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Jason Brummond holds copies of the Solon Economist and the Mount Vernon-Lisbon Sun.

Jason Brummond, The Daily Iowan's publisher, is pictured here with the first issues of The Solon Economist and The Mount Vernon–Lisbon Sun published under Student Publications Inc.’s ownership.

Ayrton Breckenridge/The Daily Iowan

Jason Brummond is the publisher of one of the largest newspapers in Iowa, The Daily Iowan, an independent student newspaper with an audience of about 50,000 that is run by 100 student employees and a small professional staff.

Still, it never occurred to him to acquire other publications in the state until local publisher Woodward Communications approached him last fall, looking for someone to take over two weekly newspapers it had purchased in 2017.

“It was not something that was on my radar, not something I would’ve necessarily thought to do, but when the question got posed, it was interesting,” said Brummond. “We thought about it and talked about it, and as we did the due diligence and kind of examined what this would look like and how this would look, we became increasingly interested in the acquisition.”

Student Publications Inc., the nonprofit that owns The Daily Iowan, eventually decided to purchase the two papers, The Mount Vernon–Lisbon Sun and The Solon Economist. Last week both published their first issues under the new owners. Brummond would not disclose the terms of the agreement but said the price “wasn’t significant” and came out of the Iowan’s operating budget.

The acquisition appears to be a natural fit; the Sun and the Economist cover communities located within 30 minutes of the university’s Iowa City campus. The town of Solon is located in the same county as the university; the Iowan already covers the local government there, so it’s not much of a stretch to package some stories for the Economist.

Now some in the news industry are hopeful the model could be replicated elsewhere, saving struggling community papers that might otherwise be forced to shutter or sell to a hedge fund, which have become known for wringing profits out of local publications while depleting the quality and quantity of their coverage.

The arrangement also has the potential to provide unique educational opportunities for the University of Iowa’s journalism students, not all of whom work at the Iowan and therefore may not have regular opportunities to publish their work. While the specifics have not yet been worked out, the institution’s School of Journalism and Mass Communication will partner with Student Publications Inc. and the two weeklies to offer classes and internships that will allow students to report out of Mount Vernon and Solon and contribute original articles to the papers.

Richard Watts, director of the Center for Community News, which researches and advocates for partnerships between newspapers and colleges, lauded the deal, which he said was especially significant amid the current crisis of disappearing local newspapers.

“The exciting thing about this is that visionary leaders who are at these student media enterprises have the opportunity to take those resources they have, which include full-time professional staff, often who come from the news business, and think creatively about how to use the resources they have to reinvent what they’re doing in partnership with local media, which is disappearing,” he said.

Seeking a Buyer

Woodward Communications had a number of reasons for wanting to off-load the two weeklies, according to Bob Woodward, whose family owned the company for about a century until it became primarily employee-owned in 2013 (and who is no relation to the famed Washington Post reporter who broke the Watergate story). The papers were located in towns far from the company’s Dubuque headquarters, and it was hard to find local advertisers because both Mount Vernon and Solon are largely residential. Financially, the papers were generally breaking even, but operating costs kept rising. (This paragraph has been updated to clarify the ownership of Woodward Communications.)

Woodward decided to approach Brummond, whom he had met on the Iowa Newspaper Association board, after reading about other newspapers finding second lives under the ownership of or in partnership with local college journalism programs. Most famously, a Georgia newspaper, The Oglethorpe Echo, was donated to the University of Georgia in 2023.

The deal between Woodward Communications and Student Publications Inc. is unique in that the Iowan’s parent company is independent of the university. Both Brummond and Watts told Inside Higher Ed they believe this might be the first time a local newspaper has been sold to an independent student news publisher.

Closing a paper can incur costs, including reimbursing subscribers, Woodward said. The decision to sell to Student Publications Inc. was inspired not only by the hope of saving money but also by a desire to maintain high-quality journalism for the residents of Mount Vernon and Solon, which is why the Woodward Communications has worked closely with the nonprofit to ensure a smooth transition.

“We made it as turnkey as we possibly could," Woodward said. “We said we’ll provide all of the equipment and all of the support we possibly can to help with the transition.”

A Win-Win Scenario

Under Student Publications Inc., the existing editors and reporters at the Sun and the Economist maintain editorial control over their publications, and for now Woodward Communications is still responsible for printing them. The only major changes to the newspapers’ first editions under the nonprofit were revisions to the layouts to match The Daily Iowan; The Solon Economist also ran a story that the Iowan had published earlier in the week about the censure of a Johnson County attorney.

More changes are to come, including a transition to the Iowan’s content management system, for which student employees will train the staffs of the Economist and the Sun. Journalism students will also begin contributing to the two weeklies at some point in the future, though the details have not yet been fully worked out.

Nathan Countryman, the editor and reporter at the Sun, said he’s eager to have the support of student journalists during Mount Vernon’s busy spring months, when he is often stretched thin covering local festivals and high school graduations.

“I see a lot of benefits of getting student journalists in this community and learning in this area,” he said. “There’s a lot you can learn working at a weekly paper that you wouldn’t learn at a daily.”

Watts said the journalism school’s involvement in this newfound partnership is a win-win, providing high-quality, vetted content to the readers of the Economist and the Sun while giving the students invaluable experience.

“It’s woven into the curriculum ways to give these students the kind of networking and publishing experience it’s much harder to get these days,” he said.

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