How to Be a Great Student Media Adviser (or Editor): 10 Tips from a Reporting & Advising Veteran

At a college media advisers’ workshop last week in St. Petersburg, Fla., Caley Cook held court.  In a spirited morning session, the print and broadcast journalist, journalism professor, and student newspaper adviser shared a bevy of tips focused on successfully navigating the college media advising minefield.  Much of the advice also applies to students segueing this fall into an editor post.

Below is a paraphrased breakdown of her words of wisdom– and a fun video at the close involving a quirky crab dance.

How to Be a Great College Media Adviser

1) Don’t be a bull in a china shop.  Drop your 18-point plan to change everything on day one, during the first semester or even during the first year.  Practice patience.  Accept that things won’t be in tip-top shape when you arrive and will require a slow shift to achieve the excellence to which you aspire.  To get there, take on one big change at a time.

2) Learn the larger campus culture and who your outside advocates are.  Specifically ferret out those who are able to approve and provide funding, a needed signature, a push through bureaucracy, and help with recruiting or promotion.

3) Communicate openly, honestly, often, and IN PERSON with your staff, students, faculty, administrators, the printer, and alumni of the school and your news outlet.  Avoid email whenever possible or at least avoid over-using it.  During her time at Allegheny College– while advising The Allegheny Campus— Cook said she tried to walk across campus at least once a day to talk to someone, shake hands, look them in the eye, get feedback, and accept criticism.

4) Administrators, repeat after me.  During chats with high-level school officials especially, what you will often have to tell those who simply don’t ‘get’ student media: “Repeat after me: I am not the editor.”

5) Ease up on the critical high ground.  Don’t make critiques your only interaction with staffers.  Be a sounding board, a mentor, a cheerleader, and, to a limited extent, a friend (or at least a friendly figure).

6) Go ahead, brag.  Brag about your staff’s work to faculty, administrators, admissions staffers, and prospective students and parents.  The praise will stir greater respect among the powers-that-be and provide students with the chance to receive the best type of compliment– secondhand.

7) Set standards and a culture of accountability.  You can have a big role in the publication’s big picture and the ways in which students work.  Create a handbook and refer to it enough that it matters in students’ eyes.  For example, while at Allegheny, Cook printed out the student newspaper handbook on day one and had all staffers read and sign it.  If nothing else, the handbook can provide a buffer during difficult moments in which students fight against taking orders from their peers or question someone’s experience or decision-making.

In a related sense, create a system in which students are held accountable by other students (their editors).  Encourage student leaders to take charge of shaping and updating the rules– making the process student-first and always collaborative.

8) Let students fail.  Prepare them to fail gracefully.  And embrace failure’s power as a learning tool.  Failure enables students to much more memorably and actively assess and see the flaws in their own work.  It also builds character and subsequently (hopefully) leads them to produce better journalism.  In part, the necessary failures will come when you stop hovering.  You need to be in the newsroom, often, but not all the time, and not standing over students’ shoulders and critiquing every move while they write, design, and edit.

9) Accept that students listen sporadically.  Toward the end of her talk, Cook shared an anecdote about advice she once offered her student newspaper team, soon after realizing it was going unheeded.  Months later, at a convention, a group of editors raced up to her, telling her they had just received some great advice from a session speaker and they intended to follow it to a tee.  As Cook recalled, she could only smile– it was the same advice she had previously given them.

10) Develop and nurture a sense of humor.  You will need it.  If not, you will burn out fast.  It will also lead to a greater rapport with students.  Journalists are quirky.  And student journalists are even quirkier because they’re just starting out and figuring out who they are.  As long as it doesn’t overly distract from a deadline push, embrace the quirkiness.

One example of j-student quirkiness: a short video sent to Cook featuring two of her (now former) student newspaper staffers at Allegheny.  Click.  Watch.  Enjoy.  Don’t try at home.  Or at least don’t livestream while you’re doing it.

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