An MHC professor’s memoir as a newspaper editor

BY KATHERINE O’CALLAGHAN

The nailing of a condom machine to the wall of the student union corridor was one of the first controversies I encountered when I was working at a college newspaper in the mid to late 1990s (the ban on contraception in Ireland for anyone not married had only just been overturned). The student union of University College Dublin was also facing an ongoing legal battle over the distribution of information concerning abortion clinics in Britain (eventually the right to information concerning abortion was secured; a ban on abortion in any circumstances remains in place in Ireland today). 

In my freshman year, there was a successful referendum to ban Nestle products from student shops on the grounds that the company aggressively promoted breast milk substitutions in developing countries without safe clean water. Not every story of activism was quite so worthy: the pathetic state of the canteen food provoked regular rebellions. Thousands of envelopes containing thawed frozen French fries were posted to the University President to highlight the students’ despair over the quality of “soggy chips” served every day.

There were two newspapers on campus: the College Tribune, which operated out of a cupboard under a staircase and was still doing physical cut and paste with paper and scissors when I began as a freshman, and the University Observer, which was linked with the student union, and so had a slightly swankier office and some paid staff. I wrote for both, as a reporter and news editor, and eventually became co-editor of the University Observer, which was a year-long position, poorly paid but paid nonetheless.

We were pretty much all novices when it came to computers, the internet had just arrived on campus and in my first year there were only 800 email addresses available from the computer society – if you missed one of them you had no email ad- dress for the year. We also had no mobile phones, and when my co-editor, Edward Melvin, got himself a pager we all thought that was pretty high tech. We used to scribble notes and pin them up on society notice boards if we wanted to let someone know where we were meeting for lunch or a pint. Even as the internet took off over the period that I spent in college we never had to worry, as editors, that a story would break online before our paper came out. We got to break the stories, and there was an extraordinary buzz, and immense satisfaction in spotting people around campus waiting for lectures, sitting at the bus-stop shelter, in the coffee shop or by the lake reading and discussing stories we had covered and uncovered in the paper. We had a captive audience in part because there was a lot more “hanging out” and just waiting around in an era without online communication. We didn’t have to compete for attention from the constant buzz and ping of other media sources and I think that made it a magical time both to have been at college and to have edited a student paper.

Ed and I had taken a risk: in the summer months before our reign as editors we had decided to convert the paper from tabloid to broadsheet format. We were unsure if we would pull it off, no student paper in Ireland had done so yet. Our fear was that the paper would look as though someone had simply blown up the letters to fit a bigger page. The morning the first issue came out, the go-between with our printers dropped us up an early copy. We sat on a bench in a small rose garden on campus and nervously opened the fold: to our huge relief we were delighted with, and very proud of, the end result. I look back on the chutzpah we had with a sort of awe.

There was something about that period of our lives when nothing seemed too daunting. It was challenging and incredibly exhausting, of course, but we didn’t allow any of that to take away from the thrill of putting together a group of brilliant and often very eccentric writers, and pulling together twelve issues of the Observer.

One of our columns was sponsored by the energy drink Red Bull, which we drank by the crate to keep us awake during production weekends. Those weekends seemed to mainly involve calling the home phones of our contributors to harass them out of bed and into the office to type up their articles. Once, when our design editor fell ill, the weekend tipped into a third sleepless night resulting in hallucinations on the part of both of the editors. We were also sponsored by a beer company in exchange for crates of beer which we distributed to our unpaid writers after each issue. Clearly, health and safety were not priorities in those days. Both my co-editor and design editor were heavy smokers at the time. The stench in our tiny office after an extended weekend of overnights must have been horrendous. We added to it by investing in a toasted cheese sandwich maker.

We were in constant trouble with the student union and other political groups on campus. Editorial independence from the pesky intrusions of the student union was our holy grail and it would frankly have been a disappointment to us if one of the union officers hadn’t arrived red-faced and swearing over some perceived slight after each issue was distributed around the arts block. We were regularly threatened that we were going to be sued, but I can’t remember taking any of it too seriously. Once the future politicians of Ireland left the newspaper office, we would all fall about laughing. The old notion that academic or student politics are so vicious because the stakes are so low was very apparent to us.

The constant laughter in the office is one of the things I remember most fondly; it was a way of managing the pressure of the looming and almost always overshot print deadlines, but it was also because we had the fortune to work with some extremely funny people. A favorite section of the paper was the satirical middle-page spread of the arts section which lampooned everyone from the “swots” who took to studying in the library earlier in the semester than anyone else (in an issue the previous year photos of those studying in the library at 8 a.m. one Sunday morning were published in a name and shame exercise), to the college President who, it was claimed, had fathered all of the visiting European Erasmus students during a lost youthful summer Euro-railing around the continent.

The Observer had its twenty-year anniversary a couple of years ago, and all of the former editors were called upon to write a little about their memories. The common feeling was that editing a student newspaper had been exhausting, sometimes farcical and – above all – exhilarating. Many of the former editors, who now work at the BBC, the New York Times and the Irish national radio and television stations, spoke of it as one of the best years of their lives.

I don’t think that is simply a case of ink-sniffing nostalgia. If you have fancied yourself as a journalist I can tell you that there is nothing that matches the experience of editing your own paper, of putting it all together, from the planning, the commissioning, the switching and changing and last minute emergency scribblings. College is such an extraordinary time in which to seize the opportunity to do something which you might never get a chance to do again with such freedom, whether it is writing a play which is staged, composing a piece of music, or being involved with the newspaper. The collective energy of engaging with so many people who are also finding their voices and penning their first published words is something which remains with you for life.

Katherine O'Callaghan is a Visiting Professor of English at Mount Holyoke College

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