Journalists should learn to do more online, not necessarily write code

I’m still digging out from an incredible backlog of unread RSS posts, the consequence of an incredibility busy past eight or nine weeks.

Buzzing all around me has been this debate over whether journalists should learn to write code. Robert Andrews has a nice little round up here. Matt Waite has worthwhile posts here and here.

It may be beating a dead deer at this point, as a former reporter who learned to write a little code, I feel compelled to weigh in.

First, I did have something to say on this topic once before.

I’m glad I learned to write code. It made my career.

I didn’t write anything as cool as Adrian Holovaty, but I did help one of my previous employers make a lot of money.

To me, writing code was something that didn’t feel that different from writing a news story. There is an essential creative element to both, and both take a certain level of discipline and common sense.

That said, should you, my hypothetical-reporter friend, learn to write code?


Take a look at your current circumstance. Would coding help you get ahead (if that’s what you want)? Would it be appreciated by your current employer? Would you be given the chance and resources to do anything that made a difference? (Of course, until you actually prove you can code, you will find it hard to get the attention of your bosses as a coder.)

There is an endless debate in my end of the industry: Build vs. buy. There are already a lot of cool and useful applications out there. So can you build us something that we wouldn’t be better off buying?

Ask yourself, what would you do with your skill? And will it be more valuable in the future than the skills you already have (I still think reporting and writing will remain employable skills no matter what happens with newspapers).

Even if you think you’ll need to go solo some day, the tools you’ll need to do your job are only getting better, being built by programmers that are years ahead of you in experience (and in programming, experience exponentially valuable when it comes to writing great applications).

It should also be noted that if you’re suffering from Holovaty envy, Adrian is more than just an incredibly smart guy (are you that smart? I know I’m not), he is also a special breed: an entrepreneur. Are you an entrepreneur?

Here’s the question you need to ask yourself: What skill set do I need in the 21st Century?

I said reporting and writing is valuable, but I didn’t say that’s the only thing you need to know or do.

You should definitely expand your skills set, but you should add skills that compliment who you are, not just do something because some bloggers say you should. Your strength might be closer to graphics, or info architecture, or video, or community managing — these are all valuable skills today. Or maybe you should just become an incredible adapt journalist, being able to span multiple media.

Programming isn’t the only alternative for journalists feeling pressured by the turbulent media environment.

UPDATE: On reflection, I’m concerned by “figure out if you’re employer can use you as a programmer” might be misunderstood.

What I’m suggesting is figure out the niche your employer needs filled, and fill it. That might be as a programmer. It might be as something else. All news operations are short staffed (always have been, even before the past two years of layoffs), so there is no shortage of vital jobs to be done == read, opportunity.

It will be the rare journalist who can’t carve out a new career for himself or herself who doesn’t figure out what opportunities exist in a newsroom and then goes about becoming a specialist to serve that need.

The flip side is, if what you want to do isn’t currently a skill needed or valued by your current employer, learn the new skill set on your own time, on your own terms, and start looking for new opportunities. They’re out there.

But your best opportunity for career advancement is probably right within your current organization. Just about all of my peers in our industry are former reporters and editors who saw an opportunity and made a career for themselves — self-taught and self-motivated.

Coincidently, how you can best help yourself is also how you can best help your employer and our industry.

4 thoughts on “Journalists should learn to do more online, not necessarily write code

  1. Howard, I’ve been fortunate over the years to interact and even work alongside some fine journalists who deeply appreciate tech and have an entrepreneur’s curiosity and drive (Peter Rinearson, a great case-in-point) and recently spent some time getting to know Adrian.

    To me, the formula that adds the most upside formula is how journalists are 1) well-oriented to the concepts of “2.0” content publishing and “mash-ups”, and 2) aligned towards “conversation” over reporting. Getting to really live and understand these principles offer far more of a future than anything I can think of in reinvention.

    I agree – they are rare

  2. […] Journalism, coding, confusion Posted on June 12th, 2007 by Maria Varmazis. Categories: writing, geekiness, journalism, media.I’m going to add my voice to the chorus of confusion over reporters-as-programmers. Howard Owens says reporters should go for the gusto and get some coding skills, though fluency is not requisite. Matt Waite says something similar: “The idea is to create new forms of journalism with whatever tools we can, and if they don’t exist, create them too.” […]

  3. […] Howard Owens: Howard is a journalist/programmer himself. But he recommends that journalists learn new skills that compliment their talents and individual situations. And these new skills should be applicable online. In a later update, Howard says the instead of all running off to learn to code, journalists should “figure out the niche your employer needs filled, and fill it.” […]

Leave a Reply