Observer celebrates 30 years of community journalism

Observer celebrates 30 years of community journalism
Posted on

Courier Staff
Over the past two weeks I have been contacting, then interviewing many Centennial journalism alumni in preparation for this piece about the history of the East York Observer. The Observer is produced solely by Centennial’s journalism students, and distributed throughout the East York Community every second Friday.

The interviewing process quickly evolved into a collage of experiences and anecdotes about years passed, and journalism at Centennial in the most general sense.

Although the experiences vary considerably, reactions were almost always the same: “The Observer is that old?”

I was then invariably dragged into the personal history of that past student; the things they loved about the Observer and journalism at Centennial.

Through my research I discovered many past students who are successful on the Toronto journalism scene.

But, whatever their story, most said the Observer was a great learning experience, the layout methods were a form of hard labour, and oh yeah, the coordinator, John Lott, was brutal!
Joy Doktor, a 1993 grad from the three-year program, who is now studying to become a firefighter, was so enthusiastic that she sent me a 21-page fax of her life story. She began the fax by reminiscing about the setting of the program.

“Our classrooms were located on the second floor of the Warden Woods campus, about the middle of the building,” she writes, “it wasn’t the Bell Centre…”

Of the faculty, she wrote, “Steve [Coganj was cute, in a funny sort of way. John [Lott] was scary, in a respectful sort of way.”

I was, however, quick to learn that John Lott’s reputation would precede him throughout my research.

Errol Nazareth graduated from the three-year program in 1986, and had what I would call instant success in the business. He began working at the Scarborough Mirror, then at an independent publication called Contrast. It was there that Nazareth fully realized the wealth of experience he gained at Centennial.

“When I had to work for Contrast… was up for the challenge—I was able to do everything.” And the reason Nazareth felt so confident? The hands-on education he received here, working on the Observer. Nazareth describes working on the Observer as an “invaluable experience.”
He now works as a Toronto Sun music columnist.

What does Nazareth say about his Observer work in particular?

“You were always learning and working your way through experiences.”

Georgia Balogiannis, a ’96 grad, is still involved with the journalism program. Besides working as a community editor for the East York Mirror , she instructs current Observer students with layout problems during production weeks. Balogiannis’s experience included the move from Warden Woods to the Bell Centre, which she viewed as a positive one.

“The quality of a publication depends on the resources,” she says.

They worked in a darkroom at Warden Woods, then scanners at the Bell Centre. Whatever the technology, according to Balogiannis, journalists have to know how to write, “Student newspapers can only be as good as its writers,” she says.

The impression I have is that Observer hasn’t changed much. The content never really tweaks the student’s interest (because of the predominantly seniors demographic), and stress during layout week is insurmountable.

For those of you not familiar with the Bell Centre, it’s resources, or it’s journalism program, I’ve been told that our lives are now charmed.

Past graduates all muttered about the way in which they had to lay out pages. This was, of course, before the dawn of Quark Xpress on the horizon of desktop publishing.

They recounted page layout stories involving the use of Exacto-Knives, and wax tables, light tables, and cutting and pasting articles to fit. It all seems so archaic to us now.

In 1970, when the Observer published its first issue, the staff shared an office 1/3 the size of the Bell Centre’s newsroom. Described by Doktor, the journalism program, located at Warden Woods campus, consisted of, ‘Three desks in an open area, three lockers with no locks on them, and a couch that was wonderful for sleeping on.”

During the time that Doktor spent at Centennial, there were no comput-ers for the journalism faculty. None? Well, Ok, there was one. Apparently a “Mac on wheels with an 8 1/2 x 11″ screen and network hookup to the printer across the hall.”

Now we work out of a large open space, equiped with 16 computers (which will be replaced with brand new G3’s by September!), three televisions and three phone stations.

I informally conducted a “How would you rate the experience you received on the Observer” poll, and the results, unbelievably, were unanimous.

First, everyone cited reporting for the Observer as their favourite aspect of the journalism program. Second, everyone mentioned that the Observer mirrored the challenges they eventually faced in the paid workforce. Third, everyone men tioned journalism coordinator, John Lott.

Admittedly, I’ve only met John once, at my interview. My first impression, however, was one of slight intimidation. He is currently on sabbatical.

Stuart Green, graduate of ’88, who now works out of the City Hall Bureau for the Mirrors and Guardians, holds Lott in high. “I have a lot of respect for him. He knows his stuff,” says Green. Then there is a pause.

“I wasn’t one of his favourites,” he continues, “He was a major-league hard-ass.” Green muses for a while about his days as Lott’s student, and then sums up his time working on the Observer,

“It was all about pleasing John Lott,” he says with a chuckle.

So, as the guided tour through the Observer’s past draws to a close, I will offer a quote from Doktor regarding her opinion of the Observer.

“It was an all around fabulous experience,” she says, “I had no doubt, when I started working, that I could be a reporter, because I’d already been one.”

So, I’m thrilled to be involved with a publication that is responsible to a real community, and grateful for such a practical experience. I’m thankful that Quark exisst. I’m very proud to be a part of a larger team, including all of the journalists in the Observer’s past. The only problem is that now, I’m severely distressed about the return of John Lott.

  • Social Feeds

    Social Feeds

  • Categories

  • Archives