Coding for Journalists: Why It’s Useful & Where to Start
Is there a story anymore that doesn’t include some sort of data? Whether you’re reporting on the pandemic, weather, crime trends, polling statistics, box office numbers, or a basic comparison, for example, you’ll be needing figures, statistics and visualizations to give your readers context and drive your story home.
But Google Sheets and Excel can only take you so far (and handle so much data). That’s when learning some form(s) of coding comes in handy and courses that teach coding for journalists are widely available online.
Many journalists don’t learn these skills in school, especially those who have been in the field for some time. A 2021 survey of 1,500 data journalists found that 70% of them are self-taught. So if you find yourself looking to boost your technical skills, it’s not too late to learn – and you can do it on your own.
Adding coding skills to your toolbelt is in your best interest as well, as the prevalence of data journalism and visualization isn’t going to fade away. Matt Daniels, Editor and Founder at Polygraph, has a good feeling about its future and predicts, “The Internet has grossly undervalued our intrinsic interest in visualization. I expect the market for this sort of content to explode.”
Let’s dig into why a working knowledge of coding can be beneficial to journalists, which coding language you should learn, and the resources to help you get started.
Why should journalists learn to code?
Journalists can benefit from coding knowledge in several ways. Not only can it help data journalists scrape and analyze large sets of data, but it can help creators improve the user experience of the page and present their story effectively.
When it comes to analysis, it’s not enough to just present a large set of data to readers. Data journalists use coding to help identify trends, outliers or standout changes that can be the basis of a story or provide context. And presenting that data in a visually compelling way is key to both keeping readers on the page and presenting that data in a way that’s easy to understand.
Here are just a few of the benefits of learning to code:
- It’s an in-demand skill. Not only is the demand for coding and programming jobs growing, but many jobs that previously did not require any coding knowledge now prefer it. Learning to code can open the door to more career prospects.
- More employers are looking for these skills and they’ll pay for them. According to DataJournalism.com’s 2021 State of Data Journalism Study, there was a positive correlation between the number of technical skills data journalists use in their daily work and higher salaries.
- An understanding of programming languages can give you more independence in your work – you’ll depend less on developers and software, for example.
- Coding knowledge allows journalists to better communicate with newsroom developers (tell them what you want, understand the roadblocks, timeframes, etc.).
- Improve your ability to uncover unique stories. Coding enables reporters to find a deeper, perhaps previously unseen, story in the data.
- You don’t have to be fluent in the coding language. Knowing just enough will help you find new story ideas and simplify or automate complicated or tedious tasks.
Which coding language is right for you?
Before you jump into tutorials and workshops, decide which coding language is the right one for your purposes. For some, your newsroom will already have an established tech stack that they prefer to use. If not, there are numerous options for you to choose from, but these are some of the most common.
- HTML: HTML is a markup language describing the structure of a web page. Every webpage uses it and knowing a little can go a long way. You might not need to code an entire page by hand for your job but knowing the basics is incredibly helpful. It’s a good place to start.
- CSS: CSS (Cascading Stylesheets) adds style to the HTML. It’s what decides the presentation of the web page. You can apply styles across an entire site or multiple pages. It’s good to know CSS if you’re managing your own blog or website – for example, you can add it to the CMS on which you host your site to customize it to your brand. It’s also important for making pages responsive, which is key for user experience and SEO.
- Python: Python is a programming language. It’s relatively easy to learn, making it a popular one for non-programmers. Journalists can use it to conduct data analytics (like statistical calculations), create data visualizations and set up automatic processes (like converting text files to spreadsheets or conducting massive file downloads). Ruby and R are other popular programming language options.
Learning HTML and CSS will aid you in presenting your data, while learning a programming language like Python will aid you in gathering, analyzing and manipulating your data.
Where to start learning to code
Once you’re ready to get started, finding online courses and tutorials is easy, but it can be overwhelming. Here are a few coding training courses that are created specifically for journalists:
- Check out DataJournalism.com’s in-depth e-book, The Data Journalism Handbook 2. It’s written as a “collective experiment in accounting for data journalism practices and a collective invitation to explore how such practices may be modified.”
- Create a basic website: This training course from Knight Lab will guide you through “all the thrills and spills of learning the best of the basic web—HTML and CSS.”
- Coding for Journalists training: This introduction to coding and Python is provided by Investigative Reporters & Editors. It includes nine basic projects including data scraping, geocoding and converting data into web-friendly formats.
- Python for Journalists: This four-module video course from DataJournalism.com is great for beginners and “those who dabbled in Python, but somehow didn’t persevere.” You’ll learn how to install the right tools and clean, analyze and scrape data.
- Codecademy: Codecademy has helped more than 50 million users boost their coding skills. Whether you decide on Python, HTML, CSS or something else, there’s a package available for you. Take this quiz to decide where to begin – and you can get started for free!
For even more options, check out this list of free and low-cost data journalism training courses.
All of these languages are well-documented online so if you feel stuck, you’re likely able to find a quick answer in one of the many forums on the web.
If you decide to take your new skills into a new career, check out these job and internship resources for journalists. And make sure to include details about your coding knowledge (projects, training certificates, etc.) in your resume — here are some tips for ensuring yours stands out.