Marc Lacey ’87, the national editor for The New York Times, returned to his alma mater Tuesday evening to discuss his long standing career in journalism in which he filed stories from Nairobi, Kenya to Mexico City, Mexico.
His first interaction with The Times, though, was as a visiting student with a friend from Cornell. Shortly after walking through the revolving doors into the newspaper he dreamt of working at, the two were sent away for not having an appointment.
But in the decades since, Lacey has ascended the ranks of the storied paper, and recently accepted a position as the first of the Distinguished Visiting Journalists at Cornell, a program hosted by the College of Arts and Sciences that aims to bolster the University’s ties to the media industry.
But before Lacey started at The Gray Lady, he was a freshman at Cornell, planning on studying biology and society, though not having a clear idea of what he wanted to do in his life.
In time, he found The Cornell Daily Sun and a new passion for journalism.
“Next thing I knew I was an editor, spending more time at the newspaper than on my biology and chemistry classes,” Lacey said.
Seeing students on campus reading copies of the day’s paper made him feel especially proud of the articles he had put so much time and effort into — highlighting the “thrill of when you saw someone holding The Sun,” Lacey said.
He credited the diversity of the academic curriculum throughout his studies to broadening his knowledge on a multitude of fields — a benefit that proved invaluable for his journalism career in the years to come.
“There is not a single class that I took back then that I haven’t used in some sense as a reporter,” Lacey said of his time at Cornell.
During his first years out of Cornell, Lacey recognized that he was not prepared to report for The Times, as he needed a lot more “seasoning” before he took a position there.
He said that he wanted to be sure that — if he did work at The Times — he was fully prepared for the job.
“The New York Times was this big gold standard of journalism that I dreamt of working at one day,” Lacey said. “The bottom line is [that] I spent a lot of years working at other places.”
He first spent two years as a reporter for the Buffalo News, before going on to serve as a Washington, D.C. correspondent for the Los Angeles Times. Almost 13 years after graduating, Lacey eventually landed his dream job at the often-dubbed “paper of record,” working as the newspaper’s first-ever Phoenix bureau chief, deputy foreign editor and finally national editor — a role that oversees news and human interest stories from Hawaii to Maine.
For aspiring journalists who hope to embark on a path similar to his, Lacey offered a secret: Since being pushy is a valued quality in reporting, the right amount of it in the application process may bode well for prospective applicants.
“Good journalists are not meek,” he said. “Good journalists show tenacity in going after a story.”
Lacey also pointed to the effect of technology on journalism, noting that more people read The New York Times today from their smartphones than from print newspapers.
“The world is going to change,” Lacey said. “My advice is to get used to change, and not be intimidated by things changing because, no matter what you decide to do with your life, that is going to happen.”
Correction: Due to an editing error, an earlier version of this article misspelled Marc Lacey’s name in the headline. The headline has since been updated to the correct spelling.