The Future of Content is Code

For a window into the future of content, look no further than the industry that creates more content than any other — journalism. The emerging opportunities in journalism lie in programming, not writing, as can be seen from the number of job postings.

User demand is for apps, in addition to stories, videos, infographics and slideshows. Who are these journo-programmers, and what can they tell us about staying relevant in the content industry?

Greg Linch is one of them. He wanted to learn code but grew fascinated by the theories and concepts behind programming. He recently took at new position at The Washington Post as Special Projects and News Apps producer, which allows his work to cross disciplines — he’ll do programming himself but also work with an array of web developers and news producers.

From fashion to news gathering, every industry has tasks that are repetitive or done manually, and Linch’s projects aim to partially or wholly eliminate these. But in the hybrid role, he explains, the conceptual understanding of programming is most important.

“The idea of what’s possible and the theoretical are really the most essential,” Linch said. “Even if you can’t code it will help you communicate what you are building.”

Educators are aware of these demands in the news field and are modifying courses to implement these new skills.

“The trick is to layer in these new technologies and disciplines into our curricula,” Adam Penenberg, journalism professor at NYU, explained in an email, “without taking away from the core skills we must teach — research, writing, interviewing and ethics.”

Penenberg sees more and more opportunities for people who can do basic coding or develop apps, along with social media, and that the goal is not necessarily being able to build something from scratch, but to effectively use programs like Storify, Quora and Twitter for journalistic purposes.

“Coding is as much a mindset as it is a skill,” Penenberg notes.

The idea that learning to code could somehow detract from investigative skills is simply false, says Matt Waite, journalism professor at University of Nebraska-Lincoln, a pioneer of the journalism-programming movement.

Waite built Politifact, the first website to win a Pulitzer, and teaches both digital project management and investigative journalism classes.

The hybrid role brings a bridge to the “useless and counterproductive divide” between journalists and software developers. Waite said that all too often, “nobody is able to articulate what it is they want so somebody can build it.”

And worse, without understanding the basics of what code is capable of, journalists may not know what to ask for. The ability to think in different kinds of structures will produce a different kind of narrative, not just the traditional inverted pyramid.

“Journalism in the future will require working with fundamental building blocks of the web, back end and user interface,” Waite says.

The goal is to make things people want and to interact with people’s wants and needs.

Journalism, and content strategy, are interdisciplinary fields, which means solutions can be borrowed from other fields.

Linch says he continues to define himself by what he produces — journalism — rather than the tools he uses. Code is just one of many tools in his arsenal.

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