College Student-Run News Entities and Communications Agencies

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Finding Solidarity in the Era of ‘Blame the Media’

By Doug Swanson
California State University, Fullerton

Being a journalism or broadcast educator was never an easy job. These days, under the shadow of ‘fake news’ and amidst the widely-promoted claim that journalists are ‘enemies of the people,’ the work can seem immensely more difficult. The rewards can seem more elusive.

College media advisers are educators who teach students to become responsible citizens in a noisy world in which a multitude of media so persuasively point in the opposite direction. Regardless of the specific media entity advisers work with, there are common opportunities and challenges. College student-produced publications and broadcast operations have much in common with the quickly expanding population of student-run communications agencies. There’s much we can learn from each other. We must work together to strengthen our educational presence and show clearly our public value in these tumultuous times.

Student Agency Structure and Focus

College student-run communications agencies are businesses operating within academe that allow students to gain conceptual knowledge and practical skills in advertising, event planning, marketing, public relations, strategic planning and other related fields. Agency students create and carry out events, campaigns, and projects for real world clients while preparing for the transition from the campus to the professional workplace.

Though goals are similar, agency structures vary. Most student-run agencies are housed within the curriculum and serve as electives or capstone courses. Some are volunteer-based entities external to the curriculum. Others function as community outreach of American Advertising Federation or Public Relations Student Society of America chapters. Some engage students for a year or more; others for just a single academic term. Some agencies charge for client services; others do not.

Although the earliest student-run agencies were established in the 1970s, the population of agencies has recently seen strong growth. An exhaustive search in 2016 turned up 154 student-run agencies in the U.S. and a handful in South America and Australia. The growth in student-run agencies is occurring because communications administrators and faculty are learning something that journalists have known for a long time: If you want to quickly advance a student’s professional skills, you need to put the student in a ‘hands on’ mentoring-focused environment and present issues and ethical choices that go beyond classroom exercises.

As a result, the focus of student-run agencies is the same as one would expect from a student newspaper or broadcast entity – concept learning, professional skill development, and community service. In the same way that college students prepare for print and TV journalism careers by reporting on the community where they live and work, student agency participants prepare for their careers by developing strategic communication campaigns for and about businesses and nonprofit entities in that community.

Our Common Opportunities

Even in the current challenging social, political and professional climate, there are many reasons to be optimistic about preparing young adults for media careers. Here are just a few. All are common to traditional journalism and broadcast entities and student-run agencies.

The advance of digital technology has given even the smallest college media entity equal footing with bigger, more seasoned competitors. With a small team of scrappy digital native students with smart phones in hand, it’s possible to run circles around established competitors who don’t know or can’t figure out how technology can solve problems. Our Cal State Fullerton student-run agency, PRactical ADvantage Communications, did this when Mazda Motorsports needed help getting its drivers to communicate better with journalists. We responded with a driver training manual and a smartphone-based app so drivers could intelligently anticipate and then answer journalists’ questions. PRactical ADvantage students built and launched the platform in less than four months – a fraction of the time it would have taken a ‘big agency’ to get wheels rolling.

Graduate students faster! – is the message being sent to academic programs by administrators on nearly every college and university campus. Of course, scholarly exploration is appropriate. But today it must be tempered by the reality that every additional academic term spent in college adds to an already crushing student loan debt for many of our graduates. Allowing the opportunity for earning academic credit in a college media entity, whether it be a newspaper, radio station, or student agency can get students up to speed faster on the most important skills they’ll need to succeed in the workplace. Any academic program in communication that operates absent of a ‘real world experience’ laboratory is shamefully out of touch with reality; its students are unprepared for marketplace-relevant tasks because they’ve never faced them.

