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Tuesday, April 16, 2024
The Observer

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Readership, grief and the pursuit of ugly truth

A year in the life of an Editor-in-Chief

By the numbers, my term as editor-in-chief was certainly colorful. Between these office walls, I was often teased as a fiend for our readership trends. To close out my term, it seems only fitting to publicize our most-read stories of 2023.

  1. Miller: Notre Dame should bench Sam Hartman 
  2. Notre Dame discontinues interhall tackle football
  3. Notre Dame to tear down, replace Pangborn and Fisher next summer with new residence halls
  4. Notre Dame admits class of 2027, setting record-low acceptance rate of 11.9% 
  5. Saint Mary’s approves policy to consider applicants who ‘identify as women’ 
  6. In my Eras era: Taylor Swift surprise song predictions 
  7. Escaping porn’s prison
  8. Notre Dame student startup raises $300k, launches on the tri-campus
  9. Drag at Notre Dame: Did we regild her only to ridicule her?

An Observer term in review

We’ve had the honor of publishing each of these articles and watching their influence unfold on campus. This year will be forever marked with tales of Sam Hartman deflation, dashed College Football Playoff dreams, the death of interhall football, dorm demolitions, a controversial Saint Mary’s admission decision and ultra-competitive application years. Our tri-campus culture pondered academic freedom, the impact of pornography and opinions on drag shows. We’ve seen the ban of electric scooters, a new University president and a turnover in residential life.

Global headline-makers extended their tentacles across the tri-campus, as we wrestled with the impact of the Israel-Hamas conflict, the end of affirmative action and the rise of AI. At times, The Observer made national news. Twice, stories we reported ended up in the opinion pages of the Wall Street Journal — once due to Tamara Kay’s defamation lawsuit against the Irish Rover and again due to Saint Mary’s controversial admissions decision and reversal.

We've chronicled two Taylor Swift album re-recording drops, the great Mendoza skateboard fire of 2023 and two national championships in fencing and men's lacrosse. Some might say we witnessed the golden age of Notre Dame sports.

Following cranes and fresh concrete, we've documented a new dorm, a new research building, a new art museum, geothermal installation, a Golden Dome regilding, renovations in LaFortune Student Center and a new off-campus psychology clinic in South Bend (to name a few). Many attention-drawing speakers visited campus and found themselves in the pages of The Observer, including Mike Pompeo, senators Chris Coons and Todd Young, Robert Putnam, Amy Coney Barrett and Elena Kagan. We even dared to ask the age-old question: Is the drunk tank real?

There is no end to my gratitude for the opportunity to experience the life of the tri-campus from this unique perspective. If that wasn’t enough, I’ve undertaken this challenge with countless talented students who work at The Observer.

I’ve been an Observer editor in some capacity for nearly my entire Notre Dame experience. In that time, I’ve learned about lawsuits between members of this community, divisive political debates, senate and student body election drama, the pressure cooker of college admissions, division within campus clubs and much more. One thing is fore sure: News is messy.

Although the tri-campus is a rare place where the positive stories may outweigh the negative ones, dark, ungilded things still happen here. Clubs fight. People in this community aggravate one another. People abuse their power, including those who once claimed to devote themselves to reflecting divine love. Students die. Dorms foster a culture of drinking and hazing. Rapes occur in on-campus residence halls. There has been one rape and two sexual assaults reported this year alone, in addition to four date rape drug incidents this fall.

The disheartening stories from the past 3.75 years at The Observer beg the question: Why do journalists eagerly dive into difficult situations time and time again? Is this impetus more than cynical and masochistic?

‘Courage is found in unlikely places’: a defense of journalistic cynicism

Campus leaders might prefer that students, prospective students and donors turn a blind eye to bad news, but ignoring things does not make them disappear. The reality of evil is enough to jade even an eternal optimist.

But why write about negative things? Why spend time finding out about them?

Civil Rights journalist Ida B. Wells knows a thing or two about reporting cruelty. She wrote about hundreds of lynchings of Black Americans in the late 1800s and early 1900s. She sought out merciless murder to make stark its injustice.

In the words of Frederick Douglass, “[Wells] dealt with the facts with cool, painstaking fidelity and left those naked and uncontradicted facts to speak for themselves. Brave woman! You have done your people and mine a service which can neither be weighed nor measured.” 

