Help me be web-savvy again (does anyone still use that term?)
April 11, 2009 4:25 AM   Subscribe

I was once a teenage web design nerd. Now I'm an old-media content producer with horribly out-of-date new-media skills. What should I learn, and where should I learn it?

It's been nearly a decade since I last designed a website. Web 2.0 happened while I wasn't paying attention. Clearly, the world no longer needs hand-coding in Notepad, clever onmouseovers or anything else I learned as a nerdy 14-year-old.

So as a journalist/producer who wants to stay relevant in years to come, what should I be learning? HTML, CSS, Flash, content management systems, search engine optimisation? Something else I haven't thought of? Which skills do employers love to see in their online editorial staff?

Is it still possible to learn this stuff online, for free? Bonus points if you can suggest websites that pitch their lessons at a level somewhere between "We teach you to code back-ends in 14 languages" and, "We teach aging journalists how to use Google".
posted by embrangled to Computers & Internet (13 answers total) 70 users marked this as a favorite
If you are publishing text content I would suggest sticking with HTML and CSS with some basic knowledge of SEO and Usability / Writing for the Web.

If you are creating dynamic web pages then things get a little more complicated. Read up on AJAX as it is very much a 'Web 2.0' technology.

Yahoo Pipes is worth a quick peek.

'Web 2.0' has really expanded the medium so it may help if you tell us what kind of content you create
posted by errspy at 4:37 AM on April 11, 2009

Best answer: Seconding the emphasis on HTML and CSS. There are some pretty decent tutorials over at for almost everything.

the world no longer needs hand-coding in Notepad

I don't know, hand-coding is still the best way to learn in my opinion. I would also suggest subscribing to some of the more well-known web design/development blogs in order to keep up with emerging topics in the industry. Try A List Apart and Smashing Magazine.
posted by aheckler at 4:47 AM on April 11, 2009 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Right now, I make factual radio, which includes updating an accompanying website through an ancient CMS. In the future, I want to do editorial work in more interesting multimedia ways.

There seems to be a split developing in journalism: On one side are those who believe anything web-related is not part of their job description and should be delegated to some lowly geek down the hall. On the other side are those who move freely between editorial production and simple web-nerdery, using whichever medium is most appropriate to tell the story of the day. Naturally, I'd like to be the second kind, because I think they're more likely to still have jobs in 10 years time.

My main problem is that I've been away from web design for so long that I no longer know enough to tell what's relevant to me and what's not. Of all the stuff an actual web developer might need to know, which key skills do I need to be a fabulously geeky journo?
posted by embrangled at 5:16 AM on April 11, 2009

To be up to date with current web trends, you should definitely become very familiar with CSS, in particular using CSS to create table-less layouts. No more table layouts, no more spacer gifs, not more javascript rollovers. (You can check out CSS Zen Garden to get an idea of what's possible with CSS layouts.) Symantec HTML, usability and accessibility go hand in hand with knowing CSS. I would consider these things the basics that you should know well.

Javascript is making a comeback in Web 2.0, but not in the way it was used before. Now it's used to enhance the user experience while still providing a functional website for users with Javascript turned off. Frameworks like Prototype and jQuery are becoming very popular. I don't think you need to learn them all in-depth, but it certainly wouldn't hurt to be familiar with what they are.

I highly recommend the previously mentioned W3Schools website for learning a lot of these things. Great reference site and lots of free, interactive tutorials.

CMSes are becoming increasingly popular too, and you should be familiar with them, but what you learn will largely be dependent on what CMS system you are using.

And FWIW, there's nothing wrong with hand-coding in Notepad!
posted by geeky at 5:44 AM on April 11, 2009 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I have some advice for you. I'm in a totally different field, but it's full of similar people. Some are fluid with new web tech, and some (most, actually) know nothing and will go the way of the dinosaurs. I also learned coding the way you did.

Here's the thing. With many new web technologies, you don't actually need to know very much to use them. You don't need to center a div in some broken box model or have perfect accessibility or piss your golden gradient in the CSS zen garden. One of the gorgeous things about all this new tech is that it's been made very easy and very expedient to use.

