Students build a journalism foundation through professional master’s program

When Rosario Domínguez (MA’18) was working as a Spanish-language interpreter after graduating from college, she dreamed of telling stories through video.

Domínguez had majored in communication and taken some video production classes, but she didn’t feel ready for a job working with video. As she considered going back to school for a master’s degree, she looked for programs that would teach her the foundations of journalism.

A quick Internet search led her to the School of Journalism and Mass Communication’s professional master’s degree program, known as the pro-track program, at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

“I Googled the J-School and realized they had a pro-track program for people who wanted to do a career switch,” says Domínguez, who now works as a reporter for Univision in Chicago. “The program was very intentional in saying, ‘We really want you to get experience when you get here,’ and it was very encouraging.

The program’s affordability and flexibility puts a master’s degree in reach for students pursuing careers in journalism. Students take advantage of a range of expertise across UW-Madison to build a personalized foundation in reporting skills, journalism concepts and background knowledge they need to work in the field. (While most students complete the program in three semesters, some choose to stay for a fourth to build additional knowledge or keep working in on-campus jobs.)

It’s that blend of professional experience combined with learning about the foundations of journalism and communication that makes the difference for UW-Madison pro-track students once they graduate, says Professor Sue Robinson, Helen Firstbrook Franklin Professor of Journalism and former director of the professional master’s program. Robinson teaches such courses as literary aspects of journalism (students call it “J-School book club”) and journalism for social change.

“There’s a commitment to not just skills but concepts, and the experience that pro-track students can get here,” says Robinson, pointing to the program’s relationships with the Center for Journalism Ethics and Wisconsin Watch. “There’s this strong emphasis on being a holistic journalist and the responsibility of journalism in a society. That comes through very loudly here.”

Students’ first few months on campus are focused on getting clips — many publish stories on the J-School’s hyperlocal news site Madison Commons — to build their portfolios. They start the program by taking J335: Principles and Practices of Reporting, which sets the foundation for the type of reporting they’ll do in such upper-level skills courses as investigative reporting, creative nonfiction or storytelling through sound.

“My first semester I was like, ‘I’m going to learn everything,’ then after that, I’m going to get into an internship and writing articles,” Domínguez says.

During that first semester, pro-track students also craft a personalized program proposal, which lays out the student’s planned course of study and specialization, from politics or the arts to sustainability and the environment. Students say that customization helps shape them into better journalists who know how to advocate for themselves and think critically across a range of disciplines.

“It’s a very independent degree, but in a way I think that sets you up to work in the field,” says Domínguez, who reported for a local TV station in Peoria before working for Univision. “A lot of times, especially if you’re a multimedia journalist, you have to learn to rely on yourself and aggressively get things done. It sets you up for that.”

Pro-track students who excel in the program see every assignment as a way to build journalism experience and their professional portfolio — even coursework in classes on journalism concepts, such as media ethics or mass communication and society.

Natalie Yahr ’19 wrestled with questions about how journalists build relationships with sources that she wanted to explore in a graduate seminar on journalism ethics. She worked with the instructor, Professor Kathleen Bartzen Culver, to modify a research paper assignment into a nationally recognized guide to practicing less extractive reporting.

“I was able to not only choose a class that I wanted to take, but make what I wanted to make in that class,” says Yahr, who is now a reporter and podcast producer for Madison’s Cap Times.

One requirement for completing the pro-track program includes an internship; most students do it during the summer between their second and third semesters. Yahr had minimal news reporting experience when she started the program and said the real-life newsroom exposure she received in her internship at the Cap Times was key to helping her understand how to make day-to-day journalistic decisions.

Once students complete their coursework, they present their portfolios, talking about the most important work they did in the program and reflecting on what they learned from it. Having that goal of working toward the best possible portfolio encourages students to look for internships and freelancing opportunities, says Domínguez, who did internships at the Cap Times and CNN in Atlanta.

“For me, I was coming into the program knowing I was going to take 100% advantage of being a student,” she says. “It’s a degree set up to get you ready for a full-time job right after‚ and that makes you value that time. I have a year and a half or two to really appreciate that time and get as many opportunities as possible.”

Pro-track students at UW-Madison also reap big benefits from being part of the larger university community, The program requires them to take at least two courses outside the J-School, which helps them become more well-rounded journalists. Some students choose to build expertise in certain areas, such as a law class in criminal justice reform for those interested in legal reporting, or add to their professional skills with courses in photography, map making or arts criticism.

Students relish being a part of the UW-Madison community, and when it comes time to look for jobs, the school’s students take full advantage of the school’s powerful network of Badger alumni.

One reason the university is so appealing is that Madison, the state’s capital city, consistently ranks as one of the best places in the nation to live, work and study. Students take full advantage of the food, sports and arts scene on campus and in the greater community. From a practical perspective, this also gives students plenty to report and write about for classes and local media outlets.

The affordability of UW-Madison is also a draw. Students from Wisconsin paid in-state tuition and fees of $12,179 in the 2019-20 academic year, which ranks ninth among the 13 schools in the Big Ten, according to UW-Madison. Non-residents paid $25,506, 12th in the Big Ten. The J-School is also able to make scholarship offers to cover tuition and fees for many of the pro-track students; they are also eligible for research and project positions on campus that come with tuition remission.

That affordability was key for Domínguez, who didn’t want to add to the student loan debt she already had from her undergraduate degree.

“From the beginning, I felt not just that I got accepted, but that they really wanted me to be there,” Domínguez says.