By Joe Sheller / Guest Column

The New York Times coverage of the Super Tuesday election contests March 1 in many states included a report about the caucuses in Minnesota. “First-Time Caucusgoers Give Ted Cruz a Victory in Minnesota Precinct” stated the headline on a story datelined Inver Grove Heights, Minnesota.

The story was written by Christina Capecchi.

In 2001, when I began teaching at Mount Mercy University, Ms. Capecchi was a sophomore public relations student and editor of the Mount Mercy Times. In her final year, when MMU began to offer a journalism degree, she changed majors and graduated from MMU with degrees in journalism and English.

And now, among other things, she’s filing reports with The New York Times.

A graduate degree from a well-respected school is part of that equation, but I’ve had a parade of former students speaking this spring to my introduction to journalism course. They are all working in one form of professional communication or another as a marketing professional at a big accounting firm, or doing public relations and marketing work in higher education.

And all of these former students share a key attribute. They were one type of editor or another at the Mount Mercy Times.

Super Tuesday and the visitors to my class are just two coincidences that have me thinking about the importance of student journalism. Another reminder was a tweet I read about a local high school student.

Kyle Phillips, a language arts teacher and student media faculty advisor at Washington High School in Cedar Rapids wrote a tweet congratulating Molly Hunter, editor of The Surveyor for her recognition as 2016 student journalist of the year in Iowa by the Iowa High School Press Association.

In the Corridor, there are many opportunities for students to try their hands and minds at journalism at both the high school and university level. Of course, the University of Iowa has a School of Journalism and Mass Communication. Kirkwood Community College offers many media courses and experience both in newspaper journalism through The Communiqué and broadcast production through KSP, Kirkwood Student Productions.

Many high schools feature media of one form or another. The student newspaper at Iowa City West High School is even featured in the standard national guidebook of newspaper design.

I’m not a disinterested observer in stating this, because I am a student newspaper faculty advisor, but I think student newspaper experience is one of the best steps any student can take in either high school or college.

For one thing, it can lead to various forms of recognition. In January, Connor Mahan, a student who began taking classes at MMU in fall 2015, won the award for best news photograph of the year from the Iowa College Media Association. He was one of several MMU Times journalists to be honored by ICMA, and students from Kirkwood also won many ICMA awards.

But awards aren’t the main point of student journalism. Student journalism has benefits both for the students involved and for the schools that tolerate and encourage it.

Student journalists learn that writing, photography and editing are public acts. That can feel pretty good if a teacher or peer is complimenting your feature story, or pretty bad when you bear the brunt of a serious reporting error. An English class essay is typically between you and a teacher — a story in the student press has an audience of hundreds or thousands.

Student journalists learn more about their institutions including the movers and shakers and ongoing narratives.

Schools and universities that have vibrant student media can endure controversies and problems as a result – issues get blown up and louder in such an environment. But they are also places that can have a large public conversation, when problems can be publicly discussed and potentially dealt with. Even with the problems and headaches student media can bring, I think a campus community is almost always richer for its existence.

I believe the reason the First Amendment mentions freedom of the press is that the founders of our government recognized that government always functions best if the public is informed. On a small scale, the Times at MMU, the Communiqué at Kirkwood and The Surveyor at Washington High School are part of informing a particular part of the public in a particular place.

Most of the students who toil at student publications won’t become media professionals. But all will learn interviewing, communication, writing and other skills that will assist in many paths.

So, congratulations to Christina and Holly and Connor and the many other students who work to bring information to light at area schools. You’re doing an important service to your community and also building your futures.

And thanks to schools that recognize the importance of and support local student media.

Joe Sheller is an associate professor of communication and journalism at Mount Mercy University in Cedar Rapids. He can be reached at jsheller@mtmercy.edu.