Despite floods and a changing news industry, an award-winning student journalist pursues her love of the written word.
Emileigh Barnes measures time a little differently than most college students.
She doesn’t think in terms of semesters. She thinks in terms of news.
“Every event in my life is pegged to the news event at the time,” says Barnes, a senior journalism and mass communication major scheduled to graduate in May 2009. “There was the flood; the caucuses—candidates were stumping all over Iowa that entire fall; University president David Skorton leaving and Sally Mason arriving; the winters—classes being cancelled three times...”
Such is the life of a journalist, and it’s a life Barnes relishes. A native of Oxford, Miss., she chose The University of Iowa because of its journalism program and award-winning student newspaper, the Daily Iowan. She worked there as a news reporter and section editor for three years before being named editor in chief for the 2008-2009 school year. The Daily Iowan has won two Pacemaker Awards, considered the Pulitzer Prize for college journalism, during Barnes’ years on staff. She has also been named one of the nation’s top 100 collegiate journalists by UWIRE.
Barnes grew up loving the written word. Like Iowa City, Oxford is steeped in literary tradition; it’s the adopted hometown of William Faulkner, and inspired many of his novels.
“When you’re from somewhere like that, it becomes a palpable part of you,” Barnes says. “We read at least one William Faulkner novel every year, and, living in Oxford, you can envision it, you can see the creation of everything, of the places and the people in the novel.”
The love of journalism didn’t come until high school, when Barnes signed up for a journalism class because she needed to add another elective to her schedule.
“It just turned out to be a really good fit,” says Barnes, who was named the Mississippi High School Journalist of the Year in 2005. “I like that journalism allows you to be different people on different days. One day you’re talking to a priest who body-slammed a guy who was trying to break into his car; the next you’re hanging out in a classroom for disabled children. There are nomadic qualities about that that are appealing.”
Barnes estimates that she’s written about 400 articles for the Daily Iowan and the three newspapers where she’s worked as an intern: the Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal, the Novato (California) Advance, and the Bakersfield Californian. At two of those internships, she also branched out beyond traditional writing and editing by posting stories online and creating and editing web videos.
“I really believe that journalism has the ability to effect change in the world in a very concrete way,” Barnes says.
She recently placed third in spot news writing in the William Randolph Hearst Foundation’s Journalism Awards Program, a national scholarship program, but her favorite type of journalism is the type that goes beyond reporting breaking news.
“I love the intersection of journalism and long-form writing,” Barnes says. “I also really like writing poetry. Poetry and journalism fit together better than one might think. You can say something true and say it beautifully, and if journalism is well-written, people will read it.”
In fact, Barnes plans to pursue an MFA in poetry after completing her undergraduate studies.
“I thought it would be wonderful to spend a couple of years working only on the craft of writing,” she says. “An MFA is one of the best ways to do that.”
Writing has taken a backseat this year, as Barnes fills her role as the Daily Iowan’s editor in chief. She works 40 hours a week or more, meeting with section editors to determine news content and placement, proofreading pages, managing a staff of 70 (and making sure they all get paid), and handling any last-minute crises that arise.
That crisis-management role included figuring out a way to publish the Daily Iowan when the June 2008 floods forced the staff to evacuate their newsroom in the Adler Journalism and Mass Communication Building.
“We moved four computers to the Gazette’s Iowa City office in Old Capitol Town Center. Our reporters were working elsewhere and sending in stories through e-mail. Everyone was scattered and struggling to get their stories done, and the roads were flooded so we weren’t even sure if the papers would be able to be delivered.”
Still, Barnes and her staff not only kept up their usual Monday through Friday publication schedule, they printed two additional weekend papers to keep up with the demand for news.
Natural disasters aside, Barnes knows that these are challenging times for journalists as circulation and advertising revenue decline at newspapers nationwide. Still, she remains optimistic about the future.
“I think there are a lot of misconceptions about the news industry failing. All this doom and gloom stuff… no one knows what’s going to happen, but I think newspapers will do just fine in one form or another,” she says. “I love writing. I want to work on in-depth stories, maybe as a freelance writer. I can’t see my life not having journalism in it in some way.”
Story by Anne Kapler; photo by Tim Schoon.
Related link: The Daily Iowan Survives, a video story of how the Daily Iowan staff managed to continue to publish throughout the historic flood of 2008.
May 5, 2009