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More than 50 years of Observer staffer stories

| Sunday, April 22, 2018

For the fifth annual Notre Dame Day, we decided to get in touch with some of our Observer alumni to see what they’re up to now, in journalism and a number of other industries. We’ve featured just a few below, many of whom said the skills they learned during their time at the paper were critical to what they did after graduation. Please consider making a donation to The Observer here to support student journalism and future generations of staffers just like these.

Ann Therese Palmer (‘73)

Ann Therese Palmer was in the first class of American Studies majors at Notre Dame. Despite significant writing experience in high school — through her school newspaper and local weeklies — she waited until second semester of her freshman year to join The Observer. Palmer quickly went on to take on key roles at the paper as a sophomore. She worked part-time for The Chicago-Sun Times, The New York Times, Newsweek, Time Magazine and The South Bend Tribune as an on-campus stringer to cover Notre Dame events for them and later went on to write “Thanking Father Ted,” a nonfiction book, in 2007.

Palmer wrote Observer pieces “about anything from the greased pig races at AnTostal to the failed ND-SMC merger.” Palmer also credits much of her success to University President Emeritus Fr. Ted Hesburgh, as he and his administrative team allowed her to interview them frequently.

“Whatever success I’ve had is the result of Fr. Ted and his team investing in developing me as a reporter, The Observer giving me the opportunity and the page space and the American Studies professors providing professional support,” she said.

Photo courtesy of Ann Therese Palmer

The 1971–1972 Observer news staff from left to right: Jerry Lutkus, Ann Therese (Darin) Palmer, George Lund, Anthony Abowd, Tom Bornholdt and Bill Sohn.

Marti Hogan (‘78)

Marti Hogan holds the honor of being The Observer’s first female Editor-in-Chief and the only Editor-in-Chief from Saint Mary’s. She joined the paper her freshman year as an assistant night editor, and she worked her way up from there. While she loved pouring herself into the paper and its stories, she says her favorite memory is the people she worked with.

“The Observer brought together an eclectic group of people who were truly dedicated, sometimes brilliant and frequently outrageously funny. I wouldn’t have met such an interesting and diverse group of people, with unique talents and quirks, without The Observer. I’m especially grateful for that,” she said.

After graduating in 1978, Hogan embarked on what would become a lengthy career in communications. Today, she is the director of communications at the International Dairy Foods Association, and she has passed on her love of The Observer to her son, Bill Brink, who was a managing editor in 2010 and now works for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

Photo courtesy of Marti Hogan

Now, Hogan is the director of communications at the International Dairy Foods Association.

Bryan Gruley (‘79)

Before Bryan Gruley won a Pulitzer Prize and penned a trilogy of mystery novels, he got his start in journalism as a feature writer — and eventually features editor — for The Observer, which gave him a space to write and taught him some of the same journalistic principles that he would continue to use throughout his successful career, like “those unforgiving deadlines.”  

After working his way through Michigan press outlets, he eventually landed his dream job at the Wall Street Journal, where he shared in the Pulitzer Prize for their 9/11 coverage. Gruley also wrote a trio of mystery novels, the “Starvation Lake” series, and has a stand-alone novel coming out in December. Today, he writes feature stories for Bloomberg Businessweek.

“It’s been a lot of fun. I’ve gotten to travel. I’ve been to Japan, Sweden, Brazil, Canada and all over the United States,” Gruley said. And his memories from The Observer? “So many good people work there, and I’m still friends with some of them today.”

Tom Jackman (‘82)

From covering the 1980 Republican National Convention to writing music reviews, Tom Jackman did it all during his time at The Observer. A criminal justice reporter at The Washington Post since 1998, the former resident of Holy Cross Hall said his time at The Observer taught him how a newspaper runs.

Seeing the “daily miracle happen five times a week” was, he noted, just one step in learning how to be self-sufficient at the student-run paper.  Jackman said that the daily deadlines and experience planning ahead for the week as an editor prepared him for working as a journalist in the future.

Jackman’s coverage at The Observer resided mostly in politics. “I got to interview all the Senate and house candidates because they all wanted to get in the Notre Dame paper,” he said.

His favorite aspect of working at The Observer, he said, was the connections with other staff members. “We had so much fun. There was a really great group of men and women there,” he said.

“I just think about the late nights and fun that we had, and the amazing friendships that I made.”

Photo courtesy of Tom Jackman

Jackman interviews an inmate for an internationally-followed case reported in the Kansas City Star in 1997.

