Journalists, HTML, and Dreamweaver

Martin Stabe zeroes in on a conundrum that journalism educators face:

… teaching journalism students to build simple static websites is a bit odd: For most journalists, it is a pretty useless skill because no site they will ever work on will demand this of them. And for those who want to build or maintain the sorts of highly complex, CMS-driven websites they are likely to encounter professionally, it’s barely scratching the surface of what they’ll need to know to be employable.

Steve Yelvington counters:

I don’t use Dreamweaver. Never have, never will. But it seems to me to be a fine tool for exploring how information can fit together visually in a hypermedia presentation. In the real world, those students are going to be locked into heinously inflexible content management systems. There will be time for learning about them later. Classroom time should be devoted to illuminating the range of possibilities.

I’d also introduce journalism students to HTML and CSS, by the way — not because they’ll ever need to write HTML on a daily basis, but because they need to know something about the wires holding everything together under the hood.

Dave Lee wastes no words on how a little Dreamweaver might be a good thing:

Poke your nose into any newsroom across the country and see what they’re doing with the web. Are local reporters sat in front of their computers wrestling with HTML table alignments? No! They’re writing news stories, whisking them off to the web-bods who then place them neatly into a pre-designed CMS. Who designs the CMS? Why, web designers of course…!

That’s not to say we don’t need to know how some of it works, but simply learning Dreamweaver doesn’t bring us any closer to that goal. What’s the use in studying a program that nobody uses? Teach a few basic tags like bold, italic and underline, and then get onto the important stuff: Journalism.

I wrote about this general idea two weeks ago, but I thought it would be worthwhile to link to these three well-reasoned arguments. I’m a firm believer that a couple of weeks spent on HTML and CSS will come in handy somewhere down the road for many journalism students who go on to a career in journalism. But Dreamweaver? If you’re teaching a Web design course, it will be useful after the drills in HTML and CSS, but not before. If it’s not a full-semester class about Web design, though, I don’t see a need for Dreamweaver.

You can learn a lot from solving the puzzles of Web standards-compliant Web page design, but if you’re not going into design or production, you should ask how useful that know-how will be.

I hate to see a journalist who has no clue what an A HREF is (that is, what makes a link work?) or how a document’s structure is a flexible container that can be reconfigured instantly via a CSS file. In the old days, the reporter didn’t know how to run the printing press, but at least she knew that paper and ink (and at one time, hot lead) were involved in the process.

Update (Feb. 17): Mark Comerford (in Sweden) intelligently noted:

… the problem is not Dreamweaver per se but the way we tend to concentrate on particular pieces of software instead of the underlying structures the software addresses.

Thanks to Andy Dickinson for the link. I like to think that how we teach something has a lot to do with what we want the students to learn. Do you really want them to learn how to use Dreamweaver (or Photoshop, or Flash) — or do you want them to learn how to design and produce a particular format for journalism?

14 Comments on “Journalists, HTML, and Dreamweaver

  1. Folks can say what they want, but I’m grateful that I can wrap my head around a CSS file. Learning as much as you can about the tools of production can only work into your advantage. Any jerk can figure out how to use a content-management system.

    I’ve said it many times before on Journalistopia: if your training and ongoing experience consists entirely of taking stories from reporters and popping them into a CMS, then you’re going to find yourself cut out of the loop in not too long. Whether it’s CSS, or a web development language, or strong copy-editing, or shooting video, you need something beyond cut and paste skills to hack it in an increasingly competitive market.

  2. 1. Journalists don’t use HTML? I wish I’d known that before I finished a project today that involved Flash and Dreamweaver. Or did I stop being a journalist when I started trying to create projects that wouldn’t fit into the nooks and crannies of the CMS design that is my newspaper’s site?

    2. Dreamweaver doesn’t create elegant code? Tell me about it. I had to turn myself into a Dustbuster to delete all the fuzzballs that DW had slipped into my page. But come on, the page layouts I used to sketch weren’t perfect, either. Dreamweaver makes a nice scratchpad.

    3. Journalists should only learn how to report? Spare me another generation of editors who consider reporters to be the only real journalists. And the best way to break editors of that bias is to teach them, early, what all the rest of the newsroom does.

    4. CMS and MySQL and all the other acronyms of choice are the only real way to design? Isn’t that like saying you shouldn’t attempt video online unless you’ve taken it with a $20,000 camera and processed it to within a pixel of its life in Final Cut Pro? Most J-school students will not need to learn all the intricacies of creating a dynamic site. But they should know how pages work and what constitutes the basics of good online design practice … and an imperfect WYSIWYG program, whether it’s Dreamweaver or something else, seems a reasonable way to teach them.

  3. I don’t think John or Danny’s points are inconsistent with my own. My problem is not with teaching Dreamweaver, but with j-school courses (like one I took a few years ago) where it was basically the only thing taught.

