Remade ‘Observer’ marks new era in campus media

The history of campus media at Tufts turned a new page last week when the Observer’s staff announced that “Tufts’ Newspaper of Record” will be re-launched as a news commentary magazine.

Although students and alumni have lamented the loss of Tufts’ 106-year-old weekly newspaper, the transformation is just another step in the ongoing evolution of Tufts’ media.

The Observer’s decision to reformat in the style of Time or Newsweek, which coincides with Tufts’ sesquicentennial anniversary, eliminates competition between two newspapers on a small campus. And in providing in-depth commentary on important campus issues, the new Observer represents the University’s changing needs.

“We could use an in-depth vehicle to do some more magazine-like surveys,” said Provost Sol Gittleman, who has worked at Tufts since 1980. “The Observer has the chance to do some investigative pieces on the nature of subjects in higher education… The Daily doesn’t have the time for investigation.”

Assistant Director of the Communications and Media Studies program, Susan Eisenhauer (LA ’71), said the revamped Observer will reach a new market by targeting students who want to work on broader journalistic projects.

“I think having a magazine format is a great idea and would serve a different purpose on campus,” Eisenhauer said. “It can serve as a great training ground for students on campus who want to do more in-depth analysis.”

Gittleman described the Daily as the “journal of choice” on campus, but criticized the publication for its traditional focus on reporting, rather than editorial advocacy. He said that the Observer has run “some of the best editorials to ever come across campus.”

The origins of the Tufts media are almost as old as the University itself. The first student publication was a yearly magazine, the Tuftonian, which published its first issue in the fall of 1864. The magazine, created by “secret societies,” who were actually representatives from fraternities, published mostly creative writing pieces during its early years.

The Tuftonian began publishing weekly in the late 1880s and added a news section. By 1895, with the news section gaining a life of its own, the editors split the publication in two: the Tuftonian remained a monthly literary magazine and the Tufts Weekly – the Observer’s predecessor – was launched.

“With this number we begin the work of Tufts’ first weekly,” read the editorial in the Weekly. “We realize the uncertainty of our position, the importance of the work, and the many difficulties attending it; but believing that such a sheet is needed in our college we step forth boldly asking the attention of the Tufts community.”

The Weekly’s first 15 years were relatively uneventful until funding constraints during the 1911-1912 school year prevented publication. The Tufts News, a short-lived journalistic venture of the junior class, temporarily replaced the Weekly, publishing only four issues.

According to the News’s first editorial, the paper was “a temporary substitute that will disappear as soon as the Weekly is able to resume publication.”

The News carried news briefs rather than full-length articles and offered general observations about life at Tufts.

When the Weekly resumed publication, its staff and content grew at a steady pace over the next 50 years. Eisenhauer, who wrote for the Weekly as a Tufts student, said the publication used its status as the only student news source to influence the University community. “During the Vietnam War era, it served a different function – it was a much more activist newspaper,” Eisenhauer said. “It had a lot of in-depth writing while I was a student, both worldwide and on campus.”

As the paper grew, its staff shifted its focus during the 1968-1969 academic year and created the Observer, a semiweekly newspaper to serve as a “more viable communications medium for the campus.” The first Observer was published on Jan. 29, 1969.

But the staff soon found that it had neither the time nor the news content to fill the paper twice a week. When editors became disappointed with the paper’s compromised quality, the Observer returned to its weekly format after only two months of publication.

“With the headaches of clerkship unremitting after one month of twice-a-week publication, it became self-evident that our goal of creating an improved newspaper would not be served by the slightly enhanced urgency of a twice-a-week publication schedule,” the staff wrote in an editorial on March 7, 1969. “Things just don’t happen that fast at Tufts.”

But in 1979, a group of students found a way to relay news on a more regular basis and printed the first issue of The Tufts Daily on Feb. 25, 1980. By including classified ads, Viewpoints, letters to the editor, and a calendar of Tufts events, the paper carried enough content to publish four pages each weekday, providing “the most complete information possible about campus life,” according to the paper’s first editorial.

With the student government providing the majority of its funding, budgeting constraints limited the staff to print only 2,000 copies in its early days. Students were encouraged to “share the paper with a friend.” The paper soon gained a wide readership, but could not find the money to print more copies or increase its size.

Then-Senate President Kevin Thurm suggested a “media merger” in the fall of 1981. If the Daily and Observer merged, he promised that the Senate would provide funding for additional typesetting equipment and renovate the papers’ offices. Thurm said that merging the papers would be the first step in creating a financially independent student newspaper that could protect itself from administration censorship.

“I think it’s in the best interest of the student body to have one newspaper that would possibly double the quality of either of the two existing papers,” he said in an Observer article on Nov. 6, 1981.

But the editorial staffs of both papers rejected the proposal, saying each paper had a unique vision for disseminating news. “People have grown used to the Daily and expect it, and to take it away now there’d be a void,” the paper’s then-Editor-in-Chief Art Charlton told the Observer.

The Observer questioned the Daily’s quality when it chose not to merge, saying the Daily “falls short of what the Observer would want out of a merged paper.” The paper’s editors said the merger would end the Observer’s tradition of being Tufts’ weekly newspaper of record.

“Although both papers are plagued with problems of inexperience, staff shortages, and not always complete coverage of Tufts events, we will continue to work as hard as we can to produce the best newspaper that the resources around here make possible,” the Observer staff wrote in an editorial on Nov. 13, 1981.

Ultimately, the Daily gave up its Senate funding, choosing to rely on ads for revenue. The Observer, for its part, continues to receive University money to this day.

New funding sources enabled the Daily to improve its quality, and many readers gradually switched their loyalties throughout the ’90s. The publications covered many of the same issues, and the Observer frequently printed stories after they appeared in the Daily.

To salvage a dwindling readership, the Observer’s switched publication from Thursdays to Fridays last fall, becoming “Tufts’ Weekend Newspaper.” Modeled after the Sunday editions of newspapers such as The New York Times and The Washington Post, last year’s Observer advertised increased arts and entertainment coverage and more analytical news stories.

“When the new staff looked at our position in the Tufts community, it realized it had to take a different stance,” McCormack told the Daily last fall.

With the Observer switching to a magazine format, McCormack says he looks forward to improving the quality of Tufts’ oldest publication.

Although Tufts can no longer claim to be the smallest school in the country with two newspapers, media watchers are enthusiastic about the Observer’s proposal to approach news from creative angles.

“I think from time to time the papers have been in competition with one another,” Eisenhauer said.

But not anymore: “This will be a fun, new educational endeavor and can draw a whole new group of journalists,” she said. “I hope it’s successful.”

Mary Anne Anderson and Amy Spindel contributed to this article.