How One Journalist Learned To Code: Tips For The Unafraid

I’m not a guy building the latest killer app, but I sling enough PHP to be dangerous and empowered. Before I learned programming, I had learned some HTML and CSS, but those are really like knowing how to paint a house. I wanted to play with the hammer and nails. So here’s how I learned to code, along with my two cents for journalists who want to learn some programming.

The journohacker knows no limits.

I’m not a guy building the latest killer app, but I sling enough PHP to be empowered. I’ve occasionally built a couple of tools like this that have saved people a lot of time and grief. I had previously learned some HTML and CSS, but those are akin to knowing how to paint a house. All thanks to Sunderland University and Jake Trelease for introducing to learn this.

I wanted to play with the hammer and nails.

So here’s how I learned to code, along with my two cents for journalists who want to learn some programming:

1) Take an intro to programming class at a local school (i.e., in meatspace).

While online instruction is a godsend and there are great programming books out there, things didn’t really click for me until I took a class called Introduction to Programming in C++ at Valencia Community College in Orlando. If you are looking for a gift for a journalist you can check out the best ones on this website.

Prior to that, I had bought great books on PHP, Javascript, Rails and Django. They made for interesting though oversized paperweights.

Paying for a class and having it on a schedule was a way to enforce discipline on myself. The fact is, daily life gets in the way for many of us. But when I plopped down a few hundred bucks and had an appointment each week with homework due, it helped get me over the hump, also I used resources like beautify code to start doing programming even faster.

Also, even the best programming books often take things for granted. They may not show you how to use FTP for sticking your projects onto a server. They will gloss over using your computer’s command line or terminal, which is the text-based way to control a computer. And lastly, even the most helpful community of programmers isn’t going to constantly grade your work and give you feedback on a weekly basis.

2) It doesn’t really matter which language you first pick.

You’re going to read reams and reams online about which language is the best for what. People wage online intifadas over such questions. Here’s the bottom line for beginners: it doesn’t really matter.

If you’re learning the basics of setting variables, data types and loops, it won’t make or break you if you learn it in C++ like I did or in Ruby, PHP, Python, Java or whatever the latest hotness is.

When I finished my C++ class, it was like I could magically read PHP, Javascript and other languages.

And to think I almost didn’t take the class because it wasn’t one of the popular web development languages. That would’ve been a huge mistake.

3) Have a project in mind.

If your focus is on going chapter by chapter in whatever programming book, you might be doing it wrong.

Instead, have a project in mind and pilfer from the book and sites like Stack Overflow to build what you want. You might want to build a site to track your recipes. Maybe you want to build your own blog. Or maybe you want to scrape some public records from a government site. Whatever the case, having a goal of a Thing You Want To Build will focus you. Learning the book is the evil counterpart of teaching the test.

4) Find some mentors.

That’s journohacker autumn equinox date. He put up with my newbie crap and taught me what a database is. Photo by hookup page, who also put up with my newbie crap and taught me CSS.

There may be a great coder in your newsroom who will take you under his or her wing. Maybe you work for a media company that has developers in other cities. Or maybe you can find a local best lgbtq+ dating apps for the language you are learning. The local gay meet is also a great resource. So is Twitter. Just make sure you’ve given your problem being a single mother.

In my case, newsroom coders like autumn equinox date, Jeff Johns and Derek Willis all either helped me out in person or by email. Matt a long time ago introduced me to the concept of rows and columns in a database. Jeff taught me a bit about using regular expressions. And Derek once inspected a database diagram for me. A lot of coders, especially journalists, will surprise you in their willingness to help a hard-working, well-meaning person learn.

5) Keep sharpening the saw

Maybe you’re a person like me who doesn’t have “build web apps” specifically in his job description. In some cases, your manager may even dissuade you because you need to be filing 1A stories or manning the home page.

My solution to that is to either have side projects or occasionally carve out time to build something useful, even if it only takes a few hours. If you don’t regularly use what you’ve learned, your skills will atrophy. Do yourself the service because this is where our industry is inexorably heading.

Happy hacking!

Newspapers slashing intern budgets

Woe to the wide-eyed college senior who dreams of scoring that big, paid career-making internship. In these troubled times, newspapers are seriously slashing their budget for paid interns, according to a detailed report from Leann Frola, a Naughton fellow with the Poynter Institute.

