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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.

20 comments on ‘Hey journalists — here’s why you should learn to make the internets’

  1. Heidi says:

    There are a lot of tutorials to help you teach yourself the skills necessary to be a news web developer – but I do think that j-schools can be blamed a little bit. I wanted to minor in computer science, for instance, to give me the basics of programming logic while my full-time job was learning, but at my university, your journalism degree had to be coupled with a minor from the college of arts and science. Computer science is in the college of engineering (?!).

    It’s a little frustrating to have to learn on the job or in your free time instead of having the ability to use college for what it’s actually meant for.

  2. Krista says:

    I loved hearing your story, Andy! Well, I may not have learned internet programmning, but I ran into the same journalism job market slump as you did. I ended up getting a push into PR that has led to a nice little career in higher education communications, which involves a lot of my J-School education, but not what I was formally trained on back in the day.

    I think there is a lack of practical education in J-Schools, like other options when there aren’t as many reporter/editors jobs out there. Your recommendation to explore the other means of supporting the journalism profession is a great start. It’s a hard reality check for many a J-School graduate when met with the cold hard reality of the changing job landscape.

  3. Andy Boyle says:

    Part of the issue is inherent in how institutions of higher education work. When I switched to journalism in the summer of 2006 from being a music major, the big focus was video video video. This, of course, was a reaction to the push for video a few years prior. But still, it takes awhile before academia catches up to real world practice.

    From what little understanding I have, part of that comes from the very studied nature of education. You don’t want to jump into teaching something half-cocked, so usually research needs to be done to prove that this New Thing is in fact a New Thing Worth Teaching Everyone.

    And to get a new curriculum approved takes time. It needs to be approved by committees made up of faculty and whatnot, some of whom may be very, very resistant to change. Therefore, getting new curriculum (in any field) takes awhile. With the case of ever-evolving journalism — and the ever-evolving tech community around it — if it takes even six months to approve a new curriculum you’re already behind.

    That’s just how academia works. Most journalism schools will teach you the skills I still find important: basic reporting and writing, editing, some design and perhaps photography/videography. I would be nowhere near the developer I am if I didn’t have a firm understanding of the traditional journalistic practices.

    How am I expected to help someone in the newsroom do their job better if I don’t know how their job works in the first place?

    So, I’m not going to blame the journalism schools. They get maybe 10-15 percent of the blame. Most of it lies with the students, who will have to put in their own time and their own hours to learn these skills. Part of this has to deal with many students lacking the ability to teach themselves, which I will save for another blog post. If you never learned how to learn — which is what college taught me more than anything — then you won’t be able to teach yourself.

    And yes, it is frustrating to have to learn on your free time while also working at a full-time job. But it’s the only way to stay relevant in your field, regardless if it was journalism.

  4. DF says:

    Very pragmatic and informative post. I have a question you’re well qualified to answer. As a former journalist now back in school trying to get my digital bona fides, I’m trying very hard to discern what the essentially technologies are to learn to be successful in the job market. I’m talking the bottom line, technical skills. Lots of design theory is being taught with the assumption students can just learn the rest on their own.

    The problem with this is twofold: it’s impossible to tackle any projects without technical skills. Not knowing the prime technical skills also limits your creativity as if you don’t know how to build something or what tools are required, you don’t know what’s actually capable and you also don’t want to overreach.

    Secondly, training right-brained individuals – of which a great many journalists are – for the drastically different world of programming requires more than just theory. Basic technical training is essential. Learning resources are plentiful online, but perhaps too plentiful. Tons of tutorials with little navigation or context.

    I see you have Django tutorials that appear to walk a newbie through a project which I applaud.

    Nonetheless, a basic list of the essential skills required and what type of examples would be good to showcase along with any other advice – to a potential employer would be most welcome.

    Thanks.

