Don’t do it for journalism

Thomas Guest via Flickr

Thomas Guest via Flickr

Do we really need to learn how to code? As journalists, I mean. Do journalists really stand out if they know how to code?

I’ve always liked the idea of learning how to code, as I like the idea of doing a million of other things. Though today I came across two divergent opinions  on journalism and coding that made me reconsider my stance.

The first column won me with a classic line:

“Every skill you don’t have leaves a whole class of stories out of your reach. And data stories are usually the ones that are hiding in plain sight.”

Scott Klein imagines a generation of brave new programmer journalists freshly graduated ready to steal your best stories and eventually your job. Unless you learn to code, I guess, even though they are younger and faster etc. The piece includes a list of highly cool data investigations that “any of us would have been proud to have written.” All of them are great stories, underpinned by programming.

But admittedly, most of them are the result of the joint effort of programmers AND journalists. Only one story displays the individual byline of Joanna S. Kao, interactive developer and reporter. And I wonder if Joanna actually works full time in a newsroom or gets most of her salary working at the digital desk.

It’s just on this question that the second voice stroke me with a simple, straight answer.

Coding may be useful for a very narrow category of journalists, but definitely not for all of them. Not even for multimedia people like me. Yes, my job requires a fair amount of technical skills. But not coding. Sadly and simply because I will never be as good as a professional developer and I am paid to be an editor, a reporter and a producer and my boss wants me to do my job.

Most of the big and medium size companies can afford to outsource this kind of specialised services, and if you want to be the coding guy you probably won’t be as sharp as a reporter, not having the time to practice your writing/reporting skills. I can see that in my job, when sometimes I struggle to combine editorial and technical tasks, while trying to also produce my own stuff.

I hate to admit it, but some super cool skills aren’t really useful in real life. If you want to play with computer, learn video and audio editing, maybe Illustrator, or After Effects, to create animations (I am lusting over it, it’s one of my new year’s resolutions). These are things that can be combined with journalism. Or better, with a JOB in journalism.

And beware, data journalism is not just for coders. Though it’s an obvious point, the author of the “pro” column seems to forget it.

It’s definitely true that “data stories are usually the ones that are hiding in plain sight.”

But to be a data guy you don’t need to know how to code. Really, you don’t. Familiarity with spreadsheets and huge patience to scrape them are a very good starting point. You probably need to know how to design and write a FOIA request. Then you can build on that, and the internet is packed with free tools to visualise data and make them interactive. But unless you are a professional developer you will never match stuff like that.

I think it’s still good to learn coding. But I want to do it for a good reason, because it’s important to be ITC literate, because it may be fun if you are a bit of a nerd and because it’s cool to know stuff that the rest of the world doesn’t have a clue about.

For once in my life, I won’t do it for journalism.

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