So what you should do is sign up for an account with Dreamhost. They have "1-click installs" of everything from Wikis to Wordpress, and including all kinds of CMS software and what-have-you. They also let you do it yourself. The best way to figure this stuff out is to use it and ignore the bleating blogosphere except where you need to gank a little CSS or something. So get your Dreamhost account (it's cheap hosting/tuition) and build some toy sites for yourself. Starting with other people's work, style your blog, skin your wiki. Set up an RSS feed.

Doing this has taught me, most importantly, that publishing ad playing with new web tech is actually a tenth of the pain it was ten years ago. Follow my advice and you'll be more than dangerous with the current generation of web technologies. Leave SOAP, AJAX, and REST to the actual developers.
posted by fake at 5:44 AM on April 11, 2009 [6 favorites]

Just to add, I don't want to sound like you should totally ignore the underlying coding, or what-have-you. I simply mean that as a content producer, your efforts are best spent USING the technology rather than getting gritty with browser bugs and the like. Geeky has some good advice.
posted by fake at 5:51 AM on April 11, 2009 [1 favorite]

Best answer: The great web designers today generally know what the great web designers ten years ago knew: HTML and CSS. The art has gotten much more refined, but that's still the crux of it; learning to style pages with a stylesheet quickly and flexibly and to handle display in different browsers and OSes is the key to good web design. In my personal opinion (just my opinion, but hey) the web is lousy with 'web 2.0' junkies who love ridiculously complex javascripting, flash, silverlight, and whatever other toys there are out there but don't know how to code a good page; the major difference that's come with this 'web 2.0' thing is that now the worst pages on the internet aren't of the "lots of stupid flashing .gifs on a pastel background" variety anymore; the worst pages on the internet now are covered with all kinds of flashy gizmos and widgets that don't really do anything for browseability or coherence. And flash-based advertising has only made this worse.

My suggestion would be this: learn some about how HTML and CSS interact. I have a feeling that, as someone who's in the press industry, you'll grok stylesheets faster than the average bear. Also, this will have more immediate benefits; CSS-enhanced HTML doesn't just help with coding web pages, but can also be used to create multimedia emails and other nicely-formatted documents. I think these things are good all-around skills for a journalist to have. You could spend a bunch of time learning PHP or figuring out Flash or some other embedded media language, but I don't think it would be practical or immediately feasible unless you really wanted to focus solely on web design. I don't see a lot of Flash on the NYT web site (one of the best-designed in the biz, I think) - there's a good reason for that.

Also: aheckler is right- hand-coding will always be the best way to design web sites. Dreamweaver and the other options that allow editing without direct coding aren't really used by professionals who build great sites; they're good learning tools, but the pros still write it out, knowing what needs to be laid out where, in order to have maximum predictability and stability. (I write most of my code - which means HTML, CSS, and Python - in Notepad++; no big fancy crazy crap, just letters and numbers and a good interface for manipulating them. Although their site is kind of ugly, I have to say.)
posted by koeselitz at 6:00 AM on April 11, 2009 [5 favorites]

In the future, I want to do editorial work in more interesting multimedia ways.

Of all the stuff an actual web developer might need to know, which key skills do I need to be a fabulously geeky journo?

Nthing fake's comment. It's probably more important that you apply the technologies effectively and in creative ways, rather than understand all the underlying nuts and bolts. The latter won't hurt you, but it's what you end up doing with it that will set you apart.

On the purely technical side, I'd suggest learning to shoot and edit video for the web. Can't remember the source, but I read several articles last year that indicated that journalists were increasingly being asked to create their own video features to accompany stories published online.

Video, podcasting, white hat SEO and modern CMS engines (like Drupal?) all strike me as good things to know about.

Spend some time catching up with social networking features. Print journalism could benefit from incorporating some reader participation online. Learning how news spreads from reader to reader online is powerful, fascinating stuff.

Also, to that end: developing a good rapport with non-webby folks in your career space would be extremely valuable. I think some journalism orgs are just dying for someone keen to come in and explain this web stuff in a clear, non-judgmental way that gets them excited, or at least interested.

