The Founding of Iraq’s Independent Student Press, Part Two

“One Team, One Newspaper”

The Founding of Iraq’s Independent Student Press

Part Two: “I Fell in Love with Iraq”

The Voice began, indirectly, with a stumble and a scandalWashington Post veteran staff writer Jackie Spinner arrived in Iraq in May 2004 primarily to cover the criminal proceedings tied to the infamous Abu Ghraib prison abuse.  While exiting the bus that ferried her from Baghdad’s airport, she tripped on the steps– an entrance described as fitting for a transplanted business reporter who had “daily battled numbers, not bullets, not bombs.”

In a thirteen-month reportorial stint, Spinner’s beat spun out from a sharp focus on the prison scandal to a wide-angle lens on wartime Iraq.  As she wrote in her memoir Tell Them I Didn’t Cry: A Young Journalist’s Story of Joy, Loss, and Survival in Iraq, “The politics of the war aside . . . I was there to chronicle the human side of what was happening, the people caught up in what was happening in Iraq, for better or for worse.”

While reporting, she avoided kidnapping, mortar shells, and car bombs; slept fitfully in rooms only slightly protected from the putrid Middle East “heat funk”; endured endless military checkpoints and speeding along dangerous roadways at Indy 500 pace; faced sexualized stares, gender-biased disrespect, and an almost daily desire to de-feminize to better fit in; and learned numerous Arabic words and phrases, including Ani SahafiyaTranslation: I am a journalist.

At the conclusion of her time in the Post Baghdad bureau– and after writing and promoting her book, and returning to work stateside– a sense of duty and a spirit of kinship with the country she had briefly lived and reported in lingered.  “I fell in love with Iraq, this horrible, awful, violent, beautiful, hopeful place, where many Iraqis, in spite of the horrors of the insurgency, felt better off without Saddam in power, felt better off with American troops on their soil,” Spinner wrote.  “I fell in love with the story of Iraq and with the purpose I felt delivering it.  I found meaning in the people I met, whose lives unfolded at my fingertips.  My life didn’t feel on hold when I was in Iraq.  It was my life.”

This past December, Spinner began a new phase of her professional life, in Iraq and academia.  She joined the staff of The American University of Iraq- Sulaimani, a nearly three-year-old private university in the country’s northern Kurdish region modeled after Western liberal arts schools.

“I’m the director of media relations here,” she said two months after accepting the position.  “That’s not why I took this job.  I took this job to start a newspaper for students. . . . I’m very familiar with the Iraqi press.  I labored alongside them.  I went into battle with them. I always dreamed of coming back here someday.  I would like a free and democratic press started here.”

How do you begin building an objective student newspaper from scratch without accompanying journalism education and within a media landscape where a free, democratic press model is a plane ride away?  As Spinner wrote about her previous Post reporting stint, “I went to Iraq because I am a journalist: we drive into hurricanes, not away from them.”

Spinner created a slate of policy guidelines for the future publication, adapted from those used at award-winning U.S. college newspapers such as The Daily Kansan, The Daily Pennsylvanian, and The Daily Egyptian, the paper where her personal student press fires first sparked.

Spinner walked across campus as an Egyptian during her entire undergraduate career at Southern Illinois University Carbondale, talking her way onto the staff before her freshman year had officially begun.  She earned a journalism degree from SIU in 1992.  She subsequently enrolled within the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California, Berkeley, where she similarly enmeshed herself into the campus press and started a school chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists.  “You know how high school students who’ve been in the marching band will sometimes call themselves band nerds?” Spinner asked.  “Well, I was definitely a news nerd from a very early age.”

Her main confidante during the creation of the new publication at AUI-S was also the co-author of her memoir: her twin sister, Jenny (below, right).  As Jackie (below, left) writes, “She was always my identity, the other half of the Spinner twins who grew up in a blue-collar town in the Midwest, chasing lightning bugs and a sense that the world extended beyond the corn and soybean fields surrounding us.”

Dr. Jenny Spinner is also an adviser of a student newspaper, The Hawk, at Saint Joseph’s University, where she is an assistant professor of English.  “She’s been my biggest supporter,” said Jackie.  “I was a reporter with the Washington Post for 16 years.  I don’t really know anything about academia or student journalism from an adviser perspective.  So we have spent many, many moments on Skype and trading e-mails.”

As Jenny recalled about her reaction to her sister’s desire to start a student paper in Iraq, “I thought ‘Perfect.  Perfect.  Perfect for you.’  It is a job and a task that is made for her.  I think Jackie is somewhat of an idealist.  I mean, she’s a realist in that she understands the reality of what she’s doing.  But in terms of journalism, she’s an old-school idealist.  I think she is the perfect sort of person to be working with these students, doing this job, and she’s dedicated to it.  So honestly if a bubble could have popped over my head like a comic book character it would have said ‘perfect, perfect!’”

The biggest coup Jackie saw through at the outset: convincing the university to agree to not review or censor any newspaper content before publication.  This promise of no prior restraint was a huge sign of support from administrators, especially considering AUI-S is a university still in its infancy operating under an enormous international spotlight and within a culture where such press freedom is rarely granted.  The university was also going to provide the newspaper with funding and a newsroom on campus, two perks that are often accompanied by tight content controls even at U.S. schools.

Next up for Spinner, as she wrote via e-mail: “I had to think about copy flow, story budget sheets, photo assignments and everything that you need for any newspaper.  Figure out which equipment we needed to buy.  Software.  It’s not easy getting software in Iraq.  And then I had to lobby the university to build the newsroom.  They [students] had nowhere to work.  I had to build the house and furnish it before I invited anyone to tea.”

Her tea party planning included a search for the first editor in chief.  She set her sights on one student in particular, Dana Jaff.  The evidence for her belief in his potential included the founder of AUI-S and a sloppy but culturally-acceptable “big wet kiss.”

To Be Continued||| Part Three: “What! Another Newspaper?”

Just In Case… ||| Part One

Comments
14 Responses to “The Founding of Iraq’s Independent Student Press, Part Two”
  1. Great article. Fascinating account. Can’t wait to read the next installment.

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