Simply put, Wells gathered the courage to report on lynchings because she hoped exposing the truth would lead to change and halt injustice.

On a far humbler scale, we aspire to do this at The Observer because we believe there is power in truth, even the most gut-wrenching variety. The discovery that a terrible thing is true is devastating. Still, there is strength in choosing to look at the bald, ugly truth and daring to hope anyway. 

The greatest cynic conceals an inner fire that not even the darkest act can penetrate. To be able to look at the tri-campus and profess my hope for it means far more after spending nearly four years working for The Observer.

"Keep a little fire burning. However small, however hidden." ~ Hana Segal 

Even on the tri-campus, where there are billions of dollars intended to promote student success, health, well-being and spiritual growth, we cannot shirk grief and cruelty. For these situations, I have no words. I have only a small defense of why The Observer writes about these things — and how we bear it.

Journalists choose to seek even the painful truth because we refuse to love anything disingenuous. Instead of false optimism, we have a small inner hope. It looks a bit like a pilot flame beneath a gas stovetop. It won’t be fed on here-today-gone-tomorrow kindling, but neither will it be extinguished.

In the words of Gildor, “Courage is found in unlikely places.” True hope is found in dark nooks and crannies. I have the “Lord of the Rings” and my dear friend Isa, who lent me the book, to thank for that talisman phrase.

To love a thing as it really is, and not our contrived conceptions of it, is difficult but worthwhile. Excuse my cynicism, but we’ve all failed. We’ve all done things we regret and learned things we’d like to forget. 

It is easy to love a place that is fiction. It’s much harder to love the real thing, especially when loving necessitates knowing fully. There is something powerful about staring the beast head-on before you say “I love you.” We cannot have this place without its flaws, but we can hope for it. If we hypnotize away each negative memory, we will be left loving a straw man.

I’ve learned this from The Observer. I’ve learned it from our impressive staff of student writers, editors and photographers. I’ve learned it from my own mistakes and the places where I wish I could have done more for this newspaper.

To all those I have ever worked with at The Observer (and there are far too many to name), thank you for daring to hope with me. 

My imperfect goodbye

I once read, in a book about Bach, that “grief is specific and precise.” There are specific qualities to it. The grief that strikes when a professor dies. The grief of a classmate and friend’s death in a car accident. The grief of two young women dying on Ironwood Road. The grief of a fatal shooting at Cheer’s. The grief of numerous other tragic shootings in South Bend. The grief of political imprisonment. The grief of Christmas. The grief of impending graduation. Grief has a particular way of torturing every minutia of its circumstance. No two heartbreaks are the same.

And now, after publishing articles and news stories sometimes good and sometimes poignantly terrible, I have reached another tombstone: the end of my tenure as Editor-in-Chief. As always, this grief is specific and precise. So far, it is a dull ache, like the kind of headache that creeps in when you forget to drink water. It is subtle and undramatic, but it still makes its presence known.

I will miss the musty post SDH-dinner smell of the office, the particular grins of each of my fellow student journalists, the bell ringing from the Scene computer and the coffee machine that kept me attentive on many late nights. I'll miss the bold and beautiful columns shared by my fellow students. I'll miss the challenging and enlivening conversations about upcoming coverage.

I love The Observer. I love the last year of student journalism. At the same time, I am cognizant of our shortcomings, and especially of my own. I could spend hours dreaming up things we could have done and critiquing the things we have done. 

We've written dozens of editorials, created a sports podcast and newsletter, recruited staff into the world of student journalism and launched a fresh line of merchandise. After more than a year of website troubles, we launched an entirely new website and worked with our staff through the first wrinkles.

Sometimes I think we’ve accomplished a lot. At other times, it seems not enough. There will be plenty of time to mull over those questions in the coming days. For now, I’ll stick to the “humble, bruised truth” (credits to "Life of Pi") of what I’ve learned at The Observer. 

Goodbye to the paper that has taught me that life can be cruel. Goodbye to the paper that has taught me to hope. In the face of real discouragement, we must cling to the truth. Excuse my cynicism, but kindling, so common, is a poor substitute for embers.

This year has been far from perfect, but I’m proud of what we've accomplished at The Observer. I’m proud of the hope we’ve cultivated.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.