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