The Five Ws of College Media Training
By Kelley Lash
While the temperature outside might not seem to agree, fall is coming, and so are our students. Whether you work with a lab publication, just one or two media, or an entire group of outlets, one of the most important things you can do to serve your students is to set up some kind of training boot camp.
Like anything else in college media, the approach will vary, as you can see in this piece from CMR in 2013. This updated version will focus on the core five Ws and H of college media boot camp: whom are you serving, what will you cover, where should you hold it, when will it have the greatest impact, why it matters and how you can pull it all off.
The most important thing to remember is that training must suit your needs and, most importantly, the needs of your students. No single approach works for everyone, but paying attention to the core questions will help you develop something that sets you up for success in the coming year.
Advisers are all too often to asked to be jacks of all trades, and we are often expected to have a one-stop solution for training all levels of students across all media. But we know that rarely works.
No matter your level of involvement with your students, you can’t be around all the time. Therefore it is important that your top media leaders feel confident running the show without you. So it makes sense that if we train our top-level students really thoroughly, they should be able to teach their staffs. It’s absolutely OK to focus on the top leaders first and foremost.
Hopefully, by the time these students reach these higher positions, they’ve become rather comfortable with the needs of their given media. You probably don’t need to cover the basics too much. What they need is leadership training. Consider doing some kind of exercise about discovering your leadership type – Strengths Quest, Colors or this version of Myers Briggs. Once students recognize their personality types, walk them through exercises on how to work with other types. If this isn’t necessarily your strength, reach out to your leadership or housing offices. Professionals in those departments are usually familiar with this kind of training.
If you advise just one or two groups, and you want to have face time with everyone, maybe aim to have training in the mornings for top leaders and then for the full crew in the afternoon. There are many skills that apply to all levels of staffers and getting folks in the same room can really help build camaraderie.
Whether it’s the top-level leaders or the whole crew, still provide opportunities for students to train each other. Encourage seasoned leaders to develop training sessions for their peers. This is especially important when a big change is coming, like a redesign or a new copy flow system. You might ask them to share the presentation with you ahead of time, just so you can look for any legal or practical pitfalls. But students love to hear from each other, so start the year off by encouraging that practice. This also empowers your student leaders, and sends the message to all students that students truly are in charge.
Maybe you don’t have a large staff and can’t really utilize them for training. So ask your colleagues on campus. Look to folks in the journalism, communication or design departments. Ask them to present a session or two on topics your leaders have identified as important. Don’t stop with media skills. Reach out to leadership, diversity and athletics and ask them to present. It’s wonderful to hear from the folks in marketing and communication or public affairs, you know, the folks with access to the big wigs. Ask them to come in and talk about the best ways to connect with them and the upper administration they represent.
One of the most vital people you can ask to assist in your training is your alumni. Very often they have fond memories of their time in school because they were involved in student media, so they are often more than happy to give back. If you have alums nearby who work in media, ask them to come talk to your crew. You may even get folks who aren’t nearby to come in. They get to visit their old stomping grounds and give back to a program they value. Budgets might prevent you from funding these trips, but they shouldn’t prevent you from asking.
David Swartzlander at Doane College said alumni from Doane are often more than happy to come talk to his students, and they provide insight he and other professors just can’t.
“Alums provide various pieces of wisdom that professors/advisers may not be able to,” Swartzlander said. “They can talk intelligently about today’s journalism/media environment. They know what is happening now.”
He said he thinks alumni can reach students because they’ve experienced similar things.
“Another advantage is that these alums sat at the desks where students are perched,” he said. “They know what the students must do, what they have to go through. So they can connect that way as well.”
But Swartzlander said the most important thing alumni can do for students is to inspire them.
“And the last advantage, and perhaps the best,” he said, “is that when students meet alums, you can almost see them thinking: ‘Yes, I can make it in the biz. This guy Andy made it. If he can do it, so can I.’ It’s a motivating factor, just as succeeding at an internship can drive students to excel in student media. I want my students to see the Doane alums who made it in journalism or other media ventures.”
But maybe you work at a school without a journalism or media major, so it’s much harder to find alumni who went into media who can return to participate in training. If you have the funds, bringing in experts from other programs can be a great investment. Often these folks have been in your shoes and are willing to come to your campus in order to support you. They seemingly offer a different perspective to your students, even though they are likely in the same mindset you are. If your budget or potential audience is small, consider sharing expenses for these professionals with other schools nearby. It helps you, but also helps to train students at other schools, and that serves journalism in general.
You need to decide for yourself and your media what you cover in boot camp training. Obviously the options are numerous and varied, but what you choose to cover in boot camp is up to the students you are engaging with and their wants and needs.
If you have a handbook (and I highly recommend that you do), this is the perfect time to go over it with your students. Especially focus on policies that are new or things that were problems in the past. This is also a great time to look over your mission statement and update it if needed. If your student leaders have already developed yearly SMART goals, go over them at training. If they haven’t developed their yearly goals, this is the perfect time to teach them how to do that.
Make sure to go over communication tips. If your groups use an approved medium, like Slack, make sure folks understand that it is the preferred mode of communication. While you’re at it, talk about your after hours availability and rules. If you are available until 9 p.m. for non-emergencies, tell them at this point. And maybe reiterate to them that they, too, should have a work-life balance.
While the possible topics to cover are endless, make sure to cover the basics, like how to run a meeting and how to follow up after a meeting. Don’t forget to hit on media ethics, preparing yourself for the workforce and it wouldn’t hurt to include some diversity training.
