Yes, journalists should learn to code, but…

Remember about a decade ago, when the big question was whether journalists should learn to code? Coding found its way into more than a few Nieman Lab predictions. The topic also had its naysaysers.

It turns the answer to that question, in true improv fashion, is “Yes…and,” at least according to some professionals with a unique perspective on the topic. Allie Kosterich and I asked product managers and leaders — those who work at the intersection of editorial, business, and technology — for their insights into how coding has evolved as a practice in media organizations. Product professionals often collaborate with coding personnel as part of their primary responsibilities, and are themselves likely to have some manner of coding background.

As we approach 2023, we find an environment of growing product complexity with a new series of questions to consider: Which roles in a news organization need to know how to code? What level of coding competency is optimal for a particular role? And to what end or purpose is coding used in achieving a media organization’s mission? The results can be found in our report, “Who Needs to Code? Developing a Coding Practice in Media Organizations,” but here’s the TL;DR:

Everyone should have some knowledge of HTML and CSS. Half the respondents expected journalists and newsroom leaders to have at least a conceptual understanding of markup. And a good percentage of them felt a limited application level would be optimal (journalists 31.6%; newsroom leaders 26.3%). As one respondent put it: “Fundamentally, I think anyone using a CMS should have a basic understanding of markup.”
Positions that use coding as regular practice in their jobs include news application developers, data journalists, and other developers/software engineers. But they each do so for different purposes and using different tools. News app developers are focused on programming skills in the service of developing interactive interfaces. Data journalists primarily use coding for data analysis in support of storytelling. And other developers/software engineers require a broad range of coding expertise to support the increasingly complex development of digital media products, like mobile applications, internal systems, AI applications, and more. Depending on the organization, these roles can have a good amount of overlap. “For organizations that do not separate ‘data journalists’ in the analysis/newsgathering sense from those in data presentation, the level of coding skill required for a data journalist is significantly higher,” said one respondent. “They must be able to interpret and process data as well as display it.”
How about the product managers/leaders themselves? While most did not rate coding as a regular practice in these roles, many felt the need for at least limited application and conceptual understanding to be effective. In fact, according to one respondent, strong coding experience is a necessary background for product professionals. “I think to have that kind of leadership position you must have actually built things hands-on — either as a designer or engineer — for some time, to qualify.”

Respondents also provided insight into whether graphic and user experience designers and social media/engagement specialists should know how to code (they should, but for different reasons). But generally, respondents emphasized the coding mindset as a benefit of learning to code for all. “I think it is important for almost all of these roles to ‘think like a programmer’ — beyond knowing the limitations of the language…This transcends language and framework.”

Personally, I think any time spent coding is valuable. It’s exercise for your brain. It can be challenging and time-consuming. It builds confidence in your ability to think logically and solve problems. It helps you better understand what is possible in a digital environment and provides a basis for proposing interactive solutions and analyzing data. Coding shows up on a range of job descriptions and is growing in importance in many organization types and roles, so it’s a foundational skill for students moving into digital careers.

What does this mean for media organizations in 2023? They’ll need to think of coding as not just a single practice, but a range of related practices. They’ll need to provide support for the development of these skills in the context of their positions. They need to adapt hiring and career development processes to give those who code the proper status in their organizations. And they’ll need to hire leaders like Sisi Wei — recently named editor-in-chief of The Markup — who truly exemplify the possibilities of code for a media company.

Cindy Royal is a professor and director of the Media Innovation Lab at Texas State University.

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