Getting GitHub: Why journalists should know and use the social coding site

The famous GitHub logo.

If you've been hanging around newsrooms or journalism classrooms lately, you've probably heard the word GitHub. It might sound a little scary and mysterious, but even the most traditional pen-and-notebook journalists should know about this super helpful tool (to say nothing of aspiring newsroom programmers).

So, what, exactly, is GitHub? Why do you need to get it?

GitHub is a social coding site. Designed for the purpose of democratic and collaborative coding, GitHub allows multiple people to work on the same code at the same time.

You can host your own code (called a repository), fork others' code and suggest changes (more on that below), and accept changes and merges into your own code.

Have you ever seen Octocat (GitHub's unique cat/octopus mascot) badge on someone's portfolio? That's GitHub. Clicking on that will lead you to someone's GitHub profile, where you can explore all of their publicly hosted code and as well as other projects they've played around with.

But beginners should take note: GitHub isn't Git. And knowing the difference is crucial to developing a more productive workflow. Git is revision control software, originally developed by the Linux community. GitHub is a web-based hosting service that takes Git's software and pairs it with an easy-to-use interface that requires almost no previous coding experience to use.

Get familiar with code

GitHub is an ideal platform for beginning coders because the site is easy to use and version control can act as a safety net as you try new new things. And if you can't quite figure out where you've gone wrong, the site provides users with plenty of avenues for easy troubleshooting on new projects.

David Eads of the Chicago Tribune Newsapps team says you can think of GitHub like a filing cabinet. After a project is published, it's easy for others to go back and examine the code, learn from it and make it better. Moreover, GitHub's Gist feature is a quick way to jot down bits of code you want to remember or show to someone for another opinion.

And don't forget, GitHub is called a social network for a reason. Newcomers can watch code as projects take shape or troubleshoot with more experienced users. Groups like OpenHatch aim to answer coding questions and maintain a set of projects on GitHub that are helpful for beginning programmers.

Beyond GitHub's operational utility, it serves as yet another way journalists and programmers can work together and create innovative projects.

"In a lot of cases, journalists and programmers need to figure out how to hang out in each other's worlds better," Eads said. As more journalists embrace GitHub as a way to improve stories, they'll develop a new kind of news community, centered around collaboration and code – truly a news nerd's nirvana.

Some vocab

Before diving into GitHub, get a leg up by understanding its litany of technical terms. You'll also want to download Git and the GitHub native app for either Mac or Windows. GitHub explains every step on their website.

  • Commits — This is simply a change you make to a piece of code, or a set of related changes made on multiple files.
  • Forking — Forking is simply the copying of an existing code repository at a specific point so you can add to it as you see fit. The original code still exists for the creator, but your fork may spin off into a lively new project. This means that any project publicly hosted in GitHub can be edited by anyone. For example, if you find a typo in the ProPub Nerd Guide you can change it.
  • Pull requests — Pull requests let users know what changes you may have pushed to a particular repository. Once you send a pull request, other users can review your changes and incorporate them into their repositories.


Journalism projects and resources to get you started

Getting on GitHub will open a world of new projects and applications you can repurpose for your own reporting. "Anything cool you can find on the internet you can probably also find on GitHub," said Zach Wise, a faculty collaborator at the Lab. Adds Knight Lab student fellow Tyler Fisher added, "If an open-source project isn't on GitHub, there's a bit of a concern at this point."

To get started look at these projects and resources for the burgeoning code curious journalist. Several news apps team filled with coding all-stars have compiled guides that define their particular style and manifesto when it comes to creating interactive projects. There are also a bevy of cool projects that can help you trick out your slideshow style, build a better website or flesh out your coding skills.


So go on, get GitHub and get started.

About the author

Emily Ferber

Undergraduate Fellow

Latest Posts

  • With the 25th CAR Conference upon us, let’s recall the first oneWhen the Web was young, data journalism pioneers gathered in Raleigh

    For a few days in October 1993, if you were interested in journalism and technology, Raleigh, North Carolina was the place you had to be. The first Computer-Assisted Reporting Conference offered by Investigative Reporters & Editors brought more than 400 journalists to Raleigh for 3½ days of panels, demos and hands-on lessons in how to use computers to find stories in data. That seminal event will be commemorated this week at the 25th CAR Conference, which...

    Continue Reading

  • Prototyping Augmented Reality

    Something that really frustrates me is that, while I’m excited about the potential AR has for storytelling, I don’t feel like I have really great AR experiences that I can point people to. We know that AR is great for taking a selfie with a Pikachu and it’s pretty good at measuring spaces (as long as your room is really well lit and your phone is fully charged) but beyond that, we’re really still figuring...

    Continue Reading

  • Capturing the Soundfield: Recording Ambisonics for VR

    When building experiences in virtual reality we’re confronted with the challenge of mimicking how sounds hit us in the real world from all directions. One useful tool for us to attempt this mimicry is called a soundfield microphone. We tested one of these microphones to explore how audio plays into building immersive experiences for virtual reality. Approaching ambisonics with the soundfield microphone has become popular in development for VR particularly for 360 videos. With it,...

    Continue Reading

  • Prototyping Spatial Audio for Movement Art

    One of Oscillations’ technical goals for this quarter’s Knight Lab Studio class was an exploration of spatial audio. Spatial audio is sound that exists in three dimensions. It is a perfect complement to 360 video, because sound sources can be localized to certain parts of the video. Oscillations is especially interested in using spatial audio to enhance the neuroscientific principles of audiovisual synchrony that they aim to emphasize in their productions. Existing work in spatial......

    Continue Reading

  • Oscillations Audience Engagement Research Findings

    During the Winter 2018 quarter, the Oscillations Knight Lab team was tasked in exploring the question: what constitutes an engaging live movement arts performance for audiences? Oscillations’ Chief Technology Officer, Ilya Fomin, told the team at quarter’s start that the startup aims to create performing arts experiences that are “better than reality.” In response, our team spent the quarter seeking to understand what is reality with qualitative research. Three members of the team interviewed more......

    Continue Reading

  • How to translate live-spoken human words into computer “truth”

    Our Knight Lab team spent three months in Winter 2018 exploring how to combine various technologies to capture, interpret, and fact check live broadcasts from television news stations, using Amazon’s Alexa personal assistant device as a low-friction way to initiate the process. The ultimate goal was to build an Alexa skill that could be its own form of live, automated fact-checking: cross-referencing a statement from a politician or otherwise newsworthy figure against previously fact-checked statements......

    Continue Reading

Storytelling Tools

We build easy-to-use tools that can help you tell better stories.

View More