THIS IS HOW THE INTERNET WORKS (and Why Journalists Need to Understand It)

By Boyle, Andy | The Quill, May 1, 2014 | Go to article overview

THIS IS HOW THE INTERNET WORKS (and Why Journalists Need to Understand It)


Boyle, Andy, The Quill


If you're a journalist, understanding how the Internet works is probably the most important thing you can do to benefit your career right now.

No, I don't necessarily mean learning how to code, although that would boost your career immensely. (See the January/February Quill cover story on coding.) I mean the actual mechanics of the Internet: how information gets from a place and turns into a website, or an email gets sent, or how a Skype chat session works.

Before you scoff, let's do a little experiment. Think back over your day. Count how many times you did one of these tasks:

* Did you check your email?

* Did you look at anything in a Web browser (Chrome, Firefox, Internet Explorer, etc.)?

* Did you check social media?

* Did you buy anything anywhere today, whether online or in person?

* Did you call, text or Snapchat anyone?

* Did you read or hear any news stories today?

Yeah, you probably did a lot, right? Almost every part of everything you do today as a journalist involves the Internet.

You may think, "But my newsroom said social me-dia was what I had to learn! Or data journalism! Or multimedia storytelling! Or insert buzzword here!" OK, sure. But what do all of those things live on? That's right: the Internet.

And for those of you who might say, "I'm just not a computer person," you're not allowed that excuse anymore. It's 2014. If you started in journalism anywhere in the past 30 years, a computer has probably been on your desk the majority of your career. It's like a cop saying, "I'm not a radio communication person." It's a cop out (yeah, I made that joke), and we got into journalism to learn new things every day.

"But Andy, I don't plan on ever becoming a Web developer," you might rightly say. That's cool. But if you want to commit any sort of journalism in the future, you'll probably need to chat with nerds like me. And if you better understand the vocabulary, we'll be able to communicate more effectively and chum out better journalism that can have a greater effect on and increase engagement with our audiences.

If that's not good enough for you, ask yourself if you'd like a job in five years. How about in 10 years? 30? Because as hard as curmudgeons in journalism may try to make it so, the Internet isn't going away. It will continue to permeate every part of the industry, not to mention become a larger chunk of how everything we cover as journalists operates. I'm talking education, business, governments, military, the arts.

Just like if you were expected to know how an engine works if you reviewed cars for a living, you should know about the main thing - the Internet - that fuels, shapes and disrupts almost every industry and coverage area journalists report on.

That still not enough to convince you? How about this: Did you hear about Edward Snowden and the NSA? Did you hear about the Heartbleed bug? Or about data breaches at any major retailers lately? The mechanics of the Internet - and general computer technology - are at play. Being ignorant of them makes you more susceptible to compromising your sources, your security and more. If you care about protecting your sources from eavesdropping in the digital world, you need to learn how to protect them.

So, commence with the learning...

INTERNET BASICS

First, let's start with basics. I'm going to leave out some of the higher-level technical explanations to make it easier. So if you're smarter than me and saying to yourself, "Andy, you forgot about (very in-depth thing that isn't necessary to understand Internet basics)," yeah, I know. But this is a magazine article, and space is limited.

So what happens when you visit a Web page? To put it in terms many journalists can understand: It's like going to a bar and ordering a beer. And how does one order a drink? You go to your local watering hole and ask a bartender for a tasty brew. She walks to a specific fridge, grabs your drink and brings it to you. …

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