Hacker-reporter debate consumes journalists

A debate has been sparked in the news business on whether journalists should try to stay relevant by learning to write programming code.

The success of Adrian Holovaty, a Django specialist and newsman who rose from implementing content management software at Kansas newspapers to become Washingtonpost.Newsweek Interactive editorial innovations editor, has focused attention on whether reporters should add coding to a list of skills that includes shorthand and interviewing.

In the last couple of weeks, a $1.1 million grant awarded to Holovaty to embark on private journalism development innovations, and the decision by Northwestern University in Illinois to launch a special journalism scholarship for computer programmers, have set tongues wagging.

“Journalists need to learn how to code,” wrote David Cohn, a 25-year-old LA-based technology reporter. “Until I learn to code in PHP, Django, Ruby On Rails or some other programming language, I won’t be happy.

“Nor will I reach my full potential. I am convinced the only thing holding me back from organising the type of web-based network journalism I want to do is my lack of coding skills.”

But not everyone agrees computer science is a necessary extension for journalists. “The pressing need is not for people who can write code with one hand and stories with the other,” wrote Scott Rosenberg, a founding editor of high-brow webzine Salon.

“What journalists do need is working digital literacy. They need to understand something about how the technology that’s reshaping media works. Journalists don’t need to study object-oriented PHP in order to do that; yet it’s helpful for them to be able to mess with a WordPress template without running in terror.”

Dan Gillmor, director of the Center for Citizen Journalism in the US, argued that journalists merely need to work alongside tech-savvy developers, while Alfrred Hermida, formerly a BBC News Online technology editor and now multi-platform journalism teacher at the University of British Columbia, reckoned reporters need not know the ins and outs of Perl – but news organisations do need staff who can develop journalism’s next news platforms.

There is little consensus in the training world, however. University of Westminster journalism tutor Andrew Grant-Adamson countered that the UK needed to adopt journalism degrees for programmers like that at Illinois. Without consensus, it seems that foreach (@commentator) { while $opinion = 1 { $debate = “ongoing”; } }.