Yes, it would. Seriously, if you’re doing one of those courses where they’re making you learn shorthand and so on, take some time to learn to code.

OK, you might think that I’m saying this because I’m in technology. Not at all. All sorts of fields of journalism – basically, any where you’re going to have to keep on top of a lot of data that will be updated, regularly or not – will benefit from being able to analyse and dig into that data, and present it in interesting ways.

Let’s be clear that I’m not saying “code” as in “get deep into C++ or Java”, though I guess you could. (After all, it might give you something to fall back on if the journalism doesn’t work out…) I mean it in the sense of having a nodding acquaintance with methods of programming, and perhaps a few languages, so that when something comes along where you’ll need, say, to transform data from one form to another, you can. Or where you need to make your own life easier by automating some process or other.

Me? I taught myself BASIC all those years ago (even wrote a completely useless game in it, though it amused some folk at school). Then a long pause, then was taught Z-80 assembler at university, and then a bit of Cobol in my first job, and then a long pause before I bumped along in HTML (of course), Applescript, SQL, and PHP. I’ve tried to teach myself Cocoa and failed pretty miserably; I’ve not got any C, so it’s all a bit mysterious to me. Perl I’ve read a book of and realised I’d need a lot longer; Javascript ditto. (I can read Javascript as though it was a foreign language.) CSS, which I think is pretty much a coding language (it tells web pages what to do) I can muddle about in. (I tweaked the usual CSS of WordPress to produce this page.)

And what good has it been? The Applescript I use all the time, to automate all sorts of things – at work, we save hours and hours every week not having to do the text formatting of the Letters and Blogs section, the Ask Jack section, and the Newsbytes section, because I wrote Applescripts that automate the formatting. Similarly, for every story, I run a script before we start subbing that removes double spaces, turns “percent ” into “% ” (programming question: why is the space is there?) and decapitalises “Internet” (Guardian style is “internet”) except at the start of sentences.

And I can hack my own blog, and the Free Our Data blog, because I understand PHP (and CSS a bit – it took me ages figuring out how to make the FOD blog lay out a particular way in a single post; one line of CSS). And I can set up and run a MySQL database on my own machine, and store the links for all the Technology sections I’ve edited, for use to find who has linked to us which then goes into the week’s letters. Which then gets formatted by me…

But there’s a huge hinterland of stuff to be done with data that I haven’t even touched on. I haven’t taken the time to understand the Google Maps API yet; I think it’s probably the most powerful API that a journalist can presently use (which does mean I should take more time; Lord, give me a couple more hours per day, huh?), just because news becomes so much more relevant when it becomes local. Even just being able to visualise – as Fraser Speirs suggested – what it would be like if you had a militant group in the UK sending mortars across the borders as Hamas does in Israel. (I’m not taking sides. I’m showing that you need to understand people.)

My coding? Not that great. Your coding? Could be a lot better. Great coding? You’d be able to knock up something like the Guardian BNP map without a second thought. And the journalism then flows on from that, because you can see so much more clearly. If you’re tracking the data, you’ll be able to see when something changes, when something unusual happens.

None of which is saying you shouldn’t be talking to your sources, and questioning what you’re told, and trying to find other means of finding stuff out from people. But nowadays, computers are a sort of primary source too. You’ve got to learn to interrogate them effectively – and quote them meaningfully – too.