Building a standard for student media advisers

By Blythe Steelman
Coordinator, Student Publications and Marketing
ASUN Center for Student Engagement

“…you’re not going to find a one-size-fits all job description from people who do this.” — anonymous interview participant

“This” means advising student media organizations. In my role at the University of Nevada, Reno, I advise four different student media outlets: The Nevada Sagebrush, Insight Magazine, Brushfire Literature and Arts Journal and Wolf Pack Radio. I did not stumble into this job by chance, but rather sought it out after completing a year-long thesis research project that examined what the role of a college media adviser truly is. Simmons (2009) and Turner (2008) have written about the importance of advising college media organizations, and College Media Review (2015) calls it one of the challenging and rewarding positions someone could hold. However, while many have worked to defend the importance of advising these organizations, I was interested in the experience of advising these organizations. How does it differ from advising student government or general interest clubs? Is it more involved and does it mean being more of an educator than an adviser?

What I found in my thesis research is broad and far-reaching; participants talked about prepping students for the future, aiding in student success, building relationships with students, letting students take charge of the organizations, and many other experiences (Steelman, 2016).

I talked to 12 advisers and I received 12 different answers. But the truth is that you could talk to 100 advisers and receive 100 different answers. There are common threads of experience, but what I found most interesting during my interviews is how many people talked about the lack of standard job descriptions or structure for this position.

For a field with more than 800 active advisers (Kopenhaver, 2015) across the United States, it seems silly that there is not a standard set in place for people who do this job. There is quantitative research that exists to provide a snapshot of the profile of individuals who hold this position (Kopenhaver, 2015), but little qualitative research exists to explain the challenges and rewards (and even general job responsibilities) that come with the particular structure one finds themselves working in.

When I say “structure,” I mean the office or department where student media organizations are housed. Take, for example, these words from one of my interview participants:

“I have worked at four different universities and I have worked under every one of the primary organizational structures that exists. At [university redacted] we were part of the journalism school and I reported to the dean of journalism. Here at [university redacted] and at [university redacted], we’re private 501(c)(3) corporations and I report to a board of directors. And at [university redacted] we were part of Student Affairs, and I reported to the Director of Student Affairs.”

During the research process, I realized there are four primary structures that student media find themselves in on college campuses:

These structures certainly make it difficult to standardize a job description, but more than that, the differences make it difficult to connect with colleagues in the field. You will find that student government, for instance, is almost always rooted in student affairs. There is little about the structure that varies, which allows for shared experiences and connections amongst colleagues. Sometimes I feel lost amongst colleagues because of the overt differences in structure and responsibility that accompany my position.

Future expansions of this blog series will dive deeper into the important questions surrounding this area of research — what are the advantages or disadvantages that come with advising student media groups under different organizational structures? Are there processes within each structure that help or hinder student media? These are the types of holes that exist in the literature and should be filled by further research.

It is my hope that further research into advising student media organizations will serve as an educational tool for other advisers in this field and professionals in higher education — particularly student services at UNR.



College Media Association. (2015). CMA’s history. Retrieved from

Kopenhaver, L. L. (2015). Campus media reflect changing information landscape amid strong efforts to serve their communities. College Media Review, 52(1), 38-55.

Simmons, T. L. (2009). Chances and challenges. College Media Review, 46(2), 24-26.

Steelman, B. (2016). More than just a job: Exploring college media advisers’ experiences in student development and higher education (Master’s thesis).

Turner, S. (2008). Walking the tightrope: Relationships with editors. College Media Review, 45(3), 9-10.