Isabelle Jung/Sun Graphic Designer

The style, size and layout of The Cornell Daily Sun's issues have changed drastically over the course of its 143 years of independent reporting.

September 13, 2023

On 143rd Anniversary, The Cornell Daily Sun Looks Back at Its History

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The Cornell Daily Sun has been an independent newspaper serving Cornell’s community since its foundation in 1880 and has continued to be enjoyed by Cornellians and Ithacans alike. 

With the oldest continuously independent college daily’s 143rd anniversary commencing on Sept. 16, The Sun compiled the history of its founding, its growth and the legacy its alumni have left.

1880: The Sun Rises for the First Time

On Sept. 10, 1880, Editor in Chief William Ballard Hoyt 1881 and The Sun’s first editorial board released a notice to all Cornell students. The letter announced the inception of an independent newspaper dedicated to publishing exclusive college news. 

“Our books contain pledges enough already for advertisers, alumni and other former students, to pay every dollar of our expenses for the year, and we are, therefore, sure not to come to an untimely death,” the notice stated. 

Original letter from The Sun's first editorial board, 1880.
The Sun’s first editorial board wrote a letter to students announcing the debut of the paper in 1880. (Sun File Photo)

Six days later, the first edition of the Cornell Sun was published.

The first copy of The Sun was eight pages and measured nine inches by 12 inches. No editors’ names were listed. Eight pages was twice the size of a standard newspaper at the time and marked a bold heritage for The Sun, according to Robert Quick ’29, who was a senior editor in 1928.

“The [first copy of the Sun] gave the impression that The Sun was a noxious upstart — newspapers were hardly respectable anyway — and that all good people should avoid it,” Quick wrote in “A Half Century at Cornell,a compilation of stories honoring the first 50 years since the paper’s founding.

The Sun’s first business manager, George F. Gifford 1880, printed the early Sun copies in the Andrus and Church Store in downtown Ithaca. He was also in charge of setting up the type, looking after the copy distribution and soliciting merchants in Ithaca. 

While receiving subpar reviews in Ithaca, some daily papers described The Sun’s early copies as “bright” papers that “shine for the first time on the college world” and have “glowing promises.” 

George Beebe 1882 recalled his time on The Sun’s first editorial board in “A Half Century at Cornell.” With a Cornell student body as small as 384, editors initially found generating content to be difficult. 

A presidential election in 1880 was one of the first opportunities for The Sun to report breaking news content. The first editorial board worked through the night —- recruiting as many Cornell students as possible —- to be the first paper to inform Ithaca about the election result.    

“Each fraternity member of the staff dug up all the news he could get about the men of his society, which gave us an unfailing supply of personals,” Beebe wrote. “After a few weeks, it became apparent that the paper will succeed and we had no fear for the future.”

None of the original editors thought the paper would last even 50 years, according to Hudson P. Rose 1884, who was the freshman editor at the time.   

The Sun’s First 50 Years

The first version of the linotype machine was invented in 1885, marking a large step forward in the journalism field. It allowed editors to mass produce papers at a quicker rate than ever before. 

To do so, editors used a combination of linotype and other industrialized methods to print the “type,” or words and images compiled on the paper, on a continuous sheet of paper. The newspaper business became an industry, according to Frank E. Gannett 1898, who was on The Sun editorial board from 1896 to 1897. 

“Out of it all there came to be the big modern newspaper, full of news, illustrations and advertising, all produced at a low cost, and sold to the public for a few cents a copy,” Gannett wrote in “A Half Century at Cornell.”  

After his time at The Sun, Gannett founded the Gannett Company, which owns USA Today and directs the third largest newspaper group in the United States, and he received high praise from President Livingston Farrand, Cornell’s president at the time.

The Sun grew to be Ithaca’s only morning newspaper and a reputable source recognized by Cornell administration and major players in the journalism field. Nine years into its founding, The Sun received an invitation from Joseph Pulitzer to attend the New York World building opening in New York City. The New York World was published from 1860 until 1931 and pioneered sensationalist journalism by reporting on controversial topics. For The Sun, the invite marked a precedent for both its reputation and expansion.  

The early 1900s and 1910s were met with great expansion, with The Sun establishing an office at The Ithaca Journal in Spring 1912 and appearing as “Ithaca’s Morning Newspaper” that fall. Female students also joined the editorial board in the midst of World War I. Harriot Parsons 1919 and Alice Street 1919 led as women’s manager and women’s editor.

