Learning to code: My next adventure

It’s been a very busy summer since I moved back to Boulder, which is why I haven’t posted here in a while. (All my writing energy has gone to client projects.) But I’m excited to announce that I’m about to embark on a new adventure that I will be blogging on Contentious.com:

I’m learning to code.

Took me long enough to get around to it, I know.

Specifically, starting next week I’m taking an intensive 3-month full immersion course offered by the Da Vinci Institute in nearby Louisville, CO in front-end development skills: HTML5, cascading stylesheets, and Javascript. It’s part of their Da Vinci Coders program, aimed at bringing beginners quickly up to speed with useful, in-demand tech skills. (They also offer Ruby on Rails training.)

The training isn’t cheap. But serendipity struck: Local tech startup Callisto.fm offered two full scholarships for women, to encourage more diversity in the Front Range tech scene. And I won!

I’m deeply grateful for this opportunity, since (because my move from CA back to CO this year ate the lion’s share of my discretionary budget for Major Life Changes) I otherwise would’ve had to wait until next year to do this course. And I feel like I’ve put off learning to code long enough.

Financing is also available for Da Vinci Coders. Had I not won this scholarship, I would have gone that route next year. But this time I got lucky.

Admittedly this adventure involves seriously stepping outside my comfort zone. While I know a lot about technology and know many coders, I’ve no prior programming experience. But I’m sick of getting tech ideas that require coding, and then having to either let them go or else beg a developer to help me even start to test out my idea. Both of those options frustrate me.

My goal is to learn enough front-end technology to be able to build simple, functional mobile web apps — that is, interactive app-like functionality delivered through the web browser on a phone or tablet.

Why mobile web apps? Because I’m passionate about mobile technology and what it can do for people’s lives. But I think the current overwhelming focus on platform-specific “native” apps (which users must find in an app market, download and install, and remember to run) is complete overkill for many of the interactive things people want to do on their phones and tablets. To back this up, research shows one in four mobile apps never get opened more than once, and 75% never get used more than 10 times.

Since mobile users are so fickle (and, let’s be honest, most mobile interactive features are things you’d only want to use a handful of times anyway), why not deliver more of this functionality via the mobile web? It’s low-overhead, inherently cross-platform, cheaper to develop, and — thanks to newer browsers and the growing penetration of smartphones (by the end of this year, half of all cell phones in use in the US will be smartphones) — pretty damn nifty.

My goal is not to become a full-time programmer. I’m a good journalist, writer, and editor, and I think that will always be my mainstay. But I realize that coding has become a key literacy skill, and I’m sick of being illiterate. I don’t expect to do anything fancy or impressive with coding, but I think it will give me more options and allow me to work on even more cool projects.

Plus, when I go to hackathons, I’ll be able to really pitch in and help. I hate standing on the sidelines.

And if Lisa Williams can learn to code, I can do it too. Seriously, she’s one of my best friends and mentors, and I’m inspired by her example.

Wish me luck! And watch Contentious.com for my observations, frustrations, and triumphs from this project.

Stop whining! Lisa Williams on journalists learning to code

Placeblogger founder Lisa Williams is a media person who taught herself to code. That does not make her a magical unicorn. You can do this too -- and you probably should.

Why should journalists and other news/media professionals learn to code? More importantly: HOW can they learn to code?

Today my good friend, mentor, and fellow ass-kicker Lisa Williams (founder of Placeblogger.com) gave a great presentation on this theme at TEDXPoynter, a one-day event at the Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg, FL. I watched the livestream, and I’m sure Poynter will post the video online later. (I’ll embed that when it’s up.)

Lisa is a media professional who took the initiative to learn how to code — in part so that she wouldn’t be totally dependent on other people to realize her ideas, and also because “Corruption sucks!” Having basic coding skills gives you the power to visualize data and create other resources which make it harder for the powers that be to claim that the problems you’re spotlighting are mere “isolated incidents.”

