Journalism education at the University of Wisconsin began in 1904 with a single professor, Willard Grosvenor Bleyer, and a single course, Law and The Press, enrolling 25 students. Over a century later, our School of Journalism & Mass Communication encompasses two dozen instructors, over 50 different courses, and nearly 500 undergraduate majors (plus another 100 graduate students)—but it still demonstrates Bleyer’s firm belief that professional and academic training should proceed in tandem, their goals and insights supporting and contributing to each other.
A Liberal Arts Foundation
Long rooted in the College of Letters and Science, the School embraces a broad liberal arts education as the first professional requirement for future communicators. Our graduates need to be at home in a complex, global world, so our training demands classes in social sciences, natural sciences and the humanities as an academic base. Effective communicators must also be critically engaged citizens, with an understanding of a wide variety of social conditions across the world and a deep respect for both intellectual and cultural diversity.
Ours is a competitive major, and as a result, our students represent the best that L&S has to offer. Over half of them double-major or pursue an outside certificate in order to combine another field with mass communication. And our faculty support these interdisciplinary connections, with formal affiliations to other L&S units like Political Science, International Studies, Geography, and History.
The original focus of our program, news-editorial journalism, began in 1904 when the era of broadcasting and the Internet was far away, and the field of mass communication had not even been founded. Print media in the form of newspapers and magazines constituted the whole of the press. Over the next few years, new courses were developed for reporting, writing, editing and advanced concepts. The UW established Journalism as a department in 1912, and reformulated it as the School of Journalism in 1927.
As technology changed, so did we. SJMC at UW–Madison was among the first to introduce education in electronic editing and the offset press. Radio news had its start here before World War II. And after television went from a household adoption rate of zero to nearly 100% in only two decades, we established a Radio-Television News Sequence in 1970. Today we house cutting-edge experiments in hyperlocal digital citizen journalism (the Madison Commons) and online public-service investigative reporting (the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism).
With all of these changes in the media came the recognition that the practice of journalism existed in a larger ecosystem of communication for overlapping information, strategic, and entertainment goals. Our first sequence in advertising developed in association with courses offered by the School of Business. By the early 1950s it encompassed creative and account management areas. Public relations developed under Professor Scott M. Cutlip, from a single lecture course in the 1940s to an established sequence in 1970.
But neither of these new tracks worked in isolation from our training in journalism. Rather, we embraced the notion of a School that educated all of its students about the broad media environment that their audiences experienced, stressing that the techniques of careful research, ethical communication, and engaging creativity were necessary to the best investigative reporting as well as the best political campaigning or product marketing. Today, our Center for Communication and Democracy and our Center for Journalism Ethics both explore the ways that the economic, social, and professional ties between strategic communication and journalism continue to evolve in the new digital environment.
To reflect our growing intellectual and professional diversity, we adopted a broader term to better reflect the wide range of our teaching, research, and service: “mass communication.” Our world-renowned Mass Communication Research Center still sets the bar in the field for collaborative investigation and publication on a wide range of issues, from the changes in journalism during times of war to the uses of social media in political campaigning. In 1970, we officially rebranded ourselves the School of Journalism & Mass Communication. However, old habits die hard, and friends won’t be faulted for calling us the “J-School” now and then.
The School moved to its first permanent, dedicated “home” in 1972, with the opening of Vilas Communication Hall. Until then, the School had wandered through numerous remodeled and temporary spaces. With SJMC facilities on the 5th floor and the 2nd floor, Vilas Hall allows maximum faculty and student contact and provides ample teaching and research space. State-of-the-art computer laboratories, smart classrooms, and a flexible media commons make it one of the best places on campus to work and study.
The Wisconsin Idea
A Journalism & Mass Communication education at Wisconsin takes place as much outside Vilas Hall as within. Throughout our history, we’ve emphasized professional experience beyond the classroom through formative internships in the for-profit, government, and non-profit sectors. In the 1930s and ‘40s, the school’s second director, Grant Milnor Hyde, placed students in the city rooms of local newspapers for live assignments and began awarding class credit for such work. Today, nearly 90% of our graduates experience at least one internship during their time here. Through SJMC leadership, in 2010 the College of Letters & Science developed its own cross-department internship program, based on our innovative online and collaborative summer internship course.
Extending the boundaries of the classroom to those of the state, the nation, and beyond is what we at UW–Madison call the “Wisconsin Idea,” and it is alive and well in SJMC. Our students are active in both professional societies and activist groups. They have brought their communication skills to bear on public-service campaigns against binge drinking on campus and for increased awareness of sexual health and safety. And about half of our majors write for one or both of the two student newspapers on campus—often using their experiences as a launching point for campus forums about online civility, hate speech, and press freedom in the global, digital world.
Excellence in Research and Industry
Beyond our undergraduate curriculum, graduate work draws students to examine mass communication in greater depth, either to earn a professional degree or to prepare for teaching and research in the field. Ralph O. Nafziger’s arrival as Director in 1949 began an insistence on new rigor in research. He sought and obtained the establishment of a Ph.D. in Mass Communication. Among the first such Ph.D. programs in the nation, it granted its first degree in 1953. By 1973, we graduated more Ph.D.s in Mass Communication than any other school. Today, our top-ranked Doctoral program is jointly administered with the Department of Life Sciences Communication in the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences.
Whether they earned their Bachelors, Masters, or Doctoral degrees with us, the School’s alumni rank among the nation’s finest professionals, teachers and researchers. Our graduates have amassed a distinguished record of such awards and honors as the Pulitzer Prize, demonstrating the value of a Wisconsin academic foundation. In the 1990s, the school established a Board of Visitors, made up largely of alumni, who consult with faculty and staff and offer insights into our curriculum and service.
Looking Toward the Future
A powerful legacy anchors over a century of teaching, research and public service in journalism and mass communication. Our blend of practical and conceptual training in communication remains as vibrant as ever. The new curriculum we launched in fall 2000 established us as a leader in digital online communication technologies even before their vast impact on the communication industries was fully appreciated. And as the world of mass communication continues to expand and evolve, incorporating audience production of content and the global circulation of ideas like never before, we will be there, teaching and training the next generation of ethical and energetic communication professionals for roles, jobs, and industries that haven’t even been invented yet.