In the Spotlight: Rob Tricchinelli, Public Editor, Cornell Sun

In an April 2009 introduction, Rob Tricchinelli asked readers of The Cornell Daily Sun, simply, “What do you like?  What do you hate?  What’s fair?  What’s not? What is the Sun doing well?  Poorly?  What’s being missed?

The questions, in many ways, define his job scope.  As the Sun‘s public editor, Tricchinelli acts as a self-described reader’s representative, answering their queries and asking them on their behalf about various aspects of the paper’s editorial decision-making, coverage scope, and journalistic ethics.  As portions of his column headlines reveal, he touches on matters of misinformation and underreporting, sensitivity and nuance, readability and relevance, and process and practice.

He is one of the few– and possibly only– individuals to serve an ombudsman-like role within college media.

As I wrote early last month, while maybe outlandish for many student news outlets from a practical perspective, the idea of adding a public ed. definitely has merit. Especially when mega-controversies engulf the college press, there is often no conduit through which individuals can channel critiques– except for calls, e-mails, and letters to the editor to the very people being blasted

Tricchinelli, a third-year Cornell University law student with a journalism master’s degree, is that conduit.  His exact affiliation with the newspaper is murky, by design. In his words, “I’m not a member of the paper’s staff in a traditional sense. Instead, I’m an independent ‘editor’– appointed instead of elected by the staff.”  Got that?

Independent is the key word in that breakdown, allowing Tricchinelli to critique, probe, and provide wisdom to readers and staff without fear of being fired.  He is simply present, on the periphery, ready and willing to lend his perspective.  As he wrote me, “The Sun can’t dismiss me as a columnist if I write something critical, but I readily concede that I have no control over the editorial decision-making.  If reporters and editors want to ignore my advice, they’re free to.”

Rob Tricchinelli's column runs on alternate Mondays. (Top photo courtesy of Tricchinelli.)

For his dedicated public ed. service to the Sun over the past 20 months, Tricchinelli deservedly earns a spot in the CMM Student Journalist Spotlight.  Below, he shares a bit more about his position, some of the issues he’s tackled, and the benefits of a student press reader’s rep.

Describe your role as the Sun’s public editor.

It’s not markedly different from an ombud position at a professional newspaper. I try to act as a go-between for readers and Sun staffers. If readers have constructive critiques of the Sun‘s coverage, I want to hear them.  I use my column to give voice to reader complaints.  I independently assess the merits of those complaints and I write about them.  It works the other way, too.  I’ve tried to explain how certain stories have come together and how certain stories have come apart.

What makes you especially suitable for the position?

I have a master’s in print journalism and worked briefly as a copy editor before I came to law school, which is what I’m doing now. I have no real interest in reporting or editing at the campus level again, but I still am very passionate about journalism. I thought that this position was a good opportunity for me to use my experience productively, so I happily applied when the Sun advertised the opening. I also had no ties to the Sun when I started. I had no preconceived notions of what it was like, which really enabled me to form suitably objective opinions on its overall quality. [Note: More about his background here.]

In your opinion, why is the public editor positon a positive for the campus press?

Credibility, mostly. It demonstrates that the students who run the paper are receptive to and accountable to their readers.  I think it also helps a university like Cornell, which has no journalism school, because a public editor column can address basics without sounding too patronizing. It’s true that actually reporting and writing is the best experience (compared to classes), but it’s understandable that without a j-school, some fundamentals might otherwise fall by the wayside.

What have been the most challenging or memorable issues brought to your attention as public editor?

A few come to mind. . . . Scoops. In my tenure, the Sun has had two front-page stories that turned out to be incorrect: (1) Last year, the paper reported that upperclass undergraduates would soon teach freshman writing seminars.  And (2) This year, the paper reported that while Cornell’s endowment plummeted, a top university official got rich. Both stories had a similar flaw: underreporting.

The first one relied exclusively on one quote from one professor, and the second didn’t fully explore the merits of why the official was given a bonus. Both were important reminders to find extra sources and carefully examine all the links that make up a story. Personally, the “here’s what happened and here’s where we go from here” columns are the most enjoyable and fruitful.

[Another memorable issue] Sensitivity.  I’ve received more letters on the Sun‘s coverage of student deaths than on any other topic, and those kinds of stories always have a heightened need for judicious reporting. Emotions always run high, and it’s difficult but necessary to report those stories. Often, people complain that reported details infringe on the privacy of the recently deceased, but news organizations have a duty to report newsworthy details.

What’s your advice for papers looking to follow in the Sun‘s stead and add a public editor to the staff?

I think the best public editor candidates are those with journalism experience but little or no prior connection to the newspaper (besides the familiarity one develops by reading it). I think a previous staffer is a poor choice, because he/she undoubtedly has personal connections to many of the people still on staff. I think a faculty adviser or professor is a less-than-ideal choice, too, just because a faculty member might view the public editorship as a teaching position, which it probably isn’t.

I would also advise that those papers immediately and permanently ban the word “discuss” as the main verb in all display type– headlines, captions, kickers, decks, all of it. Ledes, too.  I cringe every time I see it.

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