(More from Lisa about this and other reasons why media pros (or anyone) should learn to code: Code to make a point; code to make change; on newshacking. Plus her learn to code resources guide.)

Lisa observed that when she talks to journalists about learning to code, they often ask her, “But isn’t storytelling important? Do we really have to learn how to code?”

Her response: Stop whining!

I’m totally with Lisa on this. Which is why this summer, after I move back to Boulder, CO, I’ll be devoting regular time most days to learn how to code. And you can do it, too…

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Facebook: How to change your default news feed setting to “most recent”

UPDATE JUNE 30: Unfortunately, this fix doesn’t seem to be persisten. Today, my Facebook news feed default reverted to “Top News” — without me changing that setting. I asked Vadim Lavrusik of Facebook about it, and the bottom line is: it is not currently possible to opt to persistently see “Most Recent.” They’ll change you back to “Top News” when you’re not looking, like it or not. Seriously. Read more

I use Facebook strictly as a casual way to communicate with people I know. I’m not a heavy Facebook user because their interface sucks, and it keeps on sucking. But there’s one thing about Facebook that was really bugging me, and I finally just figured out how to fix it.

The Problem: The default setting for your Facebook news feed (list of recent updates) is “Top News” — which is somewhat misleadingly named, since it’s really only updates from the friends and pages that Facebook’s algorithm, in its infinite and inscrutable wisdom, believes you interact with the most.

In order to see in your news feed updates from ALL the people and pages you’ve chosen to connect with on Facebook, you need to select the “most recent” option. Totally unintuitive, but that’s par for the course with the Facebook interface.

BUT: In order to routinely see updates from all your Facebook friends and pages, you must change that default setting. Facebook doesn’t make this easy — again, par for the course for Facebook.

I figured out how to do it. Below is my quick video tutorial.

WATCH VIDEO TUTORIAL: Facebook News Feed settings

…You’d think that with all the money they’re making, Facebook could afford to hire some good UI designers and do some usability testing! I think I might mail them a copy of Don’t Make Me Think (old by internet standards, but the principles are timeless).

Basic journalism skills: Today’s real world

Today I got an e-mail from a journalism undergraduate with a few basic-sounding questions that I could answer quickly. But when I looked at my answers, I realize they have some more profound implications then she was probably expecting:

1. What is the most important skill you use in your posts on the Web?

Having a good sense of what’s likely to be interesting to the people I’ve connected with (or who I’d like to connect with), and why.

2. In your opinion, what is the most effective way to tell a story online (pictures, text, sound, video, etc.)?

You should know how to use all these tools and know the people/communities you want to connect with, and what their media preferences are (both for media content type, and the tools they tend to use most). Then tell your story in a form that will work best for them.

Stories don’t exist for their own sake, and you are not your audience. It only works if you really connect with people, and that means taking them into account from the start.

3. What is the hardest part about being an online professional?

Anyone these days who’s doing any kind of media work is inherently an online professional in some way, directly or indirectly. People who deny that or try to avoid it make their own careers impossible.

4. What core skills do you think every journalism major should have?

Many, but the most basic one is: How to define and connect with communities. This is the basis of all media activity, including journalism — but too often it’s taken for granted and not studied and understood in its own right.

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What do journalism students really need today? Poynter event Monday

On Monday, Mar. 23, 1 pm EDT, the Poynter Institute will host a live online chat: What Do College Journalism Students Need to Learn? It was spurred by a recent (and excellent) post by my Tidbits colleague Maurreen Skowran, Reimagining J-School Programs in Midst of Changing News Industry, which attracted some intriguing comments.

