Digital expertise is no longer an option for journalism students at both undergraduate and graduate levels, and digital training should be an integral part of any journalism program.
Unfortunately, digital training is not always desired by students who enroll in a journalism master’s degree program.
When students enroll in a graduate program for journalism, they come with a very wide range of expectations and assumptions (this is true not only at my university — I’ve discussed this with professors at various j-schools around the United States and Canada, and they see the same range).
Some students have not thoroughly researched what real journalists do in their jobs. Some students are not fully aware of how the journalism field has changed in the past 10 years.
One consequence of that shortage of information: Students may resist or even reject training in digital skills necessary for, say, data-driven journalism. Why? Because the student wants to be “a writer” or “a TV reporter.”
Everyone who wants to apply to any journalism graduate program, at any university, needs to research the field and the jobs in that field. Don’t make any assumptions. Check out the ads for real journalism jobs today.
In this blog post (Why Journalism Tools Gather Dust), Dan Schultz of The Boston Globe describes what amounts to one of the big reasons why news websites are not as successful as they could be.
If you borrow code then you are more likely to be familiar with what the rest of the world is doing. If you share code then you are going to build your systems with an emphasis on reuse and extensibility (i.e. correctly). If you regularly borrow AND share code then you are building a community around whatever it is you do.
What I’m trying to say is that if newspapers can buy into the mantra of openness — even just internal openness — they can kill about thirty birds with one stone.
But they usually don’t.
Legacy media companies have a lot of bad habits. Like some close-minded people, these companies have dragged their ancient prejudices and beliefs with them into their old age.
What Schultz describes reminded me of a newsroom that jealously guards a “scoop” that’s not really a scoop — some news they uncovered that — seriously, guys — either no one really cares about except other journalists, or everyone will find out about anyway within an hour, so who the heck cares if you break it first? (I’m not saying there are no real scoops; I’m just saying that journalists sometimes get all proprietary and hush-hush about something that truly is not groundbreaking or even secret.)
As Schultz points out, some media organizations such as The New York Times do follow open-source principles — but there’s more to it than that:
[W]ithout a supportive institutional strategy, open source and reusable code are just nice-to-haves.
A deadline mentality (also dragged along from the past) encourages short-term thinking. Almost everything in most newsrooms is about today and right now; very little is about planning and building for the future.
Recently a friend of mine — formerly a professional programmer and systems analyst — lectured me about my plan to teach journalism student to code. Teach them to respect commenting and documentation, she said. Teach them to write code that others can come along later and read, because by doing so, they will become better programmers, and their future code will be better because of the effort.
Why is this required reading? These ideas are important for discussion, both in the classroom and in the newsroom.
I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately. I’ve been preparing a syllabus for an upper-level undergraduate journalism course that I will begin teaching in January. I’ve been learning Python and starting to learn about jQuery.
I’ve got some advantages: I learned HTML in 1995. (I bought a book and did all the exercises in it, at home, on my own time.) I played with the BASIC programming language on my first computer in 1984 until I learned how programming works. (I bought a book and did many of the exercises in it.) I bought an account at an early online community called the WeLL, which gave me access to a Unix command line, which helped me learn about the Internet before we had the Web. I think that was around 1989. (I bought a book to learn Unix commands.)
I’ve had no formal training in programming or Web technologies. My B.A. is in print journalism.
I’ve got some disadvantages: I don’t have strong inclinations toward investigative reporting. I’ve taken two or three workshops with the old computer-assisted reporting crowd, and I admire what they do. I attended a wonderful presentation by Jennifer LaFleur (director of computer-assisted reporting at ProPublica) at a recent conference. However, I seem to lack all interest in examining large datasets. I can download them, dump them into Excel, and clean them. After that, I have no desire to do anything else with them. (I’m not proud of this. I’m just saying.)
I’ve had almost no math education. High school algebra and, in college, symbolic logic. No calculus. Not even a geometry class.