Ryan Ver Berkmoes (‘83)

Before running the Online Tsunami Project with Lonely Planet covering the 2004 disaster in Southeast Asia and winning countless awards while working for various Chicago publications — including The Chicago Tribune and The Chicago Lawyer — Ryan Ver Berkmoes was a film major at Notre Dame and held various roles at The Observer during his five-year contribution to the paper.

“I was a five-year student, so I walked up to The Observer maybe in my first week on campus as a freshman,” he said. “I was with The Observer from 1978 until 1983, when I graduated.”

Ver Berkmoes described his time at The Observer as the glue that stuck his five years at Notre Dame together. He explained that Notre Dame had not yet offered a specific program in journalism during his time there, and that The Observer allowed students to “self-teach,” an experience he himself described as invaluable to his career after graduation.

“The Observer was an extraordinary thing because it was a self-funding, independent paper that was daily produced by students at Notre Dame and Saint Mary’s,” he added. “The Observer was probably the most important part of my time at Notre Dame.”

Photo courtesy of Ryan Ver Berkmoes

Ver Berkmoes, right, and John McGrath, a friend that would later be the best man at Ver Berkmoes’ wedding in 2015, sit together during their shifts as night editors for The Observer.

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David Kinney (‘94)

David Kinney made his way to The Observer within his first week at Notre Dame. Like most who begin with The Observer, Kinney started out covering routine lectures and events on campus. He had no previous experience writing for a newspaper; covering events for The Observer was his chance to test the waters, gain first-hand experience and learn from the sometimes forward critiques of the editors, one of whom would eventually become his wife.

The student-run element of The Observer was essential to the value of his experience. “It gives students a chance to learn and succeed and fail on their own merits,” he said. “It was running on the fly and figuring out how to do it without adults.”

One of his most profound memories of The Observer was the responsibility the newspaper automatically gave him as a student writer.

“When there were issues that came up, you’re almost not a student anymore. You’re almost like an outsider going to the administration, trying to get answers,” he said.

The opportunity to interview professors and administration, University President Emeritus Fr. Edward Malloy included, helped Kinney gain confidence interviewing individuals in positions of power before setting forth to interview politicians and national high-profile persons. These fundamental stories paved his way towards serving as a News Editor and subsequently as Editor-in-Chief of The Observer and then on to writing for The Philadelphia Inquirer, The Star-Ledger in New Jersey, The Associated Press and authoring his own books.

George Dohrmann (‘95)

Prior to winning a Pulitzer Prize in 2000 for a series of stories that uncovered academic fraud within the University of Minnesota men’s basketball program while working at St. Paul Pioneer Press, George Dohrmann was a sports writer and editor at The Observer.

“I knew exactly what I wanted to do when I got to Notre Dame,” Dohrmann said. “On my tour of colleges, I looked at newspaper offices. So I got there, and I said I wanted to be a sports writer, and they gave me the women’s soccer beat right when I got there. I just jumped in and wrote as much as I could about as many sports as I could.”

After writing for Sports Illustrated for 14 years and now as a senior editor and writer for The Athletic, Dohrmann said he attributes his managerial skills to his time working as a sports editor at The Observer.

“Sophomore year, junior year and first half of my senior year I was the sports editor,” Dohrmann said. “I am now editing for the first time professionally; I have been a writer up until this year, so I took a job this year editing and doing some writing. It’s funny because I had some managerial experience from working at The Observer, I had editing experience from working at The Observer. I did learn how to manage people, rally a staff, work with less, which is something we are doing at The Athletic now — wearing a lot of hats. I learned a lot of those skills a long time ago, I just didn’t tap into them until now.”

Photo courtesy of George Dohrmann

Dohrmann sits on the phone at his desk in the newsroom.

Rob Finch (‘98)

Rob Finch didn’t initially join The Observer to be a journalist or photographer — it was simply a steady job on campus. But what was first just a paycheck turned into a career for Finch, who found his passion for photojournalism and multimedia while working at The Observer as a photographer in the late ’90s.

“I think it was just a personal motivation to experience people’s lives and tell people’s stories that mattered,” Finch said. “Especially small stories, news that wasn’t in the headlines. I really wanted to look at people who wouldn’t have a natural voice.”

These photographs and multimedia skills ended up landing Finch at The Oregonian, where he was part of a Pulitzer Prize-winning team of journalist that covered a missing family in Oregon. Now the creative director at Blue Chalk Media in Portland, a visual communications startup, Finch oversees all multimedia output.

