50 years of the Observer: 1966-2016
Fifty years ago today, the first copies of a new student publication appeared around campus. Students heading into the dining hall or on their way to class picked up The Observer Vol. 1, Issue 1 — some out of curiosity, some out of boredom and some on a whim.
When they picked up the paper, they would have seen that day’s top stories: “Legal Apts. For Off-Campusers Seen as Near” and “Student Stress Study Slated.” And, at the bottom of the page: “A Promise, A Purpose, A Newspaper is Born.”
A lot has changed since then.
Born out of the ashes of the student newspaper The Voice, The Observer joined Scholastic as one of the regular sources for Notre Dame news.
Certainly, The Observer’s coverage has changed, shifted in accordance with the times or in response to issues that have emerged over the years. But it’s more than that — the newspaper’s role on campus, even its day-to-day operations, have radically changed in the five decades since Robert Sam Anson and Stephen Feldhaus first set out with a vision of a new independent student publication.
The early years
At the same time he was deciding to discontinue The Voice, Feldhaus — its editor and a 1967 graduate — made the decision to found a new paper. It was the fall of 1966, and the first thing Feldhaus realized he had to do was form a core group of students who would undertake the running of a new publication.
“I realized … that I needed to be able to attract the best and the brightest. So, with that in mind, I also decided that I should bring in someone with newspaper experience to help me create a longer lasting professional organization. And I knew Robert Sam Anson, and I approached him,” Feldhaus said. “He was a tough newspaper-man mold, and I became convinced he could add a real degree of journalistic professionalism to the organization.”
The new Observer staff drew from the previous staff of The Voice and also attracted new blood, Feldhaus said. For example, Anson, a fellow member of the class of 1967, as well as a few other writers, had previously worked at Scholastic.
“We created an institution together that took some of my staff and some of the relationships I had with the printer; and that built on the relationships I had in the advertising community and built on the structure that we had,” Feldhaus said. “And it brought clear improvements, and I’ve been glad to this day that I did what I did because I think that the paper was a better paper as a result, and I think the University of Notre Dame has benefitted from having a first-class paper.”
The goal — as laid out in first issue — was to create a 12-page weekly paper, that would transition to an 8-page bi-weekly paper after one month of publication. After two years of publication, The Observer began printing daily editions Monday through Friday while classes were in session, and has continued to do so since.
Anson, who served as Feldhaus’ co-editor-in-chief, said in its first few years The Observer was “a very rambunctious, left-wing newspaper” with “a really, really good staff.”
“It was really tough. I mean this was the middle of the Vietnam War … and all kinds of things were going on,” he said.
Anson said the atmosphere of the 1960s in many ways shaped his own experience and influenced the first year of coverage.
“You have no idea what the ’60s were,” Anson said. “I mean you felt as a student that you were right there on the cutting edge of a revolution.
“… It just shaped you in an astonishing sort of way.”
‘It was fun to be a ‘first’’
As the turmoil of the 1960s came to a close, The Observer pivoted from its status as a spunky upshot publication to a more established campus institution.
Shortly after its inception, The Observer had joined forces with the student paper at Saint Mary’s. A few years after that, in 1972, Notre Dame admitted its first class of undergraduate women.
Five years later, in 1977, Saint Mary’s junior Marti Hogan took over as the first woman editor-in-chief of The Observer.
“I enjoyed it very much,” Hogan said. “It was fun to be a ‘first.’ … And it was great, it was a lot of fun. And welcoming.”
The Observer was a place for all students to get involved, Hogan said.
“We were trying to think of what the students would be interested in reading,” she said. “And that’s why — boy, some of our entertainment section, cultural stories, those were just a blast. Because that’s where people could have fun.”
An independent paper
In the first few years of its existence, The Observer shared an at-times-complicated relationship with the University, Anson said. On the one hand, several Observer editorial decisions came under fire from the administration, while on the other hand, Anson said he received a significant amount of support and encouragement from then-University President Fr. Theodore Hesburgh.
“All kinds of people would call in [to Hesburgh] and say, ‘You should throw him out,’” Anson said. “And I saw Fr. Hesburgh about a year before his death … and I said, ‘How come you didn’t throw me out?’ He said, ‘Because you had a martyr complex.’”
Feldhaus said despite several conflicts, the administration ultimately offered The Observer substantial support throughout the process of its foundation.
“The University [was] pretty far-sighted, and they saw the benefit of an independent newspaper at the school,” Feldhaus said. “And we got a tremendous amount of support from very far-sighted leaders in the administration, including Fr. Hesburgh, and also [then-executive vice president Fr. Edmund] Joyce and numerous others who really did try to nurture the independent voice of The Voice and ultimately The Observer.”
However, different editorial boards and staffs experienced different relationships with the administration over time.
“I know there were some editorial boards that were a little bit more aggressive than others. Or maybe, looking for more things to uncover. I think we had a pretty good working relationship,” Hogan said of the paper’s 1977-1978 editorial board. “[The University] took us seriously, which I always respected.”
One particular source of tension lasting throughout a good portion of the 1990s concerned The Observer’s advertising policy. At several points, the paper experienced resistance from the administration in printing advertisements relating to the LGBT community, particularly those coming from the Gay and Lesbian Alumni of Notre Dame and Saint Mary’s (GALA-ND/SMC).
“One of the major issues when I was [editor-in-chief] — and it’s nice to see how the campus has progressed in this way — was we were not allowed to accept any advertising from gays and lesbians of Notre Dame and Saint Mary’s,” Alison Hamilton, the editor-in-chief from 1990-1991, said.
