Stop The Presses: Iowa Solves One Big Problem, And Perhaps An Even Bigger One

Student publications are often hilarious. Take yearbooks: headshots of graduates contemplating their futures (or looking stupefied for another reason) interspersed with photos of student organizations – or rather members who show up for the photo session, thinly populated save for the varsity sports teams exercising primogeniture rights to schedule photos during practice – punctuated by comments written in code (cool kids) or foreign language quotes (self-styled intellectuals).

I always thought yearbooks were ripe for parody. Then my friend and former colleague David thoughtfully sent me a copy of the Shellville High School Blade, concocted by comedian Don Novello aka Father Guido Sarducci. The Blade begins innocently with photos of the town and school alongside the school fight song: “Go Green! Go Brown! Go Green and Brown!” But the conceit is that Shellville is a high school populated entirely by sheep. So the yearbook quickly devolves to photos of sheep: the administration (sheep pictured behind their desks, with a nurse’s hat, in a janitor’s closet); the faculty (many sheep with coffee mugs). Seniors get photos and quotes: sheep Suzie Salazar says “I will not follow where the path may lead, but I will go where there is no path, and I will leave a trail,” adding she plans to become a dental assistant. The student council comes next, including Vice-President Bummer Brannon who also appears on the superlatives page in front of his “Messiest Locker.” Prom is an elaborate photo shoot with dozens of sheep amidst streamers, balloons, punch, donuts, and a seafood trough. Student organizations include the Low Riders Club (sheep in low riders), the Sky Diving Club (a parachute-toting sheep dangling from a tree – probably not cleared by the ASPCA), and the Clean Up Club (President Bummer Brannon: “If it didn’t pay, we would all quit”). Sports teams include basketball (sheep in the gym), football (sheep in a field), and track and field (sheep running in a field). What should we make of this yearbook? A wry commentary on the lack of innovation and leadership in American education? No, I think Father Guido just wanted to see what a yearbook of sheep would look like. And it’s pretty great.

The Blade concludes by commemorating commencement where festivities were sadly interrupted by a tornado that carried off valedictorian Betty Fulton, prompting these stanzas from class poet Molly Taggart:

Betty, Betty wherever you are
They say you never came down
We hope you’re still with us in spirit
Cheering the Green and the Brown

First in our class, last through the arch
There are those who say
Maybe if you didn’t study so much
You’d still be alive today


Although Blade editor Lance Verboczyk is pictured behind photos and reams of paper, his quote is “I wouldn’t wish this job on anybody.” That sentiment may reflect hundreds of hours of unappreciated work producing the yearbook. Or it may be that print media has never had it so bad. As most Americans now get their news from social media, print advertising has died, and along with it, thousands of newspapers. Back in 2005 America had 9,000 newspapers; according to Northwestern University’s State of Local News initiative, sometime this year 3,000 will have been lost. In 2023, more than 10 newspapers closed every month. Even national outlets like the Washington Post and L.A. Times are struggling and cutting hundreds of journalist jobs. None of the results are pleasant: questions unasked and unanswered, authority unchallenged, news deserts, and growing difficulty determining what’s actually true.

Enter philanthropy. Last year, donors contributed $500M to support local news. And that’s in addition to the tens of millions of dollars of operating losses at billionaire-owned newspapers like the Washington Post and L.A. Times. Then on January 29, higher education joined the fight. That’s when the University of Iowa’s Daily Iowan announced it had acquired two nearby community papers: the Mount Vernon-Lisbon Sun, and the Solon Economist. Curious, I reached out to Melissa Tully, director of Iowa’s School of Journalism and Mass Communications.

According to Professor Tully, the owner of these papers – a fortuitously named gentleman by the name of Bob Woodward (no, not that Bob Woodward) – reached out to the School (not a professional school, but part of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences) to see if it would be interested in taking them on. She saw the immediate opportunity: help preserve community journalism. “It’s a shame when these papers close and there’s nothing we can do about it,” she said. “This is an opportunity do something.” But she also saw something more. According to Professor Tully, students increasingly want to do professional work while they’re students. They want to be “hands-on, into the work, as soon as possible… It’s an expectation now. So either we leave students on their own to seek out internships, or we incorporate professional work in classes. And by doing so, allow students to develop professional skill sets, and get clips, references, and experience.”

