June 7, 2024

AMSTER | ‘Hocus-Pocus’: The Sun and the Magic of Student Journalism

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Editor’s note: The following column appeared in The Sun’s Reunion Edition issue which was published June 7, 2024 for Reunion Weekend.

One night on the Ithaca Commons, our old Compugraphic computers crashed at The Sun’s temporary headquarters.

I took matters into my own hands, fanning a thin computer disc around and muttering an incantation, a version of “hocus-pocus dominocus.” I handed it to a nervous reporter Keith Eisner on deadline, and he popped it back into the whirring machine hopefully.

As luck would have it, the story magically appeared — all of it! Maybe the waving motion dislodged a little dust? 

I have applied the spirit of The Cornell Daily Sun to every professional job I have ever held since my graduation in June 1989.

That is how essential The Sun has been to both my pursuit of journalism and to my sense of purpose in the world. More specifically, I have always viewed the world through the lens of the student journalist who is both an outsider and an insider at once, and I encouraged both my sons to follow my same path.

In sum, The Sun became a framework for viewing the need for fact- and truth-based journalism, and I have always felt student journalism is the purest variety of the craft. I believe young people from elementary school on should be taught the rules of the Fourth Estate because it would make everyone more conscious of what is happening around them and less apt to follow the herd.

If you knew me in my undergraduate years, you would understand I am not exaggerating. Fellow Sunnie Dan Gross said I had a pseudo-religious sensibility about the importance of journalism, and it is because it is true to Socrates’ credo: “The unexamined life is not worth living.”

The Sun has played a critical part in every job I have ever held — all related to journalism — since the age of 14. After reporting jobs at daily metro newspapers for over a decade, I went on to build and launch international media and journalism degree programs at National University that attracted top-flight journalists and academics. They included many digital journalists, all of whom get the importance of making one’s finished story work as well as it can for the viewer or reader. 

I have always taught all of my students to insert a little magic in making every broadcast or final product come together as seamlessly as possible. There is no limit to what young journalists can accomplish with a pinch of “hocus-pocus dominocus.”

My students now include distinguished journalists in print, radio and TV, as well as tenured journalism professors and even a first public affairs officer for NATO.

So, I believe I have taken The Cornell Daily Sun with me everywhere I have gone and expanded the cause of the free press with its dogged pursuit of truth throughout my career thus far. The Sun is incredibly meaningful and the work that generations of Sunnies have accomplished has echoes far beyond campus.  

For me, The Sun was the true value of the Ivy League education. Studenthood took a backseat to the far more compelling pursuit of spreading journalism far and wide. I never considered The Sun to be an extracurricular activity but always as the main thing itself or the critical kernel of inquiry and intellectual activity. The Sun’s impact on the media landscape has confirmed this fact as its adherents continually scatter around the world to build and expand public service journalism for everyone. 

As a parent, I always made sure to emphasize the importance of curiosity to my children. Real magic isn’t make-believe; it’s journalism and rigorous fact-checking to uncover the truth that changes people’s lives and perception of the world around them. I’m proud to say that my youngest, Gabriel, is now carrying the torch, serving as editor-in-chief of The Sun. 

Sara-Ellen Amster ’89 was managing editor from 1988-89. She went on to write for dailies across the country for a decade before becoming a professor of journalism.