Accountability to whom? #collegemedia leadership thoughts
The student leaders at my new college media home could teach seminars on collaboration and accountability. In the absence of a full-time adviser for almost a year, the five department heads who form the executive board of Georgia Southern University Student Media ran a twice-a-week newspaper and four once-a-semester magazines, produced digital extras, recruited and trained new staff — and met twice a week (at 8 a.m.!) to make sure it all got done without inter-departmental warfare. They squarely and calmly settled disagreements and called each other on unmet commitments.
It’s because they are so good at this that I can afford to think mostly about another question as I prepare to train future leaders of our program. Yes, it’s absolutely critical that college media leaders be accountable to each other. To whom else do we owe accountability?
I’m thinking about framing this as internal vs. external accountability. Here’s my first pass at defining those external constituents:
- The audience.
- The people we deal with: news sources; advertisers; vendors; partners.
- Community institutions: college administration (not just when we cover it); student organizations (not just when we cover them); possibly local governments; any institution whose mission overlaps with our community service.
I’m sure that list will grow. Here’s some brief elaboration on the list I’ve got so far:
Audience. This is of course No. 1, but not every newsroom seems to believe it. We’ve got to ask every issue if our content can pass the “who cares?” test for our student audience. We’ve got to focus every department on increasing audience engagement with our products. That means an engaging cover, smart distribution and marketing, and effective advertising. And ultimately it means information that serves our transcendent mission of enabling students to be full members of a vibrant community.
People we deal with: It’s easy to be cynical about this one for old pros like me who’ve seen papers that only seemed accountable to sources and/or advertisers with endless puff pieces and sanitized coverage. That’s not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about maintaining professional relationships with news sources and advertisers so that we get the most accurate information to produce the best news coverage and the most — and most effective — advertising. It means having the expectation that any of us will be proud to walk into the office of any news source or advertiser on the day of publication to discuss our work. It means going the extra mile to be sure that we’ve dealt with the right person, fully understood the issue and acted professionally in resolving competing demands or points of view.
Community institutions: We don’t exist in a vacuum. We’re not the only institution interested in serving our student community. We should take seriously the concerns of those institutions, not only because some of them fund or otherwise support us. The college president and the SGA president won’t like everything we publish, and perhaps their objections will not be stated courteously. It’s easy to say, “Of course the president (or student club chair or activist with related agenda) didn’t like that story. But she’s not even quoted. The story isn’t about her.” But we should listen carefully and engage these people whenever possible. Behind their possibly one-sided view of a particular article are clues to their outlook on the community we share. Those clues may help us shape our own views.
On the business side, this means professional practices so that we are taken seriously when a student advertising representative or journalist walks into a local business. It may mean joining the Chamber of Commerce. It means recognizing that we are part of a broader business community.
I hope this is the beginning of a conversation about accountability. I welcome your comments, and I suspect I’ll have more to say after my leadership students take hold of the topic.