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2 small Iowa towns faced losing their local newspaper. Student journalists stepped in

After a more than a decade of devastating news for journalism, with local papers shutting down and mass layoffs across national newsrooms, a few small towns in Iowa have stumbled upon a new solution: transferring ownership to a student newspaper.

Mount Vernon-Lisbon Sun and the Solon Economist began talks with the University of Iowa’s student paper, The Daily Iowan, in the fall of 2023. After redesigning layouts to match The Daily Iowan, the papers hit the stands in February under their new ownership.

It marks a new wave in the journalism industry of student newspapers acquiring ownership of a local newspaper in their county.

“We’re right in their backyard. I grew up in eastern Iowa, so these communities are important to me too,” Jason Brummond, the publisher for The Daily Iowan, said. “Our hope is to deliver a strong news product and improve the paper. For local communities, their paper is a big part of the capital of the community.”

At a time when local newspapers are shrinking in the face of declining advertising revenue, the new model could offer a new pathway for small-town papers.

In the United States, 1,766 counties are considered “news deserts,” counties with either one or no local newspaper, according to a report from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University. Almost 2,900 local newspapers have shut down across the country since 2005, at a time when digital media is on the rise.

University newspapers, backed by the schools as a public service and not solely dependent on ad revenue, may be an unexpected beacon of hope.

“It’s important for all communities, but especially communities like these, to have a strong local newspaper,” Brummond said. “We’re excited about this opportunity to add more resources and ultimately improve on the product.”

And it’s not just ownership agreements helping to sustain small local newspapers. Universities are also helping fill papers with content. A Center for Community News study found 2,000 student reporters published more than 10,000 stories in local news outlets last year.

Although collaborations between student and local papers are common, outright ownership is still rare, Margaret Little Reilly, the Managing Director of the Center for Community News, said.

As local papers are being hit by the burden of financial difficulties in the era of digital media, or family-owned businesses having no one to pass the paper down to, student newsrooms offer a new possibility, Reilly said.

“It’s definitely increasingly becoming a conversation that people interested in robust local news are having about how to create more sustainable models,” Reilly said. “And the benefits are pretty irrefutable.”

“Student reporters also bring things that previous generations of journalists don’t always have,” she added, citing their enthusiasm and technological skills.

The Oglethorpe Echo, a weekly paper in Georgia, was one such paper. Its owners donated the near 150-year-old family-owned paper to the local journalism program at the University of Georgia when they decided to retire, Reilly said.

Brummond said Iowa is well situated in terms of news presence. The state has about 240 newspapers, according to the Iowa News Association.

“Iowa’s maybe one of the rare states that doesn’t have a news desert. But we do see this as a unique situation,” Brummond said.

As they begin creating the new model, students will have the opportunity to intern at local papers or write articles for class credit, Brummond said.

For small newspapers, even one additional writer can have a huge impact. Brummond said the Mount Vernon-Lisbon Sun currently has one full-time reporter and one part-time reporter, while the Solon Economist has one full-time reporter.

The Daily Iowan has a staff of 120 student employees, eager to contribute.

Students have already begun to collaborate with the weeklies, Sabine Martin, executive editor of The Daily Iowan, said. One of The Daily Iowan’s reporters was recently able to help out the weekly when they were in a pinch by covering a bike race in the county.

“To really embed yourself in these communities and have a beat and meet people and develop those relationships, I think that will be great for students,” she said. “And it’s a learning experience and will hopefully teach college students that rural journalism is really important.”

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