Knight Blog

The blog of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation

Four steps to learn the web through coding

Feb. 1, 2013, 10:59 a.m., Posted by Jenna Buehler

Journalists who don’t make the transition to become digital strategists won’t last in the field, Miranda Mulligan told a group of storytellers, web designers and journalists gathered at the University of Miami’s School of Communications.

Mulligan, now the executive director of Northwestern University's Knight Lab, returned to her alma mater this week to offer advice to students about how to work in media: “This is a competitive tech-driven field and right now technologists are beating us at our own game.”

She went on to offer strong encouragement to students who plan to study both journalism and computer science. For them, Mulligan says, the last year of college is like entering a draft in baseball: news organizations are scoping out all the talent and combo journalists/technologists will be hired before they graduate.

She offers these steps for journalists - or anyone - to learn to code:

Step 1: Get Started

Trying to learn programming online can be like going down a rabbit hole. The best way to dip your toes in is to start with basic code, invent your own problems and then fix them. Online sites like Rails for Zombies,  JavaScript for Cats and Mozilla’s Thimble (a Foursquare for webmaking) can serve as a great resource for learning.

A couple in Brooklyn - Jessica Hische and Russ Maschmeyer - also launched a site called ‘don’t fear the internet.’ It’s a good way to get going. They have a series of videos that show how the Internet, browsers, etc. work plus resources for learning web design.

Step 2: Start Tinkering

The quickest way to understand the web is to create the web. Spin up a Tumblr or a Wordpress site and just start playing with the page design.

Mulligan believes in autonomy when it comes to learning web making: “You learn the most when you’re teaching yourself how to do it, then use the classroom to ask questions. Nothing is more effective than throwing on some jam into your headphones and doing some tutorials.”

Step 3: Get Inspired

Start following journalists whom you consider technologists on Twitter. Search for news organizations that you think ‘get it.’ They’ll offer insights into an ever-shifting field.

Step 4: Get Ready to Adapt

Be open minded about your skill sets and know that you’re entering a career where the learning never stops.

“I’m 33-years-old and I get bored quickly,” Mulligan said. “I’m not lazy. Ever. I have this weird fear of being lazy. That’s why I started with a degree in photojournalism because I’ve always been visual, but I also found out that I could learn software quickly. I learned that I could pick up a tutorial book and understand the basics of Quark, Photoshop and (I’m showing my age here) Flash software.”

Ultimately, no one knows what the storytelling landscape will be, she said. “Graduates should learn how to learn quickly and adapt, to take initiative and never get bored. Then, you’ll always be employable.”

By Jenna Buehler, executive assistant/communications at Knight Foundation