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Journalist Keith Johnson, Daily Sun editor in '50s, funds digitization of paper's first 50 years

A Cornell Daily Sun alumnus who went on to a fruitful journalism career has made it possible for the university to add the student newspaper's earliest years to its digital collection.

Keith Johnson '56, former editor-in-chief of the Cornell Daily Sun and longtime writer for Time Inc., made a major gift to Cornell University Library last fall to digitize the Sun's first 50 years of publication (1880-1930).

An off-the-cuff suggestion while Johnson was a Cornell student led him to a career in journalism that would span 36 years and include writing and editing positions at Time, Money and Fortune magazines.

"It was a fluke," he said, recalling his first visit to the offices of the Cornell Daily Sun in the spring of his sophomore year.

One of his Delta Phi brothers, Richard Schrader '55, who had just been elected business manager of the Sun, casually suggested that Johnson stop by the paper's downtown office. "I got there at 3 in the afternoon and stayed 'til 2 a.m.," Johnson remembered. "I was just completely hooked."

In March 1955 Johnson was elected editor-in-chief for 1955-56, his senior year. Besides dealing with policy issues, his main duty was to work with the associate editor to prepare the editorial page for each issue.

One full-page editorial took aim at the Cornell Board of Trustees and President Deane Malott for the controversial decision to take responsibility for student conduct and student activities out of the hands of the faculty.

"I'm pretty proud of that one. I think it was fairly decent polemic for a 20-year-old," Johnson said. The Sept. 22, 1955, editorial was headlined, "An Insult to the Faculty -- Student Discipline and the President."

A history major, Johnson had no thought of going into journalism. But after a year of law school at Harvard -- "I hated it" -- he got a job as a reporter for the New York Herald-Tribune. After Nelson Rockefeller was elected governor of New York in 1958, Johnson spent three years covering state and New York City politics.

In 1962, he began working at Time magazine as a writer in the national news section. He missed reporting, and after a year he moved to Time's Los Angeles bureau. In 1964, when the Pentagon announced that the North Vietnamese had attacked U.S. ships in the Gulf of Tonkin, he flew to Hawaii to interview Admiral Ulysses S. Grant Sharp Jr., commander-in-chief of the U.S. forces in the Pacific (CINCPAC) for the Aug. 14 Time cover story.

Allowed to see the CINCPAC secret war room, he reported that it wasn't much like the doomsday vault in "Dr. Strangelove": "I kept looking for the button and I didn't find one. There was, however, the admiral's gold telephone. And I suppose one could make quite a mess by saying the wrong things into that."

Sharp's Sept. 4, 1964, letter to the editor praising the story included this note: "Having topflight reporter Keith Johnson with us that week was a pleasure for me and my staff. His personable manner and professional approach made a most pleasant association out of what otherwise could have been a difficult task."

Library expects to complete Cornell Daily Sun digitization by midsummer

To create the Cornell Daily Sun digital archive, each original newspaper is scanned, indexed and posted as a PDF document online at http://cdsun.library.cornell.edu. The Web site is produced and maintained by the Library's Digital Consulting and Production Services unit.

Alumni and other users can browse individual editions or search the entire Cornell Daily Sun archive for key words in the full text, headlines or bylines. For example, former reporters can find all the articles they wrote. Researchers, from historians to novelists, can easily document campus, local and world events and the responses they evoked among Cornellians of the period.

The library expects to have all of the Cornell Daily Sun's first 50 years digitized by July.

The irony, Johnson says now, is that at least part of the supposed Tonkin Gulf incident never happened, but President Lyndon Johnson was able to use it to persuade Congress to let him step up military operations against North Vietnam without declaring war.

Johnson went on to postings in Washington, Paris and London, including a brief tour in Saigon. He helped found Money magazine in 1972, started Fortune's annual Investors Guide special issue and helped launch the magazine's Information Technology section. A member of Fortune's board of editors, he retired in 1993 after more than 32 years at Time Inc.

Soon after he retired, Johnson began research for a book on the postwar history of Cornell. As a visiting scholar, he spent months in the university archives going through bound volumes of the Cornell Daily Sun.

"They're very dusty and you sneeze a lot. The other peril is microfiche -- your eyes fall out," Johnson commented.

Although faculty members Glenn Altschuler and Isaac Kramnick later took over the project, the experience kindled his interest in digitizing the paper's archive.

Recognizing how much easier his research would have been with access to online editions and full-text search capabilities, he provided the seed money to fund digitization of the Sun's first year of publication, 1880-81, as well as his sophomore-to-senior years at Cornell.

As other alumni and Cornell classes began funding selected issues, it soon became clear that finding donors to support the earlier years was going to be challenging. Last fall Johnson stepped forward with his major gift to the Library to support digitization of all the remaining volumes from the paper's first 50 years. In recognition of his generosity, the resource is now named the Keith R. Johnson '56 Cornell Daily Sun Archive.

Elizabeth Anderson is the development communications manager at Cornell University Library.

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