Thursday, July 9, 2020

John Pennington, a 1996 graduate of the School of Journalism and Mass Communications, has always had a knack for writing. As a child, Pennington was introduced to newspapers and received his first typewriter from his grandfather at eight-years-old.

“When I got out of high school I was in the Marine Corps, so when I got out of the service I went to the college counselor and he asked, ‘What do you want to do?’,” said Pennington. “One thing led to another and I was in the journalism program. It naturally occurred; my interest in writing played to my strengths.” 

Originally from Arkansas, Pennington moved to Iowa with his ex-wife, who had family in Coralville. He was attracted to the strength of the university’s journalism program and was offered a scholarship following two years at a junior college. Pennington enrolled in classes that prepared him for the everyday life of a reporter, including a course that required him to complete a beat assignment by the end of the class period. 

“All the professors there seemed to be preparing us for things that were going to help us once we got into the field,” said Pennington. “There were tons of times when I was a reporter that I understood what they were preparing me for.”

Pennington remained in Iowa City until the summer of 1997 when he accepted a position as a reporter for the Southwest Times Record in Fort Smith, Arkansas. He covered Crawford and Franklin counties, reporting on cops, courts, education, crime, “you name it.” “What I really enjoyed about it was that no two days were the same,” said Pennington. “When you got up in the morning you didn’t know if you were going to be doing an interview with the local superintendent of the school district or interviewing a United States senator.” After four years of daily reporting, Pennington went into his executive editor’s office for a performance evaluation. He was offered an insignificant pay raise, seven cents an hour, and began to look elsewhere. 

Pennington applied to law school and began earning his law degree from the University of Arkansas at Little Rock at night while working for the newspaper during the day. Following two years of night school, Pennington became a full-time student and finished law school in 2003. He soon began working for the Center for Army Lessons Learned at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, as Publishing Division chief. He compiled reports from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars to see what worked and what didn’t, and a team of military analysts vetted information to ensure accuracy. Pennington’s team of editors and graphic artists would then publish books to go out into the field across the Department of Defense in an effort to turn information around as fast as possible, hoping that units going back would learn the lessons of those before them and continuously improve. 

“The biggest thing that helped me with it was the speed that we had to work at,” said Pennington. “I was used to working daily newspaper work where you walk in in the morning and something pops up on the scanner or you get an assignment and you know by 4:30 that afternoon you have to gather all the information, get the story written, get it typed out, and have it in the can ready to go.”

In 2016, Pennington began working for the General Services Administration Office of Inspector General in the audits office as an editor in Kansas City, Missouri. He works for an independent agency that looks at the GSA, which runs all federal buildings. His team of 300 auditors, special agents, attorneys, and staff members try to deter fraud and abuse throughout the GSA and ensure money is being used effectively. Pennington’s job is to make such complex financial information usable and readable by the American publish, which is published on the GSA website. He plans to retire in the role. 

Pennington’s had a successful career but it’s not what he always envisioned. “Be flexible, you never know what opportunity is going to avail itself,” said Pennington. “When I graduated at the j-school in ‘96, if you would’ve told me that I would’ve been working at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, for the Army, I would’ve laughed my head off. But it turned out to be a great opportunity. Those opportunities you have to be open to.”

Story by: Jack Martin, Current Journalism & Political Science Major