Basile Simon (blog) Data, hackery, stories

Do journalists need to learn command line?

At the Mozfest London, Noah Veltman, a 2013 Knigh-Mozilla Fellow at BBC News, organized a workshop to illustrate the benefits of using the command line, named The Command Line Murders.

The main goal of the exercise was to solve a murder case by extracting bits of information and clues from a thousands of lines text file, using the command line.

As this workshop was attended by journalists, we must reflect again on the 2013 journalist's skills.

Noah Veltman's initiative comes just after the big row about 'should journalists learn to code?'

And I am thinking here about myself and my fellow journalism students; because we read every day about new skills we should possess in order to be employable.

As illustrated by this workshop, the command line proves to be handy for manipulating huge, messy and dirty datasets which are too big for tools like Excel.

It is worth noting that much of what you can do with commands can also be achieved with a graphical user interface. But if you are very comfortable with the black screen of your terminal, the command line is way faster.

Plus, the command line forces you to reflect on what is being looked for; meaning when facing a huge amount of text not written to be understood (like messy data), one has to search, or sort the data; and to do that, to have something in mind.
With command lines, things don't come at random: you have to look for them and to be precise.

So is command line useful for journalists?

These days, many questions are arising about the necessary skills of the modern journalist. Writing, photographing, editing, recording, filming, sub-editing... are already basics. And now we are talking about coding, designing, and in this case: command line.

Are we asking to journalists to be nerds/developers?

Conclusion: The majority of datasets available on can be handled with command line tools. It's up to you to decide for yourself if you could use a bit of command line in your workflow with this infographic.

No doubt that journalists working on computer-assisted reporting are using a bit of it, if only for Github or Google Refine, for example. For the others, it is a matter of curiosity... and geekiness.