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An independent identity

Maddie Hanna | Friday, November 3, 2006

When a group of students showed up at Robert Sam Anson’s dorm room in 1966 and asked him to edit a new campus newspaper, he wasn’t really thinking about longevity, legacy or 40 years of editorial independence.

“It was fun stirring the pot,” said Anson, who agreed to serve as editor in chief of The Observer after Notre Dame student government shut down its “just dreadful” newspaper, The Voice. “[The Observer] was a left-wing rag, but boy, did it get readers.”

On Nov. 3, 1966, Anson and about 20 students put out the first edition of The Observer. That weekly, 12-page “rag” has since become a paper that publishes five days a week, ranges between 20 and 40 pages and staffs close to 200 students.

Whether Anson intended it or not, his decision had a profound impact on Notre Dame. The Observer is still the primary campus newspaper – but it’s gone through 40 years of changes to become what it is today.

From a ‘bad influence,’ a paper is born

For Anson, it all came out of a chance – and a refusal.

“I had been working for the Scholastic,” Anson said. “I was supposed to have been the editor senior year, but the vice president [for] student affairs, Father [Charles] McCarragher, decided I would be a bad influence.

“He was right, I was a bad influence,” he laughed, “but I was worse at The Observer.”

In 1966, Anson shared the position of editor-in-chief with Steve Feldhaus, who had been in charge of The Voice. Feldhaus handled The Observer’s finances – the paper was funded by student government dollars – while Anson directed the editorial side.

The pair continually challenged the administration, most notably when Anson clipped out an article from the “Berkeley Barb” about California’s growing free-love movement. After it ran in The Observer, University officials admonished the liberally minded editors.

“We were threatened with expulsion, and since there was a draft in Vietnam, it was sort of a death sentence,” he said.

The University forced Anson and Feldhaus to deliver a written apology to every student on campus, which they did – and then reprinted it in The Observer, surrounded by Letters to the Editor in support of the original article.

Expulsion threats aside, the editors strived to keep The Observer “lively looking and lively reading.”

Lively it was, but The Observer was missing something crucial – adequate funding. In 1967, Student Senate approved the first Observer subscription fee.

In 1968, the paper bumped up to five days a week. And it’s been published every weekday since then – except in 1970, when several top editors stepped down, and publication was suspended for two days.

Despite its brazenly liberal roots, during the ’70s, The Observer developed into a more objective – and increasingly comprehensive – publication.

However, it wasn’t without its fair share of copy-editing errors – this was before Microsoft Word spell check, after all. Stories would come back from the printer on a sticky paper, ready to be trimmed and pasted on the page by an Observer layout person. The paper would ultimately be printed based on photo plates of the pages, Anson said.

An indispensable asset

The Observer’s biggest change, however, took place in 1980, when office manager Shirley Grauel joined the staff, then located on the third floor of LaFortune.

While today’s focus is on The Observer’s 40th birthday, it can’t be overlooked that Grauel has been here for a full 26 of those years. At a publication with new leaders every spring and such a high level of employee turnover, Grauel’s tenure has been an important constant.

Officially, Grauel assists the editor in chief with administrative duties. Unofficially, she runs the office when student employees are at class and tackles the problems no one else knows how to solve.

She orders new supplies and keeps the office equipment – printers, phones, fax and copy machine – up to date. She pays the bills in the summer, handles classified ads and is an invaluable source of help to the Ads and Business Department.

With Grauel on board, The Observer entered the ’80s. In 1982, the editorial board asked the University for a $1 increase in the subscription fee. Previously, the paper had operated on advertising revenues and a $5 per semester fee, established by the Student Senate.

Audits and arguments

However, this request sparked a University investigation of The Observer’s financial operations – an unintended consequence. And what the University turned up, it didn’t like.

The University’s internal audit department turned up a $7,000 deficit, along with sloppy bookkeeping and irresponsible spending. Father John van Wolvlear, then-vice president of Student Affairs, told 1983-84 Observer Editor in Chief David Dziedzic that the paper’s smartest financial option would be to join the University Budget Control System (BUCS). Although The Observer took a defensive approach, trying to find alternatives that wouldn’t sacrifice its fiercely guarded independence, its attempts to improve the paper’s accounting systems did not satisfy the University.

So when the University said join the BUCS system, or forget about anyone collecting those student subscription fees, The Observer joined the system – on one condition.

That condition was a written guarantee from University President Emeritus Father Theodore Hesburgh that The Observer would remain editorially independent.

