Portions of this column were originally written for the October 2013 edition of News Photographer Magazine.
Mark Loundy is a media producer and consultant based in San Jose, California. Full bio.
The opinions in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily represent the official views of the National Press Photographers Association.
October 2013, Volume 123
By Mark Loundy
"The photographic image... is a message without a code."
Single-tool journalists are the least likely to succeed in a modern newsroom. If all you can do is shoot still images or write lacrosse stories, your value is going to be less than that of a journalist with a full quiver of digital arrows.
Lately, it's become fashionable to say that all journalists should "learn to code." The idea is that since we work in a digital world, knowing how to build that world is a logical extension.
The Atlantic's global editor, Olga Khazan, disagrees. "If you want to be a reporter, learning code will not help," she wrote. "It will only waste time that you should have been using to write freelance articles or do internships — the real factors that lead to these increasingly scarce positions."
Another problem with the slightly too-glib idea is that it doesn't mean what most of its proponents intend it to mean. Real coding is not a secondary skill like a reporter using a camera. It is a highly specialized and dynamic craft which few journalists have the time to perform effectively.
But that's not the real value of "learning to code." Smaller staffs mean tighter collaboration between specialists. The more a reporter knows about what is possible with the tools of a colleague, the better their team will operate.
"A modern journalist needs to know how the Web works, needs to be exposed to and respect all journalistic crafts (including code), and needs to know their role in working with others," wrote USC journalism professor Robert Hernandez. "And that role is an active role, not a passive one. They need to use these digital tools to produce relevant, quality journalism."
Just as I learned better camera skills to make my life easier in the darkroom and learned to shoot video with the eventual final edit in mind, a journalist who knows the possibilities of digital technology will create in a way that will exploit those tools in ways that would never occur to a traditional journalist.
But the job market might be the ultimate arbiter. "The reporter who can build something to make the fruits of her reporting interactive is more valuable to a potential employer than a reporter who's just good with words and videos," blogged Digital First Media Digital Transformation Editor Steve Buttry. "The reporter who understands coding is going to be better at talking with the newsroom's developers (or with IT's developers) to execute a great digital package."
Ultimately, it's about being open to continual re-training and never thinking that you can stop moving forward.
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