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How much computer science does a journalist really need?

Earlier this month, Columbia University announced that the first ever journalism and computer science degree will launch in the autumn of 2011. Perhaps it’s a positive reaction to all the technological uncertainty that journalists face, but some perspective is also needed.

The digital trinity

Good digital publishing requires expertise in three completely separate disciplines, all of which are callings in their own right.

As journalists we’re all here because we want to tell a good story, so we apply our presentation skills, written, audio or visual, along with our ability to make an intelligent overview.

To ensure that our work then reaches the largest possible online audience we work with designers, who are highly artistic, and web developers who tend to be mathematically astute computer scientists. When it all works together the result can be great, interactive, accessible and attractive online content. Victory.

So much as any attempt to bring journalists closer to technology should be warmly embraced, there has to be an understanding that shoehorning a journalist into a programmer’s role, and vice-versa, probably isn’t going to produce the best results. These are much more likely to come from having a good team around you, by understanding each other’s limitations and, above all, by working well together.

Life. Time. Dedication

It is rather like being in a band, in the sense that you can’t play the drums and the guitar at the same time. Success comes from having talented people who understand each other and can communicate ideas between themselves fluently. And it follows that the more time you spend working in tandem, the more seamless the work becomes.

Our in-house web developer Xavi Esteve (who has been pursuing his passion since he was 10 years old) informs me that a good programmer needs about 200 hours to get to grips with the basics. You then need to dedicate yourself to trying, failing, debugging and doing it all over and over again. It is the only way to learn.

This is all he’s been doing for 40 – 50 hours a week for five years and he still only specialises in certain defined areas. If we wanted to develop and app in Flash, for example, we would probably have to get an Actionscript specialist in specifically for this purpose, even though Xavi has easily got more than 10,000 professional programming hours to his name.

So three semesters in Columbia’s engineering school and two in the journalism department will only be scratching the surface. They’re hoping to create “graduate students with both the editorial and technological skills to produce new applications and online tools that could help redefine journalism in a fast-changing digital media environment”. That will probably take a wee while longer.

Be informed, be practical

Knowing your PHP and Java Script from your Python and Visual-Basic is undoubtedly helpful but having an overview of these things is much more important than trying to become a coding ninja yourself. Xavi says:

The main problem with some journalists is that they don’t have an awareness of what is possible and what isn’t, and what is best practice. Having a basic understanding will make them more practical and allow us to work much faster together.

The good news here is that this is where a journalist’s natural talents can come into play. We can all get the requisite knowledge through research and selectively extracting the necessary information.

Those of you, like me, who barely have enough reading time in your lives already, should also make sure you add a talented front end web developer to your list of essential journalistic contacts.

We all have a directory of useful people we make sure we take out for a coffee every once in a while. Like PRs and industry insiders, web developers are another specialist you should have on speed dial. Tapping up the experts for information is what we journalists are supposed to be best at after all.

Here are some useful links for grabbing the basics:

A wide array of tutorials,  in HTML, CSS and JavaScript.

This is the website of the W3C (World Wide Web Consortium, the ones that work to standardise the Internet) and it is great. It has tutorials for HTML, CSS, XML, PHP, ASP, JavaScript and MySQL.

It includes tutorials for Photoshop, Dreamweaver, Illustrator, InDesign, Flash and ActionScript.

John Hillman is the editor of PC Site which reviews and compares laptops and software. Follow him on Twitter: @JohnjHillman

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  • You’re quite right that nobody has any use for what rjlohman over at Wired called a “melding of roles where you get individuals that are half as experienced at twice as many jobs”. However, for starters, this is Columbia, they can place very high expectations on the applicants. And more importantly, in an age of ever increasing specialization, we do very much need people who can can mediate between different fields of study.

    So much potential is wasted because journalists don’t understand technology and CS grads don’t understand journalism. (Or by business executives who understand neither.) Thinking is building, as coders like to say, so I’m not convinced that doing a little bit of reading on Javascript or dabbling with programming 101 would solve that. A two-year master of science might. You need to really get a feel for what programming is like and what it can or cannot do.

    Also keep in mind that this is a unique program for those few people who feel up to the challenge, not Columbia’s view of what the skillset of each and every journalist should look like.

    I don’t know if their masters will work, and I’m glad that there are people like yourself who can keep some perspective, but I’m hopeful.