Fall training should hit on leadership, communication, policies, procedures and all of that super important stuff. But don’t forget it’s also about staff bonding. No matter how long your training is, you are asking students to give of their time. Make sure that even if it doesn’t teach them everything you want, that it’s still valuable. You can’t reach every student with every topic, but you can create a collaborative, supportive working environment. And that might be more important.
The most logical place to hold training is your home office. Students know where it is, and it should be free for your use. Since it’s a brand new year, consider sprucing the place up a bit. Make it homey. Do a summer cleaning and rearrange things if possible. Add some new decorations (or make some decorations as part of training). Make the place feel new and special.
If your space is too small, or you want to rid training of all distractions, consider getting out of the office and going someplace else on campus. Is there a room at the football stadium that might be fun? A special boardroom usually only available to VIPs? See if you can hold training there, because it will make the students and the training feel important.
Off-campus retreats used to be all the rage when student media revenue was high. And for good reason. Getting away from campus for a night, or even just a day, can encourage group bonding. There is a lot to be said about road trips and sharing a room for a night. Being away from campus is considerably less distracting. You can often rent a conference room in a hotel for a nominal amount, and often it is free if you book guest rooms for the night. You could also rent a home on AirBnB or maybe borrow an alum’s home.
Your institution’s schedule may dictate when you are able to hold your boot camp, so you need to take that into consideration. If you can, try to hold training before classes even start or before the first broadcast or publication. (It’s very important that if you go this route that you make your students aware of the training dates during the spring.) It’s great if you can get to the students before they are bogged down with classes and other clubs. Many campus housing offices will work with you to allow your students to move in early, so look into it. If you are conducting training during the work week, it’s easier to ask your campus colleagues to participate since you aren’t asking them to give up their personal time.
If you can’t do it before school starts, try to do it before you get too deep into the semester or quarter. You may have to give up a weekend or two, but it’ll make your life easier if the students get some solid training before they are publishing or broadcasting. You can always follow up your boot camp with weekly training reminders or more involved training presentations. Weekend boot camps might not be as intensive as you’d like, but giving students a baseline is still useful and important.
It’s important to determine why you are going through all the trouble to conduct a boot camp. Are you trying to address problems you’ve had in the past? Did evaluations indicate the students needed more training on certain topics? Does your administration demand you show them some kind of curriculum complete with learning outcomes? Seriously consider why you are investing this kind of time into a boot camp.
Thankfully you don’t have to decide for yourself: ask your students. When seniors are preparing for graduation, ask them what they worry about for the next staff. Ask the incoming leaders what they are hoping to fix first, and ask them what they want you to cover in training. Cater your schedule to their answers. Make this all about them.
Administrators often have a hard time understanding why advisers don’t edit the magazine or approve TV shows before they air. Being able to show them the skills you work to give students can be really important, and being able to show them a curriculum can buy you some breathing room.
Even if your publication or station is part of a class, a boot camp is a great way to kick off the new year. A quick overview of everything that it takes to make your product is a good thing for students to have, and establishes a report with your students that goes beyond the student-teacher dynamic.
Ask student leaders (maybe even when they are graduating) why they were involved in student media, what they wanted to learn, and what they wanted to get out of the experience. Don’t assume you already know the answers, either. Sometimes students are looking for a place to belong, or a way to serve their campus. So let students answer honestly, and then consider incorporating some training that will help them achieve these ends.
Also ask your incoming leaders what they think training should entail. Sometimes they might really surprise you. Last year my newspaper students asked for diversity training, but they very specifically wanted it to come from someone who knew them and understood their struggles. That left it up to me, but we ended up having a very meaningful conversation about Tina Fey’s sheetcaking sketch, the criticisms of it, and how to avoid and address such criticisms of their work. I was uncomfortable leading a discussion on diversity as a middle-class, white woman, but it actually was what my students needed to start opening up the conversation. By trusting my student leaders, we all got something we needed.
One thing to keep in mind is that many skills are better taught without technology. Studies show students learn more by physically writing things down, so when you can, ask that laptops and such be traded in for pencil and paper. Obviously some training requires technology, but if you can simplify things, do it. Not only will students retain information better, but, if they aren’t on their devices, they aren’t distracted by all the other media in the world.
Finally, boot camp should be fun. Students are giving up their time, and it’s possible not every training session will apply to them. So try to keep things fun. Send students on Twitter scavenger hunts, play games. Offer prizes. Don’t just lecture students; they can get that in class. Inspire them and entertain them.
Make sure to end training with an evaluation, not just on the training overall, but on individual sessions. When you bring in experts, colleagues and alumni, it helps to be able to provide them with feedback. And that feedback might encourage them to say “yes” to helping next year. It will help you evaluate what to keep and what to change, and the results will help you pinpoint what further training might be necessary.
Every school should approach training the same, but the actual training should be different. By asking yourself these important questions, you can build, and then tweak, a training program that works for your students in your situation. By doing focusing on really strong training, you might just make your life a little bit easier.
Kelley Lash is a Georgia girl in Texas world as she serves as the director of student media at Rice University. She directly advises the student newspaper The Rice Thresher, the yearbook The Campanile, and radio station KRTU. She served as director of student media at Georgia Southern University, where she received her bachelor’s and master’s degrees. She started her career at Methodist College (University) in Fayetteville, NC. In her many years with CMA she has served as president, vice president of member services, the critiques coordinator and managing editor of College Media Review. She created the adviser certification program and serves as editor of College Media Matters. She is raising a teenager who is considering a career in college media, and she is an avid fan of the Houston Texans and the Houston Astros.