The student media frenzy

Author: Ed Cohen


The stage manager signals everyone to be quiet, and onto the set of The Mike Peterson Show walks the star himself.

Mike Peterson is lanky sophomore with a youthful, eager face. Wearing a dark suit, white dress shirt and a blue-and-gold Notre Dame tie, he looks more like the bride’s kid brother than the host of a late-night talk show. But this isn’t the NBC Studios in Burbank. It’s the studio, singular, of Notre Dame Television, and that means a former storage room in Washington Hall about the size of a bedroom.

A step or two past two small video cameras on tripods, the star stops in front of his “interview desk,” an unpainted plywood contraption, and turns to face one of the cameras. As part of a rehearsed maneuver, the camera is trained at about the level of his chest. So he bends down slightly and tilts his head to the side, bringing his face into the frame horizontally.

“Hey, everyone,” he says. “Welcome to the first episode of The Mike Peterson Show.”

“Cut!” calls the floor director. “Mike, do you have a mike on?”

The Mike Peterson Show has many things—a dedicated crew, jazzy title graphics, a rockin’ original theme song—but no wireless microphones. As a result, when the host returns for a second try, a heavy cable extends out from the back of his suit coat. The addition of a long black tail makes him look a little like the GEICO gecko off to a business lunch.

NDTV began three years ago as seven students using borrowed cameras. They put together a half-hour show with features on campus life and some comedy bits. It aired on the local public-access cable channel about twice a month.

Today, nearly 70 students operate what they grandiosely refer to as the campus TV “station.” This semester they’re producing two half-hour programs seen weekly (and repeatedly) on a cable channel limited to campus. One is a news program, the other is Peterson’s talk show, which, in its premiere at least, emphasized humor over couch gab. One guest, a writer on the show, was challenged to break a record supposedly chosen at random from the_ Guinness Book of World Records_. His task: Produce, by the end of the show, the highest-grossing motion picture of all time. He could be seen outside later in the show calling out to passersby like a carnival barker: “Highest-grossing movie of all time, $250,000 a ticket, right here.”

NDTV’s development from infancy to toddlerhood has been part of a broader expansion of student media the past few years. For example:

Last fall marked the fifth anniversary of the unofficial student website of Notre Dame, Popular features at the site include searchable evaluations of faculty written by former students, and a do-it-yourself survey page. (One recent poll asked, “Would you pay money for sex?” No, 72 percent.). averages 11,000 to 12,000 registered users a month, according to Scott Palko ’03, owner and president of CCI Studios, operator of the site.

Independent newspapers

Two new independent student newspapers have debuted in the past year.

Three years ago The Juggler, the long-running annual magazine showcasing student literary works and artwork, expanded to two issues a year. The change didn’t increase total pages all that much, but literary submissions have doubled, according to editor Liz Melly ’05.

At WVFI, the former AM student radio station that switched to webcasting in 1999 because of a deteriorating signal, so many students want to be deejays they’re having to double- or triple-team on the station’s 91 weekly shows, says senior Dan McSwain, station manager.

“This is the first year we’ve ever had to potentially worry about not giving people a show,” McSwain says. “In past when you came in to interview, as long as you could speak your name you’d be given one.”

The student media have grown not only in number and participation, but in quality, according to many observers. Matt Cashore ‘94, a freelance photographer who has shot extensively on campus the past 10 years (often for this magazine), says he’s seen the quality of photography in The Observer improve greatly.

“Before, if it was even in focus it was a good day,” says the alum, who was photo editor of the Dome in 1993-94 but never worked for The Observer. “Now, they’re as well equipped as a typical newspaper their size, and they have some people who take it seriously.”

Some of that improvement can probably be attributed to technological advances, which have made it faster and easier for students to create everything from photos to TV shows to the yearbook. Digital photography has turned darkrooms into closets. Senior Nicole Philips, editor of the Dome yearbook, which turns 100 years old in 2006, says senior pictures now arrive from the local photographer on a CD with names attached to each photo. All she and her staff have to do is place them into a layout on a computer screen.

Some of the media have also benefitted from professional assistance. In 2000 the University hired a pair of experienced professional journalists to serve as advisers and coordinators for the electronic media, Dome, Juggler and Scholastic magazine. Previously, an assistant in Student Activities served as a coordinator but didn’t offer any advice on media craft.

For the most part, the relationship between the University’s administration and student media has been quiet in recent years. Matt Storin, a former editor of the Boston Globe who became the University’s chief spokesperson in 2002, says he doesn’t hear many negative comments from administrators. He says many recognize the learning opportunities student media provide and how the media reinforce a sense of community, especially among the student body. Some say they don’t pay any attention to the student media.

He isn’t one of them.