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  • Hi Sitjn,

    Thanks for your comment. I’m sure that the course is going to be of huge value to those students, but who knows what the world will look like when they graduate in 2014, and what technology we’ll be using in the media by then? The mind boggles!

    I agree completely about the missed potential. I strongly advocate putting journalists and coders on the same desks and having weekly knowledge shares. It’s helped me and my colleagues a lot.

  • John,

    As someone who put journalists and coders together in our newsroom more than two years ago, I agree with your general conclusion: that this melding is generally a good thing.

    It is.

    But I’m less comfortable with the suggestion that technology barrier is so high that it’s almost not worth bothering. That we journalists should stick to writing narrative, and leave the hard stuff to the experts, who we have on speed dial — if that is, indeed, what you’re saying.

    But perhaps I’m misunderstanding, so let me ask: What level of technical ability do you think journalists should aspire to? What’s the minimum skillset you think journalists should have? And what you mean exactly by having an overview of these things?

  • Hi Aron,

    Thanks for your comment.In terms of being able to sit down and physically code an app or build a website, it’s definitely going to put you ahead of the curve. As is data mining and making use of the vast number of tools on the Internet. I think it’s something all journalists should aim for.

    But I think that, for a lot of journalists that I meet, the technology barrier exists because they feel forced into tackling computer science when they actually have no natural interest in the subject.

    In an ideal world a journalist would be set free to chase down great stories, and to focus on their chosen area of expertise. Having to struggle to master a subject you have no affinity for in order to do a job for which you have a great passion seems to be one the great tragedies of the age.

    Understanding the difference between a software developer, a web coder and a designer and knowing which skill sets are required to deliver different types of applications. Knowing how long something takes to get done, being able to communicate properly with the people around you, being able to set realistic deadlines – these have got to be the minimum requirements, what I mean by having an overview.

    It isn’t leaving the technical stuff to the experts, just recognising your role in the bigger picture and making yourself useful.

    Where do you think technical expertise should rank on a journalist’s skill set? Above being able to write good copy or dig around for facts? Probably not. It’s how you bring all these things together that really matters.

  • Honestly? I really don’t know that you can start ranking skills. Of course journalists need to know how to report, write stories. But knowing how to tell stories across different media is important too — maybe just as important.

    Furthermore, having technical skills (basic programming, data skills, data analysis) flat-out allows you to tell better stories. I hope we can all agree that we’re past the time when this is even a debatable point.

    And anyway, I think presenting these things as mutually exclusive categories is probably not accurate. When I was a reporter, I found time to hone my skills. Sure, it was on nights and weekends — but I found time.

    More often, I think it’s a matter of values: Do you, as a reporter, feel having these kinds of skills and a real command of these new media is worth the investment? If you do, then you’ll find the time. If you don’t, you won’t.

    That said, I think you’re absolutely correct to say that not every journalist needs to be a master of data/web technologies. I do think every journalist should know enough to know a bad idea when they hear one, and speak intelligently with more technical colleagues.

    I do know that we’re not, as an industry, anywhere near that point right now, which is what make me uncomfortable with the idea that we can tell colleagues “Hey, relax. This web thingy? Don’t worry about it. Just let the experts handle it.”

    Many reporters may find it comforting to hear that, but I’m afraid that feeling may be temporary. The industry is changing at light speed, and at a time of diminishing resources I’m afraid it’s not going to be enough to just be able to tell great stories and dig for facts. I hope you’re right, I really do. I just don’t think given the way things are going that I would chance it. That certainly isn’t the advice I would give if asked.

    The fact is the level of web illiteracy across our industry is staggering, and is becoming an ever-larger problem as we all hurdle toward an increasingly web-based future. If we do not close that knowledge gap, I’m afraid that ultimately the future will be determined for us — and my guess is not in the way you and I would want.

  • James F.

    “The fact is the level of web illiteracy across our industry is staggering, and is becoming an ever-larger problem as we all hurdle toward an increasingly web-based future.”

    I think you mean “hurtle,” Aron — not “hurdle.” Looks like you should stay on the programming side of things and let the real journalists do the writing. Or perhaps you might find some time on nights and weekends to brush up your vocabulary and writing skills.

  • You mean those same journalists who usually can’t go without a copy editor? 🙂 C’mon James, keep the conversation civil.

  • Ha! Got me, James. Fact is, during my 15 years as a reporter, I was always a slave to spellcheck and never far from a thesaurus. Having pulled a few copy editing shifts in my day, I know I’m not the only one.

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