Debate over journalism's required skills gets heated

Thanksgiving is traditionally the time distant family members come together over a delicious meal… and, well, fight. Last week a fight (okay, more like a heated debate) broke out over what skills a modern day journalist needs to have.

It began with a post from Mark S. Luckie, The Washington Post‘s National Innovations Editor, founder of and author of The Digital Journalist’s Handbook.

His 5 Myths about digital journalism sparked a flurry of reactions, most notably from Andy Boyle, digital developer with The New York Times Regional Media Group, Anthony DeBarros, senior database editor at USA TODAY and Aron Pilhofer, editor of Interactive News at The New York Times and co-founder of

If you don’t know these names, you should. They are some of the most innovative minds in the industry … and I happen to respectfully disagree with all of them.

Well, sort of.

To be honest, I think there is more of a misunderstanding rather than a disagreement here.

Before I go on, let’s address a question that may have popped into someone’s mind: Who the hell am I to weigh in on this debate?

I’ve been a Web journalist for more than a decade and, prior to coming to USC Annenberg, I was the director of development for where I led a team of engineers and designers. We developed and innovated projects for the site ranging from a taxonomy to geolocation to a custom commenting system to hijacking/hacking the print publishing system to data-driven special projects.

So, allow me to set up the framework from my point of view.

The skills that make up a successful, modern newsroom are as diverse as the communities it tries to cover and serve.

There are some traditional, fundamental skills that are still the unifying foundation, but there is also a new (really, not that new but not yet standard) set of skills each journo needs to have.

And let’s just say it: because our industry has been evolving/changing/etc., there are a lot of unknowns (and fears) about what that set of skills is to be a successful, modern journo.

Of course there is no shortage of opinions, including my own, trying to address those unknowns. But also among them are, well, some opinions spreading hype and bad information.

To be clear, the guys I mentioned above are not the problem.

Not even close.

Who I am referring to (and who I believe Mark was too) are the folks that are telling reporters – all reporters – that they need to stop the craft of writing an engaging story and replace it with the craft of writing innovative code.

They have also said things like photography is dead and copyediting is expendable, but that’s for another post… let’s focus on programming.

Their message essentially is if you don’t master programming skills to create an app or database, you don’t have a future in journalism.

And again, to be clear, the guys I mentioned above do not agree with that statement, at least based on what I’ve seen of their writings and work.

But that hype and bad information I described does exist. It has for years.

I can’t tell you how many times a panicked mid-career journalist or an aspiring student has freaked out asking me for advice on whether or not they need to be a developer/programmer or database engineer or Flash developer (three different jobs that share some similarities).

So cut to the chase Hernandez… what’s your take on the required skills to be a journalist today?

I do not believe you need to master programming to succeed in journalism.

I do believe you need to respect and understand the power of each and every craft, not just programming, but photography, design, texts, etc. that make up journalism. They are not as simple as hitting a button.

I also believe, at the most minimum, EVERY JOURNALIST (whether be it reporter, editor, photographer, etc.) of EVERY BEAT needs to be proactive in spotting opportunities to best use the diverse crafts.

I believe that, in terms of the data-journalism, EVERY REPORTER needs to know the basics of Excel and be able to function inside a database to find the story. But they do not need to build a database from scratch.

But the reality is, depending on the size of your shop, you may be required to wear multiple hats that can touch on programming, photography, social media, etc. The good news is that there are tools and communities out there to help you, including database related ones.

NOTE TO PUBLISHER/EDITOR: Please realize that you need engineers/developers in your shop. You probably need twice as many as you currently have. Don’t take this post as buzz or get it twisted thinking you shouldn’t hire more. You should. And you should also invest in training your entire newsroom in a variety of skills ranging from programming to photography to social media.

I do not believe programming replaces a story. Never has, never will. When was the last time you had a driveway moment with a database?

But, also, when was the last time you were able to understand the weight of 251,287 cable dispatches without a database?

Those are made possible because of different, yet equally important, skills. And thankfully, regardless of your answer, we don’t have to choose.

