March 13, 2011

Looking Back and Moving Forward

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This is it. You’re reading my 25th and final column as The Sun’s public editor, a tenure that has spanned nearly two years and parts of three editorial boards. The Sun has navigated through coverage of student deaths, broken stories on a variety of topics and had its share of ups and downs.

Public editor is a nebulous role that shifts with the personality and style of the officeholder. But read any professional public editor’s description of the job, and the same elements surface: efficient handling of reader feedback; independent judgment of editorial decisions; and increased accountability, transparency and credibility with respect to readers.

Student journalism is a fundamentally fleeting enterprise for its participants. In addition to the normal rigors of daily production, papers must combat the negative effects of high turnover and woefully short institutional memory. New staffers need training, seasoning and refinement.

I’m no exception to the turnover problem; I’m graduating in May and moving back to Maryland to write the next chapter of my life. Despite this, I hope the public editor position endures. I don’t get to pick my replacement, but I think good candidates should have journalism experience. Independence is paramount to this position, so they should also have little or no connection to The Sun. I did some searching, and as far as I can tell, no other college newspaper has an ombudsman (the Michigan Daily used to, but not anymore). As such, this position offers someone a chance to do unique, meaningful work. Incidentally, interested candidates should fire off a quick note marking their interest to associate-editor@cornellsun.com.

When Emily Cohn ’10 and Sammy Perlmutter ’10 hired me in March 2009, none of us knew what the position would become. The Sun had no public editor, and I had the freedom to write on what I wanted. Looking inward, I think I have carved out a very comfortable routine in how I address reader feedback, investigate internal decision-making and organize my columns.

Some of this job is proactive, outlining future proposals or offering suggestions. But my favorite parts have been the reactive ones — delving into errors, conflicts and mishaps, and seeking truth. In independently and critically examining what The Sun did wrong, I tried to explain and build on my findings to help editors avoid repeating past mistakes.

I’ve written about a variety of things over these 25 columns. I don’t think it’s bragging to say that, taken together, they represent a helpful primer for a paper to be receptive to readers and to avoid some of the common pitfalls that accompany the pursuit of the newsy.

All told, The Sun does fine work. My impression all along has been that The Sun is comparable to a professional newspaper of the same size and circulation. While that intuitively sounds like watered-down praise, I think it’s a significant compliment. In order for student volunteers — at a college with no journalism program — to hang at a level with the pros, they have to be intelligent, driven and clear-headed.

My interactions with Sun staffers make me think they almost all fit that mold. Over the years, The Sun has turned out gifted writers and editors who go on to great successes, even if not in journalism. It’s a safe bet that many on staff right now will continue the trend.

And befitting a farewell column, I do want to individually recognize a few folks who were always helpful and receptive, even when I had highly critical things to say. In no particular order: Emily Cohn and Ben Eisen ’10, for their steady leadership and steely decision making; Sammy Perlmutter, for his humble competence and his easygoing nature; Tony Manfred ’11, for his editing prowess; Keenan Weatherford ’11, for his accessibility; Michael Stratford ’11, for his incisive news judgment; and Dani Neuharth-Keusch ’12, for her commitment to transparency and accountability at The Sun.

I wish the new board well in its term. I hope sensitive, judicious, thorough and nuanced reporting continues to carry the day. I hope readers utilize the many channels to comment on The Sun’s coverage. And I hope readers continue to realize the amount of work that goes into putting out the paper every day. As I join the ranks of Sun alumni, I know that I will look back fondly on being a part of one of the oldest college dailies in the country.

That’s all. Peace easy!

Original Author: Rob Tricchinelli