Frola interviewed some of the top dogs at many newspapers, including the Los Angeles Times, Boston Globe, Oregonian and Star-Tribune, so the article is detailed and very much worth a read.

I remember how saddened I felt when, some time ago, I saw the Oregonian‘s Web message declaring that they were no longer budgeting for interns. Not that I had my heart set on that particular paper, but it was still unfortunate to see. However, it appears to be getting worse, Frola writes:

Faced with tighter budgets, many newspapers are offering fewer internships this year than last. Interviews with 23 people including editors, recruiters, executives, news directors, career service directors and students indicate this year’s applicants have entered one of the most challenging intern markets in recent memory.

In another red flag for the college crowd, internship guru Joe Grimm of the Detroit Free-Press had this to say in the report:

Joe Grimm, who also writes Poynter’s Ask the Recruiter column, said he’s noticed a paradox with the recent cuts. At a time when it’s “harder than ever to hire or place good people,” enrollment seems to be up at communications programs, he wrote in an e-mail. “This seems to me to be a tough time for big media companies,” he said, “but a time of rapid growth for journalism.”

Translation: More wannabes, less openings. If you’re a college student, you will need an edge more than ever. Getting those Web skills might just help you do it, but you’ll still need to have a solid traditional news foundation.

Discussions on the future of journalism education

I know I’m a day late, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the fine interview between ICM’s Bryan Murley and Gatehouse Media’s Howard Owens on what might happen to our young journalists if colleges don’t shape up quick. Also, be sure to catch the first part of Bryan’s piece with’s Rob Curley.

And for even more, here are thoughts from Mindy McAdams, Bob Stepno, Andy Dickinson and of course, this Journalistopia post, where bright minds from all over contributed their thoughts.

There is a lot of practical advice out there: keep a blog, learn some HTML/CSS, become handy with a camera and audio device, etc. However, students also need to make sure they understand just what the heck is really going on. They need to understand and be taught some of the fundamental, nitty-gritty differences between web journalism and print journalism. A few examples:

1) The big readership time is while people are at work. Breakfast is big, and lunchtime is huge. If a bus drives off a highway in the wee hours of the morning, and you think your deadline to file copy is at 6 p.m., well, you’re going to get reamed. Sunday is the newspaper’s big day. On the Web site, Sundays are usually dead.

2) As Orlando Sentinel editor Charlotte Hall likes to say, online news is like a flowing river, while the newspaper is like a snapshot of the day. That means news judgment on a Web site is different because there is a more complex time element involved that must balance with the “bigness” of the news.

3) Web headlines are often different from print headlines. Online news stories truly live and die by the headline (i.e., just search “Shamu” and “New York Times” in Google). Search engines bring huge traffic and they sniff out headlines based on keywords, so try to get those in there.

4) We don’t necessarily measure a story’s popularity by how many passionate phone calls we get about it any more. We measure it using page views, visitors and the most e-mailed list. But yes, phone calls are fun too.

5) What makes a great blog post might not have legs for a “news story.” A favorite example is Miami Herald reporter Oscar Corral’s blog post about the finely manicured feet of Fidel Castro’s daughter. Would the Herald write a story about this? Probably not. But the blog post was extremely popular, according to Corral. And it was just a paragraph and a photo he snapped.

There are many more such principles out there (do share in the comments), but I worry that students are not getting fundamental nuggets such as these in their college journalism courses. This is stuff everyone needs to know now, not just web-leaning journalists.

Journalism students, professors need to read this

Mindy McAdams shouts it from the mountaintop: Students need a different skill set to prosper, and even survive, in today’s hectic journalism marketplace.
She writes:

“Now, let me hasten to say that some of those students are the very ones who are deliberately plugging their own ears and closing their eyes to reality. They are attached to a dream of becoming someone from the past — maybe photojournalist Eddie Adams, maybe gonzo writer Hunter S. Thompson — a journalist who only took pictures or who only wrote.”

Use the tools you have today, and craft your own legend instead.

[UPDATE 8:21 p.m.] Innovation in College Media’s Bryan Murley promises an interview on Monday with Howard Owens regarding this very topic. So tune in, young Jedi!