The first women editors included Harriot Parsons 1919 and Alice Street 1919, who led as women’s manager and women’s editor, respectively, on the 1918 editorial board. (The Cornellian and Class Book)

World War I prompted a decline in editors and The Sun’s first publishing hiatus since its inception.

“The Cornell Daily Sun will not resume publication with the opening of the college year 1918-1919 because of conditions created by the nation’s war preparations,” a pamphlet announced to the Cornell community. 

Following World War I, The Sun struggled to rebound from its losses but passed a profitable year in 1928. At this point, Cornell Daily Sun had been changed to its modern name, The Cornell Daily Sun, after the 1927-1928 editorial board made the official change in the masthead and page captions. 

The 1940s to the 1970s

This financial success carried into The Sun’s next 50 years. Much of its revenue was earned from both advertisements and subscriber fees. 

“Based upon the number of ads that had been sold to The Sun on any given day, we would figure out how many pages the paper would be,” said Richard Morse ’70, business manager of The Sun in 1969. “Then we would tell the News department.”

Due to the well-established expectation for quality journalism throughout its next 30 years, it trained editors to be successful in the industry. Numerous editors and staff members grew to be large faces in the journalism field, despite the fact that Cornell does not offer a journalism major. 

For example, Kurt Vonnegut ’44, a world renowned writer of the 20th century, served as an assistant managing editor and associate editor at The Sun during his time at Cornell University. 

Though Vonnegut left Cornell to enlist in the army, his time with The Sun forever altered his life. Vonnegut became a famous author, publishing a wide array of literature including novels, short stories, nonfiction and plays. His book “Slaughterhouse-Five” earned a spot on the New York Times bestseller list in 1969.

Vonnegut credited The Sun as having provided him with a sense of purpose in his life.

“The Cornell Sun, thank goodness, showed me what to do with my life, and I did it,” Vonnegut remarked during a speech given at The Sun’s 125th anniversary dinner in 2005.

The paper additionally opened avenues to explore governmental and political fields. Throughout the 1960s, The Sun was recognized across the country, and college journalism was a powerful connector to U.S. governmental positions of authority. Alan Flaherty ’62, who was The Sun’s editor in chief in 1962, shook hands with two U.S. presidents during his time as an editor. 

“The first one was Harry Truman, who was here on a relatively brief residency,” Flaherty said. “Because of my Sun position, I was part of one of the small groups that had conversations with him around in a seminar. And then with [John F.] Kennedy, the State Department [in Washington D.C.] invited a number of college editors to hear about U.S. policy of all sorts of things. I accepted the invitation as editor of The Sun.” 

For Flaherty, The Sun opened up other opportunities he believed he would not have had otherwise. As editor in chief, he had exclusive access to interviews with notable Cornell alumni. He took his first airplane ride on account of The Sun to have the first opportunity to interview Wisconsin representative Henry Reuss ’37.

“John Summerskill, who was the [Vice President] for Student Affairs, came up to me and said, ‘What are you doing Sunday afternoon?’” Flaherty said. “And I said, ‘Well, what do you have in mind?’ And he said, ‘Henry Reuss is coming to speak at Cornell and we’re sending a plane for him to pick him up in Detroit. Would you like to go and have a chance to talk to him on the way back?’ That was an easy question to answer.”

The 1940s to the 1970s also marked an increase in political coverage. Ed Zuckerman ’70, the Sun’s editor in chief in 1970 and a novelist, journalist and television writer and producer, oversaw many of the controversial political and University news the paper covered.

“The paper would consist of our locally generated stories by us and general international and national news stories off the A.P. machine,” Zuckerman said.

Zuckerman also recalled how the topic of the Vietnam War was frequently covered by The Sun, weighing heavily on many students’ lives, including his own.

“There was always news about the Vietnam War and President Johnson,” Zuckerman said. “The draft was still going on, and you really didn’t want to get drafted and sent to Vietnam for obvious reasons.”

In April of 1969, Cornell students who were members of the Afro-American Society — now Cornell Black Students United — protested at Willard Straight Hall amidst the Civil Rights Movement in an event that is now known as the Straight Takeover.

“It was a major national news story, and reporters from all over the country came to Ithaca, and The Sun office became the central gathering place for all these reporters,” Zuckerman said. 

The Sun’s coverage of the William Straight Takeover in 1969 gained national attention and brought journalists from across the country to the city to cover the story. (Sun File Photo)

The 1990s and Transition to the Digital Age

In a sweeping movement towards the digital age, The Sun and journalism in general saw great changes throughout the 1990s. Andrew Morse ’96, who is currently the president and publisher of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, experienced this shift as The Sun’s editor in chief in 1996. 

