After facing harassment and intimidation from Muscatine Community College administrators and then filing a federal lawsuit against their college, a small group of student journalists will launch their own independent newspaper, The Spotlight, this week.
The students have raised more than $5,200 from online donations in just a few days.
It all started with a joke at the end of the school year, after the last issue of the college's student newspaper, the Calumet, went to press. Editor-in-chief Mary Mason, along with fellow staff members Tarsa Weikert and Alexis Huscko, realized that they still had at least 10 school-related stories to follow up on. They talked about perhaps giving the stories to the local paper, the Muscatine Journal, but they thought the articles might be considered too controversial for the local newspaper.
"We had more story ideas than we had print time available to us," said Mason, the editor of The Spotlight who will graduate from Muscatine at the end of the summer but plans to remain in her position. "The group of people that are starting The Spotlight are people that are really interested in investigative journalism and would really like to dive deeper into the stories and find out why things are the way they are."
Several stories by Calumet staff members -- one about broken door handles around campus, another about a conflict of interest on the student-of-the-month contest committee -- prompted strong reactions from MCC administrators and faculty. In the lawsuit, filed in federal district court on May 5, 12 current and former members of the Calumet allege that the college's response to these articles included removing the faculty adviser, Jim Compton, and replacing him with a part-time adjunct, modifying the fall 2015 schedule to marginalize the journalism program, and reducing funding for the program. The plaintiffs have an evidentiary hearing on July 14, Mason said.
The Spotlight was founded to shed light on problems in academia -- at Muscatine and nationwide -- through contributed stories and to answer investigative questions not addressed by the local media, she said. It will be completely independent of Muscatine.
The group spent all of June sorting out the details, including locating a printer for the print edition and setting up a website.
"It's one of those crazy ideas that started off as a joke somewhere and now it's happening," Mason said.
They received help from Compton, who is now acting on a completely volunteer basis. Michael Koretzky, head of Region 3 of the Society of Professional Journalists, recommended that the group set up a GoFundMe campaign for their printing costs. SPJ Region 3 pledged, along with SPJ Florida, to match up to $500 in donations made to the campaign.
"I'm actually blown away," Koretzky said. "I didn't think this many people cared about censorship in Iowa. Second, journalists don't have a lot of money. And third, I wasn't sure that people would understand that this isn't really about Iowa. It's about everywhere."
Koretzky said that it is very common for schools to censor students like this, as it is a cheap way for the college to create a positive image in a college environment that relies on donations and grants for funding.
"[The first $500] came in before breakfast," Mason said. As of publication time, donations total about $5,260 and are still climbing.
Since the paper will cost about $700 to print for each monthly edition, the paper will likely be able to print for six months purely off of donations, said Mason.
Mason believes that a lot of the people who donated, especially journalists, have seen and want "pure journalism" -- not college journalism that is being forced into publishing more PR and less news, she said.
The staff is also exploring advertising in addition to registering as a non-profit. The initial start-up board for the paper includes Compton, as well as Lisa Powell, English department chairwoman at Muscatine, Mason, Weiker, and Huscko.
The Spotlight is not in competition with the Calumet, which will still exist, said Mason. The staff wants to see the Calumet regain a full-time adviser and thrive as a publication, she said.
The print version of The Spotlight will focus more on local stories, while the online edition will include more of the problems and issues that are relevant to college media nationwide, Mason said.
The staff wants to provide a place to showcase work done on other college campuses that isn't always published on campuses, due to controversy.
The first print run is 1,000 copies of a 16-page, full-color broadsheet, and will be distributed locally at different businesses. The first print date is set for July 10. The online version will go live the same day.
This post originally appeared as a SPLC news story.