“I understand that a story in The Observer today could be in the South Bend Tribune tomorrow and be on the AP the day after tomorrow. So anyone who ignores the student media does it at their peril.”

Instead of an adviser, an assistant to the president, Chandra Johnson ‘96, serves as “liaison” between the administration and The Observer. Each spring when the coming year’s editorial staff takes over, she, Father Malloy and one other administrator have sat down with the new editors and talked about what they perceive to be the role of the paper.

“For the most part,” she says, “they have been very respectful of their role.”

The partisan press

Published virtually every weekday when classes are in session, The Observer remains the dominant news medium on campus. Its staff of 150 (including advertising) is five times larger than that of the biweekly Scholastic. The paper generates $700,000 a year in advertising revenue, according to editor Matt Lozar, a senior.

Students, faculty, administrators—everyone picks up The Observer. The best-read section is probably the Viewpoint spread with its letters, columns and the occasional editorial. Chandra Johnson says the paper has “no competition” as a news source for the student body.

The Observer bills itself as independent from the University, and it sometimes writes critically about the administration. But in some ways it’s very much part of the establishment. The paper pays rent of only $1 a year to operate out of the basement of South Dining Hall (across the hall from offices of the Dome and Scholastic), and the administration collects a $12 subscription fee annually from undergraduates on the paper’s behalf.

For most of its existence The Observer has been the only newspaper on campus, but not always. In1987 a liberal-minded, tabloid-size paper called_ Common Sense_ appeared._ Common Sense_ continues to be published three times a semester with an editorial board made up mostly of students, grad students and faculty. The paper publishes mostly opinion pieces, some of them locally generated, some reprinted from such Catholic and secular publications as America_, the National Catholic Reporter, The American Prospect_ and The Nation.

Longtime editorial board member Peter Walshe, a political science professor, says Common Sense was launched because people thought The Observer was too conservative. They wanted a publication that focused attention on social justice issues like whether the University should divest itself from corporations doing business in then-segregated South Africa.

Eighteen years later, the opposite has happened. Some on campus think The Observer is too liberal. They’ve begun publishing conservative alternatives.

One of them is The Irish Rover, launched by a group of students in December 2003. The paper describes itself as a conservative voice concerned with keeping the University true to its Roman Catholic roots. “Standing in the way, and asking for the old past, the good way,” declared a quotation appearing under the _Rover_’s nameplate for several issues. Published once every two weeks, the free paper is independent of University oversight and receives much of its financial support from a national conservative educational group, the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, say the paper’s editors.

The other newcomer is Advocata Nostra, Latin for “Our Advocate.” Editor Chris Brophy, a junior, says the name refers to Mary and comes from the prayer “Hail, Holy Queen.” Launched last fall, the free monthly paper is technically the newsletter of the fledgling Orestes Brownson Council. That’s a student group dedicated to studying classic texts of the Catholic tradition and how Catholic teaching applies to American politics, Brophy says.

“We adhere to everything the Church teaches,.” Brophy says. In practice that means advocating some positions thought of as politically conservative (pro-life on abortion) and some liberal (pro-peace and social justice). Brophy had been publisher of the Irish Rover but split away because he wanted a publication that “builds bridges and promotes dialogue,” he says.

In its first year of existence, The Irish Rover has specialized in exposing what it perceives to be a liberal bias in many areas of campus life. One article looked at alleged disrespect for the Catholic faith in the English department. Another reported that students in a First Year Composition class were required to attend a showing of Fahrenheit 911, director Michael Moore’s film ridiculing President Bush, as part of a homework assignment.

“Notre Dame is not as bad as many top schools in [in terms of liberal bias in the classroom],” says Rover Editor Joe Lindsley ‘05, "but we don’t want it to get to that."

Another frequent target of the paper has been The Observer. The Rover think it favors liberal causes.

“What they select to cover, that’s where the bias is,” says Lindsley, noting the extensive coverage the paper devoted to the orange T-shirt campaign. An unofficial student group last year sold bright orange T-shirts reading “Gay? Fine by Me.” Purchasers were encouraged to wear them on designated days to combat what some see as hostility toward non-heterosexuals on campus. Hundreds of people participated.

Rover editors also have taken issue with The Observer‘s advertising policies. Last fall the daily paper refused to run two ads from the Notre Dame/Saint Mary’s Right to Life group. One expressed opposition to stem-cell research. In recent years Observer editors have declined ads containing editorial content. They suggest that groups express their opinions in letters to the Viewpoint page.

That explanation hasn’t satisfied the Rover. Senior Chris Hammer, the paper’s associate editor, points out that the University’s official Standing Committee on Gay and Lesbian Student Needs was able to place an ad in The Observer mentioning National Coming Out Day the same day The Observer rejected an ad from Right to Life.