The seeds of community interaction are planted and grown by the campus magazine, TV station, or other media entity. People in our communities want and need to know what students are up to. Our media entities tell the stories that inform the community and build long-lasting relationships. We also engage with the community to build the greater good. There are many examples of student journalism outlets that team up to host public forums, political debates, or charitable fundraisers. Likewise, student-run advertising and public relations agencies work with businesses and nonprofit organizations to create campaigns that stimulate commerce. Beyond all of this, it’s important to remember that our public colleges and universities have an obligation to demonstrate to taxpayers that public funds are well-spent, and that students can be graduated in a timely fashion with relevant skills. Student news media entities and agencies help tell that story, too.

Students can help us grow, if we pay attention and learn from them. College media advisers have been focused for some time now on the Millennial Generation – the demographic group that comprises 73 million Americans born in the 1980s and early 90s. Millennials work hard and want to engage with work that leads to a meaningful career. At the same time, according to a 2016 Gallup poll, only about a third of millennials feel engaged at work.

While we were doing our best to understand and help millennials – along came Generation Z. This wave of college students represents 60 million individuals born between the mid-1990s and early 2000s. Gen Zers, like their millennial predecessors, are savvy multi-taskers strongly connected to the world around them. With little or no memory of a world without social media, and they are immersed in consumerism and pop culture. Both demographic groups seek meaning and purpose from their work although they express that meaning and purpose in slightly different ways.

College media advisers from another place and time (as in, those of us whose first journalism job involved changing the ribbon on an AP Model 20 teletype) have much to learn from students in these demographic groups. They can teach us about sharing. They can teach us about overcoming obstacles in an uncertain world. They can teach us how to switch seamlessly between platforms and projects. Most importantly, they can show us how to adapt to change in technology and society because they’ve spent their lives doing it.

Our Common Challenges

Regardless of the type of media operation they oversee, college media advisers all have reasons to be hopeful for the future. They also have significant challenges that revolve around teaching, student supervision, collegial governance and administration.

Millennials and Generation Z students, while enriching the workplace, bring challenges that are in some ways similar and in other ways different. The 2016 Gallup poll that showed millennials seek jobs that they can emotionally connect with also showed millennials lead all U.S. demographic groups in rates of unemployment and underemployment. Millennials want careers where they can thrive and feel important but many aren’t having success.

Generation Z students, while often expressing similar desires for career ambitions, seem to have skill ‘blind spots.’ A study at Cal State Fullerton involving more than three hundred Gen Z college media students over a five-year time span has shown students can readily identify subjective, task-based skills but struggle to identify soft skill learning and recognize its importance. In other words, these students can readily follow a task list. But they can be flummoxed by task uncertainty, such as when they need to pick up a telephone and make a business call to someone they don’t know. When study participants were asked what they’d want if they had to do their college media experience again, more than 20 percent of respondents asked for interpersonal or organizational changes to reduce their anxiety. In other words: ‘I didn’t need to do things differently. But the environment should have changed for me.’

The results of this and other studies on Gen Z are consistent with what management trainer and author Bruce Tulgan identifies as Gen Z’s hesitancy to take risks. “They expect authority figures to be always in their corner, to set them up for success, and to be of service,” Tulgan writes. When the work environment isn’t supportive enough, or when tasks to be completed aren’t clearly defined, our Gen Z students can freeze up or shut down.

College media advisors working with students born in the last thirty years need to be cognizant of the big differences in perceptions of workplace responsibilities and values between these workers and those who came before them. Probably the best way to bridge the gap is to engage in some very simple strategies. When working alongside millennials and Gen Z students, don’t just present the work. Explain why the work is being undertaken. Show the bigger picture. Ask their opinions. Those of us from earlier generations have always felt that journalism and communications work was both a professional and personal calling. Do we just assume our students naturally feel the same way? Maybe they don’t. Show millennials and Gen Z students how to engage as communicators in a way that makes it personal to them, and in a way that they can in turn communicate to you, “Yes, I get it.”

