In response to the evolving audience expectations of contemporary journalism, the award-winning East York Observer will be a digital-only publication available at torontoobserver.ca. Here we present a short history of an East York institution.
It was the summer of 1972, and four keen journalism students were about to create a local legacy.
With their eyes wide with idealism, the fire of ambition and creativity in their blood and a federal grant in their back pockets, Don Atanasoff, Bill Berry, Robert Patrick Feeney and Christine Smith set to work to create a community newspaper.
Located in the Warden Woods campus of Centennial College, more of an industrial complex than a school, what would become The Observer was born.
And while the print version of that publication is coming to an end with this issue, the same dedication to local news will continue on a digital-only platform.
Tim Doyle, co-ordinator of Centennial’s journalism programs, says this isn’t the end of the Observer brand.
“This is a renewed emphasis on the story – the creating, publishing, distributing and sharing of multimedia stories on digital platforms,” Doyle said. “We are turning the attention of students and faculty from producing a print product to a sharper focus on the contemporary and future platforms in our newsroom learning lab.”
And the passion that powered the early days of the Observer continues to fuel student pride in their journalism.
Smith, who was 22 in the summer of ’72, remembers the first issue well.
“There was something thrilling about seeing your byline in print, being able to hold what you wrote in your hands,” said Smith, who would go on to a career in journalism and public relations before coming back to Centennial as an instructor.
“The idea that I enlightened someone, made them smile or made them stop and think about something, now that was really something.”
The four of them did it all. They ran their own newsroom, brainstormed stories and ran across town, pencils, paper and cameras in hand, to report on everything from local council meetings to community issues and crime. From there they sat around the table and edited each other’s work.
Smith remembers their faculty advisor, Bill Hanley, also a working journalist, left them to their own devices.
They really were the ones that ran the show. They put the pages together, too, before sending them off to the printers. This was before the digital age, back when stories were written on typewriters and pages were laid out manually on glossy paper, typos and mistakes covered up with strips of paper.
“We even delivered the darn thing ourselves,” said Smith, thinking about loading up the freshly printed pages in the back of Atanasoff’s car and driving through Scarborough in the summer heat with the windows down.
Of all the stories she wrote that summer, Smith remembers one in particular that was ahead of its time.
“There was a student on our campus that was transgender,” she said. “I was also intrigued about how she lived in the world. I remember it as a very interesting interview. You can imagine someone struggling with that in the ’70s.”
That fall, The Observer officially became part of the college’s journalism program, and shortly afterwards, John Lott became the faculty advisor.
Lott, who was the editor of The Aurora Banner at the time, said one of the best parts of teaching was seeing his students blossom into real reporters. He watched the English students he interviewed who told him they liked writing become storytellers and interviewers.
“To see the ones that caught on and had the inherent curiosity and to see them get good at it, that was really something,” said Lott, now the senior baseball writer for The Athletic Toronto. “I think some of the best memories were working with students. I worked with students the same way I would work with colleagues.”
There was one student he was particularly impressed with.
“There was a story that a student did about an old man who was beaten very badly, and it was an unsolved case at the time. The student somehow was able to get into the guy’s hospital room to get an interview. No one else got that interview at the time.”
That student was Enzo DiMatteo. Today, DiMatteo is the editorial director of NOW Magazine, but back in the 1980s he was just one of Lott’s students, scurrying around East York searching for stories.
“It was one of those stories that I thought the public would be interested in,” DiMatteo said. “He ended up having this really amazing immigrant story, too. But the one thing I remember about that interview was the man asked the nurse in the hospital for a beer and she just brought him one. It magically appeared.”
The Observer’s journey to digital is far from new. Steve Cogan, a former instructor, editor and program co-ordinator, remembers when The Observer was the first student newspaper to go digital, in 1992.
“Believe me, that was a very crude initial product. It was strictly text,” he said. He still recalls the very first Mac computers his students started using after they ditched the typewriters.
“Over the next 28 years, that digital publishing process became more and more streamlined. Our page design got slicker; the photography transitioned from analogue to digital. We were able to retouch our photos right on the screen.”
Today’s students are benefiting from The Observer’s forward-thinking outlook. One of them, Bobby Hristova, loves that it prepared him for both print and digital.
“My first story for the Toronto Observer was about a serial killer case. It turned into a big investigation. Words weren’t enough to describe the scene and share that rush I felt every time we covered that story,” he said.
“That’s why we used more than just words. We had video, sound, graphics, maps, and we designed the story in a way you just can’t on a sheet of paper. We grabbed our reader by the hand and showed them our story.”
Before Hristova started the journalism program, he’d only ever thought in terms of the morning newspaper. He laughs about that now.
“Working with the Toronto Observer, we’ve gone off the page. We really make each story an experience for readers by making them interactive or by using videos and sound,” he said.
“We’re able to really bring someone to the scene and make it as authentic as can be. What our newest journalists are doing is blowing me away. Toronto Observer is going to see virtual reality. You won’t need to imagine what a story was like anymore. You’ll actually be there.”
As The Observer moves into the future, it dovetails with the creation of a new post-grad program – Contemporary Journalism – preparing students for the needs of a modern industry.
“We are not backing away from reporting on East York. We will continue telling the stories of the community and those that matter to the community,” Doyle writes in today’s Observer.
“But we are also a learning lab and our responsibility is to prepare students for the challenging and evolving world of media.”