“[R]elationships among organizations of the University have been traditionally familial in nature,” Hesburgh wrote in a Dec. 6, 1983 letter to Dziedzic. “Therefore, it is not my intention to sign a contract with The Observer. I believe that the relationship of the past years has been one of trust and should continue in that fashion.”

“The administration of the University has ensured the editorial freedom of The Observer in the past and continues to do so.”

And with that assurance, on Feb. 6, 1984, The Observer joined the BUCS system.

A changed relationship and a changed location

But there was an administrative hint of conflict to come. In a following letter to Dziedzic, then-Executive Assistant to the President Father David Tyson said it was “important to note that the University’s respect for the independence of The Observer has been in light of the fact that the contents of the paper, including advertisement, have been consistent with the highest standards of the journalism profession and the mission and principles of this institution of higher education.”

Advertising and Catholic principles would both contribute to future tensions between The Observer and the University.

In 1986, the University included a policy in its student handbook, duLac, banning all alcohol-related advertisements on campus in publications bearing the University’s name. The impact of this ban on The Observer wasn’t clearly defined, however, until winter of 2005, when The Observer agreed to consistently adhere to the precedent of declining advertisements promoting alcohol and alcohol-related events.

Throughout the ’90s, The Observer focused on improving its campus coverage, relying less on the Associated Press – especially on its front page. The staff has prioritized editing, special sections and series work. Computers have revolutionized both the method of production and the day-to-day character of the office.

“The line [to place ads] used to be always out the door, especially during football season,” Grauel said. “Now with the e-mail, e-mail has really hurt traffic. … It used to be so busy.”

Not only has e-mail altered the feel of The Observer’s office, but the office itself has changed. In 1998, the staff moved from its LaFortune location to the basement of South Dining Hall – a shift that, Grauel said, required major adjustment.

“It was tough,” she said. “I remember coming into the [former] office and the editor in chief then would be looking out his window onto the peace memorial. … It was really nice. When we got here, at first, it felt cramped.”

Shortly after that transition came the biggest fight The Observer has ever won – the fight to run advertisements for gay and lesbian organizations.

Why independence matters

Before 1999-2000 Editor in Chief Michelle Krupa took over, “it was kind of this tacit, don’t ask don’t tell policy” between The Observer and University officials regarding advertisements for Gay and Lesbian Alumni/ae of Notre Dame and Saint Mary’s (GALA-ND/SMC, formerly known as GLND/SMC), she said.

That “tacit policy” was really a several-year dispute that came to a head during Krupa’s tenure. The year before, former Assistant to the President Matt Cullinan sent an e-mail to then-Editor in Chief Heather Cocks attempting to enforce the ad ban.

“GLND is an unrecognized group, and therefore, may not advertise on campus, including in the Observer,” the Sept. 15, 1998 e-mail read. “GALA is an outside group, closely affiliated with GLND. As such it does not have a right to advertise. These groups have tried various avenues in the past to get ads in the Observer. It is not a letter of policy situation, but rather the spirit of the policy. …

“Unrecognized student groups may not advertise. With respect to outside groups, the issue is not simply whether Notre Dame appears in the title. Outside groups that, directly or indirectly, espouse positions contrary to the moral teaching of the Catholic Church may not advertise.”

Former Assistant to the President Chandra Johnson sent this same text in an Aug. 23, 1999 letter to Krupa. And that’s when the real fight began.

Krupa and other editors continued to defend their stance – that they should have complete independence to run the ads – and, after several months of campus and community debate, The Observer printed an ad for gay student group OUTreach ND in November 1999.

Since then, The Observer has continued to print advertisements for the gay and lesbian organizations. University President Emeritus Father Edward Malloy appointed an internal ad hoc committee to examine the University’s relationship with The Observer, but the committee never issued a public decision.

“We just felt backing down on this, not only would it muck up our independence, it would have weakened our stand,” Krupa said. “Not only our identity with respect to that issue, but across the board. … It would have weakened us as a watchdog, [an idea] that we hold so dearly to the tenets of journalism.”

A constant identity

Throughout the challenges and changes, one thing that’s stayed constant these past 40 years is the work required to put out just one paper.

“I know I hardly went to class. … It was just constant,” Anson said. “It was basically – I just recall the last three days of every week were a death march.”

Even though The Observer published just weekly back in those days, “we were writing until the last minute,” Anson said.

The other constant – besides Grauel, of course – is The Observer’s independence.

“It really is an environment of learning,” Krupa said. “… Pulling the rug of independence out of that would stymie that learning environment.”

At The Observer, Krupa found a “grassroots, implicit understanding of the ethics of the business,” she said – free of corporate influence.

“At The Observer,” she said, “it’s all just journalism and government.”