The primary appeal of folding the Sun and Economist into the University was to enrich student learning and bridge the widening experience gap. Lance Verboczyk may not get hired because employers don’t give much credit for yearbook production (also because he is a sheep), but Professor Tully saw an opportunity to ensure Iowa journalism students wouldn’t share his fate: “We don’t want it to just be students who can afford to take the unpaid internship, or the student who can afford to move to New York for the summer. We know students want to work, but we have to bring it to them – into classes.” Plus, how great to be able to tell incoming students that if they come to Iowa, they’ll have an opportunity to work at a real newspaper.

While the idea of the School itself taking responsibility for the two newspapers was hard to fathom, Student Publications, Inc., the nonprofit owner of the Daily Iowan – where the board consists of Iowa faculty, staff, alumni, and students – was game. SPI made a deal with the University: we’ll buy and operate the papers if the School provides subsidized or free labor. So within a few months, Iowa will begin funding paid interns at both papers. Then in the fall, reporting will be incorporated into classes: investigative projects, government reporting involving FOIA requests, even coverage of high school sports. Meanwhile, the current six employees at the two papers will receive raises to become mentors. As Professor Tully told me, “they have a total of six people, we can bring a hundred more. The goal is to expand coverage as well as to build out the digital assets and podcasting.”

My first thought after speaking with Professor Tully was The Music Man: “There’s nothing halfway about the Iowa way.” But it turns out that Iowa’s not first-in-the-nation with this idea. A year ago, the University of Georgia’s School of Journalism and Mass Communication saved the Oglethorpe Echo by incorporating the paper into a new nonprofit for the benefit of the local community and to provide students with real work experience. Which raises the question: if thousands of newspapers need saving and millions of students need relevant experience, where are the other thousands of colleges and universities? Maybe Columbia Journalism School could do more than just hand out awards. Maybe Columbia could actually do journalism.


The truth is Columbia could do much more. Beyond community journalism, there are dozens of social needs higher education institutions could support while providing students with real, in-field work experience. Psychology and sociology majors could work with new immigrants. Engineering majors could help accelerate the green energy transition. Health sciences students could engage in community health initiatives. And how timely when we just learned from a Walton Family Foundation survey that only a quarter of young Americans are very confident their school is doing a good job preparing them for the future. What more do they want? According to Romy Drucker, director of the Walton Family Foundation’s education program: more hands-on learning to prepare them for careers.

So why aren’t colleges and universities killing two birds with one stone: acquire and operate pro-social enterprises to provide students with relevant work experience? Although the Chronicle of Higher Education takes me to task for saying colleges are closed off from the real world, there’s no gainsaying that the overwhelming majority of faculty and administrators have never worked outside higher education. Faculty in particular are allergic to working in enterprises, both pro-social and anti-social; earning the PhD required for tenure-track positions renders nonprofit or private sector experience impractical at best.

If you’re seeking practitioners on college campuses, look to professional schools like journalism, or law school clinics where students work with clinical faculty (i.e., practicing lawyers) to solve real problems for real people in areas as diverse as bankruptcy, community development, domestic violence, elder law, housing, human rights, incorporating new nonprofit organizations, and representing prisoners. Or medical schools where faculty for the 3rd and 4th year clinical rotations are working physicians and researchers at university hospitals. Or business schools where some faculty have actually helped build businesses. University leaders should ask professional schools to lead on building partnerships and affiliations with dozens of Mount Vernon-Lisbon Suns and Solon Economists across as many sectors as possible to provide a wide range of work-integrated learning and paid internship opportunities for undergraduates.

While some still dream of a national service program to give every young American relevant work experience, it’s more realistic to cajole, push, or mandate colleges and universities to incorporate real work experience into every degree program. Work-integrated learning platforms like Riipen, emerging internship service providers, partnerships with apprenticeship programs, and apprenticeship degrees will all play a role. But so can pushing institutions to fulfill their broader social missions by creating work opportunities for students beyond libraries, dorms, and dining halls.

A couple weeks ago, Hechinger Report ran a story titled “We’re from the university and we’re here to help” about the University of Vermont’s effort to make nearby mobile home parks more resistant to extreme weather and a University of Wisconsin-Madison initiative to upgrade weather monitoring stations. The big idea is that “such help is one way to counteract crashing public confidence in higher education.” Clearly, there’s never been a better time for universities to engage in community outreach. But rather than limiting this work to projects, why not take on community-building enterprises like local newspapers? While projects come and go, enterprises like newspapers make a difference every week and can provide relevant work experiences to students every semester.

Higher education leaders, when you come across a new idea with three distinct benefits, here’s my two cents: don’t look a gift sheep in the mouth.