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Inside The Observer: the story of the strangers underground

Eileen Duffy | Friday, November 3, 2006

Notre Dame: there are strangers in your midst.

They’re infiltrating Notre Dame Stadium and the Office of the President. They’re hovering around Turtle Creek police busts, Ty Willingham firing protests and Board of Trustees meetings. They’re in classrooms, residence halls and shh – listen.

They’re plotting right now in the basement of South Dining Hall.

They may disguise themselves as normal students, but Observer writers are dual citizens. In their underground world they speak journalist-ese, put just one space after their sentences and adjust their watches to Observer Standard Time, where days are nine-to-five – a.m., that is.

This is their story.


As most students are going about their eggs benedict-eating and rehashing-last-night Sunday morning routines, Observer editors flip on the lights in the quiet Observer office and get ready for the week ahead. In just a few short hours, they must determine how to fill the average 130 sheets of newsprint published from Monday through Friday.

Advertisements lighten the space-filling load, as do Associated Press stories, cartoons, crossword puzzles and weather graphics.

But putting out a newspaper isn’t just about filling space: it’s about reporting the news. And Observer writers are always ready to do that.

So editors make a weekly list – called a budget – of stories that matter to Notre Dame and Saint Mary’s. For News, that means covering everything from “The Vagina Monologues” and dome re-gilding controversies to awareness weeks and academic lectures. For Sports, it’s writing game wraps and spotlighting hot players or teams. And for Scene, it’s exploring what Notre Dame students are watching, reading, listening to, wearing and eating.

Writers crowd the office for their assignments each Sunday afternoon, and set off to report.

Sometimes the news, though, can’t be planned.

Like when 200 underage drinkers get busted at a South Bend bar, a football coach is fired before his contract expires or the leader of the Catholic world passes away. Covering stories like that can mean sacrificing sleep and socializing to spend hours on end in the office.

But where there’s a story, and a writer’s will, there’s a way.

A story’s birth

It’s Sunday afternoon, and News writer Sue Smith has just gotten her assignment: a story on a student who’s been evicted from Turtle Creek Apartments for hosting an underage-drinking party. A plethora of phone calls need to be made, notes must be taken and eventually, there’s an article to be written.

And it’s due in just a few hours.

Smith calls the South Bend Police Department the once, twice or 14 times it takes to get someone on the line who will comment.

She does the same with the Saint Joseph’s County Excise Police and Turtle Creek management. She’s discovered the student’s name through the grapevine, and she calls him, too.

Smith asks them the classic who, what, when, where and whys, writing (or typing) furiously all the while.

She’s courteous, but she wants the truth, and she’ll get it – even from the most laconic of sources.

Then she’ll write it down as clearly and accurately as she can.

And so a story is born.

The Observer treatment

Smith’s story – along with the rest of Sunday night’s stories – arrives via e-mail at the Observer office, where staff members have gathered to produce Monday’s paper.

The Rolling Stones are blaring from the back of the office, and the television in the corner is tuned to ESPN as the Sunday night News editor John Jones opens Smith’s story, called “TC eviction.”

Jones edits the story for AP style, the newspaper standard that requires one space after periods, spelling out numbers smaller than 10 and omitting a comma before “and” in a series, among other things. (Should he forget a rule or two, a 425-page AP Style book sits next to him at the News Desk.)

He also makes sure the all-important first sentence is hard-hitting and informative, the facts are transitioned in logical order and the ending packs a punch.

Then, he passes it back to the top editor – the editor in chief, managing editor or assistant managing editor, depending on the night – for approval. Tonight’s is Jim White.

“Is this the correct spelling of the police chief’s name?” White might call up to Jones. “Look it up.”

Back and forth they go, until the story earns the coveted “star”: White literally resaves Smith’s story as “*TC eviction.” This means that the story is now edited and ready to be placed on the page.

Behind Jones is the Sunday night Sports editor, sitting below a photo of Irish free safety Chinedum Ndukwe’s ball-jarring hit on Georgia Tech’s Calvin Johnson. The Scene editor, surrounded by DVDs and novels waiting to be reviewed, sits across from them. They, too, are waiting for those coveted stars.

Once White stars them, the stories are ready to go on the page.

Computer to paper

The Sunday night News production worker, Mary Lee, has a text box waiting in her layout, powered by a program named QuarkXPress. Lee pulls the Turtle Creek eviction story in and devises a headline that just fits in her space.

“What’s another word for ‘evict?'” she calls out. “Expel?” the Scene editor offers. “Oust?” shouts the Sports production worker.

Headline written, Lee walks to the corner of the office, where the photographers are hunched over computers, editing and cropping their

photos. If they’re lucky, there’s a picture of the bust. If not, there’s sure to be a photo of Turtle Creek on file.

In the layout, she adds a By SUE SMITH line and picks a quote to feature in the text. She drops straight lines between stories and make sure each line of text lines up with the next.

Then she prints it out – now, she’s hoping for a coveted “check.”

White’s eyes move cautiously over the page. He knows if stories aren’t the required two-fifths of an inch apart, and he protests if the headline is in the wrong font.

He hands it back to Lee stained with his signature blue marker.

Again, back and forth they go – three, four, sometimes even 10 times – until the page is without flaw, and receives a bright blue check mark at the top.

Eventually, every page is without flaw. (At least, that’s the idea.)

At that point, all the editors go home, except White. On a good night, that’s around 3 a.m.

White stays to review the final layout and electronically send it down to The Papers, a Milford, Ind.-based printing press.

A confirmation call later, White returns home and stumbles into bed.

The neverending story

Smith is heading to class the next morning when a van cruises past her on South Quad.

“Observer?” the driver offers, handing her one of the 10,000 copies of what a few hours earlier had been just words on a screen. Smith smiles and accepts.

Just after class, Smith overhears a conversation between two professors.

“Have you heard the news?” one asks the other. “Jenkins is making some big announcement today.”

Smith walks past them, rounds the corner, and dials Jones on her cell phone, who calls White. Someone has to cover this.

News is being made. And The Observer is ready.