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An Observer Retrospective

Uncategorized | February 5, 2018

First published in October 1895, the Tufts Weekly debuted as a weekly newspaper without graphics or art on the first page. Over 70 years later, in 1969, it became the Tufts Observer. Since then, the magazine has continued to evolve. Like many other communities at Tufts, the writers, artists, and editors of the Observer are part of a human tradition that is constantly re-evaluating itself, and mapping the changes that have put themselves in their present and future realities. In this issue, themed Memory, we’re looking back at our own history.

The current form of the Observer has departed greatly from the Observer of the 2000s. Back then, issues tended to be lighthearted and included satirical police reports, restaurant reviews, and sports coverage. The Observer ran headlines such as “Pats Silence Doubters 30-14” or “Get Ready to Party this Saturday, African Style” (September 13, 2002). Today, the Observer represents a different flavor of journalism.

Vinda Souza (née Rao) (A’06), Editor in Chief of the Observer in Spring 2006, was on staff when the magazine began to make a gradual, tonal shift. “[The Observer] morphed from something that was a little bit more fun and disorganized into something that was a little bit more serious and kind of a counterpoint,” Souza explained. According to Souza, part of this shift in the mid 2000s included increased intentionality about the topics the Observer covered and the people interviewed. She said, “From an editorial perspective we tended to focus on stories that were much more inclusive and tolerant in what we went after.”

Significantly, the Observer took on a new role of opposing on-campus conservative rhetoric, largely in response to another campus publication, the Primary Source.  Souza reflects, “[I]t went from sort of a Vanity Fair-style ‘everything happening’ publication, to a more political and targeted publication that was a counterpoint to the Primary Source.” Primary Source was a conservative campus publication that published articles such as “O Come All Ye Black Folk,” a parody Christmas carol claiming that the sole reason that the incoming Black first years were admitted was because of affirmative action. Frequently under fire for content that targeted people of marginalized backgrounds, the Primary Source disbanded in 2013 for failing to meet TCU’s mandated membership requirements.

By the time former managing editor Eve Feldberg (A’17) came to the Observer in Fall 2013 as a copy editor, the Observer was encouraging section editors and designers to work more collaboratively on the publication’s layout. This elevated the Observer’s visuals, strengthening itself as a platform to lift marginalized voices on Tufts campus. “[W]e really…tried to start thinking about how the images we used can play a role in upholding dominant narratives of society or disrupting them. And I think there’s a consensus that as a publication we want to work towards disrupting dominant narratives and giving a space to marginalized voices and ideas,” says Feldberg.

Feldberg learned from other staff members who were leading by example. “It wasn’t like a unanimous, all at once thing…It’s not that there was suddenly this moment of reckoning or agreement. It was really a slow cultural shift…It starts from a few people doing something differently, other people seeing how that goes…It’s not like I came to college being like, ‘We need to think about race when we think about reporting.’… It was the result of my studies and relationships I built with people to push me to think about these things.”

Like Feldberg, former Fall 2015 Editor in Chief Katharine Pong (A’16) observed that her own development as a journalist was marked by a greater awareness of the publication’s potential as a platform for uplifting marginalized voices. Pong recalled a February 3, 2015 opinion piece, featuring opposing views on the hashtag, #JeSuisCharlie, which was indicative of the editorial board’s attempts to uphold traditional journalistic values.

“I felt that in order to be perceived as a ‘credible’ news source or publication, the Observer couldn’t be ‘too political’ or ‘too biased’… A lot of times, my and my fellow editorial board members justification for [coverage like the February 3, 2015 opinion piece] was that we needed to give voice to diverse people and viewpoints on campus, including those we didn’t agree with. It felt uncomfortable when we did it, but our rationale was that it was only fair.”

But toward the end of Pong’s time at the Observer, Pong felt more inclined to break with this tradition, in part due to the people she surrounded herself with. “One of my best friends [former managing editor Eve Feldberg] was really helpful in pushing me to think through why I felt this way and how I could bring my understanding of power dynamics into my thinking about the Observer and its on-campus voice.”

The Observer still finds strength in change. Today, Tufts journalists across publications reflect on their roles in making the organizations and institutions of which they are a part. Discussions of intentionality, social justice, and objectivity in student publications will continue to be essential to the Tufts journalistic community vitality. At the Observer, we continue these discussions between friends, colleagues, administrators, and even in articles about ourselves.