Now more than ever, the college media adviser’s commitment and skill is central to success. Regardless of the specific focus of the campus media entity, its growth and development is largely a consequence of the adviser’s ability. The commitment of time and energy needed to oversee a college media operation is well-known, which is why many communication educators won’t touch it with a ten-foot pole. This sets the stage for problems as the academic unit administrator ends up installing as the media adviser a person who grudgingly accepts the assignment, or agrees to take it for only a short time, or who is a part-time instructor and may be unavailable the following term. Assigning the supervisory role to a brand-new faculty member in the first year of a tenure-track position, as was the case with this author, is also a recipe for failure as the faculty member struggles with the requirements for retention and, eventually, tenure. One of the most certain ways to discourage innovation and kill student motivation and retention in the media entity is for students to perceive a revolving door – in that there is a new adviser every year, or more frequently than that.

Misunderstanding or hostility from others in the academic unit is also a common problem for those who oversee student news organizations or student-run agencies. (Although, to be fair, misunderstanding or hostility from others in the academic unit can result from just about anything – course loads, lunch invitations, the seating arrangement in the faculty meeting, assignment of offices with windows. You name it.) A famous quote attributed to former Harvard professor and U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger is, “University politics are vicious precisely because the stakes are so small.” The college media entity isn’t immune from this. Faculty colleagues often have little or no idea what it takes outside of class time to run a student media business. They don’t see the long nights, electrical outages, the printer that jammed at deadline on Sunday afternoon, the road trips in an overloaded van to award competitions. Their phone doesn’t ring with emergency calls in the middle of the night. They naturally assume that advising a student media operation is no different than teaching a regular course, and they’re ready to vehemently object to anyone who will listen, should the adviser be offered additional release time or other perks.

Just as colleagues frequently misunderstand the requirements for effective supervision of a college media entity, administrators can misunderstand what running the business will cost. Short-term and long-term expenses will vary, of course, depending on the type of operation. Television broadcast operations are enormously expensive, while student-run public relations agencies tend to be far less equipment-dependent and much more economical to run. But every media organization needs computers, software, printers, file servers, and a whole host of other equipment. That equipment won’t last forever. It breaks down. It sometimes gets stolen. The technological change alone can render much of the equipment purchased this year obsolete by the time this year’s freshmen walk across the commencement platform.

How to Strengthen our Collective Presence?

The author’s 28 years of experience across the spectrum of college student media (in several radio stations, a TV station, campus newspaper, and two student-run agencies) suggests there’s a lot we can learn about each other and from each other to build solidarity for all of us. There are ways to work together and strengthen our impact on administration, on the faculty at large, and on our communities. Here are a few ideas.

Look beyond the silo. Advisers and students engaged in the operation of student newspapers, radio stations, TV operations and student agencies need to present a united front. This means making the effort to learn where the different college media are (even on our own campus!), how they work, who’s in charge, what the needs are, and how to work together. The author is familiar with a small private university that had a student newspaper and a student TV operation. Both had great needs but operated independently, in different academic units, with no sense of commonality or communication between faculty or students. A few years ago, when the university administration started turning the screws on the student newspaper adviser to control the content of the publication, nobody in the broadcast operation paid any attention. It wasn’t their problem.

In today’s media-hostile climate, no student media entity can afford to be an island in the middle of the campus. Media advisors need to be allies, intimately familiar with each other’s operations and strategic goals. Students need to be alert, aware and supportive, as well – because if one student media entity comes under attack (whether that attack comes from on or off campus), all the others are at risk, too.

We should all continue adding to the published research about student media entities. Over the years, many studies have focused on student newspapers and broadcast operations. For student-run agencies, not so much. Elon University Professor Lee Bush was carrying the load mostly alone for a long time. But that’s changing, as more agencies come on line and more advisers see the benefit of going to conferences, learning from each other, and then teaming up to inquire about issues common to all student agencies.