We need these diverse set of skills, of every level, populating our newsrooms. We need them to influence each other. We need them to work together. We need them… to survive and evolve.

We also need to acknowledge that not everyone will be able to do these skills. Some will be better than others. But, guess what, that’s okay.

Because if we are to attempt to serve our communities that are consuming and expecting our news and information in a variety of ways, we need a newsroom full of diverse people bringing different experiences, skills, perspectives and ideas to the table.

We can’t afford to get distracted by feuding over something like this. We’ve got too much work to do.

Robert Hernandez is a Web Journalism professor at USC Annenberg and co-creator of #wjchat, a weekly chat for Web Journalists held on Twitter. You can contact him by e-mail ([email protected]) or through Twitter (@webjournalist). Yes, he’s a tech/journo geek.

About Robert Hernandez

Robert Hernandez, aka WebJournalist, is an assistant professor at USC Annenberg. Hernandez has been working in Web journalism for more than a decade. He has worked for,,, La Prensa Gr


  1. Robert,

    Thanks for this nice redirection of the conversation. I found myself agreeing with so many of your points. I’m one of these strange hybrid recent j-grads who’s using coding and data skills for journalism. Yes, not everyone needs to do it. I happen to like it, but we need people doing a lot of different things.

    I take issue with one sentence, though. “I do not believe programming replaces a story.” Programming itself doesn’t replace the story, but it is another way to tell stories. If our databases aren’t telling stories, then we must do better. Just like you can write and not tell a story. An instruction manual doesn’t belong on a news site. But that doesn’t mean we denounce the power of words. Words, photos, video, programming, social media — none are stories until we, as storytellers, make them so.

    There’s a difference between hiring developers for the newsroom to maintain your site, and hiring journalists who practice their craft with data and code — the latter TELL STORIES.

    You talk of having a “driveway moment” with a database. With the advent of mobile devices, I could see a day where you forget to leave your computer, or miss your subway stop ’cause you’re so consumed with your iPad, because you’re THAT invested in a data-driven story.

    That’s what I’m pushing for every day. That’s what we’re all pushing for. Often, I use code. Sometimes, I use words. It’s about the best tool for the job. We don’t all have to use data, but let’s understand that it’s all in service of storytelling.

  2. says:

    Everyone–quit saying “Excel” when you mean “spreadsheet software,” please.

  3. Michael Grimaldi says:

    This article reminds me of a conversation I had recently with a fellow member of my alma mater’s alumni board. This business administration alumnus asked me and another journalism alumnus on the board: “So, what do they teach in journalism any more, anyway?”

    I must say, in our reply, we didn’t mention “code” or “programming” or either “Excel” or “spreadsheet software.” We replied that there will always be a need for ethical, professional reporters and editors who strive to learn and communicate the truth.

    Thank you for teaching me in this article that “code” and “programming” are journalistic skills, just like copy editing, photography and headline writing.

    Best lesson I learned in J-school: “The journalist is a question asker.” (Prof. Albion Ross, advanced reporting course.)

    The highest skill of journalism is knowing the number of questions to ask, how many people of whom to ask them, and then reporting the answers as thoroughly and accurately as possible to convey the truth.

    That’s journalism. The rest of it (touch typing vs. hunt-and-peck, spreadsheet software, graphic design/page layout, programming, code, photography or whatever) is technical skill and important to know, but, I suggest, not the essence of the profession and vocation of journalism.

  4. says:

    Good stuff Robert. I missed the debate. I read Mark’s posting (agree) and yours (agree).
    I recently listed my “jobs” in a blog about the future of work.
    Journalist, entrepreneur, project manager, project director, grad school adjunct, radio/audio producer, blogger, career coach, media trainer. I do them all well, just not at the same time.
    How many different “jobs” do we all have inside of us right now?
    This why I agree with the premise that learning and doing something ELSE cannot hurt.

  5. says:

    With all of the debate over the technology of journalism, we should never loose focus on the most important aspect — knowing how to write an article that will grab the attention of an audience and be easy to understand. With all due respect, I found it tedious to get to the actual point of this article through all of the preamble.