June 7, 2011

Finding My Calling at Cornell

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Editors note: The following column appeared in The Sun’s Reunion Edition issue which was published June 10th, 2011 for Reunion Weekend.

When I wrote for The Sun, there was a quote taped to the wall that we used to stare at with a certain reverence:

“I’m sorry, sir, but I cannot offer you retroactive, off-the-record status.”

The quote was attributed to former Sun editor in chief David Folkenflik ’91 and it was directed at a former University administrator. I thought it was so cool. Something Woodward and Bernstein would have said. Standing up to the Man. Speaking truth to power. Telling it like it was.

During the long nights I spent in The Sun’s newsroom while my other friends were studying or partying, that quote often reminded me of why I wanted to be a journalist.

Or, more accurately, it stirred in me a certain feeling that made me realize that I hadn’t chosen journalism so much as it had chosen me. I yearned for my own quote on the wall, my own journalistic tales to tell.

And then, my junior year, I got my first truly big scoop. But, that great cinematic moment I’d imagined didn’t play out the way I thought it would. I’ll never forget how it felt to hang up the phone with a revered professor who had just told me, “My career is ruined, my children are devastated, and you have no f-ing ethics.”  I was crushed.  There was no fist-pumping or high-fiving in the newsroom.  There was no dramatic soundtrack. Nobody yelled, “Stop the Presses!” I hung up the phone and sat in silence for a few minutes. Then, I started to write.

The story was a big one. My sources were impeccable, and they were vetted again and again. This was a story I should have been proud of. And a part of me was. It was my job to report to the news. But editors of The Sun face an interesting dilemma — how to stay true to the story without injuring the institution we all hold in such great regard.

Most editors of The Sun bleed Big Red and yet, every day, in addition to reporting on great accomplishments and victories, cutting edge discoveries and stand-out students, they have to report the hard stories.

I never feared the occasional angry call from an administrator, and to the credit of Day Hall, those were few and far between. I never dreaded walking into the Ivy Room and catching angry glances from beneath the pages of an open paper, from friends, classmates and peers who simply disagreed with something we had published. But, it used to eat me up when I’d realize that something The Sun had reported had hurt someone, or in some way, had hurt the institution.

But, that was what we had signed up for. That’s why we disappeared night after night into the offices on South Cayuga Street. And the upside was tremendous. As I look back now, I understand that I learned as much from my days editing The Sun as I did in the buildings on the Arts Quad or in the bars of Collegetown.

I don’t think my friends outside of The Sun completely understood it at the time.  They’d rip me when I’d come home, completely wrapped up in a story, and their heads were elsewhere. They knew The Sun was important to me. But, I think they always saw it as just another activity. For me, it was a calling.

Fifteen years later, they get it.  I’ve been fortunate to have had a career where more days than not I’ve gotten up in the morning and said that I truly love what I do. The pursuit of journalism has taken me around the world and back again — to cover wars, elections, revolutions, tsunamis, earthquakes, floods and famines. I’ve had a chance to watch history unfold. And, it occurred to me recently that the unique rush of covering a breaking news story, that feeling of excitement known well to our breed, is something I first discovered at Cornell when I worked for The Sun. It’s what I’d imagined David Folkenflik felt when he stood up to that administrator.

There’s no question this can be a heady business. It’s also a demanding one. The prelims I bombed or parties I missed while publishing The Sun prepared me for cancelled vacations and missed celebrations later in my career. While all-nighters end for most people not long after they graduate, I’ve skipped more nights’ sleep because of work than I’d care to count since I left Cornell.

And, that terrible feeling I had, when that professor let me have it over the phone, is a sentiment I’ve sadly had to experience throughout my career. Journalism isn’t for the faint of heart.

That’s why, all these years later, I still have such great reverence for The Cornell Daily Sun. It’s not just a good newspaper. It’s not just an activity to pad a resume. It is a unique kind of on-the-job training that runs staffers through a gauntlet of challenges and makes them question at a very young age how badly they want to be a journalist, and whether they have the mettle to do it.

I’d imagine every profession has its proving ground. Many would-be doctors never make it out of their first semester of pre-med. Some lawyers never pass the Bar Exam. Armies of investment bankers get swallowed up each year before they even have a chance to learn the business.

What’s unique about The Sun, though, is that the natural selection process takes place before most students are fully formed. Before they’ve had enough life experience to really have a sense of where they are, and where they want to go. I sure didn’t. But the nights I spent on South Cayuga Street publishing Ithaca’s Only Morning Newspaper helped me figure it out.

Andrew Morse ’96 was editor in chief of The Sun’s 113th editorial board. He is currently the Executive Producer of Innovation for ABC News. He may be reached via the associate editor at associate-editor@cornellsun.com.

Original Author: Andrew Morse