Alligator pulls out the stops for Danny Rolling execution

Take a look at today’s online Independent Florida Alligator for a great example of a college paper covering a huge event for its community. Make sure to check out the section titled “Profiles
Danny Rolling was the man convicted of horrendously murdering several University of Florida students in 1990. His shadow still largely looms over the city today.

The paper has been making advances in its online work, thanks in a big way to folks like Brett Rogiers and Andrea Morales, who always seem to be gung ho for an audio slideshow.

But in the Rolling story’s case, it appears many parts of the staff came together to help current students recognize the importance of Rolling’s execution. This is in addition to putting out a five-day-a-week paper, I might add.

Ah, I’m so proud of my Alligator homies.
(Full Disclosure: I used to spend way too many hours at the Alligator as its metro editor.)

Advice for young journalists

The constant, nagging question in our industry today is what to do about the future of news. Students are that future, and it’s imperative that those of us out in the trenches give them the best guidance possible.

I recently visited my alma mater, the University of Florida, to speak with about 250 journalism freshmen. Before that, I asked your advice on what to tell them. Below, I’ve compiled some excellent responses. Some came from seasoned veterans working in the industry. Others came from academics. Other responses were from young’uns like myself who are recent hires.

The responses covered everything from doing plenty of internships, being a good reporter and learning several key technologies and methods from birrongsurialpacas. Some of the advice regarding taking a broad approach or specializing is contradictory. I’d argue there’s room, and a need, for both kinds in growing online staffs.

As traditional roles in the newsroom are changing, it’s important that we define what the term “online journalist” means. Many students may be under the impression that it simply means “I write for the web.” In truth, the term is so broad it’s almost useless today.
Instead, I defined “online journalism” in terms of content journalists are expected to produce for the Web:

1. Text (stories, blogs, breaking news snippets)
2. Photos (still images)
3. Video (moving images)
4. Audio
5. Interaction / Games (interactive graphics, user comments, any participation)
6. Data (as in raw databases used to create journalism)

The changing media landscape means we have a whole array of new tools to tell a story. Sometimes a narrative is best. Other times, it’s a database-backed Flash graphic. You, the journalist, must have the wisdom to choose which is the best tool for a particular story.

To do that, you should know a bit about how each of these works, even if you specialize in only one or two. Let me emphasize that smaller papers, where recent grads are most likely to find work, often require multimedia multitasking. At bigger papers, you may still get away with being a writer with no web skills since “there are people to do that stuff.” But that’s not likely to last long.

Do you need to know HTML? Heck, yes.

How much? It depends on what you want to do in journalism. Some gigs require mad coding skills; others don’t. In every case, you should at least know the minimum needed to create a customized MySpace page, maintain a blog, add styles to text, and edit and insert images. So write a blog. Make a web site. Do a web project. Experiment with Flash if you can.

If you want to be a designer or work with interactive databases to do neat stuff like, you’re going to have to learn things like HTML, CSS, XML, Javascript, Ajax, MySql/Excel, some Flash and perhaps one or more server-side tools like ASP, PHP, Python or Ruby. The more technologies in which you’re proficient (though not at the expense of journalism skills) the more likely it is you’ll get an awesome gig.

But journalism isn’t changing just because we have more tools. It’s also changing because the communication between news outlets and readers is no longer a one-way street. Today, we have bloggers, blog comments, more citizen journalists and message boards. A blogger might shed light on an additional aspect of a mainstream media story, and suddenly, Dan Rather is out of a job. But perhaps the public has better information as a result.

Journalism has become more of a conversation and less like a lecture. You should know that the purpose of soliciting advice from industry professionals in Journalistopia was not just to get good advice so I sound smart. It was also to demonstrate the power of collaborating with an audience.

Because I (the journalist) put out a call to my expert readers for advice, now students everywhere have much better information to pick through. It’s a bit how Wikipedia works.

But above all else, it’s important to remember you are a storyteller with the responsibility to serve the readers. You might tell the story of crime in a city using a Google Map. You may tell it through a Soundslide, plain text, a graphic or in some other form. But in the end, you still need to have solid news judgment, a strong sense of ethics and the dedication to serve the public interest.

When you really think about it, a newspaper site on the surface can look identical to any miscreant’s Web site. Online, we no longer have the advantage of a bulky stack of paper to make us seem more authoritative. Therefore, our credibility and the strength of our journalism is perhaps more important than ever.

