I’ve been thinking alot about coding. Staring at some code for an hour and then realising that it’s not working because you spelt slider wrong will do that! So it was nice to see a piece on the Guardian website, Head of Cardiff J-school Richard Sambrook has been pondering the whole issue of journalism and coding. It made me think about how I learnt to code and I wanted to share that with you.
But before that, a brief detour to Richard. He starts with a question:
Do journalists need to learn computer code? It’s a question which has raised passionate debate in the US – with typically polarised responses. As yet in the UK it elicits little more than bemused curiosity. But it’s an increasingly important question as media adapts to the volatile requirements of digital technology and changing consumer expectations
The comments on the piece are also worth a read. They have the usual range of view from “whatever they do it won’t be proper coding” through “it’s cheaper to get someone else to do it” and out the other side of “don’t journalists have enough to do”.
I’m not sure whether the bemused curiosity is aimed at the question or the US debate. I’m very much in the camp that raises an eyebrow at the debate. There is no doubt the industry want it, as much as the industry want anything these days. As with data and social there are always going to be unicorns. But for me talking about journalists and coding is a moot point. It happens. Debating if it’s important seems to take time away from actually trying it.
It strikes me (and I know I’m not alone in this) that this is a problem of language rather than utility or necessity. Think about the debate that the phrase Citizen Journalism creates. (It’s OK I’ll wait while some of you stop shouting at the screen). Now imagine you call yourself a coder and then some journalist comes along and starts saying what they do is coding! That’s the debate.
The industry has co-opted coding as a shorthand for many, differing practices and we use it inconsistently (there is no ‘correct’ here) . Everything from a bit of HTML, using R to do data journalism and even doing a bit of hardware programming with your Raspberry Pi. Like many other things (data journalism etc.) its a reason to talk about other, more fundamental issues facing the industry. Coding isn’t a thing anymore. It’s a trope.
Sambrook’s article is a great example of that. Dig below the surface and he’s really aiming stuff towards a balance of the technical skills that are needed to get a more ‘scientific’ type of perspective. That’s a nod to the ‘precision journalism’ school of thought, one echoed in a comment by Liz Hannaford (whose blog is worth a look b.t.w).
My 5 steps to becoming a coder (for what it’s worth)**
What about these 5 steps then?
In an earlier post I shared the process I went through to create some archive picture mashups. The last part was a little bit of code that made it possible to mix between the two.
Here’s how I learnt to do that in five easy steps.
- Load up Google
- Load up Codepen.io (a place to experiment with html and scripting).
- Load up Stackoverflow ( a place where people ask questions about coding, html and scripting)
- Search and cut-and-paste the fork out of stuff until it works.
- Share and let others see, learn from and critique what you’ve done.
Yes, I’ve been doing this a while so some of it has stuck and that helped speed up what I was searching for. But along the way I learned how to do loads of things that I’ve now forgotten. It did the job and I moved on.
Getting a job done.
Ok. It’s semi-serious advice and I’m definitely not saying that coding is easy. And in saying that I hope I’ve tempered any criticism that coders might imply from this post or any apparent perception that* ‘I don’t get’* how busy journalists are. But the point for me is not that coding is any more or less useful than co-opting any process into your journalism process
The key is that you need to know what your journalism practice is. After that you can see what fits and what doesn’t. If the coding is too much then it’s about co-opting people in to the process.
**Don’t learn ‘coding’ and look for a problem to solve. Find a problem and then ask if a bit of code might help. If the problem is too big find someone who can help. **
That last part – engaging with people who could help is another good reason to dive-in, have a go and pick up a bit of the language. It’s like trying to learn a little bit of a foreign language for a holiday. People who speak it often appreciate the effort. Those who’ve invested some time learning this stuff like it when you make an effort to understand what they do – you know, a bit of journalistic empathy!
Whatever the motivation, on a very basic level I’d recommend giving coding a go. If you find yourself doing ( or really enjoying) lots of this stuff than actually learning a structured approach (like learning the piano rather than busking) will only enhance the process. But for me there is a really basic reason, if the right opportunity comes along. to have a go. When you press run or refresh or whatever you’re doing to make it go it’s actually quite a buzz when it works. There aren’t many things we make and do these days as part of our jobs that get such instant feedback.