Wait… so I’m in charge of what now?

Becoming an adviser of a media program requires stopping and thinking with a whole lot of mental preparation.

Journalism is a beast of its own: new rules, new structures and a whole new environment to navigate. For many, journalism is a foreign language and the media program is something that is dropped on them like the house on the Wicked Witch of the East. However, journalism and advising shouldn’t be all too scary. As a new adviser, knowing the intricacies of journalism and mass communication–photography, law, ethics, writing, design, digital, social, leadership, video, and more–is not necessarily the first priority once that cumbersome newspaper/yearbook/literary magazine/broadcast/website gets dropped in your lap. Rather, the first, and arguably the most important, step to success is mental preparedness.

Patrick R. Johnson, CJE
Patrick R. Johnson, CJE

One of the first things I remember feeling when I first inherited an extremely traditional news program was, what the hell am I supposed to do with a publication that has been ingrained in the culture of the school and the community for over 50 years. I came from journalism school, which many would argue makes me aptly more prepared to be successful at advising a media program. Ha. Just because I knew the basics didn’t mean I was ready for the journey that I was about to embark on because I knew that journey was going to be an Odyssey in its own right. It was a wonderful mentor and friend who calmed me down and said so eloquently: Patrick, stop your whining. You’ve got a job, your dream job, so suck it up and get your head where it needs to be. Those kids are going to need you. And she couldn’t have been more right.

As I sat to plan out a variety of posts for this new blog for KEMPA, I thought long and hard about what the first thing I wanted to say was going to be. Ultimately, what I want to tell you as you embark on this journey is it’s going to be okay, and here’s why: you are going to mentally prepare yourself for this experience to be one you’ll never forget.

Being mentally prepared for being an adviser means accepting the following unconditionally:

  1. You are now in charge of something critical to your school. Media programs keep the pulse of the school; they are the fourth estate. The various media a school has tell the story of the school and write history through words, pictures, video, designs and more. C’mon, that’s a pretty sweet deal.
  2. This isn’t about you, so don’t make it that way. This is about the kids; after all, we call it student media for a reason. Accept the fact that as an adviser you are there to advise, not do. One of the hardest things at the beginning of my advising career was stepping back completely. While it is really freaking scary to give the reigns on over to a bunch of teens, if you are there to give some pretty awesome advice, then you’ll never have doubts.
  3. The First Amendment is your best friend, so get to know it well. Get to know the Student Press Law Center and its resources. Having a foundation of knowledge, and knowing the resources you can access, will be invaluable if you ever get into a pickle. Law will also be a topic for a later blog post.
  4. Journalism is the opportunity to give voices to the voiceless. It’s what I’ve fallen in love with most about my job. Being able to watch my students tell stories that would otherwise never have been told is something very few get to ever experience, and gosh darn is it cool.
  5. Media is a process. You aren’t going to see absolute success and perfection right out of the gate, and that’s OK. However, that doesn’t mean you cannot have high standards and push your students to be successful.
  6. When a story is out there, it’s out there. Yeah, it’s kind of scary. At the same time, this experience is one of the most genuine experiences that your students are going to get. Their stories get published and they get real feedback from an audience that is beyond you and your red pen.
  7. Have fun. Journalism is an intense experience, but you also need to be able to savor and enjoy every bit of it. If you don’t, you won’t last long and that’s a shame. Give yourself a reason to come to work every day; let that reason by your media program. I know it’s why I adore doing what I do.

Patrick Johnson, CJE,  is the news magazine adviser at Antioch Community High School in Illinois.  He is a member of the KEMPA board and director of the KEMPA Summer Journalism Workshop.  His blog focuses on issues affecting new journalism advisers.