In the same vein, we can all continue to build the research literature showing the value of hands-on educational experiences (sometimes referred to as High Impact Practices, or HIPs). HIPs is the ‘flavor of the month’ for university administrators right now, and those of us who have been involved in these kinds of practices for a long time need to step in and clearly demonstrate our HIPs expertise and the corresponding success of our media entities.

We can show that mentoring is really important to what we do. Mentoring is another hot topic these days. Fresno State Professor Betsy Hays, a leader in research on workplace mentoring relationships, has published a variety of articles showing the critical importance of creating a climate for direct, hands-on concept and skill learning from worker-to-worker. Student media already engage in mentoring, and we need to better tell that story.

Advisers who engage in peer-to-peer mentoring with colleagues strengthen their skills and create solutions without reinventing the wheel. Students also engage in peer-to-peer mentoring, as they learn what it takes to be successful in their work. (Side note: the author’s study, “Peer-to-Peer Mentoring Works in the College Media Newsroom,” published in 2011 in College Media Review, found almost half of college students prefer learning new skills from another student, rather than from a professor or staff member.)

College media entities also apply reverse mentoring – the process whereby a less experienced and typically younger person teaches new skills to a more senior colleague. Reverse mentoring happens every time a senior undergraduate teaches a sophomore how to design a newspaper page. It happens in student agencies when a 20-something PR student engages with a 50-something client, showing the client how to open a pop-up shop or perform social media analytics. Reverse mentoring is cutting-edge, cool stuff that corporate America takes notice of. We need to be more assertive in communicating that it happens every day with our college media students.

College media advisers must learn that sometimes student media are their own worst enemies. In a 2016 College Media Review article, Professors Carol Terracina-Hartman and Robert Nulph presented the results of a study of college media visibility – the extent to which college media entities could easily be found to have a presence on the Internet. Results showed that websites of award-winning college media entities were often difficult to locate. Home pages of more than 80% of the media entities in the study were at least three clicks (and some as many as seven clicks) from the institutional home page.

Terracina-Hartman and Nulph’s results are consistent with this author’s ongoing research with Chapman University doctoral student Elise Anguizola Assaf to identify the extent to which college student-run agencies can be found on the Web. Of the student-run agencies identified as in existence in 2016, about one-third do not have an active, locatable Web site. More than half are unreachable via email, and those agencies that list email addresses often do not respond to inquiries. A frighteningly large percentage of student agencies show up online only through Facebook and Instagram pages filled with student ‘party pictures’ and other unprofessional content – can we say “TMI?”  Our research inquiry into the image maintenance and responsivity of student-run agencies suggests that only about 25% of the agencies with an online presence actually manage that presence and seek communication with those who inquire.

Summary

Student-run newspapers, radio stations, TV operations and communications agencies face a common set of opportunities and challenges in a technological world that’s changing at a lightning-fast pace. The good news is that all of these media entities are involved in many of what higher education already identifies as best practices for education students. Our hands-on focused programs allow students workplace readiness that exceeds anything offered in a classroom. High-Impact Practice? Mentoring? We’re doing it, and have been for a long time.

Our media entities have a huge impact on campus and across our communities. What’s needed now is a little more understanding of our common opportunities and challenges – and more communication about them.

We need to more intently focus on the perceptions and values all of our students hold as a result of the technological change they’ve lived through. We should not assume they see college student media as we do, as a professional and personal calling. We need to emphatically make the work real for them – and show them what the consequences would be if student-run media weren’t here, communicating professionally and ethically in our communities.

In a world where the President of the United States can publicly condemn all media as ‘enemies of the people,’ we need to come together powerfully as educators, professionals, and citizens to make our voices heard. Everything we have is on the line.


Doug Swanson, Ed. D is an accredited public relations practitioner. A professor of communications at California State University, Fullerton, he founded and oversees student-run agency PRactical ADvantage Communications. He worked in newspapers, radio, TV news, and in a PR agency before joining academe – where his first tenure-track position was as advisor to a student newspaper. He has published two communication textbooks.

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