2016 Explanatory Reporting, Large Newsroom finalist

What is Code?


About the Project

“What Is Code?” represents the most ambitious multi-disciplinary collaborative effort in Bloomberg’s history on the web. Working in close collaboration with the Bloomberg team, essayist Paul Ford brought his 38,000 opus that clarifies what code is and what its future looks like, and demystifies the culture, quirks, and tools of the 18 million people around the world who create it, to digital life.

The web experience for “What Is Code?” helps readers accept the mission set forth by former Bloomberg Businessweek editor Josh Tyrangiel in the introduction: “Now that software lives in our pockets, runs our cars and homes, and dominates our waking lives, ignorance is no longer acceptable. The world belongs to people who code. Those who don’t understand will be left behind.”

Ford, along with Bloomberg’s editors, designers, developers, photographers, animators, and producers, turned his comprehensive, entertaining and educational essay into an interactive experience that makes it feel almost sentient. Online, the story knows how fast you’re reading and if you have questions. It can encourage, scold, or cajole as appropriate. It provides interactive examples of the concepts Ford describes at just the right moments and guides you through a basic crash course in the history of code. Readers use their mouse and keyboard in totally new ways: from adjusting simulated circuitry to pulling back the curtain on what actually happens in a computer’s brain when you type and click. There are Easter eggs and even a certificate of completion that captures the reader’s photo, which can easily be shared with friends on social media. Stories on the web are often highly visual, but rarely has a story experience been so truly illustrative or malleable.

“What Is Code?” is truly special because in addition to dazzling readers it empowers and edifies them. It’s a ‘Choose Your Own Adventure’ for the digital age powered by the very concepts it reveals through its prose, which means you can read it more than once (if you dare) and have a different experience every time.

We promoted the piece heavily on our branded social accounts, including Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Instagram, using multimedia from the website and made-for-social graphics to drive audience engagement. For Facebook, we used organic post targeting to zero in on groups we thought would share the link.

Here are some examples of our branded social media posts:


We also published the entire essay on GitHub, a social platform for programmers.

In addition to our social and digital efforts, Bloomberg Businessweek dedicated an entire print double-issue to ‘Code.’ (This was the first time in the publication’s history that a single story consumed an entire issue.) The magazine treatment for ‘Code’ included custom graphics, photography, charts and visualizations that were optimized for print.

The essay was a global hit, becoming the second most-read story on in 2015. “What Is Code?” trended on Twitter, and its open-source code trended on GitHub. Praised lavishly by readers and critics (see their reactions below) for its clarity, scope, and daring, the essay also found its way onto class syllabi. Perhaps most rewarding was how the software industry embraced the tome. For the first time, many said, they could point to something and say, “This is what I do.”

“Code” has entered that tiny canon of works that illuminate how the world truly works.

Gabriel Arana of The Huffington Post wrote, “one can see why the piece — which covers a topic that affects everyone but is poorly understood by the general public — garnered the attention it did. It’s beautifully written and accessible, allowing it to have crossover appeal.”

USA Today’s Rem Reider commented, “It’s smart. It’s engagingly written. It’s accessible. And it has a wide array of digital bells and whistles that make it a truly immersive digital experience. It also reflects a commitment to make sense of something than seems so mysterious and ghostly to so many of us, yet has so much importance in our lives. All of which is great news for anyone who cares about quality journalism.”

Business Insider’s Matt Rosoff praised, “I read the whole thing online this afternoon, and it’s remarkable. I could see it being taught in journalism classes years from now, like Gay Talese’s ‘Frank Sinatra Has a Cold’ or John Hersey’s ‘Hiroshima.’ It takes something both very important and hard to understand, and makes it understandable to an audience of smart but nonexpert readers.”

Network World’s Frederic Paul wrote, “it’s becoming increasingly obvious that software rules the world, and nobody apart from the world’s approximately 18.5 million software developers really understands the implications of that. ‘What Is Code?’ is the single best effort I’ve seen to remedy that situation…People are already predicting that it will become part of the technology canon, destined to be cited in professional journals, business school classes, and computer science departments for years to come.”