University of Iowa saves local weeklies, offers J-school students real-world experience


During its 100-year history, the University of Iowa’s School of Journalism built a foundation on the written word.

Generations of professors bequeathed writing tenets, tips and tricks to future journalists. Over time, the University’s predecessors and peers accurately assigned the J-School with “The Writing School” moniker. At Iowa, it wasn’t about stringing together words and sentences. With its journalism program embedded with the liberal arts, students at the University of Iowa learned to present the news with literary paint strokes and a heartbeat.

In that way, journalists from Iowa seek to write like Caitlin Clark plays basketball. There are good shooters. And there are shot makers. Graduates are trained to know the difference.

The University insists on maintaining its status as a school that elevates writing. But it is also generating new opportunities for students.

To that end, the University of Iowa now has more news publications to serve as a training ground for its journalists. The school’s student-run news organization is leveraging its nonprofit status to give students more opportunities while also saving two endangered rural newspapers.

Students at Iowa run an independent, nonprofit news organization, the Daily Iowan. The news outlet is a relatively competitive print and digital publication in Iowa City, which exceeds 100,000 people in the greater metropolitan area. The Daily Iowan has added a video component to its offerings, called DITV, which produces regular newscasts. 

In April, through its nonprofit arrangement, the Daily Iowan acquired two regional weekly newspapers in the smaller communities of Solon and Mount Vernon, which are roughly 15- and 30-minute drives from Iowa City. The weekly newspapers, previously owned by Woodward Communications, will still have working professionals on staff, but students will provide much of the journalism.

Terms of the sale were not disclosed. The board that oversees the Daily Iowan voted to acquire the weeklies to both save the operations and to give journalists experience in reporting in smaller communities. The transition is very new, and the details are being worked out.

Students will be assigned stories for the weeklies as part of coursework, with editors deciding whether to use them.

Melissa Tully, professor and director of the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Iowa

“We’ll have a reporting intern at each of the papers,” Melissa Tully, professor and director of the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Iowa, said. “And then we’ll have a design intern that will be shared across both, and that will be for the summer just to ease in a little bit because right now, these papers are staffed by one or two people. We don't want to flood them with a ton of students right away.”

Once roles and responsibilities are established, “We’ll start with coverage of regular weekly news type stuff, but also some sports coverage and start to develop a relationship with the papers and with the communities,” Tully said. “So, once we ramp up the number of students involved, it won't be shocking and overwhelming to the papers and the communities. We’re going to do it in phases.”

The innovative business approach adds to a larger industry evolution toward nonprofit journalism in certain markets and for certain types of content. However, no matter what form the business model takes, Iowa still sees itself as a school that teaches the importance of good writing.

Gigi Durham, professor and CLAS collegiate scholar at U of I, teaches in both the School of Journalism and Mass Communication and the Department of Gender, Women’s and Sexual Studies.

Gigi Durham, a professor and CLAS collegiate scholar at U of I, wears hats in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication, as well as the Department of Gender, Women’s and Sexual Studies. 

“We have a very famous creative writing program and the school of journalism, fits within that umbrella that puts the emphasis on writing, not just skills, but also the art of writing. We’re also housed within a College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, which isn’t always the case with journalism programs. I think there’s a great deal of interdisciplinarity and an approach to journalism that situates it within the humanities. So, that makes it a little bit different from other journalism programs.”

The Daily Iowan, for example, employs more than just journalism students. 

Both Durham and Don McLeese, another professor, pointed out that good writing might not be read in print or even on a screen these days. But excellent writing can also take podcasts, documentaries, video reports and other projects to new and unexpected levels.

“When I started here, I was brought in as what was then called a print journalist,” McLeese said. “And I joined a pretty strong cohort of people who were known as print journalists, even though I’ve written for websites and other places. These days, if you identified yourself as a print journalist, it’d be like saying you’re a blacksmith or something. So, what the program has needed to do — and I think this is journalism schools everywhere — is to thread that needle between what is changing, and teaching what foundational principles remain constant.”

In other words, McLeese doesn't teach students how to make TikToks. He teaches writing and storytelling techniques that can be applied to more modern spaces.

The Daily Iowan is an independent nonprofit daily staffed by students at the University of Iowa’s School of Journalism.

The University of Iowa’s journalism program just celebrated its 100th anniversary. Perhaps more exciting, the journalists embraced covering one of the largest sports stories in recent memory as the Hawkeyes women’s basketball team, led by superstar women’s sports pioneer Clark, played in the women’s national championship game.

Student journalists covered Clark’s ascension into public consciousness and delivered some compelling projects. Among them is “More than a Moment,” an immersive photo and essay book that chronicles the season.

According to the book’s web page, “The book will feature photos taken by Daily Iowan photographers (from games, practices and behind-the-scenes with the team), essays from campus and national experts and thought-leaders in women’s athletics, and stories written by journalism students about this significant moment in Iowa athletics and women’s basketball.” Proceeds of pre-sales will be donated to a children’s hospital in Iowa.

But the journalism students are already looking at what’s ahead in the women’s basketball program. A headline on the Daily Iowan’s website introduces one of the team’s newest recruits, a 5-foot-10 point guard from Solon, whose weekly newspaper was just saved by the student news organization.

“When Callie Levin was in sixth grade,” reporter Jami Martin Trainor wrote, “she would tag along with her sister for basketball practice with coach Darryl Moore’s Court 45 training program. … Even while playing against girls two or three years older than her, Moore said she was one of the best players on the court.”

In the piece, Martin Trainor explains that the recruit carried her varsity team as a 14-year-old even as crowds chanted “overrated” during tough losses as an underclassman. The young athlete had to learn how to deal with pressure. It’s an example of a journalist using literary strokes, giving a story a heartbeat, and sharing the courage of a blossoming athlete who hopes to continue a winning tradition.

Let the record show that journalism students are already writing the next chapter of history at the University. And that this athlete’s career will be covered by students working for the athlete’s hometown newspaper once headed for the gallows.

Bob Miller has spent more than 25 years in local newsrooms, including 12 years as an executive editor with Rust Communications. Bob also produces an independent true crime investigative podcast called The Lawless Files.


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