After a year in television, Denise DiNovi was hired by the National Observer and finally had the newspaper job she had always wanted. "My friends in television warned me against it. They said print journalism was a dying business. I didn't believe them," she said glumly.
Yesterday, before DiNovi's first story ever got into print, the National announced it was folding. "It was like a bomb," she said, her eyes welling with tears. "What am I going to do? I'm 22 years old and have only two months' newspaper experience. When they told us, I cried for two hours until I had a stiff drink."
As the 50-member editorial staff in the Observer's offices in Silver Spring put the finishing touches on the weekly's last issue, the tenor of the spacious newsroom was not unlike that at countless other newspapers that have closed in past years.
Phones rang constantly, and reporters dished out the bad news to friends. "Have you heard" one woman asked her caller. "The Observer is closing. It's like losing a member of the family."
As a weekly newspaper, the National Observer became known for its long, absorbing articles, such as early stories on racial bigotry and atrocities in Vietnam, fads like "punk rock," and more serious trends like the movement to farm life among young educated adults.
The style reflected the individuality of the writers and when appropriate, a light-hearted humor about life in America. In recent years, the newspaper turned to consumer "coping" articles. Common personality traits among criminals is the subject of the final cover story.
By most accounts, the late 1960s were the Observer's heyday. In that period of tremendous social upheaval, observer reporters provided "good, pioneering gutsy journalism" and depth coverage that gave us a footnote in history," as one reporter put it.
"After the late '60s, there was difficulty in finding where we fit," said Daniel Greene, a reporter who covered the 60s "movements." "We just couldn't find our niche."
Reporter Susan Seliger posted a notice for an Irish wake at 8 p.m. Every few minutes, reporters rushed to the bulletin board to read the latest job vacancies at newspapers in Detriot, Atlanta, Miami, Dallas and other cities. Editor Henry Gemmill posted the memos as fast as the calls came in.
Two staff members tossed a purple football back and forth. Several others grimaced as they discussed the houses they had just bought. Front-page editors were readjusting Page One for Monday's final edition to accommodate the sudden announcement of the closure.
"Usually on Thursdays you can hear a pin drop in here," one reporter remarked ruefully.
The Observer's newsroom, in the Wall Street Journal building at New Hampshire Avenue and Colesville Road, has the traditional newsroom clutter. Solid, gray metal desks and cabinets and manual typewriters are lined in straight rows. Yellowed newspapers are strewn about. Posters with pictures from the Rev. Sun Myung Moon and former President Nixon to half-naked women are pasted about. Here and there is a stuffed owl, an early Observer "mascot."
"I'm supposed to be writing a story. It's impossible," said reporter Barbara Katz, as she paced the room.
Gemmill, the soft-spoken editor who has become a personal friend to many of his readers through his folksy Post script column looked beat. He had heard the bad news about 12 hours before his staff. Trying to put it all together in his mind, he pulled from beneath his decoupaged lunch box a letter from a typical reader.
"Dear Henry," it began. "Please forgive the familiarity . . ."
"We succeed in being intensely personal for many of our readers," said Gemmill, 60. "Partly it was in letting our individualities show."
Gemmill himself had a penchant for clever bumber strickers, and when he let his readers know that, he found himself a ready target. "I have in my possession at the moment 1,000 bumper stickers," he said with a laugh. "My favorite is: "Illiterate? Write for Help.""
"These guys," said newcomer DiNovi, gancing around the room, "they give a damn about what they wrote. And they didn't forget the beauty in journalism. It was artistic. I call them the green-eyeshade brigade. You know, the old style. They're not softy dilettantes."
Senior editor Richard Egan was one of the first. He went on board Oct. 1, 1961, from United Press International, four months before the first Observer issue was published. After two months in New York, the small staff moved to 12th and K Streets NW in Washington, "over Byron S. Adams' printing shop," he recalled.
"The Business of Living" became the paper's motto.
Clifford Ridley, now senior editor for the arts, was an original staff member, too. And it became his task to edit the Observers' only popular cult figure. Dr. Hunter S. Thompson, the flamboyant "gonzo" journalist, who as Ridley put it, "quote-covered unquote Latin America for us."