Stop Whining! Lisa Williams on Journalists Learning to Code

5 years ago

Amy Gahran, Contentious

Why should journalists and other news/media professionals learn to code? More importantly: HOW can they learn to code?

Last week my good friend, mentor, and fellow ass-kicker Lisa Williams (founder of gave a great presentation on this theme at TEDXPoynter, a one-day event at the Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg, FL. I watched the livestream, and I'm sure Poynter will post the video online later. (I'll embed that when it's up.)

Lisa Williams is not a magical unicorn

Lisa is a media professional who took the initiative to learn how to code -- in part so that she wouldn't be totally dependent on other people to realize her ideas, and also because "Corruption sucks!" Having basic coding skills gives you the power to visualize data and create other resources which make it harder for the powers that be to claim that the problems you're spotlighting are mere "isolated incidents."

(More from Lisa about this and other reasons why media pros (or anyone) should learn to code: Code to make a point; code to make change; on newshacking. Plus her learn to code resources guide.)

Journalist Workshop Mingle by worldwaterweek via Flickr

Lisa observed that when she talks to journalists about learning to code, they often ask her, "But isn't storytelling important? Do we really have to learn how to code?"

Her response: Stop whining!

I'm totally with Lisa on this. Which is why this summer, after I move back to Boulder, CO, I'll be devoting regular time most days to learn how to code. And you can do it, too...

My personal focus will be on building simple mobile-friendly web apps and data visualizations. This will mostly be self-guided, but I'll have some mentoring. I'm picking a project and will learn as I build it. And I will hang with the coders at Boulder's Dojo4 -- a software development shop and hacker community nexus run by my friend and colleague Justin Crawford. So I'll be an "apprentice geek." (We're still figuring out exactly what that means...)

...Anyway, Lisa mentioned how she taught herself to code well enough (in one hour per day, for eight weeks) to build simple CRUD apps (Create, Read, Update, Delete). Her first: Patchbucks -- a map populated with data showing that no reporter is more than 5 miles from a Starbucks.

Way cool. Yeah, that's the thing. Coding can be a hell of a lot of fun. Do projects that make you laugh, first.

If you want to learn how Lisa taught herself to code, and how she's still learning and exploring and experimenting with coding, check out her Life and Code blog.

Also, two years ago Lisa gave an excellent presentation at the Knight Digital Media Center@USC on how local news entrepreneurs can learn enough about how web technology works to manage their websites better and make better decisions for their sites. Because, frankly, a lot of hyperlocal news sites and other digital news startups are created by people who know a lot about journalism but almost nothing about technology.

I interviewed Lisa and expanded that talk into a 4-part series on KDMC: Teach Yourself Web Basics.

In it she laid out a one-year self-study plan on web technology which can benefit any web publisher. She recommended devoting just four hours per month to an area of focus for each month, and try to accomplish some basic tasks and try some exercises.

Here's the outline. I recommend checking it out and trying it:

Part 1

  • Month 1: DNS (domain name system)
  • Month 2: FTP (file transfer protocol)
  • Month 3: The stack

Part 2

  • Month 4: UNIX file commands
  • Month 5: Web server software
  • Month 6: Databases

Part 3

  • Month 7: Customizing your site with modules and plugins
  • Month 8: Cascading stylesheets (CSS)
  • Month 9: Basic programming in the language your site uses

Part 4

  • Month 10: Write a site plan
  • Month 11: Backup and recovery
  • Month 12: User interface (UI) patterns

...Oh, and throughout this process (or learning other kinds of coding): STOP WHINING! Just loosen up and learn to have fun with technology. Being a beginner is really cool, once you get over yourself.

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