At the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse students interested in pursuing a career in journalism must do so without the experience of a major or minor in journalism, as UWL does not currently offer a journalism program. However, professors in the English department are working towards introducing a journalism minor at UWL.
“We have been working on a journalism minor for a few years,” said Dr. Natalie Eschenbaum, Chair of the English Department. “It is tentatively called ‘Multimedia Journalism & Digital Publishing’ and we hope to be able to offer it to students by 2020.”
“We only have one faculty member who specializes in journalism, so it is impossible to support a major with just one specialist,” said Eschenbaum. “A minor is possible, which is why are pursuing that option.”
That specialist is Dr. Lei Zhang, Assistant Professor in the English department. In the journalism minor proposal Zhang writes, “This minor responds to students’ academic demands for both traditional writing and editing training and hands-on training in writing, digital publishing, and multimedia production.”
This experience would be crucial for students hoping to pursue journalism, a field that is changing drastically as news media moves to a digital age. “If UWL had a journalism program, I believe that I would be such a stronger writer compared to what I am now,” said Sarah Waara, a UWL student who is interested in a career in journalism. “Although there are English classes that cover basic principles of journalism, having a program for it would allow us as students to learn a lot more about journalism and everything that comes with it.”
Current UWL students interested in journalism are able to develop the skills needed in journalism in other classes, though the focus isn’t directly on journalism. “English offers a number of courses that help them to refine their writing, critical thinking, and research skills,” said Eschenbaum. “Some [courses] are particularly relevant to students who are interested in journalism careers…students should also consider the Digital Media Studies and Design Minor, housed in Communications department.”
Dr. Dena Huisman, Associate Professor in the CST department who holds a Masters in journalism and mass media from Iowa State University also commented on the issue, “We have a digital media minor, and the goal of that program was to look forward to types of careers that will be most common in the future for journalists and media professionals. I think traditional journalism programs are not as strong as a broader approach to understanding the diverse array of media production and writing that folks will be engaging in the next twenty plus years.”
“In September of my freshman year of college I applied for a part time sports writer position at the La Crosse Tribune and got the position due to my previous writing experience,” said Waara. “But if it weren’t for my previous writing experience, I’m not sure I would’ve gotten the position. Because of UWL not having a journalism program, I probably wouldn’t have had much knowledge of how to write in that style.”
Part of the challenge of introducing a journalism program are the dramatic changes taking place in the journalism field. “The trouble is that the professional field of journalism has changed drastically in recent years,” said Eschenbaum. “Employment rates in traditional print journalism have decreased, and we have similarly seen student demand for those courses decrease. But demand and interest in digital media and journalism more broadly defined have increased. When we changed our courses to include more digital and social media content, we saw an increase in enrollment.”
“I would argue that newspapers are going to have to radically change their structure to stay relevant,” said Huisman. “Journalism with multimedia and digital media skills are going to be a lot more valuable to newspapers in the coming decade.”
In Zhang’s minor proposal, she reports that there is enough interest in a journalism program to support a minor. In fact, nineteen percent of students who filled out the English department’s “campus close up” form in the past 4 years reported interest in a journalism minor.
Zhang hopes to develop a program that prepares students not only for the writing and editing requirements of journalism, but also the data analysis and digital publications requirements of the job. Zhang hopes that providing students with experience in data literacy, software knowledge, and work experience with publishing programs such as Tableau will prepare students for a career in a field that is constantly growing and changing.
The 18-credit minor would require two introductory courses, three electives, and a required internship, which Zhang said could be completed at organizations such as The Racquet, The La Crosse Tribune, and other local organizations. Zhang predicts that the minor will be offered to students as early as Spring of 2020.
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