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To Code, or Not to Code?

If your job involves a keyboard, a mouse and some kind of online engagement, you’ve probably had someone say, “You should really learn to code.” For most of us, the idea of coding conjures lines upon lines of unintelligible script, chock-full of brackets and parentheses and other symbols you never noticed were right at your fingertips. And you wouldn’t be wrong. Coding can be intimidating – it is, after all, a language of its own – but its applications in today’s job market are undeniably vast.

But does this mean you should scramble on over to Codecademy and start typing away? Well, that depends. Different jobs call for different skill sets, and while coding can open doors for many, some will tell you not to bother.

If your vocation is journalism, PR, or any other media-centric industry, odds are you’ve checked out Codecademy or a comparable service to see what the fuss is about. If you haven’t, it’s probably on your to-do list. Among journalists, the relevance of coding to their profession has become popular fodder for discussion.

Projects like For Journalism, a start-up lead by code whiz Dave Stanton, endeavor to teach nascent and mid-level journalists the basics of various coding languages. For Journalism features screencasts, code repositories and lesson guides that help journalists develop their own unique tools, like searchable interfaces that can be reused for multiple stories.

Budding journalists like Melanie Stone see much promise in this trend. Stone, a journalism student at DePaul University and a contributor at PBS Mediashift, hopes a little elementary coding will go a long way.

“Journalists who can code become infinitely more useful in a newsroom,” she said. “Think about a news apps team – they’re responsible for figuring out how to tell a story by way of graphs, maps and visuals. With a background in journalism, you bring so many important skills to that kind of team.”

She also sees coding as a way for aspiring journalists to adapt to a contracting industry, supplement their income and diversify their resume.

“Lots of journalism students – myself included – are worried about finding a solid, paid job after graduation,” she said. “A programming background could make that hunt a little less painful.”

Other journalists are less convinced. Olga Khazan, an associate editor at The Atlantic, thinks coding isn’t merely a supplementary skill to journalism; to some degree, she sees it as an alternative.

“I think professors and to some extent editors are realizing that there are fewer reporting jobs and increasingly more data-reporting and data-viz jobs out there, so it might make sense to re-tool your skill set if you want to stay in journalism for a long time and you’re young,” she said. “Just to keep in mind that after you adapt and position yourself as a coder, it might be harder to transition back to full-time writing.”

In an October 2013 article for The Atlantic, Khazan commented on the limitations of journalists – or anyone, for that matter – who casually try to learn code as an ancillary resume booster. “There are already a ton of skilled coders out there,” she wrote. “If you’re only starting to tinker with computer code in the later stages of college, or even worse, grad school, you are behind. Real web design and data visualization jobs require people who have computer science degrees, design backgrounds, and/or portfolios of projects that aren’t embarrassing.”

Khazan goes on to say that if journalists really want to broaden their opportunities and become more competitive job candidates, they ought to focus on their writing instead.

She certainly has a point, but it’s hard to fault anyone for wanting to learn something new. And for those engaged in online media, knowing the back-end of things could provide some useful context, even if novice-at-best coding skills prohibit any real career gains. So if you want to give it a try, you might as well. After all, if Bill Gates, Will.i.am and Mark Zuckerberg think it’s cool, you could too.

[Photo credit: Sebastian Fuss via Flickr]

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