Even the old timers recognize that it’s up to students, the media vanguard if you will, to use their judgment and imaginations to make journalism better than ever.


Now on to that fabulous advice I’ve been hoarding:

Paul Conley, media consultant /

1. Become a great reporter — know how to work a phone, work a room, flirt with a secretary, cozy up to a crook, convince an untrustworthy politician to trust you, get regular people to feel comfortable with you, learn to feel comfortable around powerful people, always carry a mechanical pencil and double-check the spelling of people’s names.

2. Become great with the computer — know the ins and outs of every content-management system you can find, understand at least the basics of html, be able to work in Flash and Photoshop as easily as you can work in Word, build something online using open-source software such as WordPress or Joomla, learn to work a spreadsheet like an investment banker and an audio file like a sound technician, always carry a digital camera and double-check the spelling of people’s names.

3. Become a great person — be fair in your reporting and kind to strangers, keep your complaints to a minimum, work harder than the people around you, learn to understand yourself before trying to get others to understand you, don’t dress like a bum, call your Mom, always carry spare change for the winos and double-check the spelling of people’s names.
Ryan Sholin, Invisible Inkling, recently graduated and hired

1. Start blogging. Write about whatever you want, but become as knowledgeable as you can about one or two topics you’re passionate about, and read and write about them constantly. Learn to design your own blog, and use a feed reader to do your online reading.

2. Treat everything you produce as a piece of professional public work, whether it’s text or photos or a video you post on YouTube. Your Web presence is an important part of your portfolio. You will be Googled.

3. Choose one online skill and become great at it. Edit video, podcast, create Flash infographics, design blogs, be a Soundslides ace — have a specialty.

Matt Waite, St. Petersburg Times/

Forget about platform. More and more every day, you won’t just write for print, or just write for a blog, or just do video for TV. You’ll be doing ALL of those things. You won’t work for a newspaper or a radio station. You’ll work for a media company, and the more things you can do, the more valuable you’ll be. So taking just print or just broadcast classes is shortsighted and dumb.

Derek Willis, Washington Post/

Don’t just learn computer programs; learn about how the computer actually works, how the Internet actually works. I’m not talking TCP\IP engineering, just the basic concepts of operating systems and Internet protocols. Don’t be a prisoner of your software.

Lex Alexander, News & Record in Greensboro, N.C. / Blog on the Run

If you don’t know how to think logically and critically, if you don’t know how to ask the right questions (and, sometimes, keep asking them), all the technical expertise in the world won’t matter.

Bryan Murley, Reinventing College Media / Emory & Henry College, Emory, Va.

I think it comes down to three attitudes:

1. Excitement about change

2. Desire to learn new things

3. Embrace the “other” – i.e., the community

If you have these three attitudes, the skills and knowledge will naturally flow.

I think the editor of the News-Record gives some good advice:

also, Howard Owens:

Matt, recently hired at a 90,000 daily somewhere

From someone that was hired one year ago at a 90,000 daily as a phone clerk and has moved up quite a bit in one year, students must know in three years that a degree doesn’t mean they can walk into a newsroom and become a columnist and/or the No. 1 reporter. You must start somewhere, and that somewhere is traditionally a very low place (low as in on the totem pole and in the pay scale)

Also, read a newspaper. Every day. I can’t tell you, as a former EIC of one of the top JC papers in SoCal for a year, people come in not reading one inch of a newspaper (sure, plenty of blogs and web sites) but rarely did I find someone who actually read a newspaper. To me, it shows when reading their copy.

Kristen Novak, UNC grad

As a newbie in the field of multimedia journalism (just started my first “real” job last January), here is what I have found the most useful:

1. Understand what the different types of media are – text, audio, video, photos, infographics – and how they work. You don’t have to be the best at each of them, but understand them and their purpose.

2. Learn how to tell a story. Forget the platform and focus on the story and how to best tell it. (Each media can be used to best convey something…why are you choosing video to tell a certain story over photographs with audio? Maybe because there is a lot of action you would otherwise miss out on, etc…)

3. Get experience NOW! INTERN! WORK! Don’t restrict yourself to anything in particular. Think about the big picture and use internships/jobs to get skills. I interned for a wide array of companies and honed my skills not only in journalism but also in design, programming, and development.