The issue with accepting advertisements from groups with gay or lesbian affiliations continued into the tenure of the 1992-1993 editor-in-chief Monica Yant Kinney.
“I distinctly remember pushing the boundaries on ads and allowing and encouraging ads that said something to the effect of, ‘If you don’t want to meet to talk about what it may be like to be gay or lesbian at Notre Dame, don’t come to such-and-such room tonight, because we won’t be there,’” Yant Kinney said. “And I remember getting some not particularly pleased responses from parts of the administration. … We were walking a very fine line.”
The matter came to a head during the tenures of Michelle Krupa and Mike Connolly, who served as editors-in-chief in 1999-2000 and 2000-2002, respectively. Both ran advertisements from GALA-ND/SMC for a service scholarship the group was offering.
“In the end, there was a meeting with the president of the University and me and my managing editor and my [assistant managing editor] in his office and it was sort of … now that I’m further away from it, I see it as a real effort to intimidate us as students,” Krupa said.
Connolly said he experienced similar “veiled threats” from the University when he continued to run the advertisement, which prompted him to develop a more active strategy.
“We started using our resources to get the word out there. We lined up with student senate and then went and spoke with student senate about what the problem was. … [A story] went on the [Associated Press] wire about the threat to shut the paper down if we wouldn’t stop running these ads,” he said.
Late nights in the office
While the staff struggled over editorial decisions, day-to-day operations at The Observer at times proved difficult, as well.
The Observer office was located on the third floor of LaFortune Student Center until 1998, when it was relocated by the University — much to the dismay of the staff — to the basement of South Dining Hall, where it remains today.
The early years of the transition to the new office were not easy, former office coordinator Shirley Grauel said.
“Well, I remember we used to have floods when we were in the [basement] because the cafeteria is above us,” she said. “The sports desk would get soaked — it would come through the ceiling and it was a mess. It was just a flood. Then the guys upstairs from food services said, ‘Just put plastic over it.’”
But irrespective of its location, and despite technological advancements, late nights at The Observer office have remained a constant.
Hogan described working in The Observer’s LaFortune office until the early hours of the morning, waxing stories onto galley proofs and preparing the layout for the next day’s paper during her time at The Observer in the late 1970s.
“We were, unfortunately, perfectionists,” Hogan said. “It didn’t always show when the papers showed up at lunch time in the dining hall, but there were several nights when we would be watching the sun come up. … We would be waiting for maybe a last story to come in or a last change. We literally drove [the paper] to the printer.”
More than 20 years later, Krupa described a similar office atmosphere.
“1:30 a.m. was a good night — that was probably a Monday or Tuesday night,” she said. “We could hit 48 pages in a Friday edition, plus the football insert. That’s a lot of copy to fill the pages. And we were literally printing pages. So if the printer was on the fritz, you’d have to get somebody to fix it, and then paste it up.
“… I definitely more than once walked out of The Observer and walked to class on Friday morning.”
One late night in particular stands out to the current editors and recent alumni.
The night of Thursday, Feb. 27, 2015, The Observer staff was celebrating the transition from one editor-in-chief, Ann Marie Jakubowski, to another, Greg Hadley, when rumors began to appear on the social media app Yik Yak that Fr. Hesburgh had died.
“It was without a doubt the most stressful night I ever had at The Observer,” Hadley, the 2015-2016 editor-in-chief, said in an email. “Some people were already asleep, so we were just frantically calling people and roommates of people to get them up and get them around campus, because tributes popped up so quickly.
“ … I don’t think I appreciated how important Fr. Hesburgh was to the history of The Observer at that point. It just wasn’t something we talked about a lot. But seeing how much it impacted other people really impressed me, and as we went through so many old issues and saw letters from him, comments from him, input from him on the going-ons of campus, I realized how he was so pivotal to the growth of The Observer into a really legitimate and respected voice on campus.”
More than a hobby
In its five decades of reporting, The Observer has covered all sorts of campus stories — on campus crime and construction, student senate and sexual assault.
Of course, it’s covered the not-so-important news, too.
“One of our years there was a very, very minor break-in at LaFortune. Someone broke into an office and took $12 or something. And [1991-1992 editor-in-chief] Kelley [Tuthill] and I treated it like Watergate,” Yant Kinney said. “You would’ve thought we were breaking some huge story. We traced the burglar’s steps. I mean, [my husband] still makes fun of me for this. It was the biggest, most exciting thing — and yet, it was nothing.”
Students only have four years in college, Yant Kinney added. But a person can learn a lot during that time.
“I really feel like I had an incredible opportunity to start my profession before I even knew that was going to be my profession,” she said. “I think at The Observer, we were aware that we didn’t know everything — we were learning as we went. And I think Notre Dame, as a community, was supportive of that.”
Whatever the quality of stories; whatever problems The Observer has experienced with production and day-to-day-operations; whatever issues the editorial board has had to grapple with — The Observer has always been a place where students have had the opportunity to gain real-life work experience and form lasting relationships.
“The Observer teaches you things that you will use later in life, because you don’t have a faculty advisor watching over you like some other publications,” Hamilton said. “You really have to own everything that’s in that paper.”
And for the thousands of students that have spent their nights in The Observer office, the paper looms large in their college memories.
“The Observer was my Notre Dame experience,” Krupa said. “I scheduled my courses around when I worked at the paper. My best friends were at the paper, you know? That’s what I really wanted to be doing.”