Why Journalists Should Learn Markdown

Computer CodeHere in the UK, we have what is generally regarded to be the toughest training for journalists in the world.

One of the requirements of the NCTJ (National Council for the Training of Journalists) is to learn Teeline Shorthand, up to 100 words a minute. If you don’t get your 100 words, you haven’t really passed.

There’s quite a bit of debate about whether or not we need to learn it any more. Those of us with the ability to write in shorthand find it invaluable, and those without it don’t think they’re missing out. Even I have to concede, American journalists are pumping out really great work, and shorthand has been missing as a core requirement for almost two generations.

Though I still highly recommend learning shorthand for a variety of reasons, (not least of all because it demonstrates a dedication to the field: a way of showing that you really want to be a journalist, not just someone who wants to get on TV/radio/your name in print), maybe there is one thing more relevant to a modern journalist that could be the new mandatory requirement: markdown.

I write in markdown all the time, and it’s really easy to use. In fact, there’s a good chance you know markdown even if you’ve never heard of it before.

Markdown is a useful tool for writing essentially raw text files, with a few little connotations that signify basic formatting. So putting some words *between two asterisks like this* signifies italics, putting words **between two asterisks like this** signifies bold, etc.

There’s also easy formats for headers, embedded photos, and hyperlinks. Once you’ve written in markdown, there’s a ton of free or cheap apps that convert it to full-blown HTML.

Why is this relevant to a 21st century journalist? Well, most journalists spend a not insignificant chunk of their time in CMS these days. That’s Content Management Systems, which is a fancy word for website back-ends like WordPress, and other more specialised systems. Every time you want to add a blog post or a new news story, you often write on your phone, tablet (I’m writing this post on my iPad) or computer, using a variety of applications, one of the big-daddies is of course Microsoft’s Word.

Then you can paste your article into the CMS page, click save and you’re done!

Except you rarely are done. Especially if you’ve written in Word, the funny formatting in that app can cause all sorts of headaches. If the journalist prefers to write in a particular font say, or a specific font size, that can translate into the page of the website, making it look totally out of style and step with the website’s visual design. Repairing it – and adding the hyperlinks and embedded images by too – is a subeditors nightmare.

So what options does a journalist have? Well, we could write in raw text. Certainly no formatting issues there, but unfortunately it won’t allow you to add emboldened text, headers, links, etc.

So we could all use HTML – but that might take time for many journalists and creative-types to learn, and a simple mistake in the coding could end up causing more problems than copy-and-pasting Microsoft Word’s text into the CMS in the first place.

So that leaves markdown. Simple to learn, easy to apply, you can do it in any word processing app (yes, including Word), and there’s even dirt-cheap apps that allow you see the effects of your markdown as you write (like Byword, which I’m writing this on right now. Using markdown).

It’s 2014. Journalists are all having to get to grips with content management sites now. For me, markdown makes putting things on so much easier, allowing you to concentrate on your content, and less on formatting issues.

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