Unfortunately I won’t be able to participate in the chat since I’ll be heading to the airport at that time. However, I have had a great deal to say about this topic earlier on Contentious. Here are my posts from last year:

  • April 9, 2008: Journalism remains a smart career, despite shrinking newsrooms. This theme in my posts began in response to Elana Centor, who asked me: “Is journalism still a smart career path?” My answer began: “Personally, I think that developing journalism skills and experience is valuable for many career paths — but I think that betting that you’ll spend your career working for mainstream news orgs is a losing proposition in most cases. I think most j-schools are setting bright students up to fail, and that bugs me. A lot….”
  • April 10, 2008: New J-Skills: What to Measure? This followup post is a reply to Mindy McAdams’ thoughtful response to my earlier post. She challenged me to translate my original quick list of what j-schools should be teaching into a something more testable and measurable that could be translated into a curriculum.
  • April 16, 2008: Overhauling J-School Completely. This begins: “I’ve heard from some journalism educators that the kind of preparation I’ve proposed is far beyond what most existing j-schools could offer. I understand that. Really, I think what may be needed is to completely re-envision and rebuild j-school with today’s realities and tomorrow’s likelihoods in mind…” (This post also includes links to many other posts sparked by my previous posts on this topic.)

Again, I wish I could sit in on the Poynter chat. But hopefully this material might help inform the discussion. I look forward to reading the live blog and chat transcript after I land.

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Live-tweeting an event? Set your hashtag UP FRONT!

I do a lot of live event coverage via Twitter, and I also follow a lot of events (especially conferences) via Twitter. One thing I’ve learned: It helps your Twitter audience immensely if, before the event (or at the start) the people tweeting it develop a consensus on the hashtag for the event.

That’s what Horn Group VP Susan Etlinger did earlier, for the PR/Blogger panel her company is hosting tonight. She’s one of several Twitter users who helped launch this hashtag simply by adopting and promoting it:

Susan Etlinger helps launch a hashtag by using it.

Susan Etlinger helps launch a hashtag by using it.

And here’s the fruit that this kind of coordination can bear: Check out the #PRblog hashtag

…So: what’s a hashtag, and why is this so important?…

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Writing Workshop Notes: BlogHer 2008

Me, missing the morning sessions of BlogHer because I was posting all this stuff…

I’m at the BlogHer 2008 conference in San Francisco, where later today I’ll be giving a writing workshop. I’m a last-minute replacement for BlogHer cofounder Lisa Stone — talk about someone who’s tough to replace! But I’ll do my best.

Feel free to contact me with followup questions or discussion:

Here is my “online handout” for this workshop, with links to several resources I might mention. After the session I’ll update it with additional resources to cover whatever comes up. I also created a writing exercises wiki for this workshop.

So here’s the plan…

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Dale Willman on radio in Indonesia

Dale Willman
Borobudur, a Buddhist temple on the island of Java.

For a change of pace, here’s an audio podcast. My good friend and environmental journalism colleague Dale Willman just got back from a three-week trip to Indonesia where he was training radio journalists there how to do an environmental radio show — and just how to do radio production, period.

Yesterday Dale and I had a fun conversation about his trip, the state of media in Indonesia, and why text messaging is so popular there.

Listen now! (Or right-click to download)

Dale Willman
In the studio: One of the Indonesian radio journalists Dale helped to train.

Overhauling J-School Completely

Sscornelius, via Flickr (CC license)
Maybe what journalism education really needs is to start over from a new foundation.

Well, there’s been a ton of great discussion lately on the theme of what kind of education and preparation today’s journalists really need, given the changing landscape of opportunities they’re facing. (Thanks to Mindy McAdams, James Ball, Paul Canning, Andy Dickinson, eGrommet, the Ethical Martini, Innovate This, Monitorando, and José Renato Salatiel for their contributions, to the many commenters on all these posts, and to Elana Centor who started it all. Here are my recent posts on this theme.)

I’ve heard from some journalism educators that the kind of preparation I’ve proposed is far beyond what most existing j-schools could offer. I understand that.

Really, I think what may be needed is to completely re-envision and rebuild j-school with today’s realities and tomorrow’s likelihoods in mind.

Here’s what that might look like…

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