imagine for their content and their audience. So they jump from bandwagon to bandwagon and have no real idea of where they ought to be going.

    John Duncan

  6. To Christian Convey (two comments up)

    I like the approach — in fact, one great thing about the web is that you can teach yourself almost anything for relatively cheap. I know that — believe me.

    It’s not for laziness that I haven’t learned how to code.

    I have roughly six jobs right now.
    “>Yes, six.

    And I still barely get by (yes, they are poorly paid jobs — and two are actually classes — which I consider jobs — and I have to pay them to work!).

    So while I don’t neccesarily need a teacher — someone to sit down and walk me through things. I do need money — so I can drop a job or two, or three — and still get by. (read comment above this one).

    A teacher might not be a neccisty — but the rent is.

  7. Dave,

    Why don’t you find a project that involves some light coding and some potential for reimbursement and do it? My freelance web development clients have been paying me to learn Ruby on Rails for the last year.

    If you know flash and html, it shouldn’t be too hard to find a project that involves those things and a bit of database magic. Or dream up a good one yourself and fund your learning with google ads. Or build a Django-driven porn site and retire to Tahiti. You get the idea.

    If it’s really important to you to learn how to code, you will learn how to code, regardless of whether anyone offers you scholarships, grants or training.

  8. I was a (newspaper) journalist for 20 years and then learned programming to move to a new career. I ended up working in a university news organization doing web application programming, while still working parttime as a copy editor at a large metropolitan daily, where of course they thought the internet was a passing fad, so had no interest in the web (or my coding skills) until a year ago. During the past seven years I have tried to get back into a more hard-core news organization doing web programmming and multimedia. Shockingly, as recently as a year and a half ago I was asked in an interview (with a man in charge of a VERY large online news site) to explain my resume and how newspaper journalism and computer programming where connected. No, he was not trying to ask an insightful question, he really didn’t get it. He was an older editor who had spent his life in print journalism and now was basically putting the print product up on the web.

    My point? I am not sure, except that I am getting a masters in computer science and have pretty much left any of my ambitions to join my journalism and coding behind, out of pure frustration. Got tired of beating my head against the wall. Newspapers/MSM may be finally “getting” it, but for me it is just too late.

    Digidave, you are luckly you are in your 20s, you have so much more time for them to “get it.” My recommendation: go get a programming book (not that expensive) and teach yourself. It’s lots of fun.

  9. Hi Dave,

    OK, no disrespect, but I need to call B.S. on what you’re saying.

    First, maybe you meant this tongue-in-cheek, but it sounds to me like you feel entitled to payment for any and all learning you do that relates to journalism. But the truth is, just about any reporter with the potential to program can also do it on his own time. So it’s not like the industry has a need for someone to throw money at you in order to have programmer-journalists.

    Second, you’ve filled your schedule with many activities, some of which aren’t necessary to pay your rent. So why are you complaining that you don’t have time to program? We *all* wish we had time to do more things, and we have to prioritize. Most of us even have to leave a lot of really important activities on the cutting-room floor, like educating our kids more thoroughly, exercising, and educating ourselves for the next election. So I’m not too sympathetic when you say that someone should pay you to do an activity that you could very well make time for if it was a higher priority.

    Don’t stop feeling the love – I just think you needed a reality check.

    Peace,
    Christian

  10. For the record, I sort of learned journalism and web design concurrently. I’m not much when it comes to writing my own code, unless you count CSS.

    It’s probably easier to teach civic-minded coders what newspapers need coded than to teach journalists how to code it themselves. Unless you’re Matt Waite or Derek Willis or Adrian. Crap, maybe I really should learn Django. ;)

  11. Dave, I think it really depends on what it is you want to do. Mapping and APIs? Interactive multimedia packages? Super-duper databases? Saying “I want to learn to code” is like saying “I want to learn foreign languages” … and then you arbitrarily pick, say, French, but then the first overseas trip you make is to Peru. Oops.

    I taught myself JavaScript from a book back when I had a full-time newspaper job, many years ago. I think I wanted to make rollovers!

    I taught myself Perl, at a basic level, from another book around the same time. I wanted to make an online spelling test.

    I had zero programming background and the biggest math phobia you’d ever want to see. (I still can’t do simple math in my head — must write it down!)

    It’s the same thing with Flash — I hear a lot of people say they want to “learn Flash” but they don’t have the time. “Well, what do you want to make with Flash?” I ask. They don’t know. And that, in my opinion, is the real reason they can’t learn it. Has nothing to do with time, per se.

  12. David:

    You sound a bit Wired. (smiling) Your intentions are admirable — immersion tech journalism — but you’re overlooking the fact that it takes a lot of time and energy to stay current in any one field of expertise these days. The attractive aspects of coding are nearly immediate gratification and fairly objective standards by which to gauge the results. Journalism, on the other hand, has a lot of gray areas and requires years of networking just to achieve modest success.

    There are fellowships, like the Kiplinger Program in Public Affairs Journalism, that offer assistance to journalists who want to learn new technology. I don’t know anything about the program, but my guess is it wouldn’t teach you anything you don’t already know.

    Michael Ho could certainly give you some valuable insight. He once dealt with the same choices you’re facing.

    My daughter works in the fashion retail industry. Minutes before reading your blog, I was speaking to her by phone about the very similar frustrations she’s experiencing. Identical advice applies. Life doesn’t get easier; this is how it’s supposed to be.

    A mini vacation might be in order.

  13. Should journalists learn to code?

    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 programme…

  14. Ryan Sholin wrote: “It’s probably easier to teach civic-minded coders what newspapers need coded than to teach journalists how to code it themselves. Unless you’re Matt Waite or Derek Willis or Adrian.”

    I think I can speak for Matt when I say that neither of us are in Adrian’s class as a coder, but that’s not really the point. If you want to learn some programming, you simply have to dive in and do it. And if you’re anything like me, it’s a slow, uphill climb. But it’s worth it.

  15. Dave, I too whimpered with envy at the news of Adrian’s gigundo Knight grant, and also the Medill program for coders. And that despite the fact that I still through some miracle collect a paycheck as a writer and editor. Who in journalism wouldn’t want a grant these days? If you need a sabbatical from the New Grub Street lifestyle, the Knight program, mentioned above, is definitely worth checking out.

    But I second Mindy’s point; unless your goal is to drink Mountain Dew in a cube for the rest of your days, think of coding as a means, not the end. Specialization can be a good thing. I know the production folks for the print magazine here at US News can format way better than I can; I expect the same is true of the production staff at Wired.

    One of the things I value most about working in journalism is the rich collaboration between writers, editors, photographers and their editors, graphic designers and artists, and researchers. In print the technical contributions to the collaboration have often been invisible; it’s thrilling to finally have the techies at the table (even though they seem to thrive on endless meetings).

    I want to know what I can do with the technology, but when it comes to coding, I’ll stick with the pros. Let’s get Medill, Kiplinger, or another noble cash cow to offer brief tech-training sessions for code-hungry journalists around the country.

    cheers, Nancy

  16. Mindy, Nancy, you’re right on point. If Gannett dropped a few million tomorrow to teach all of their print journalists the django framework, would anything be different? Not really, because the problem lies here in newsroom *culture* and fundamental problems with the newspaper paradigm.

    The real issue here is that today’s print journalists can’t/don’t have time to think outside of the box. Equipping them with one more technical skill may make them marginally more inclined to try something new, but it’s not addressing the root problem.

    If I had deep pockets, I would take my millions in programmer grants and invest them in adjusting business process to accommodate Google-style inline R&D.

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