Photo courtesy of Rob Finch

Rob Finch films a scene in Washington, D.C., for the Carnegie Corporation.

Heather Cocks (‘99)

“I learned self-reliance and accountability. I learned to do the work, and to do it thoughtfully, because the buck stopped with me.”

Heather Cocks was a copy editor, production manager, News Editor and Editor-in-Chief during her time at The Observer. Since then, she has gone on to become a successful blogger, best-selling author and producer. “Go Fug Yourself” (‘fug’ being slang for “fantastically ugly”), a popular blog that Cocks owns and co-authors, commentates on celebrities’ questionable fashion choices. The blog draws millions of readers each month and has been recognized by media outlets such as Entertainment Weekly, Time and The Guardian for its entertainment value and influence. Cocks has also co-authored several books and has worked on the production of television shows such as “America’s Next Top Model.” Cocks acknowledges The Observer’s influential role in her success.

“The Observer is a job in journalism. … Ultimately, the students there are all real journalists, attending press conferences, covering events, digging for stories, filing quickly and accurately, writing creatively, pulling late nights to make deadlines,” Cocks said. “Those are the exact skills you’ll need to apply to a post-graduate job in reporting. And not for nothing — it also prepares you for any other kind of job. The ability to communicate, or represent yourself in writing, is vital in any field.

“Also, The Observer is where I learned I could kick a two-liter of Diet Coke straight from the bottle in one night,” she added. “We all have our talents.”

Michelle Krupa (‘00)

“The Observer is on my CNN bio, and it’s not by accident.”

Prior to serving as news editor for CNN Digital in 2012, and before her work covering Hurricane Katrina won her two Pulitzer Prizes, Michelle Krupa served as Editor-in-Chief of The Observer during the 1999–2000 academic year. Not only did The Observer impact Krupa’s decision to attend Notre Dame, but it also shaped her time here. From sitting in front of Lou Holtz when he resigned, to covering the president at the time’s visit to Chile from her study abroad destination in Santiago, Krupa attributes her success in the journalism field to the lessons she learned from The Observer.

“You walk in the door and there’s just this sense of integrity and ethics, even without a class or a teacher keeping watch or grading you,” she said. “There’s just ethics and integrity that permeates this organization. It doesn’t need to be spoken — it’s just practiced. It’s the same as it’s practiced in every professional newsroom I’ve ever worked in.”

Photo courtesy of Michelle Krupa

Krupa (back left) and Cocks (second left) sit with their co-workers at an Observer social outing.

Sarah Mervosh (‘12)

Sarah Mervosh recalled her time working at The Observer as “the best college experience.” Here, she met her friends, learned and practiced critical thinking skills and further realized her dream of wanting to be a journalist. Mervosh now works as an investigative reporter at The Dallas Morning News, where she has reported on breaking news such as the 2016 Dallas police shooting.

Mervosh’s favorite part about working at The Observer were all the memories made during the late nights in the South Dining Hall basement putting out the paper. One time, she missed a friend’s 21st birthday because she was working. “It was that important to me; it was my life,” she said.

“We are truly an independent student newspaper, and we sent those hard questions to the University spokesmen and would independently make decisions about how to write and whether run a story,” she said. “It was the most interesting growing experience I had while at Notre Dame.”

Photo courtesy of Sarah Mervosh

The Observer Bookstore Basketball squad, from left to right: Eric Prister, Joseph Monardo, Adriana Pratt, Sarah Mervosh and Chris Masoud.

Sam Stryker (‘13)

While at The Observer, Sam Stryker worked his way through the News department, though he also contributed to Scene. He served as the paper’s assistant managing editor senior year before eventually moving to Los Angeles to work for Buzzfeed, where he now serves as a senior editor — a position he said he got because of an Observer connection.

“The Observer is such a close-knit, mom and pap organization compared to most campus newspapers,” he said. “For that reason, I think I was more battle tested and prepared for a professional media job — because you have to wear many hats at The Observer, you emerge more skilled, more prepared and more fearless.”

For Stryker, though, the best thing about The Observer was the people.

“Working at the newspaper meant developing lifelong friendships, mentors and so forth. … I owe a lot to my time at the paper,” he said. “Also, Bruno’s Night is pretty epic.”

Photo courtesy of Sam Stryker

Stryker takes a selfie with the 2012-2013 Editorial Board at the group’s final meeting.

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