Columbia’s esteemed journalism school is offering a new degree program that incorporates data science — for a price tag of $147,514. In a field that’s rife with layoffs and low wages, it’s a controversial move, with journalists questioning the need for a program that most reporters could never afford.

To be fair, the 12-month master of science in data journalism at Columbia University’s School of Journalism, rolling out in 2018, costs $106,282 for tuition and fees, with an estimated $41,232 for living expenses. And most master’s programs don’t come cheap, particularly from Ivy League universities.

The justification, of course, is that a master’s program produces highly skilled individuals in high demand, who will have their choice of top-notch career opportunities.

Journalism, though, isn’t like other careers. The median salary for reporters and correspondents is less than $40,000, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics (and only slightly more, at $56,000, for broadcast news analysts). And it’s not exactly a stable industry: The bureau projects employment in this field to decline nine per cent from 2014 to 2024, thanks to eroding advertising revenues.

Columbia’s announcement provoked an outcry from the journalism community, including a blunt tweet by Chicago Tribune editor Charlie J. Johnson: “A $100,000 master’s degree in journalism is a stupid thing.”

The university counters that job opportunities exist for specialized journalists who understand data science — and it has a point. In an era of fake news, there’s more need than ever for journalism based in fact, backed by data. And journalists with a firm grasp of data science will have an edge.

Benjamin Mullin, managing editor of Poynter.org, says that if a highly placed source with incriminating evidence wants to go public, they’re likely to contact a journalist who has the expertise to understand big data (like Glenn Greenwald, former reporter for The Guardian, who detailed U.S. and British global surveillance programs based on documents disclosed by whistleblower Edward Snowden).

Steve Coll, dean of Columbia Journalism, said in a statement that for journalists to carry out their function as watchdogs on power and sifters of the truth, they must increasingly understand how to “interrogate data and computer code.” The degree is a response to “where our profession must go.”

No doubt, there’s a need for journalists who can scrape and analyze big data. But they can learn those skills without getting a master’s degree; there are plenty of courses in statistics and data science on offer, for a lot less money (DataCamp has online courses for as low as $25 per month).

While there’s an argument to be made that a specialized journalism program teaches one how to apply those skills to the field of journalism, at a $150K price tag that opportunity will be limited to a chosen few.

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