Should J schools teach code?

Code3This column will appear in the winter 2015 edition of Media magazine.

By Fred Vallance-Jones

Should journalism schools teach code?

It’s a question that has resonated on social media and in the halls of the academy, with little real consensus (for example, see http://ajr.org/2014/09/24/should-journalists-learn-code/).

Some argue urgently for teaching code; others counsel teaching a few basics; still others say journalists should know about code, but leave the actual coding to others.

So who’s right?

Depending on the students, their aptitudes and their goals, they might all be. But one thing to me is clear, journalism schools need to teach code, or risk irrelevancy.

There’s no doubt that journalism has changed forever. The rise of the Internet, social media and mobile technologies ensured that. Even the most traditional journalist in the most traditional newsroom is probably at least filing for the web using a content management system. At the other end of the spectrum, some journalists work entirely with data or on the web, using programming languages to create interactive news applications.

With all this change has come a technological shift at least as profound as the arrival of broadcasting in the 20th century. Suddenly the ability to write in language that computers can understand has become central to a great many jobs in journalism.

Of course, the complexity of those languages varies greatly, as does the complexity of teaching them. As used now, the term “coding” can refer to understanding the relatively simple HTML and CSS that govern how web pages are structured and look, to writing JavaScript, a programming language used to create web pages that change dynamically with user interaction, to creating scripts and programs using full-featured languages such as Python and Ruby, right on up to writing complex applications using compiled languages such as C.

There is no question to me that if by “coding” we mean using HTML and CSS, all journalism students should be learning the basics. As tagged markup languages, they are straightforward in concept and not difficult to grasp. These are the foundation of web design and web storytelling, and are in my mind as important in today’s journalistic environment as knowing how to properly use CP Style. They are also pretty straightforward to teach, and are at least introduced in most journalism schools now.

If by teaching code we mean programming languages, I think they have a place too, but probably at a more advanced level, as electives in the last couple of years of undergrad, or in graduate programs. While they won’t appeal to all students, nor will all students have the aptitude for them, JavaScript and its popular JQuery library are important tools for those who would tell stories that are native to the web. And for those with an eye on the most challenging “coding” jobs, languages such as Python and Ruby are essential. They are more challenging to learn in depth, so will probably never be for everyone, but proficiency in these languages opens up enormous opportunities.

As the excellent article linked to a the top of this piece points out, some argue vehemently that journalism schools shouldn’t bother with this kind of code because students won’t want to learn it. Some believe it is easier to train a programmer to be a journalist than vice versa.

But these arguments make what to me is a flawed assumption that there is but one variety of journalism student.

It’s true that journalism schools have been attractive to, and have marketed themselves to, people primarily interested in the core skills of 20th century journalism, writing, editing and presenting. Journalism school was often seen as a refuge from math and science, a place for the more artistically inclined who wanted an exciting and engaging career. Those with more technical or mathematical interests enrolled in other faculties. As well, the destination for journalism students was usually the “factory floor” of mass production journalism. Schools needed to turn out “job ready” graduates who could immediately start being productive in traditional mass media.

But with the shift in the journalism away from the dominance of traditional media, I see a new breed of student arriving in journalism school, very different from the student of even a few years ago, who was quite often trying to avoid anything technical or mathematical. This new breed wants to use the wealth of online and data tools to find and tell stories in ways previously unimaginable. And far from being uninterested or incapable of working with more advanced programming languages, this group is arriving demanding to work with them. Here at King’s, we now have students who come here specifically because they can learn data journalism. To wit, when the latest crew of students in the investigative data stream of our master of journalism program arrived last summer, the first thing some asked was when the programming classes started.

For those students, in order to prepare them for the kinds of careers they are going to want, exposure to more advanced coding is not just a nice idea, it’s a necessity. I don’t think this will ever be the mainstream for J schools, and it may be accomplished partly through partnerships or joint ventures with schools of computer science, but I see it as something we have to do, if we are going to remain relevant.

This is not to say schools will change overnight into coding academies.

The basics of reporting, interviewing, writing and editing are as important as ever. And many of the people traditionally drawn to journalism schools, those primarily interested in the craft of writing or a career in broadcast journalism, will continue to come. And those people will still find opportunities.

But the world in which I came of age, in which a small assortment of powerful, conventional media players dominated journalism and set the rules for entry, is waning. It is being replaced by a more chaotic world of conventional payers, startups and independents, in which the definition of journalism is being inexorably changed, and the definition of journalist with it.

If we accept that journalism is about finding, researching and telling stories, then teaching code has to be part of the mix. Just as J schools adopted broadcast methods in the 20th centuries, moving from being completely print-centric, and adopted basic online journalism at the start of this century, the emergence of data journalism and web development as recognized fields in journalism means J schools need to adapt again.

A journalism school exists to teach journalism, using whatever tools are current at the time. It is the intellectual skills involved with using the tools, how to spot, see and tell stories, whether using a word processor to type words, a digital voice recorder to capture voices, or a computer program to scrape data from a government website, that sets the journalism school apart. At their finest, journalism schools are a crucible of vigorous intellectually driven practice, where technology and critical thinking meet daily to produce generations of journalists equipped to tell stories, today and far into the future.

And that means we must teach code.

Disclaimer: Fred Vallance-Jones teaches journalism at the University of King’s College, and teaches coding.