Lindsley argues that because every undergraduate pays a subscription fee to The Observer, the daily paper has an obligation to be “more fair.” He says he wants to let students know how they can get out of paying the fee.

The Observer_’s editor, senior Matt Lozar, has this response to the bias charge: "I haven’t heard from students that The Observer_ should change." He says it has been his impression that the Rover was created as a counterbalance to Common Sense, not The Observer.

“Our goal is to be balanced,” he says.

He notes that in the runup to last fall’s presidential election, the paper’s 10 editors discussed which candidate to endorse. “They were split down the middle,” Lozar says. In the end The Observer simply encouraged people to vote.

Improbably fertile ground

Begun in 1867, Scholastic claims to be the oldest continuously published student magazine in the United States. The publication looked more like a church bulletin than a magazine in its early years. It has come a long way, especially of late.

Recent years have seen Scholastic publish a number of ambitious investigative pieces, including one in which students talked about their use of illegal drugs. (Drug use is believed to be rare at Notre Dame compared with drinking.) Another story explored the situation faced by students who had become single mothers. A special edition after September 11 included first-person accounts from one alumnus who worked at the World Trade Center and another who was among the firefighters who participated in rescue efforts.

Similarly ambitious, The Observer in February 2004 published a memorable series of more than 30 profiles of students, faculty and alumni. The group was said to represent diversity at Notre Dame, past and present and future. The articles appeared in three special pull-outs published on consecutive Fridays.

Such enterprising work has not gone unnoticed beyond campus. In 2001 The Observer was named national Newspaper of the Year by the Associated Collegiate Press after finishing second in 1999. In 2003 the same organization named it Best of the Midwest among daily or weekly tabloids at four-year colleges. The Observer won Newspaper of the Year from the Indiana Collegiate Press Association from 1998 through 2000. Scholastic has been Indiana Collegiate Press Association Magazine of the Year three of the past four years.

What’s surprising about this success is that Notre Dame hasn’t had a journalism department for almost half a century. The closest approximation is the Department of American Studies, which succeeded the Department of Communication Arts in the early 1970s. The closest thing Notre Dame has to a journalism major is the John W. Gallivan Program in Journalism, Ethics & Democracy, an interdisciplinary minor launched in 1997. The Gallivan program enrolls about 35 students a year.

That’s puny compared to the schools in Indiana with which Notre Dame’s student media compete. Ball State University says it has about 800 journalism majors among its undergraduate enrollment of about 18,000. At Indiana University Bloomington the figures are about 30,000 undergrads and 722 journalism majors. (Notre Dame has about 8,000 undergraduates). Also, many universities with journalism programs offer course credit for working in the student media. Not at Notre Dame.

Over the years the University has produced many accomplished media professionals, including the legendary New York Times sports columnist Red Smith ‘27 (a list of some current Domer journalists appears on page XX). But only a small number of those staffing today’s student publications plan to pursue journalism careers. Observer editor Lozar puts the figure at 10 to 20 percent of his staff. He himself is a management information systems major and hopes to get into sports administration.

At Scholastic, “few to very few” staffers are considering journalism, laments one of those who is, senior Annie Robinson. Standing in the Scholastic’s office in the basement of the South Dining Hall, the magazine co-editor says, “I knew the first time I walked in here as a lowly freshman that someday I wanted to run this magazine.” But she’s not like everyone. “There aren’t people banging on the door to work here or on any student [print] media. You really have to recruit.”

The fact that these recruits perform so well attests to the admissions profile at Notre Dame. Students don’t get in here unless they can write.

Bob Franken ‘69, print media coordinator for Student Activities, served as news director at WSND when he was a student. He went on to a career in journalism that included 20 years as a newspaper editor. As part of his job he reads every Scholastic cover to cover to provide the staff a critique. "It’s harder and harder for me to find grammar and typographical errors," he says. “These kids know what they’re doing.”

He judges today’s students journalists to be more professional than those from his days on campus. “But not just more professional. They’re covering more sophisticated topics and doing so with more depth.”

As on most college campuses, members of student media make up a close-knit fraternity. They’ve spent a lot of long nights together scrambling to meet deadlines. At Notre Dame it’s a smaller fraternity than at large public institutions, but the same pride is evident.

The _Scholastic_’s Robinson recalls two favorite memories: One was attending an Indiana Collegiate Press Association meeting at Ball State. It was held in the university’s journalism building.

“I saw rooms labeled just for magazine journalism, and here we ended up winning for best news magazine and a lot of other awards. I mean, [journalism] had its own_ building_.”

Her other favorite memory is of the first time she saw a person pick up a copy of Scholastic at an off-campus location and begin reading it. It was a young woman in a coffee shop.

“She looked like she didn’t even go to Notre Dame. That was the best feeling.”

Ed Cohen is an associate editor of this magazine.