Senior Column | It’s the people, not the newsroom

In a remote year to cap a Hawkeye career, I’m especially thankful for the stories, both that people trusted in us and tellers that told them, the giggles, both experienced and invoked, and the hard choices, because we’ve grown as a result.


Photo by Kate Heston

Sarah Watson, Executive Editor

I’ve always been uncomfortable touting my own accomplishments.

But for The Daily Iowan team, I’ll cheer until my voice is hoarse.

And that team atmosphere is what I’ve cherished, and how I’ve grown, working for (majoring in) the student-run newspaper all these years.

At first, I didn’t think I was the right person to lead as an executive editor. There were many afternoons on the phone with Publisher Jason Brummond this spring and summer when I said, “I don’t know.” This year, we were faced with changing our printing frequency permanently for the first time in the paper’s recent history. I received messages from staffers who had to leave to pick up a full-time job because they needed to support family members who’d lost employment or fallen sick. And, we would need to operate an almost entirely remote newsroom.

But every single person rose to the challenge and handled a newsy year — which in addition to a pandemic, also included a misinformation-fraught election and a search for a new University of Iowa president — marvelously.

In a fall staff demographics survey, we found that nearly half of our staffers started at the DI in the last year. That meant a huge chunk of our staff had never worked in the newsroom before.

But, as long-time UI President Sandy Boyd frequently said, it’s the people, not the buildings that make the UI great.

And we found — I found — that to be true more than ever this year. We couldn’t trade ideas in the newsroom, but we logged on to checkered Zooms with smiling faces and waving arms.

While the pandemic laid bare inequities we knew existed in the U.S. and in Iowa, it also forced us to reshuffle priorities and distilled our values as journalists and as human beings. Suddenly, the importance of meaningful and accurate information became more tangible than it ever had before as misinformation spread about COVID-19 and the 2020 election — especially after it concluded.

DI journalists corrected politicians — especially on higher education misconceptions — through a partnership with PolitiFact. We wrote harrowing stories on the COVID-19 unit at the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics and found light in how the Stead Family Children’s Hospital was operating. Our opinions editor, Hannah Pinski, told me after writing about anti-Asian discrimination in the age of COVID-19, multiple professors reached out to thank her for writing about shared experiences or opening their eyes to what was going on. One of our arts editors, Maddie Lotenschtein, shared with me a message that an MFA student sent thanking her and her co-editor Josie Fischels for giving a voice to the arts at the start of the pandemic when COVID-19 risks nixed in-person art shows. In another instance, Maddie wrote a column voicing concerns shared by other Jewish students on campus about student government voting down a Jewish constituency senator. Prompted by student advocacy in addition to Maddie’s column, the Undergraduate Student Government revoted and passed legislation to create that position. After higher education reporter Eleanor Hildebrandt reached out to administrators about no student representatives on a campus strategic planning committee, the university added shared governance members ex-officio, meaning after the strategy team’s creation. And many, many more.

Stories matter. And who tells them matters, too.

The team has racked up awards — Iowa Newspaper of the Year (twice), All Around Best Daily Student Newspaper by the Society for Professional Journalists, and several individual awards spanning Great Plains Journalism Awards, Hearst finalists, and other competitions with prestigious names.

But awards aside, my time at the DI showed me that journalism is a public service. Finding the clearest truth and telling people about it is essential work. Everyone has a story to tell, and I’m thankful for all the storytellers who’ve made it their purpose at the DI, and thankful for everyone who trusted us with their stories.

The DI pushed me out of my comfort zone again and again into new roles, and I’m so thankful it did. I interviewed Elizabeth Warren and others competing for Iowa caucusgoer support and corrected the record on voter ID’s for students, faculty tenure, and vaccine hesitancy. To Julia Shanahan, Marissa Payne, and Jenn Wagner for always pushing for that extra source, that extra fact, that extra insight. To Lyle Muller, who challenged me, questioned my assumptions, and humbled my work. And to Jason Brummond, my partner in scoops Alexandra Skores, and the staff, for always believing in me. And finally, to you, readers, for trusting us as your source of information, giggles, and comprehensive analyses. Thank you. I couldn’t have gotten this piece of (news)paper without you.

Columns reflect the opinions of the authors and are not necessarily those of the Editorial Board, The Daily Iowan, or other organizations in which the author may be involved.

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