So I think about my journalism students. I think about what I like and don’t like, what I consider fun and interesting, and what I don’t. And I look at all the great work being done online by all kinds of journalists using a wide variety of digital tools.
What I want to do is open doors.
I want to be able to show journalism students that they can do things with code. Even if they think they can’t.
Above all, I want them to understand that “doing things with code” can lead you in several very different directions in the field of journalism.
This is important.
Moreover, they won’t practice what they learned, and very soon, they will forget all of it.
We can offer a course about scraping and doing stuff with large data sets. We can teach students how to find stories in data. Students who like this, who learn how to do it and want to continue doing it, are probably among those most likely to get a journalism job. Like the Web technologies course, though, this is a class that many students will either avoid like the plague or take and then count the minutes until it’s over.
Right now, many of you might be thinking thoughts about two types of students: those who appreciate such a course and use what they learn in it, and those who are not appreciative — and so what? Forget about them.
What I’ve been thinking about — a lot — is that there are a zillion ways to turn students off. To make them do things in a class that result in the students forming negative opinions. “I don’t like this,” or “I’m no good at this.” (I think this often happens in Reporting 101 courses too.)
Learning that you can do these things — these code type things — is the first step. Learning that you are capable. You can figure this out. You are not “bad at math,” or “bad at computers.”
Most journalism students learned — back in high school, or even before — that they are “good at writing.” Some of them are quite surprised to learn (in Reporting 101) that they are not good at writing a lede, finding appropriate sources, avoiding cliches, or using commas correctly. Yet the confidence that they are good at writing will sustain many of them through all kinds of setbacks.
If students realize that they can write code — they can figure it out, solve problems, make things that work properly — they will have opened a door that leads to dozens of different journeys in journalism.
They might choose data journalism and the investigation of large datasets.
They might choose design — they might go on to create new user experiences that make journalism more interesting to more people.
They might become a hybrid, a graphic journalist who combines data and presentation to make complex stories easier to understand, using animation and interaction.
My concern is that the way we introduce code to journalism students can push away those who might really excel in one of those areas.
I don’t have a solution. I don’t know if there is one.
But again and again I return to the way I felt in 1984 when I was learning BASIC, in 1995 when I was learning HTML. It was fun. I was happy to be learning. I completed little exercises and they worked. I felt proud of myself.
A new translation of this guide is now available, thanks to the efforts of Alessandra de Falco, a journalism professor at Universidade Federal de São João del-Rei in Brazil. She uses the guide in her classes.
Also, I neglected to post earlier about a new Chinese translation, by Xiaonan Wang, a graduate student at the Missouri School of Journalism. She sent this to me in June, and I failed to post it before now.
I wrote the guide here, on this blog, in 2009. It has not been updated, but it seems a lot of the advice and instructions still hold up today. Some links might be broken. I regret that I do not have time to update the guide at this time.
What do we mean when we say, “Data can tell a story,” or “Stories can be found in data”? (Click the image to view the project.)
Above: From the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and the Pew Research Center. (More info.)
Above: From OpenSlate, a market research firm; reported by Fruzsina Eördögh, at ReadWriteWeb.
Above: “Since its inception in 2002, Pew Global Attitudes Project has surveyed nearly 300,000 people in 59 countries. This interactive database provides users with the ability to access key trends on questions ranging from attitudes toward the U.S. to people’s assessments of their own lives and views about the current state of the world and important issues of the day. These key trends can be accessed by question topic or by country.” Updated with data from spring 2012. (Home page.)
Above: As the result of legal settlements with the federal government, drug companies post the names of their speakers — and how much they paid them — on their websites. “ProPublica took these disclosures and assembled them into a single, comprehensive database that allows patients to search for their physician” (source: ProPublica). Updated in fall 2011.
Above: From The Texas Tribune — government employee salaries in the state of Texas. Matt Stiles, data journalist for the The Texas Tribune, told Poynter “that in addition to driving about two-thirds of The Texas Tribune’s traffic, the databases have attracted new audiences and provided readers with an interactive way to access information that’s public but not always easy to find.”