Hey journalists — here’s why you should learn to make the internets

by Andy Boyle.

In case you didn’t know, many news organizations are looking to hire web developers to help create awesome stuff online. And as this list of 19 job openings might imply, news organizations are having a difficult time trying to find people to fill these gigs.

One of the reasons for this difficulty, I believe, is because journalism students are not learning the necessary skills during their college years and internships to meet the minimum requirements of these jobs. Now, I’m not going to blame the schools in this area entirely, as most of the news developers I know are either mostly self-taught or had only a little encouragement from their institution of higher education.

So this is an issue, methinks, of students probably wanting to get more traditional journalistic jobs, from reporter to copy editor to photographer to page designer to whatever. Your standard bread and butter gigs, the ones that are needed to put out that daily (or weekly) piece of paper with ink. That’s great, and at one point in my life that’s all I wanted more than anything.

When I first got into journalism, I decided I was either going to be the next Chuck Klosterman or Bob Woodward. This made sense until I realized that most journalism students were also attempting to head down a similar — or more traditional — journalistic career path. Combine that with The Great Journalism Job Repression of the late 2000s, and you had a lot of people — some of them experts in their field — looking for the same kinds of jobs.

Because my land-grant institution required me to take a few economic classes, I understand how price and demand works. You have a lot of one thing (journalistic talent) and a lowered demand. This means lower prices (salaries) and a lot of unsold goods (unemployment).

I respond to incentives, just like everyone else. Post-graduation employment was a big incentive. So I made a conscious decision to find something in the market that was a scarcity. First it was computer-assisted reporting, because not many people had these skills and I thought it’d set me apart. Then it turned into web development, a field fewer were involved in.

Before I explain the economic incentives more, let me give you some of my back story. I spent my final few years of college focusing on online-oriented journalism, from shooting and editing video and audio to learning most of the basic content management systems. Then I graduated, was hired full-time during an internship at the St. Petersburg Times and was put to work covering the early morning cops shift.

So how and why did I go from a reporter who knocks on doors after murders and shootings to someone who sets up servers and works with databases? For one thing, covering the cops beat is emotionally draining, which is a topic I will focus on in a later essay. But another part is that my background in computer-assisted reporting pushed me to find new ways to present my normally word-focused stories online.

And let’s not deny a major component of my jumping to web development: My ego. Like always, I wanted to do what the cool kids were doing. And at the St. Pete Times, some of the cool people were building PolitiFact, MugShots, HomeTeam and the like. So I started helping out when I could, pitched a few ideas and occasionally got time away from cops reporting and general assignment work to build a few projects.

From there I learned how to program a basic project in Django, which means setting up the databases, making the project talk to a server and then spitting out data on a page. Others would help with the design-side of the projects — I just made the damn things work. Then at a later job with The New York Times Regional Media Group, I got to understand more about the project management aspects of web-oriented work, including dealing with multiple stakeholders, doing quality assurance tests and designing projects according to specifications.

But most importantly, this work was still interesting. Instead of interviewing folks and finding new sources, I was discovering new technologies, finding tools that let me do what words couldn’t. The news application community is also very active on the internet, especially Twitter, quick to answer questions you may have. Some have been more than willing to double-check my code and offer suggestions. Similar groups exist in traditional journalism, of course, but I’ve always liked how the web development community focuses on education and training of one another.

Oh, and let’s not forget that the copy desk has yet to call me at 10:30 p.m. since I moved to web development.

Now, I know this probably isn’t much of an incentive to you, oh youthful journalism students of the world. You’re employed, Andy. Neato. Way to go, etc. But I thought I’d talk about something that you don’t really hear about during your schooling: Salaries.

Let me start off by saying that money isn’t everything, folks. But when you graduate you’ll quickly discover how expensive the real world is. So let’s do some basic math about your expenses. These are the expenses a friend of mine who works at a smaller-sized metro daily pays a month This person has two years of experience. Anything in bold I added or edited:


I split a $900 rent payment with (significant other) every month, and that includes some utilities. We split $80 for cable/Interwebz. Car payment is like $260. Credit card is $200. Electricity is about $35-$40 (split two ways, so $18-$20).  Then there’s groceries (about $100-$150 a month), split two ways. And maybe $100 on gas. And cell phone is $65, car insurance is $80. And I make $900-$930 every two weeks (after taxes and other deductions). Woo.

So, that’s about $1,300ish in monthly expenses on top of $1800ish or so a month. Remember, this doesn’t include other life expenses, such as getting dinner on occasion, going to the bar (as many journalists are want to do) or fixing your car’s transmission if it fails. Or doing anything fun that costs money. Obviously this would make it hard to save up to put a down payment on a new car or house. As my friend says: “Basically, I’m kind of poor, but I’m pretty pleased…theoretically I should be able to save at least $3,000 a year. Not happening.”

Compare that to another friend who does web development in a much more expensive metro area at a much larger news organization. This friend says: “I make between 70-80gs, with 2 years experience. Reporters with the same experience (at my office), make around 50-55.”

Again, this friend lives in a much more expensive city than the previous friend, with the cost of living being about 41 percent higher. But the second friend also chose to take a less traditional path, one that has fewer people with these skills. And as that list of 19 job openings that have yet to be filled indicates, it’s hard to fill these positions. Why? Because not many have the skills to fill them.

So, in summary, journalism folks: It is in your economic interests to learn how to make the internets. Sure, being in one of the traditional roles is pretty neat. Those traditional roles are what fund about 85-90 percent of the profits of most daily newspapers, so they’re what generally fund the salaries of the webby folk.

Journalism is a business, first and foremost. Sure, it’s also a calling. But if we can’t pay for the dedicated women and men who do this important work, then the important work won’t get done. So we’re trying to come up with new revenue streams online so we can start to make enough money to pay for everyone. Even though your career may not go where you originally intended, your work on the news organization’s web site may help fund journalism. Isn’t that important?

I think it is. So take the plunge. Come up with a web project and build it. Go through my Django tutorials. Just do something. You won’t regret it.