May 22, 2011

A Farewell to Stories

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When I was applying to about a dozen colleges a few years ago, I used a formula for my essays: “I look forward to attending [insert name of school] and becoming an active contributor at [insert name of student newspaper].”

I thought this was a pretty good strategy for quickly churning out a dozen applications. It showed I was interested in journalism and had taken the initiative to do some research about the school — or had spent at least two minutes on Wikipedia.

As soon as I arrived at Cornell, I fulfilled my promise to get involved at the newspaper. I trekked (on foot) from North Campus down to 139 West State Street to attend my first Sun training session.

One of the exercises we did was learning how to write a story lede. Having written a news article or two in high school, I was prepared. I whipped out the formula for lede-writing — who, what, where, when, why — and successfully made it through the training session. This was the start of my career at The Sun. But, more importantly, it was the last time using a formula got me anywhere at The Sun.

Even though it’s a 130-year-old institution, nothing at The Sun ever goes according to plan. When I became managing editor last year, I quickly realized there was no formula to doing the job. It was just me — and a few fellow editors — trying to navigate our way through chaos.

The logistical feat of putting out a daily paper is an exercise in uncertainty: a staff writer backs out of writing a story at midnight, the Internet in the office goes down, our design software crashes just minutes before pages are due to the printer, or Shortstop Deli, our 24/7 source for caffeine and sustenance, experiences a power outage.

On countless days, I would wake up in the morning (or afternoon) with some sense of how the paper would come together that night.  Arriving at the office later, I would realize that the so-called plan would have to be abandoned because three expected stories weren’t coming in, and there was no top story.

In the heat of some of those meltdown moments — combined with the stress of sleep deprivation, academic assignments that were due days ago, and a bottomless pit of emails in my inbox that needed a response– it was easy to feel as though the world was ending.

Somehow, though, we always survived to put out the next day’s issue. Looking back, some of my favorite moments at The Sun involved darting across the office to change a story just in time to avoid a disastrous mistake, chasing down police cars for a breaking story or going as a group to study at Uris at 4 a.m. after the paper was finished.

Some of the biggest lessons I learned on The Sun came out of not knowing exactly what to do.

For example, covering student deaths, most notably the string of suicides in spring 2010, presented a challenge. On the one hand, we were witnessing the tragedies as reporters. At the same time, as members of the Cornell community, we were also deeply affected by the events. We sought to strike a balance between informing the public and being sensitive. This wasn’t an easy thing to do, and there certainly wasn’t a set formula to follow. In the end, not everyone was happy with how we covered student tragedies, but I took comfort in knowing we made our editorial choices after serious thought and careful deliberations.

Uncertainty – and not knowing exactly what to do – is something I’ve learned to embrace while on The Sun. Not having a formula to rely on means you won’t make the right decision every time. Over the past few years, some days we got things right and other days we probably missed the mark.

On balance, though, I’m extremely proud of what we have produced: a daily newspaper and website that properly informs the Cornell community and drives campus discussion of issues.

I feel like I owe a lot of my personal and academic development over the past four years to The Sun. I have a hunch that my experiences at The Sun will serve me well in the rest of my life. Also, Kurt Vonnegut basically said the same thing, so I’m inclined to believe it’s true.

Even if Vonnegut was wrong, I know I definitely come away from The Sun with the memories of working with amazing people and making lasting friendships. The many dozens of people with whom I’ve worked with over the past four years have truly all enriched my Cornell experience in both large and small ways. Though they are too numerous to list here by name, it has been a privilege to work with some of the most interesting and talented people at Cornell. Thank you.

Michael Stratford is graduating from the College of Arts and Sciences. He was the Managing Editor on the Sun’s 128th Editorial Board. He may be contacted at mstratford@cornellsun.com.

Original Author: Michael Stratford