College Media Geeks: Jim Rodenbush, Outgoing Daily Collegian News Adviser at Penn State

Jim Rodenbush recently relocated to the St. Louis area — leaving behind State College, Sandusky and The Daily Collegian.

He also leaves behind a lasting legacy within contemporary collegemediatopia. As news adviser of the Collegian at Penn State University for more than three years, he provided indelible counsel to student journalists on a reporting mission of a lifetime — tackling a massive child sex abuse case, a fallen iconic coach, a university leadership shakeup and questions (so many questions) on who knew what when and why more wasn’t done until it was way too late.

His new gig a time zone away from Pa. may be in the professional sphere — regional digital editor for GateHouse Media’s 25 southern Illinois publications — but he will forever be a true college media geek.

In a recent interview, Rodenbush reflected on his Collegian advising days, opined on the current state of the student press and offered advice to future college media leaders.

Rodenbush and 2013-'14 Collegian EIC Brittany Horn

Rodenbush and 2013-’14 Collegian EIC Brittany Horn

Looking back, what was the most surprising part of your Collegian experience?

The most surprising part was when I discovered that a student could leave Penn State with a journalism degree and not spend one day working for the student newspaper. That speaks to the depth of the Penn State student media market. You have the student newspaper, a student-run blog, the TV station, the radio station and classes within the College of Communications that allow your work to be published.

As adviser, it presents a challenge. It’s not enough to wait for students to come to you. You have to constantly promote the Collegian — at times, even to those already on staff — because so many other choices are available.

To follow up, what is your advice to advisers and editors who are attempting to recruit and retain student staffers?

Get in front of the students and sell yourself. The Collegian showed the advantages of proactive recruiting with a couple of simple things it did this past year. First, our EIC gave a speech/presentation at Penn State’s New Student Orientation. So, when tryouts were advertised, students were able to attach a name and face to the paper. And this directly resulted in an increase in the number of freshmen who tried out for the Collegian. (I know because I asked each of them.)

Also, the Collegian expanded its semester-long tryout program to include a checklist of several tasks that students had to complete. This checklist required them to meet editors, staff writers and members of the professional staff and learn about the operations of the newspaper. But it also afforded those already in the building the chance to sell the Collegian to those wanting to join. It’s one thing to hear from me how great the paper is. It’s another thing to hear from those already on staff. What we immediately saw from this was an increase in our retention rates, those who started and completed the tryout program.

“I’m worried that college media … is becoming reactive rather than proactive. There is a rush to become ‘digital first’ when many outlets have no idea exactly what that means for them or how to go about making that switch. Instead of striving to be ‘digital first’ and/or dumping print editions, we should pay attention to all of it.”

What’s your advice for the next Collegian news adviser?

Be ready to do a lot more than critique content and teach reporting — and forget working 9-to-5. This position is about the students and what they need from you on a day-to-day basis. That means answering questions at the oddest of hours. It means dealing with issues that sometimes have little to do with journalism. You’ll be a teacher, mentor, confidant, friend, crazy uncle — you name it.

In respect to the job’s non-9-to-5 status, what’s an example of a late-night crisis, controversy or question you were called to help handle during your time as a Collegian adviser?

Here’s an example that had little to do with journalism: Around 11:30 p.m. one night, I received a text from my EIC because a reporter had gone missing. This reporter had been assigned to cover a campus event on deadline, hadn’t returned to the office to file her story and wasn’t answering phone calls or texts. We quickly learned she hadn’t made it to the event either. I was fond of saying “This isn’t in the adviser’s handbook” — and this was definitely an example of that. To make a long story short, the reporter was found in her dorm room fast asleep — a textbook example of a quick nap gone awry. But for a future adviser, it’s worth noting: Any time something out of the ordinary happens, the first call or text is coming to you.

What’s your honest assessment of the state of college media circa now — from an editorial, innovation or financial perspective?

Editorially, I’m worried that college media — in many ways just like its professional counterpart — is becoming reactive rather than proactive. There is a rush to become “digital first” when many outlets have no idea exactly what that means for them or how to go about making that switch. Instead of striving to be “digital first” and/or dumping print editions, we should pay attention to all of it. Teach reporting across all platforms. Teach students not only how to recognize a good story, but the best way to tell it — whether that be through social media, video, audio, print or a combination of everything. In the end, that approach can’t help but make your product stronger.

Financially, I’m afraid I have no wise or enlightening answers to pass along. The revenue struggles are real and I have nothing but great respect for those charged with bringing in money to a media outlet. This much I do know: Much like life on the editorial side, there is no one grand answer. Each outlet has its own unique successes, challenges, etc. The Daily Collegians of the world have to understand their own market and not worry about what’s happening elsewhere.

What was the most rewarding part of your Collegian gig?

My three-and-a-half years at the Collegian were the most fun I’ve had in my journalism career and the number one reason was the students. My day-to-day interactions with them were easily the best part of the job. In particular, I was privileged to work with four remarkable EICs — Liz Murphy, Lexi Belculfine, Casey McDermott and Brittany Horn. The energy, toughness and talent they brought to the position made even the most mundane days rewarding.

Related

College Newspaper of the Year, 2011-2012: The Daily Collegian, Penn State University

College Media Geeks: Sarah Kirkpatrick, Outgoing Daily Free Press Editor-in-Chief at BU

College Media Geeks: Jennifer Waits, College Radio Reporter & Advocate

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