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Flash vs. HTML5: What should journalists learn next?

Picture of HTML5 vs Flash slide during a presentation

There is a small war brewing in the multimedia journalism world between Flash and HTML5, and I'm not sure where things will end up.

Flash is under attack, and for lots of understandable reasons. The Adobe browser plugin is a closed platform and owned by a single company. HTML5 on the other hand, is an open standard that no company owns.

While that may seem like just a bunch of geek dogma that the masses could really care less about, it does affect people in one big way: When using their smartphone to access the Web.

So far, Flash doesn't work on any Apple-made mobile devices. No Flash on the iPad; no Flash on the iPhone, and that's not likely to change. Flash does not run on the Blackberry yet, but Adobe announced that it's coming in late 2010. Flash is recently available for Google-based Android phones, which runs OK if you have one of the very latest handsets with a fast processor.

But more to the point, where does this divide put us as journalists wanting to create interactive multimedia graphics? Which tool should budding young journalists invest their time in learning? The answer, I find, isn't so simple.

Teaching Flash in J-Schools

For the last four years, I have taught a Flash class at the Berkeley j-school. I also taught Flash to professional journalists during numerous week-long workshops for the Knight Digital Media Center. Flash was a big part of my job and a big part of the vision I had for what the web could be. But now it seems, that future is uncertain.

For one, I'm not really sure how to teach HTML5 to journalists. This is because HTML5 is not what everyone thinks it is. All of the cool stuff that HTML5 can do is really being done by a programming language called JavaScript. And teaching JavaScript to journalists — who in large sought to escape subjects like math in favor of English and history — would be like pulling teeth; not so much for the level of difficulty involved, but for the lenghty time investment in an arcane subject matter. It would take months of study for most non-technical journalists to fully grasp JavaScript at a level comparable to Flash in just a few hours.

It's like this: Flash is a relatively easy program to learn. Despite its reputation, entry-level Flash can be learned in about three hours. The drag-and-drop interface is intuitive, and the level of programming knowledge required for the most basic tasks is minimal. Anyone can learn basic Flash, and I'm continually amazed at the quality of work journalists send me after taking our workshop.

There is no software interface like this for JavaScript yet. So, while I tend to fall on the side of HTML5 in this debate, I have no tool to teach this to the everyday-journalist. This idea of a software tool — known as an Integrated Development Environment, or IDE — is the entry point for journalists to become dynamic content creators. Journalists learn with IDEs like Final Cut Pro, Photoshop and Flash. But imagine creating content with pure code. Impossible? No. But it's certainly not for everyone.

JQuery: The Everyman's JavaScript

We have had some great success lately in teaching jQuery to a few of our students over this past year. I co-taught the News21 class at the school, which covered the topic of incarceration in California. I am proud to say that the entire website was done with zero-Flash. (not counting YouTube embeds). It's completely written in HTML5 with a lot of help from a tool called jQuery.

Screen shot of News21 desegregation package
The News21 class produces a project on the desegregation of California prisons. Design by Liz Peirce.

JQuery is a JavaScript library. It's a tool that is used to greatly simplify the most basic JavaScript tasks into a few relatively simple commands. While it's still writing code, it's much more digestible for the layman, and the results are nearly immediate.

Screenshot of Berkeley News21 front page
News21 front page with design elements by Matt Buxton.

I was taken aback when one of our guest students from the University of Nebraska, Matt Buxton, came to us knowing jQuery like the back of his hand, but he didn't have basic programming knowledge. It was a strange experience when he would ask me about fundamental programming concepts, but could still build some of the most amazing web projects written purely in jQuery.

Another alum of the school, Tasneem Raja, insisted on using jQuery instead of Flash when she was a student. (Thanks in large part to her mentor Josh Williams of the Las Vegas Sun) The knowledge she obtained, along with her persistence to learn code, led her to a role at the Bay Citizen news startup as one of their central web producers.

This is when I knew it was possible to teach jQuery. It's going to be a difficult road ahead, but I think jQuery could be the next tool for teaching the next breed of journalism students on how to build dynamic graphics. I'm still hoping for that magical IDE to pop up, but perhaps this could be the bridge to when that solution comes to fruition.

Multimedia On Mobile Devices

There is another hurdle to overcome that makes this debate just a little more complex. While HTML5 is being hailed as the next big thing for the Internet, people are forgetting one very important aspect. Creating content for the desktop Internet is not the same as creating content for a mobile device.

For one, the desktop web uses a mouse pointer and click interface, while most new smartphones are moving toward a touch-based interface. These concepts are worlds apart when it comes to basic design, and creates another massive obstacle for us in figuring out what to teach the next generation journalist.

JQuery mobile logo

Fortunately there are a few tools on the horizon. A group of folks are working on a jQuery mobile framework that would take the popular library and give it a wide range of touch-based tools. One more reason why the jQuery route looks more and more promising.

But in a larger sense, we have to determine how mobile devices will change our approach when creating multimedia content. A report by Morgan Stanley suggest that the mobile web will outgrow the desktop Internet as soon as 2015. This could have massive implications to how we approach and teach the new breed of journalists about content creation on the Web.