“The Alumni Board invested in some new computers that allow us to, for the first time, do some electronic layout,” Morse said. “We started with the editorial pages, because they were easier than the news pages. My junior year, I think, was the first year that we really started experimenting with what we call electronic pagination.”

Editors using computers in 1987, adopting new technologies that would carry The Sun into a new era. (Jim Leynse/Sun File Photo)

Pagination refers to separating content into distinct pages to make it user-friendly and easy to view, such as how a modern online newspaper appears. Morse noted the greatest change from his time at The Sun to today was this and the creation of The Sun’s website, which launched the year after he graduated. 

Online news websites and virtual editing increased content accessibility, but limited time in The Sun’s office. Morse recalls feeling a sense of satisfaction from watching the printed paper roll off the press prior to The Sun’s digitization.   

“Amazingly, when I was editor, we didn’t have email,” Morse said. “And so [when] we went to write an article, everybody was in the newsroom. So The Sun was this bustling and thriving newsroom, and you would go down [to the Sun office], you would spend the night and you would write your story.” 

With the new website launch, The Sun’s editorial board not only published content online, but also printed the paper five days a week entering the 21st century. However, the Great Recession of 2008 to 2009 impacted not just The Sun, but the journalism industry, making it increasingly difficult for print news companies to adapt to an ever changing landscape. 

“The continued growth of social media meant that people started getting their news for free and advertisers quickly noticed and shifted their dollars away from print and toward online media,” said Brad Edmondson ’81, the president of The Sun Board of Directors. 

Still, The Sun was recognized as Princeton Review’s top college newspaper in the U.S. in 2013. Printing five days a week, editors emphasized the for-profit aspect of the newspaper. Three years later The Sun was forced to cut back its printing schedule, on account of financial challenges and prioritizing digital content. 

As of 2016, The Sun had been operating at a loss for seven years. In May of that year, editors announced The Sun’s shift from five days in print a week to three for the 2016 to 2017 school year.   

“By freeing ourselves from the constraints of a daily print model, we are pushing ourselves further to pursue top-quality, around-the-clock journalism,” said Sofia Hu ’17, Phoebe Keller ’18 and Paulina Glass ’18 — the editor in chief, managing editor and associate editor, respectively, of The Sun’s 134th editorial board — in a statement released on The Sun’s website. “Fueling our decision to restructure the print production is an ambitious vision for The Sun.”

The Sun Today

Today, The Sun has limited print days to twice a week, although it continues to publish articles daily on the website. Edmondson notes it is not the only media organization struggling to financially support itself.  

“It is a really interesting time to be in journalism because the way journalists deliver news and the way people consume it have changed so much,” Edmondson said. “The problems that The Sun is facing are identical to the problems that The New York Times, Chicago Tribune and The Washington Post are experiencing — we’re all facing the exact same problems.”

Edmondson believes The Sun has become less respected in the Cornell community and attributes this occurrence to a variety of factors. There has been a decline in reporters, investigative journalism and feature writing and a greater focus on spot news. Additionally, The Sun lost their production department, which designed the layout of the newspaper, amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. 

However, viewership did increase after the spring of 2020, since The Sun was one of the only ways for people to receive news about the University and what was going on in light of the pandemic. Morse notes a potential drawback of more online traffic. 

“I think it’s interesting, The Sun was such a central part of life on campus,” Morse said. “And because there was a physical paper, you’d walk into every dining hall and everybody you’d be sitting there with, you know, [would have] The Sun opened up. It’s not to say that The Sun isn’t still as impactful, or that students aren’t reading it every day, but it was such a visible presence on campus. And when I was just back there, it didn’t seem to be as visible as it used to be.”

Over the decades, The Sun has relied on and continues to rely on alumni to donate and support the paper, thus allowing it to remain in business and serve as an independent source of trusted information for Cornell and the surrounding community. 

A new generation: the Fall 2023 compet class gathers for a training session at The Sun’s office on September 9, 2023. (Julia Nagel/Sun Photography Editor)

In the upcoming year, Sun Editor in Chief Angela Bunay ’24, as well as those on the board of directors, are looking at bringing more interactive graphics, visual statistics and perhaps even videos to viewers. 

“A lot of newspapers went out of business in the last decade because they were just overwhelmed by change,” Edmondson said. “The advantage we have over other small local news organizations is that we have these alumni who are just fiercely dedicated to The Sun and won’t let it die.”