Web design programs such as Macromedia’s Dreamweaver have long eliminated the need for online journalism students to learn Hypertext Markup Language (HTML), the code that drives Web pages. But journalism educators should not dismiss HTML and other Web markup languages without thought. Requiring students to learn HTML and its descendants provides educators an opportunity to teach and reinforce many important journalism principles.
What on Earth can students learn about journalism from memorizing HTML tags? Perhaps the idea sounds absurd at first. But students of HTML develop the ability to understand a technical language while developing a respect for precise writing — two skills any journalist needs. Coding HTML need not be about just showing off one’s geek IQ.
The University of Southern California’s Annenberg School of Journalism, where I teach and which publishes OJR, requires its students to take a three-semester core curriculum composed of courses on newswriting, reporting and editing and design. Each semester, a student takes three courses, one focused on print and the others on broadcast and online journalism. Most instructors of USC’s online editing and design courses rely on Dreamweaver for Web page production in their classes, as do most other online instructors I’ve met at industry conferences and in online discussions.
Instead, my students create their Web pages by hardcoding HTML and style sheets using nothing more than a basic text editor like Notepad. Yes, it’s difficult. Creating Web sites takes more time without Dreamweaver, and students often get frustrated when a single keystroke renders their work unintelligible.
But the extra effort earns rewards.
Learning HTML provides emerging journalists with an opportunity to overcome any fear of technical jargon. Competent reporting in today’s society demands more than chatting up folks at the neighborhood coffee shop — or ringing up local officials for some quotes. It demands reporters who are able to understand a potentially numbing variety of data, studies and documents, written by individuals who communicate in professional jargon that often reads nothing like the plain English tough editors demand. A reporter who surrenders when confronted with such technical detail is an easy mark for smooth-talking publicists looking to spin a story.
Journalists ought to strive for simplicity in their writing, not in their reporting. Too often, reporters get that backward. They look first for a glib quote to wrap up difficult information, rather than diving into that information themselves, enabling them to ask informed questions and to challenge assertions unsupported by evidence.
Learning HTML forces students to develop a personal methodology for learning a new technical language. And once an emerging reporter has learned to parse a few manual hyperlinks, maybe the mumbo-jumbo of a government budget won’t seem so intimidating anymore.
My class laughed as one student last semester described her mnemonics for various HTML tags. But they worked. And soon, students were comparing their own methods for finding the logic behind the language. The generation now attending undergraduate classes grew up with personal computers, and many of these students are curious about how these things work. So they’re happy to find out why Web addresses start with “http://”. And what all those slashes in a Web address mean.
Good reporters do not accept “well, that’s just the way it is” as an answer. They want to know why. Most university students spend hours every day online. Helping journalism students understand the meaning of “all that stuff” in their Web browsers emboldens them to get a little more curious about the “other stuff” they’ve been taking for granted in their lives offline.
Learning HTML also reinforces the importance of precise writing. Blow a backslash or put a quote mark in the wrong place and your Web page doesn’t work correctly. An “F” on a newswriting assignment for a misspelled name delivers a necessary negative lesson in the importance of getting every keystroke correct. But a student who sees his Web page suddenly render correctly by adding a needed semicolon to his style sheet learns that same lesson in a positive manner. The “a ha!” moment as the student’s face brightens and the virtual light bulb goes off over his head provides a nice reward for the teacher, too. Another obsessive-compulsive reporter is born!
Learning how to code style sheets and to define classes of type on a Web page also teaches students to see content divorced from its presentation — a key concept for anyone who wants to take advantage of the ability to republish content across multiple media. Using a Web editing class to reinforce lessons about writing and reporting and design also promotes the concept behind USC’s core curriculum — that journalism skills transcend various media and that tomorrow’s journalists must learn to apply those skills in any medium in which they work.
Finally, learning how to hardcode HTML provides an immediate, practical benefit for students entering a field with few new jobs and lousy entry-level pay. By knowing how to create a Web page with a simple text editor, students can publish their own custom Web pages without having to buy expensive software. That’s important for students about to graduate into a tough job market, many with expensive student loans to pay back. The ability to publish a Web page allows those students the chance to keep reporting for an audience, even if they do not immediately get a newsroom job. That keeps their chops up, their bylines fresh and engages them in a publishing community where they will be better able to make the connections they will need to eventually land a job. And to do so with a Web presence more impressive than an off-the-shelf blog.
An emphasis on learning HTML will not be appropriate in every class. Experienced, mid-career journalists publishing their first Web pages don’t need to learn another lesson about accurate reporting or precise writing. They just need a way to create a smart design and get it online fast. Neither should an online journalism class rely solely on building HTML skills. Students need also to learn how to envision a clean graphical design, how to identify reputable sources online, how to write for the Web and even how to manage user-supplied content. Nor should an instructor unfamiliar with HTML try to teach it to his or her students. Nothing destroys a class faster than students realizing the instructor doesn’t have a clue.
But if a class of undergraduates can figure it out in a semester, as mine did, surely a few journalism instructors can develop mark-up skills, too. Plenty of help awaits online, including Dave Raggett’s excellent tutorials on basic and advanced HTML, as well as style sheets.
Instructors teaching computer-savvy undergraduates can reinforce some important journalism concepts by asking their students to dive into the complexity of HTML. Yes, some students will find it hard. That’s what makes learning it so valuable. Don’t be afraid to give it a try.