Iowa students create independent newspaper following controversy

Photo via GoFundMe

The stories in the student paper that started all the trouble at Muscatine Community College, near the banks of the Mississippi in eastern Iowa, seemed innocuous enough. A report on “confusion” and a potential conflict of interest in student of the month selections. The publication of a faculty member’s photo, without his permission, to accompany an article about grants obtained by the college.

But from those mild beginnings, a controversy was born. After the student-of-the-month story ran, an equal employment opportunity complaint was lodged against the paper’s faculty adviser. After the paper reported on the complaints about the photo, the adviser was removed and the position made part-time. Soon, the student journalists were filing a federal lawsuit alleging violations of the First Amendment.

And now, something else is being born: The Spotlight, an independent newspaper founded by Muscatine students and recent graduates, will debut Friday with a mission to “cover the school and community.” The publication’s launch comes amid a show of support from journalists around the country for young reporters at a small Iowa school. And it signals one notable side effect of the controversy—it has galvanized a sense of journalistic identity among the Muscatine students.

“It was a real newspaper, meeting opposition, trying to get interviews and getting turned down,” says Mary Mason, former editor-in-chief of The Calumet, the student paper, who has taken on the same role at The Spotlight. The more pushback Calumet staffers received from the college, she says, the more they began to think and act as professional reporters. “We started off the school year with three people declaring journalism as their major and ended the year with 11.” The first edition of The Spotlight will include a feature story on what student-press advocates see as a troubling trend: the removal of faculty advisers in the wake of unfavorable coverage.

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That dynamic doesn’t surprise Michael Koretzky, a board member of the Society of Professional Journalists who has helped to rally support for The Spotlight. “I happen to be in favor of college censorship,” he jokes, “because it’s the best educational tool. For the tuition they racked up, those students got a hell of an education.”

Whether the school’s actions in fact amount to free-speech violations is now a question for the courts, where the student plaintiffs are seeking to have The Calumet‘s faculty adviser position restored to full-time status. The college, which has denied wrongdoing and has said it disagrees with many of the claims in the lawsuit, declined to comment for this story.

But whatever happens in the courts, the episode has produced an unlikely origin story for a new publication—and, maybe, some journalistic careers.

The tension between The Calumet staff and school administrators played out over the fall and winter. Jim Compton, the faculty adviser and an English instructor at the school, was notified in February that he was being replaced in his role with the paper.

But The Calumet had continued to publish, and as the spring semester wound down, Mason says, she and her colleagues had more story ideas than they could fit in the few remaining editions before the end of the school year. Compton suggested they could start their own paper—though no one took the idea seriously at first.

Meanwhile, Koretzky, who is based in Florida, had read about the lawsuit and took an interest in Compton’s story because he himself had once been fired as a faculty adviser to a student paper. Koretzky contacted Compton, who told him about the students’ interest in starting their own publication.

“I said, hey, maybe we can jump on a conference call and help with that,” Koretzky says. “I told them if they would create a GoFundMe account, I would give them matching funds”—up to $500.

With SPJ promoting the effort, the fundraising drive succeeded beyond anyone’s expectations. “We said we could raise $500 if we hit up our grandmas and everything,” Mason says. “I think it’s like $5,000 the last time I looked, and that’s since July 1.”

The money, she says, will fund The Spotlight for about six months. The plan is for a print edition that will come out monthly, and a website that is regularly updated. The paper will also look to sell ads, but the seed money takes some pressure off the sales rep. There is currently a five-member board and four other contributors—with all nine working on a volunteer basis—and Compton has signed on as an adviser to his former students at The Spotlight, even as he continues teaching English at MCC.

“It feels worthwhile because they seem to have a drive to do something good—as Mary says, to speak truth to power—and I’d like them to be able to,” Compton says.

For her part, Mason, who’s wrapping up her classes at MCC this summer, says she hopes to continue her studies elsewhere and get a bachelor’s in journalism—and perhaps, to make The Spotlight her full-time occupation. She has also been invited by Mark Witherspoon of Iowa State to contribute presidential campaign coverage for a new statewide program being launched by the Iowa College Media Association and the Iowa Center for Public Affairs Journalism; Witherspoon, the faculty adviser at ISU, is a Spotlight donor.

The Spotlight’s mission is not to replace The Calumet or to compete directly with the local Muscatine Journal, but to do something different. The Journal, Mason says, is “a great community paper, but we don’t feel they do enough in-depth or investigative features.” Planned Spotlight stories include features on a dress code at local high schools that may be discriminatory toward girls, the treatment of patients at a local nursing home, and the state’s first medical-marijuana nurse.

Koretzky says SPJ will continue to assist The Spotlight, beginning with an investigative-reporting workshop with the Student Press Law Center. He takes pride in the unity of purpose that his organization, the SPLC, and other groups such as the Associated Collegiate Press and the College Media Association have demonstrated in supporting Mason and her associates.

Mason and Compton say they hope to continue to shine The Spotlight on free-press concerns at student publications, not only writing about it but also networking with college journalists across the country and posting student-press-freedom coverage on the paper’s website—providing a kind of “wire service for college media,” Mason says.

Koretzky is skeptical about this aspect of the venture. “I think it’s worthy; I doubt it’s realistic,” he says. “I imagine they’re going to have their hands full just putting out a paper on a shoestring budget.”

Besides, he says, Mason and her colleagues are already showing the best way for journalists to respond in the face of adversity: “Just put out a newspaper.”

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Deron Lee is CJR’s correspondent for Iowa, Missouri, Kansas, and Nebraska. A writer and copy editor who has spent nine years with the National Journal Group, he has also contributed to The Hotline and the Lawrence Journal-World. He lives in the Kansas City area. Follow him on Twitter at @deron_lee.