Thursday, January 22, 2009

What does it take to be a multimedia journalist?

(Illustration: Steve Garfield)

I've had this discussion with a few people who currently practice in the general area that is "multimedia journalism." At the highest echelon, are you more journalist or programmer?

The New York Times' multimedia team explains in the latest Ask the Newsroom:

Aron Philofer:

As for learning these skills, there's some disagreement among those on my team with formal computer science backgrounds on whether taking computer science classes is worthwhile. Some say college courses are often too theoretical, but others believe that even the theory provides a solid foundation for problem solving. I wouldn't know because, like several other members of my team, I'm entirely self-taught. So I'm living proof that it's possible to learn enough to write a few production Web applications, manage a development team and not crash (yet).

Gabriel Dance:

What I see far too often in journalism schools, and I feel is a mistake, is the idea that somebody can just learn computer programming in a semester or two. Developing interactives and projects on the Internet requires a love of computers and a deep interest in technology. Most of the time, people develop these skills on their own, or pursue a technology-related career. If you really feel that you want to be a journalist-programmer, I encourage you to take some courses in the computer science department. It will give you the foundation that you just can't get by taking a couple of Flash courses.

Steve Duenes:

The journalist portion of the journalist/programmer combination shouldn't be neglected. We've had a number of strong technological performers pass through our department, and some of them had difficulty knowing which information to pursue or how to pursue it efficiently. Some had interesting ideas, but they weren't able to fully articulate what they wanted to do, and as a consequence, they were frustrated when we had to make decisions about which graphics to go after.I'm not saying that a master's degree in journalism is the thing to do. It might be. But the important thing is to find an environment where you'll be pushed and where you can grow. If you're surrounded by a few people with good experience and if your internship or job requires you to behave like a journalist, that's good.

From my experience -- self-taught but not extensively so, thus better than the average new media graduate but poorer than the average programmer -- a journalism grad with new media experience is no longer the desired employee for the leading online publications (like the Times). More often, it is the programmer who took a few journalism courses, rather than the other way around.

The good news is that means the bar is much higher now, ever rising, and stories can and will be told with such depth and nuance thanks to a team that has mastered the tools needed to express them.

The bad news is that a new media journalism graduate who wants to work in multimedia won't be able to at the highest levels without some serious coding expertise under his or her belt. In other words: perhaps a master's degree in computer science will do you more good than one in journalism.


Courtney Reimer said...

As someone with an Ivy-League J-school degree under her belt who went through the rigamarole of six interviews, one 1.5-hour test and a many-hour tryout for a gig at, I can heartily confirm your hypothesis: computer skillz are more valued than journo skillz.

The more pressing problem, though: all too often (and with increasing frequency), these places are trying to cram together two jobs that really should be separate and discrete. Journos shouldn't necessarily know Flash and code, and coders shouldn't necessarily know who is in charge of Pakistan right now.

The Editorialiste said...


Bingo -- you and I were in the same boat, and discovered the same thing. I remember at the time that they were saddened by the fact that "new media" students expected to work there...that there was that disconnect between the theoretical and the reality of who they hire.

(Surely this reality can be more publicized?)

The job/role cramming, particularly now with the economic downturn, is rampant. But I wonder -- is it better to have the assembly-line method of lots of people knowing individual skills or a few people knowing all?

Perhaps for a breaking news organization as large as the Times, the assembly line approach works best. But I don't know.

Thanks for reading,
The Ed.

Christy Brewer said...

Ms. Reimer, that's an awesome summary. I've more than 15 years on the marketing side, and studied just a teeny bit of journalism while pursuing a PR degree. I was *so* impressed with the discernment skills of an experienced editor. And that's a totally different skill set from programming.

I loved working as a "reporter" (more like researcher/writer) and communicating my graphic needs to a talented designer. She took my words and turned them into images like no one else. And, yet, she appreciated the research and text that I could provide to get her to that point of visualizing the graphic.

Sometimes two minds are greater than one.

Mark S. Luckie said...

I agree with Courtney. The problem is computer programming and journalism are two completely different skill sets that require two different ways of thinking. A person who truly excels at both is a rare find. The fact that media orgs require both skill sets in new hires is like trying to buy microscopes and laundry detergent at the same store.

Anonymous said...

Not to deviate from the post, but how 'bout an attribution on that hotlinked Flickr image? It's just common courtesy, and what the Creative Commons license requests.

The Editorialiste said...


It's been fixed. Thanks for your help!

The Ed.

On the Money said...

Coding isn't difficult if you ask your web designer. Once the code for one item is in your domain space ... just copy, alter and paste ... Practice makes it all easy ...

Web Designing Pakistan said...

I agree with the last one, journalists can solve there problems by finding the tutorials regarding programing and designing as per desire,

Findings and interpretation is impressive..
good work

computer programming said...

I agree with you Mark. The person with a quality of both is rare finding!!

computer networking training said...

It is so interesting to see the redirection of journalism.The new era of journalism is exciting, there is endless opportunities, and journalists shouldn't be negative about the new change.