Erik Lief ’85 is currently the Director of Communications at the American Council on Science and Health. With previous experience at various prestigious presses, Lief shared his perspective on the media industry and how Vassar prepared him for a career in communications.
The Miscellany News: How did your time at Vassar impact your life and career?
Erik Lief: Being at Vassar exposed me to thoughts and ideas that I’d never had before. When you expand your education, you see things in a whole different way. Vassar was a real revelation in that regard. The second thing was diversity. I met so many people that I’d never think would be my friends. The diversity at Vassar was fantastic; it opened up a world of possibilities for me because I began to think that I could go in any direction. I didn’t have those thoughts in the beginning of college, but I definitely had them in the middle of college. The other thing that sticks with me to today is that I have a lifetime of friendship from people that I met at Vassar. It’s remarkable. I’m still in touch with the school. I’m up [visiting Vassar] frequently. The people that I met then in 1981, ’82, are the people that I’m friends with today.
The Misc: What setbacks did you face at the onset of or throughout your career, and what did you learn from them?
Lief: When I finally settled on what I wanted to do, which was journalism and reporting, the idea was, how am I going to get into this and how am I going to do it in a meaningful way? I’m in the media capital of the world, but how am I really going to get a footing in there? And then I realized that what I had to do was try to set myself apart, try to break in and take chances. If you continue to try to play it safe, you may miss chances along the way. One moment came when I was referred to someone at CBS News, and he said, we have a job for you. We’re looking for someone to write the news, national news, but for the morning broadcast, CBS this morning. But in order to have the broadcast written for the morning, you have to be there all night long. I had to show up at 11 o’clock at night and work until the morning—the overnight shift. I’d never done anything like that, and I thought, who would want to subject themselves to that? But then I realized, well, this is my opportunity. It’s a major media outlet, and someone’s saying, here it is, take a chance, go for it. And I did, and that basically opened up every door for everything I’ve done, for the rest of my life in journalism. I’m glad I did it. It was a risk I had to take, even if it meant living on the other side of the clock for awhile.
The Misc: What do you think about the current media landscape? How has this changed throughout your career?
Lief: Media, in the last 25 years, since I started, has changed dramatically. Certainly the Internet has changed dozens of industries, and it certainly has upended the media landscape. What you have is immediacy and a sense that everything must be done right away. You used to have defined news cycles, but now everything is 24 hours a day, which places the burden on people producing the news, who then have to be on call. Constantly. What I learned from that is you have to add skills along the way. If you are going to survive in the business and thrive, print reporting required one set of changes, television reporting another, and you had to learn how to edit and write, shoot video if you needed to. You were not only competing against young people who were hungrier, but you had to add skills to make sure you [were] a valuable asset to your company. You have to love it. You have to be able to accept those challenges.
The Misc: What would you tell students looking to pursue journalism or any branch of communications?
Lief: I would say, more than ever, you need to be committed to this. If you have any ambivalence toward it, it’s going to undermine your ability to do your job well. If you love journalism, writing, reporting, just be committed to it, and go in full steam. Showing your determination and motivation for employers is extremely important. While I don’t think you should be discouraged, I think you should have your eyes open, more than ever. What I loved about reporting is it brought me to places I’d never otherwise go. I’m curious, I like to ask questions and find out what’s going on. The opportunities that journalism offers are incredibly eye-opening. They help change your perspective on the world. It’s not the most high-paid profession, so, more so, you need to know that this is what you want because it’s going to ask a lot from you. Make sure your commitment is there, and it’s rewarding.
The Misc: What is your favorite memory from your time at Vassar?
Lief: If you and I were talking 20 years ago I’d have a completely different answer. I would have pointed to a specific event I enjoyed, or a social event. I was working as a photographer for the Communications Department, and I was able to cover a lot of concerts. The Clash were there, and they were really big, and they had just come to the U.S. I got to cover Squeeze at the Chapel—we had a lot of concerts at the Chapel. I was given front row and a press pass, which I thought was an amazing opportunity. Today my answer is that the benefit of hindsight brought me to the conclusion that where I was at Vassar was the most important—not what I was doing or who I was doing it with, but why I was doing it. One moment came at the library. I was sitting there, late in my sophomore year. It may seem cliche, but the beauty inspires you; stained glass all around you, vaulted ceilings, panels of books everywhere. I realized how lucky I was to be at Vassar, to have the freedom of thought that I never knew existed. I always knew what the concept of education was, but it was a dawning moment, and I went, “My goodness, what a great opportunity, what a great place to be.”
The Misc: Any words of wisdom for current students?
Lief: In the world we’re living in right now—a very divisive climate, as you can tell from all the politics, and certainly yesterday’s Kavanaugh hearings … The most important [thing] students can do with and amongst each other is to listen—we are too quick to criticize … Provide that space for someone to speak so you can hear fully, and then react to that. Give them the opportunity to say what they have to say, and then before trying to find a way to pick it apart, look for common ground. Don’t start with disagreements because that’s what’s driving us apart, outside of college, as well as inside, where it’s making it harder for college students to learn from each other and interact. So if anything, that’s the thing that comes back to me. We have to start listening to each other and we have to try to find a common ground so we can find a place to build a dialogue.
The Misc: Anything you would like to add?
Lief: I would say take opportunities as they come. Before I started college, it was typical for people to stay at one job for 30 years. That’s certainly not the case in today’s world. I had the opportunity to work for lots of places; sometimes it was my choice to move on and sometimes it wasn’t. I worked at NBC Sports, CBS Sports, ESPN, CNBC, the Associated Press. I got to do many different things, and the opportunities I was presented with were eye-opening. I would say if you see something that excites you, you should go for it. Once you’ve absorbed a fair amount of experience, don’t be afraid to move on to the next thing. Always be good to your boss and loyal to your organization, but keep your eyes open about what is going to advance your career and move you forward. Sometimes I wish I had stayed longer at certain places, but overall I’m glad I moved around different organizations because it gave me a range of experiences I wouldn’t have had otherwise.