Developing strong opinions and ideas on how to improve online journalism overall will probably take you further in your career overall than knowing how to code an Ajax feature, but my guess is you'll eventually learn the latter while doing the former anyway.
posted by scottandrew at 9:38 AM on April 11, 2009

You'd probably do quite well just learning a bit about using and adapting wordpress as a CMS, along with enough PHP, and modern HTML/CSS/Javascript to customize and integrate with other applications and services.

If you want to experiment with the form a little more, I'd suggest looking into Django. Where as Wordpress or Drupal are CMSs that can be adapted and specialized, Django is a web development framework that makes it very easy to develop specialized CMSs. Which approach is better depends on you and your needs, but I find it is easier to take some blocks and put them together than it is to take some already assembled blocks and figure out how to take them apart and reorganize them to do what you want to do.

Django was extracted from the content management system of a newspaper. Fussy boring stuff like writing a nice web UI for entering and managing content is really easy, and displaying lists of articles in chronological or reverse chronological order, etc, isn't much more difficult than writing the HTML template. Plus there are a lot of third-party applications now that can be adapted and integrated. Some of the creators have accounts here, and I know at least one of them visits ask.mefi often enough to ask a question a few times a year.
posted by Good Brain at 11:28 AM on April 11, 2009

My main problem is that I've been away from web design for so long that I no longer know enough to tell what's relevant to me and what's not.

That's good, that means you're closer to experiencing it through the eyes of your readers. Because most of them don't know squat about coding or CSS or Javascript or Flex or .NET or whatever. The real "Web 2.0" revolution was making the tools for self-publishing much more accessible to the general public, so these days you just don't need to know about all the technology going on behind the scenes. You go to Google or Facebook and sign up… and that's it. The social consequences of these changes are that way more people are putting up their own content and linking to other folks doing the same; by putting the tools into the hands of the masses they have unleashed the floodgates. There are literally hundreds of ways to "link up" to other people with similar interests just by clicking a few buttons. YouTube. Flickr. RSS feeds. Start learning about those things.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 3:36 PM on April 11, 2009

On Good Brains point about learning php and CSS for wordpress I really liked this tutorial on coding a Wordpress theme. I'm in about the same boat as you right now and it was a good place for me to start as the w3 schools were a little over my head. It took about 5 hours to get through the ting but now I feel like I kind of know enough to learn more.
posted by Uncle at 6:09 PM on April 11, 2009

Response by poster: Thanks, all!

After perusing the W3 Schools, I'm pleased to report that I actually do still know enough relevant HTML to build a simple page or modify a more complex one. I think I'll concentrate on getting up to speed in CSS and fool around in Wordpress for practice.

The CMS stuff sounds cool, but now I think of it, most media organisations have deeply entrenched, often archaic CMSes that everyone is forced to use, so building or tweaking them is unlikely to be part of my future job description. That said, knowing which ones are best for which tasks could be very useful indeed.

Scottandrew - You're absolutely right about the need for keen, web-competent people to get the old guard interested in new media. One reason for getting up to speed is that I do want to gently nudge my colleagues in that direction - but first I want to be certain that I know enough to not break things in the process.

Also, I'm so pleased that people are still coding in Notepad. It's very reassuring. I will gladly jettison my knowledge of tacky animated rollovers, giant image maps and yes, obnoxious flashing gifs in the knowledge that at least one thing I know is still relevant.
posted by embrangled at 12:04 AM on April 12, 2009

TV content producers don't know the ins/outs on how to film a package for TV news. They just know what they need to know to produce a compelling story, and enough to do some simple camerawork for themselves. If they need anything more complex, they get a professional in and work as a team.

Web content producers should work the same way. Concentrate on what you need to know to present something coherently. Keep an eye on new technologies - but as a way to enhance or do something different. Don't sign up to Twitter just because it sounds cool - have a REASON for using it.

Having said that, knowing HTML/CSS/etc. is still surprisingly handy in terms of getting around archaic CMSs. In the same way that a TV journalist knowing how to white-balance a camera is handy. But not essential.
posted by almostwitty at 5:43 PM on April 13, 2009

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