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Columbia Journalism School Tries to Make That $92,933 Price Tag Worth It

"I'm aware that I am a spy in the house of Pulitzer ... because I'm a statistician."

Nellie Bowles for Re/code

How can you make a nearly $100,000 journalism masters degree (factoring in room and board) worthwhile in the post-grad world?

Teach those English majors some data science.

Columbia students are wrapping up their first semester at a new and cheaper data journalism certification course called the Lede Program, a radical initiative to teach reporters how to code and graph and generally be ready for jobs at statistics-driven media outlets like FiveThirtyEight and the Upshot.

Over on-campus coffee at Brad’s Brew, Columbia journalism professors Mark Hansen and Jonathan Soma talked about strapping accelerometers onto ballerinas, worrying that coding reporters will become disempowered newsroom assistants, and how data wouldn’t have made Rolling Stone’s UVA debacle any better.

“I’m aware that I am a spy in the house of Pulitzer,” said Hansen, who spearheaded the design of the Lede program. “Because I’m a statistician.”

He’s right, in a way. Though Joseph Pulitzer himself wrote about the importance of statistics in stories on everything from politics to romance, many reporters have been (and, despite years of “journalism is dead” death knells, still are) wary of statistics, coding and, basically, the Internet (I count myself among them). Hansen said some of his students worry that local newsrooms won’t know what to do with a reporter who learns to do statistics, and that he or she may become a reporting assistant rather than one who finds the stories.

“I do have students who, in the back of their mind, are worried about losing control,” he said. “Being put in a corner to code.”

But, he continued, the reality, given the success of sites like FiveThirtyEight, will be that these coding reporters are leading some of the most interesting reporting.

Soma said he had been curious about whether a data-driven approach could have saved the Rolling Stone story, which relied heavily on an anecdote of sexual assault that has now been called into question.

“I looked up the Clery data — five years ago, there was, max, four cases [of assault on UVA’s campus]. One year ago, 11. This year, 38 was what Rolling Stone said. Is there suddenly a lot more sexual assault?” Soma said. “No. Get real. Those numbers are fake. All they speak to is the need to speak critically about data.”

But as companies collect more data about people, having reporters who can understand it is increasingly important.

Hansen said receiving a new data set was like “approaching a source who doesn’t speak your language.”

“Newsrooms don’t know what they want when they say ‘data journalist,’ and part of our responsibility is helping them understand what that means,” he said.

“But who knows everything,” Soma added.

The inaugural Lede program, a special program within Columbia Journalism School whose summer and fall tuition (not including room and board) is $26,912, was 17 students, and Hansen said he’s hoping that number will double next year. His students recently analyzed the White House guest list to see what role wealth has in who visits, and what happens after a visit. Another student analyzed the chat streams on livestreaming videogame platform — more comments were about the videogame when it was men playing, but more comments were about the gamer when a woman was playing. Another student created an NYC social registry based on who is on which philanthropic boards. Another strapped an accelerometer to a pro ballerina and to a novice dancer to study how they move differently.

Coffee wrapped up, and I asked the two men for their ages. Soma, who prefers to be called by his last name, is 31; Hansen, who has a scraggly-line tattoo trailing down his forearm, said he wasn’t telling.

“That’s data,” he said. “If you want it badly enough, you can find it.”

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