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What does a college media adviser do, anyway?

January 7, 2009

To casual observers, the college media adviser can seem a mysterious guy.

He sits in an office—at some colleges his desk is found in the student newsroom, radio station or TV station, at others in a professorial enclave, at still others in the brightly lit, occasionally overly peppy aisles of Student Life—and pores over the student paper, pen in hand, or tunes into the broadcast media he advises. He calls students into his office to have earnest conversations: sometimes happy, sometimes not. He makes animated phone calls and pounds out far too many e-mails.

What the heck is he up to in there?568fff2a1294a.image

Or, more to the point, people ask, as I was asked this week: What is it you DO, anyway?

You’d be surprised how often media advisers get asked this question.

At my last job, where I taught journalism and advised the student newspaper, some of my fellow teachers so firmly believed that I edited the paper that they regularly called me to complain about a certain word choice or misspelling in a headline. More than one of them introduced me to others as the “editor” of the campus paper.

But that’s not what I did. Or do.

Rather, I advise and I teach. That’s it. I help out with the occasional administrative brouhaha, but mostly I spend my time pushing from the sidelines, which is where the best media advisers stay.

In a typical week, I’ll meet individually, in pairs or in small groups with anywhere from 10 to 50 students, occasionally more. I help students evaluate news design, figure out how to increase ad sales, develop expansion plans, improve on-air presence,  manage their peers, get internships and jobs, and so on. Sometimes I drop in on student-run staff meetings so that I can better understand how the student leaders are interacting with their respective groups and, along the way, publicly show my support for them and their work.

The top leaders of UVM’s student organizations—the station manager at WRUV-FM, the president at UVMtv and the editor at The Vermont Cynic—get the vast majority of my time and attention—occasionally more than they would like—because they carry the greatest responsibilities within their individual organizations, and it’s by advising them that I can be of greatest use.

In a healthy organization, most people have someone they can go to with problems, and they know to whom they should go: the features writer to the features editor; the features editor to the assistant managing editor; the assistant managing editor to the managing editor; the managing editor to the editor-in-chief, etc.

The editor-in-chief—or station manager or president or whoever else carries final say in the organization—can vent with me, if he or she wants, and I can offer the outside but attentive perspective of someone who cares deeply about the organization but is not involved in its day-to-day workings.

I believe firmly in the ideals spelled out in the College Media Association’s Code of Ethics, which I sometimes append to my e-mails and which reads, in part:

The ultimate goal of the student media adviser is to mold, preserve and protect an ethical and educational environment in which excellent communication skills and sound journalistic practice will be learned and practiced by students. There should never be an instance where an adviser maximizes quality by minimizing learning. Student media should always consist of student work.

I have two overriding goals as UVM’s student media adviser:

  1. I want to help each student learn, grow and develop as a potential media professional and potential student leader. If I can help to make students better thinkers and problem-solvers along the way, so much the better.
  2. I want each of the media organizations I advise—radio, TV and newspaper—to continue to evolve as ethical, functional institutions that serve their membership and their audiences better than they have in the past.

Occasionally, development of an organization will take a back seat to the educational experience of the students who lead it—that is, I might watch as students fail in their efforts so that they can learn from their mistakes—which makes everyone (myself included) uncomfortable. However, this is why, if a non-student—whether a Burlington reader or a WRUV non-student DJ or the university president—contacts me with a problem s/he’s having with one of the media groups, I won’t try to solve the problem but will instead ask whether the caller has already spoken to the appropriate student leader about his or her concern. If the caller has come to me first, then I’ll point that caller directly to the student leader.

One last note specifically for my UVM readers: Given everything I’ve mentioned here, if there’s something that you believe a media adviser should be doing that I’m not, please let me know by leaving a comment below, calling me at 802-656-2060 or emailing me at

Better yet, let the student leadership know. After all, it’s their show.


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