    Of course journalists use HTML and WYSIWYG editors. I do every day. Of course we should avoid another generation of editors who think only the real journalists are those who can type. But the fact is that those who do projects like John’s will need to know a lot more than just intro to Dreamweaver to be employable – which seems to be Danny’s point.

    If you have one semester to teach web basics on a one-year j-school course, just teaching Dreamweaver is not the way to do it. Teaching the structure of HTML and CSS in plain text is, plus a lot more than only Dreamweaver for those who want to learn how to do it properly.

  4. Danny, John, Martin — all excellent comments, thanks. I especially like the distinction Martin made: If it’s the only class in online journalism the student will be able to take, please don’t waste (too much) time on Dreamweaver, but please DO teach HTML and CSS.

    I’ll twist this another way: If the journalist knows how to use Dreamweaver but doesn’t know how to bring back decent, USABLE audio and photos, then that’s a handicap.

  5. I will remain forever thankful for Serena Fenton’s class, “Visual communication and web design,” through the UNC j-school’s graduate certificate program.

    She teaches theory and techniques as well as dipping into CSS only briefly.

    Students learn why theory — of color, of emotion, of eye-tracking, of marketing techniques like building personas — is important.

    And they learn how one can spend a lifetime, or at least several years, learning to do CSS or Flash right.

    Then the students can choose where to dig and learn more deeply.

    Her balance between theory and practice, and her willingness to learn new stuff with the students, was amazing.

    Google her, or let me know if you want a sample syllabus.

  6. I don’t teach students how to use Dreamweaver, but do teach them basic HTML/CSS as a way to build a simple web page, then we spend part of the semester working with javascripts, optimizing images for web delivery, embedding maps and video, etc. and using blogging software.

    There’s a lot to cover out there, obviously, but I don’t want them tied to the software (DW) so much that they can’t look at a web site and figure out what’s going on under the hood.

    As for what was mentioned earlier by someone about the reporters writing the story and then getting it over to the websters who put it into the CMS, i suspect that’s going to change before long. Reporters will be putting their content directly into the CMS, and the process will be more integrated. Also, reporters who are blogging are already often posting their content into a CMS.

  7. what’s the deal with dreamweaver and why does everyone talk about teaching dreamweaver as if it were different from teaching html?

    i’m giving a crash course in html to the reporters and editors at my paper this week, and it’s not going to involve dreamweaver at all.

  8. Don’t waste time on Dreamweaver or any other WYSIWYG editor. The only thing you’ll acomplish is a class or wannabe journalist who think they can work their way around HTML/CSS but in reality only cause problems for the person who has to clean up after them. It is absolutely the wrong way to learn HTML/CSS.

    Yes, do teach them HTML/CSS but teach them proper markup and structure and not much else. They don’t need to worry about how the end result will look (journalist usually aren’t that good at design, leave it to those that are) but they do need to semanticaly and logicaly structure a document the way it should be.

    Tell them a list is a list, a table is a table and headings are not just large bold text. It doesn’t matter if they end up writing in a word processor or HTML. The structure should basically be the same. Properly structured HTML generated by MS Word is a lot easier to clean up than completely reworking a poorly structured one.

  9. @albert: In some classes in some schools, the application Dreamweaver is taught, and HTML is not. If someone learns to use Dreamweaver and nothing else, he doesn’t know how to create a Web page — he only knows how to use Dreamweaver.

    Personally, I like using Dreamweaver after my CSS is finished. I switch into code view a lot, but it’s often convenient to use design view. I also like the convenience of FTPing from within DW.

  10. The suite of software apps used by web producers at the Los Angeles Times consists of the following:

    — a text editor
    — Photoshop

    What we lack in client-side software, we make up for in a dizzying array of browser-based tools. We use two blogging platforms, a legacy CMS, a homegrown content platform for new products, a video tool, a user-generated content platform, a publishing system for electronic newsletters, a couple of wikis for internal documents and probably a few other tools I can’t think of at the moment.

    Accordingly, when I began teaching a section of the introductory online journalism course at USC this semester, I set out to use only web-based tools in the class. I’ve taught wikitext, WordPress (yes, we use the code view, not the WYSIWYG editor) and Flickr/Picnik. Before the end of the semester, we’ll spend some time with Google Maps and, hopefully, VuVox (a very cool Flash-based collage/slide-show app). We did maybe an hour’s fly-through of Photoshop, since it’s so ubiquitous, but for purposes of an intro class you could almost skip Photoshop and do all your image editing in Picnik.

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  12. @Eric: Do you find, though, that the Web-based tools tend to go offline at the most inconvenient times? I do! And then you’re just out of luck.

  13. I wouldn’t teach Dreamweaver in a web design class, either. It’s of limited use in today’s world.

  14. Pingback: Teaching Online Journalism » What every journalism student needs to know (now)

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