  5. Megan Taylor says:

    I actually got into the web dev side of journalism thanks to Dave Carlson and Mindy McAdams. I didn’t really like reporting, but I was in love with the mission of journalism and I had always been a computer geek.
    I remember being surrounded by people who thought they were going to be the next Hunter S. Thompson, teachers to whom all this online stuff was just a fad. Staff at the student paper who were too afraid to experiment. If that is still the situation in j-schools, those students are doomed.
    I really have little sympathy for people who complain about their schools not providing certain classes. In the age of the Internets, all you need is a question and a search bar. And Twitter.
    While UF didn’t offer a whole lot in terms of CAR, I took the public records class and then did an independent study to learn some CAR stuff. Also taught myself AS3 back when that was cool. Working on Python/Django now. Will learn the next cool thing I can use to pay the bills when that comes along.

  6. Andy Boyle says:

    @DF — My next blog post, which I plan to write tonight, will answer just that question about what I perceive as the required skills to do basic web development in a journalistic environment. Part of the problem is with traditional journalism, you sort of needed to be good at X, Y or Z. But with web development, you need to know the basics of X, Y and Z, not to forget A, D, F and J.

    I’ll get the post written tonight.

  7. Megan Taylor says:

    Speaking of your tuts, Andy, when are you gonna write the last couple of posts?

  8. Andy Boyle says:

    Blah blah blah :)

    I will try and get the final posts written ASAP on using Varnish and the basic “here’s how you add stuff inside the admin.” They will come. Maybe this week?

  9. Kaeti says:

    I agree with this — take the plunge, let go of the ideal career path you may be clinging to and be open to explore web dev.

    I would also add: It’s OK if you’re not a programmer. Some people don’t have the mind for it (comments allude to this above), and rather than grinding your gears trying to do something you don’t have an aptitude for, why not focus on what you can be really damn good at? But as Andy said, there’s gonna be a lot more competition for those traditional journalism jobs — so you better be DAMN good.

    The economics are as such because web development is specialized, it can be difficult and it requires a high level of skill. It’s in demand, and the jobs are hard to fill, in part because there aren’t that many *excellent* programmers interested in working for low-paying news orgs. So is the solution to try to compel non-programming-brained journalists into a mold that doesn’t quite fit them [It will fit some! Those people are awesome and not ubiquitous] or do we need to start paying skilled programmers something that compares to that sweet, sweet Google money?

    Yes, both. And there are as many variations of what a journo-developer is and does as there are people trying to do it.

  10. Matt Dempsey says:

    YES! Andy is dead on. If you’re a college student studying journalism, this is what you should be doing. Get into data acquisition and analysis. Learn how to do some web development. Learn how to do some nifty data visualizations.

    This doesn’t just help your for journalism jobs. My wife was looking at listings. Apparently I could make twice as much doing something similar to my current job for the government. I don’t want to do that but if you ended up getting laid off, that would be a good thing, no?

  11. Jordon Cloud says:

    This is why I am studying journalism with an emphasis in public relations! Great post.

  12. shanmcf says:

    I’m always looking for new things to learn… You’ve given me a couple good ideas here. Thanks!

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  18. journalismrocks says:

    I just graduated from UF with a bachelor’s in journalism. I’m hoping to report but I’m worried bc I have virtually no experience in video. Soo I’m planning to get a master’s in multimedia development at USF. It’s a two-year program and will essentially teach me everything from digital video to flash to interactive media to web programming and more. As far as the future of journalism goes, would you say this would be a good path for me to take as opposed to going to a community college and getting a certificate in digital media production, which would teach me just video and editing?

  19. Andy Boyle says:

    Honestly, I wouldn’t tell anyone to get their masters degree. I have some experience in video, but you’ll find that most shops are looking for just basic videography knowledge. The type of skills you would learn with a two-year master program may be beyond what you want to learn. Sure, you’ll be awesome (perhaps), but you may be paying a lot of money for something you can learn with a good internship/job.

    I’d suggest saving your money and going out into the real world. Or get a masters degree in a subject that isn’t journalism. Or go buy a video camera and look up how to shoot video online and start doing it.

  20. [...]  Many news organizations are looking to hire web developers, as pointed out by Andy Boyle on his blog.  Journalism schools probably aren’t teaching this skills, but most developers are self-taught [...]

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