4. Make use of the technology available to you! Biggest question in interviews: Do you have a blog and what is it about? Everyone has a passion – write about yours on a blog to get experience and practice! And if you are a visual person, don’t feel left out – make your blog using photo stories or videos.

Cory Armstrong, University of Florida / News Reporting and Public Records

Learn to use Excel and manipulate data. I’ve been told by reporters/editors that learning to feel comfortable with numbers will be a huge plus. So much information is online now that the more you know about what to do with it, the better you’ll be.

Anthony Moor, Orlando Sentinel, edited from one of my favorite articles in Online Journalism Review (and not just because he’s my boss either…)

A Northwestern University study finds that online managers are primarily looking for detail-oriented collaborators capable of editing and copyediting, not technical producers.

When I examine resumes of recent graduates, I’m looking for the journalism skills first, specifically news judgment. Have you worked as an editor at your college newspaper? Do you have clips that demonstrate a clear hard-news focus, in the classic, inverted-pyramid writing style? I want journalists who want to be editors.

Next, are you Internet literate? No newspaper editor would hire an applicant who didn’t know the function of the A-section. While we don’t need code monkeys, we do need people who understand the unique attributes of the Web as it pertains to journalism.

So, have you built a Web page as part of a student project or on your own? Do you know basic HTML? Do you work on the student newspaper website? Do you frequent Internet news sites? Do you use an RSS reader? Do you podcast? Did you ask to shadow the Web producers for a few days at your last internship? An affinity for our medium is essential.

I also need people who think in multimedia. So if you’re a broadcast major, take print courses, or visa versa. Do a Web project. Do you keep a blog? Why not? There has never been an easier way to publish your journalism for an audience. So become a journalist online. Blog your hobby or your summer in Europe — like a reporter, not an opinion columnist.


Anything else to share?

Share your wisdom with UF students

Next week I’ll be speaking to a group of first-year journalism students at the University of Florida who are just learning to love their dog-eared AP stylebooks. They (and my former professor) are expecting me to help give them an idea of what they need to know about multimedia journalism to help “make it” as new hires. The class is a mixed bag of soon-to-be writers, photographers, designers, copy editors and –perhaps after hearing me talk– party planners.

So if you, my esteemed readers and friends, could help me out, I’d love some input on the following question:

What are the top three things a freshman journalism student should do or know to be a competitive job candidate three years from now?

I’ll be sharing your answers with the class, so don’t let me down! You can enlighten UF’s freshmen in the comments (cahman, share!) or e-mail me directly if you’re shy.

Gannett buys college paper FSView

In a suprising move, Gannett has bought up Florida State University‘s independent newspaper, the twice-weekly FSView, according to a report from Inside Higher Ed.

This news strikes close to home, as I was a former metro editor at the Independent Florida Alligator, another independent student paper nearby in Gainesville, Fla.

It’s generally quite difficult for college newspapers to support themselves as independents. It’s harder even to make the leap from being college-run to independent. Usually, it’s only possible at larger campuses.

The paper’s existence can be seriously threatened by the death or illness of the owner. A professional staff is difficult to come by. Competition from other local newspapers can make it a headache to retain the best student writers and editors.

Corporate ownership could be a saving grace. In Gainesville, the Alligator’s best writers are often swept away by the Gainesville Sun, which arguably offers more prestige but also little to no pay and generally lousier assignments (the pros usually take the really hot stories).
Perhaps being owned by a larger entity can provide some of that prestige and stability so that student editors can focus on doing good journalism. Furthermore, there would be a professional infrastructure for providing things like national advertising, information technology and even a network of professionals for guidance.

But corporate ownership could also diminish the independent voice of student journalists, which often gets them in trouble with student groups and school officials. Will Gannett be willing to stomach the fallout when a paper does something highly controversial like, say, publish the “f-word” in a cartoon? An incident like that would certainly trickle up to affect the corporate parent’s good name.

During the protests and boycotts resulting from the Alligator cartoon, much of the campus called for the heads of the paper’s editors. For better or worst, they kept their jobs and learned many a lesson in having to deal with readers’ adversarial sentiments.

A corporation would likely have dropped the axe.