When Marc Lacey ’87 stepped into The New York Times office lobby on a spontaneous trip to New York City freshman year of college, security asked him to leave. But before he left, he took a picture in front of the building, shaking hands with friend Eric Lichtblau ’87, vowing to one day work at The New York Times.
Beginning June 14, former Sun editor in chief Lacey will continue to honor this vow as one of the newspaper’s new managing editors.
As a first-year student at Cornell in 1983, Lacey was initially enrolled in the College of Engineering, unsure of what he wanted to do in life. He decided to join The Cornell Daily Sun on a whim.
“I remember reading The Sun, and I saw an ad for an orientation meeting,” Lacey said. “It caught my attention since I wasn’t involved in any clubs at the time.”
Lacey began his reporting career by writing stories on professor and guest lectures happening on campus. He transferred to the College of Arts and Sciences to study biology.
Lacey then transitioned to cover the city of Ithaca and the University administration during a tumultuous time. Tuition was increasing and students were protesting Apartheid in South Africa by setting up a shantytown on the arts quad and taking over Day Hall.
“Although I definitely cared about what was going on in the world, I felt as though my role was to write about it rather than protest myself,” Lacey said. “I always felt as though journalists have an incredibly important role in society just by informing.”
As a junior, Lacey decided to run for the editorial board of The Sun and was elected editor in chief – his first management position.
“I managed more people back then than I ever had in my life, although that is about to change with my new job,” Lacey said. “Finally, as managing editor of The New York Times, I am going to manage more people than I did as a junior and senior at Cornell.”
During his senior year, Lacey had to decide between taking a summer internship at The Washington Post or going to graduate school to study biology.
“I thought, ‘okay, let me give this journalism thing a try,’ so I took the internship,” Lacey said. “I’ve been doing journalism ever since.”
After spending his summer after graduation in Washington, D.C., Lacey got a job at The Buffalo News, and then accepted a two-year temporary job designed for young reporters at The Los Angeles Times.
Lacey was then promoted to a permanent staff position, covering the 1992 Los Angeles riots, the 1994 Northridge earthquake and O.J. Simpson’s freeway chase.
“When O.J. Simpson was on the run in his white bronco, and he drove back to his house and the police were there, there is video of that moment,” Lacey said. “What you don’t see is that behind a bush, I was standing right there. I was sent on assignment to his house with my notebook. I was like, ‘O.J.! O.J.!’”
Lacey then moved to Washington, D.C. to work with the L.A. Times, and was soon hired by The New York Times to report in the capital.
Having dreamt of reporting from overseas, Lacey later became a foreign correspondent for The New York Times, reporting in Kenya for five years and Mexico for four. Reporting abroad came with a unique set of circumstances.
“I’ve been to more war zones than I care to count, interviewed more rebels, soldiers, heard more explosions and seen more casualties than I want to remember,” Lacey said.
In the aftermath of the 2010 earthquake in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, Lacey was sent to report on the tragedy.
“When I arrived there in Port-au-Prince, there were still many people trapped in the rubble,” Lacey said. “As I was walking along they were looking out, seeing me and calling for me to help them – but there was no way to get them out.”
Through his reporting, Lacey aims to make the reader feel what he is feeling in the moment, standing in the scene of the story.
“The difficult part of journalism is that there’s a lot of heartache and awfulness in the world and journalists have to be there covering it,” Lacey said. “When everybody is fleeing a situation, the reporters are the ones rushing to get in.”
When Lacey returned to New York in 2012, he worked multiple editorial positions at The New York Times Office. During the height of COVID-19, he was a national editor, overseeing all of the publication’s coverage on the pandemic.
“What I’m trying to do is make The New York Times stronger since it’s going to outlast me,” Lacey said. “I’m always thinking about who to bring in and how to change the place to make it even better as a news organization.”
The New York Times operates 24-hours a day, as opposed to when there was a print deadline each night. When there is breaking news, it is confirmed and published as quickly as possible. With a push of a button, information can reach millions of people all over the world — becoming quite the powerful mechanism in Lacey’s eyes.
Lacey said that the need for trusted information will never cease, but its form might appear differently.
“[I] don’t presume journalism is going to be what it is today [in the future],” Lacey said. “It’s going to be something completely different and you have to go along for the ride and be open to change.”
Lacey is always on the job and believes journalism is a lifestyle and a way to make sense of the world.
“I can be having dinner with someone and they say something interesting and I will pull out a piece of paper and jot it down because they’ve just given me a great idea for a story,” Lacey said. “I see stories everywhere. I could be walking down the block and just see something that I know is a great story.”
After four years of being a national editor and assistant managing editor, Lacey is now entering a new era as one of the next managing editors of The New York Times, alongside Carolyn Ryan.
“I’m in meetings nonstop learning about parts of The New York Times that I didn’t fully understand before,” Lacey said. “It’s a huge, complex organization, and I am in full study mode understanding more.”
Lacey feels his liberal arts education in the College of Arts and Sciences gave him the critical-thinking background and inquisitive spirit he needs to succeed as managing editor.
“‘Any person, any study’ is sort of what a journalist is. The ‘any study’ part for me could change by the hour. Something breaks out, and I have to understand what it is. I have to assign reporters to cover it and then read the story as it comes in and make sure that we’re framing it correctly,” Lacey said. “Any study in the world is covered by this newsroom.”
When the new editorial board was announced, Lacey was invited to give a toast at a celebratory event. He told the story of a young boy who was turned away from The New York Times, but stuck to his vow and became managing editor. His “Sunnie” friend Lichtblau also ended up working as a reporter for The Times.
When he left the building that day, a security guard downstairs gave him a high-five.
“As an 18-year-old kid deciding I’m going to work someplace and then actually ending up spending my career there is pretty amazing,” Lacey said. “I’ve traveled a long time to get to this point.”
Lacey advises aspiring journalists to dream big and remain dedicated to the craft of journalism.
“I still have that picture of us shaking hands outside the building,” Lacey said. “If you have a goal, say it outloud and take a picture. Make it happen.”