When I started journalism grad school in 2009, I couldn’t wait to finish so I could begin my reporting career. But this was the recession, and after I had read the hundredth news article documenting the travails of aspiring journalists walking dogs for cash or eating vitamin soup, I got a little discouraged.
And after I had what felt like my hundredth freelance pitch rejected, I grew downright panicked.
Then, toward the end of my first year, I had an idea I thought could turn my prospects around: I would learn to code, that thing everyone was always telling journalists to do, and thus ensure that I would be essential to any newsroom in America. I would sail in ahead of the hundreds of other applicants, I thought. The hiring editor would rush to the HR office clutching my buzzword-laden resume.
I’m not sure how, in my sleep-deprived, terror-stricken mind, the rest of the plan was supposed to work. I had no interest in doing web design as a career. What, that I would take a break from my news-site coding job one day to write some major story that would dazzle my boss and convince him I deserved a reporter role? It worked in that one Drew Barrymore movie, didn’t it?
No matter; the details would surely work themselves out later once I became a Zuckerbergian programming genius.
My grad program already encouraged us to learn CSS, HTML, basic Flash, and a variety of other web tools. On top of that, the school offered free seminars, access to fully loaded Macs, and had expert staff available to help and troubleshoot.
It was a wonderful resource. I should have never taken them up on it.
This weekend was the Online News Association’s annual conference, an otherwise fun, great gathering where nonetheless one really bad theory tends to rear its head: That all journalists should “learn code” so that they can better secure their places in the newsrooms of the future.
I wasn’t there, but I shook my fist at many a tweet like this one:
Aside from a small percentage of journalism students who actually want to be newsroom developers, most j-school enrollees, in my experience, want to be reporters, writers, and editors (or their broadcast equivalents). Meanwhile, reporting and writing jobs are growing increasingly competitive, and as media outlets become savvier on the web, they are building teams dedicated solely to web programming and design work.
What I took from my experience was this: If you want to be a reporter, learning code will not help. It will only waste time that you should have been using to write freelance articles or do internships—the real factors that lead to these increasingly scarce positions.
There’s no reason I shouldn’t have been good at programming: I’m good at math, I can be really methodical, and I tend to enjoy figuring things out.
But coding, for me, was confusing, tedious, and profoundly frustrating, more so than even the most complicated story with the most reticent of sources.
Entire projects hinged on small, context-free details that were impossible for me to catch. Sure, there were moments of euphoria where I would test a new interactive graphic and it worked, but they were exponentially outnumbered by the number of times I would find the entire thing broke because I had used the wrong bracket on line 20, or something similarly tiny.
(Once, while styling a web site, I got it almost perfect, except it said the word “Array” in small text at the upper-right corner. After tinkering with the code for hours, I managed to make the entire upper half of the site disappear. Except for the “Array.”)
To make matters worse, my boyfriend is a programmer, so after a long night of coding attempts, I would usually find myself moping over to him, laptop in hand, and he would diagnose and fix my mistake in three seconds.
Which brings me to my next point: There are already a ton of skilled coders out there. If you’re only starting to tinker with computer code in the later stages of college, or even worse, grad school, you are behind. Real web design and data visualization jobs require people who have computer science degrees, design backgrounds, and/or portfolios of projects that aren’t embarrassing.
Instead, I made stuff like this.
Impressive, huh? I think it might be a Snow Fall killer.
Just kidding, it’s pretty lame. It also required about 16 hours of work, the same amount of time it takes me to write five or six web articles.
But I did it. And several long months later, I was also able to make Flash graphics (this is before Flash was a complete joke) and customized web sites from basic templates.
Here’s the thing, though, about larger, modern newsrooms, and even some medium-sized ones, too: They have enough resources to segment their workers into hyper-specialized teams, with most people focusing on just one function, like video, interactive graphics, or reporting.
My paltry coding abilities weren’t enough to qualify me for a job making the amazing interactive games and maps you see on most news sites. Instead, I was just an especially impressive candidate for various lower-level web producer positions that mostly involved being the horse-whisperer for some cantankerous content management system and attempting to increase pageviews by linking stories together online and making photo slideshows.