Front-row seat to history

Stephen Koff never imagined that he would excel at journalism. In fact, when he arrived at Northern Arizona University, his passion was for music—a jazz musician from Cincinnati, he would play the bass guitar at locales around Flagstaff. To become more familiar with visiting bands, he joined The Lumberjack, the university’s student newspaper, as an arts reporter.

Ray Newton, a journalism professor at the time, saw Koff’s writing potential and convinced him that reporting was his strong suite. Newton was right: for the past 16 years, Koff has worked as the Washington D.C. Bureau Chief for The Cleveland Plain-Dealer, one of the nation’s most prominent daily newspapers.

Koff returned to Northern Arizona University to receive the 2014 Robert R. Eunson Award, given to two journalists annually who are making a difference in their communities through their reporting. Eunson, an alum, worked as a war correspondent before becoming a leading manager at the Associated Press, which co-sponsors the award. The award is an acknowledgement of Koff’s work and skill.

Building a career

Through the teaching of Newton and other professors like David Bennett – “he was a very, very tough teacher, but that was what I needed,” he recollects – Koff began to build his career in journalism both through the curriculum and working for The Lumberjack.

“It was a nice way to be part of the campus community and be part of the university,” Koff says.  “It was awfully exciting to see your work come out and know that you played a part in creating this newspaper and the stories within it.”

The journalism industry has undergone major changes in the years since Koff spent late nights manually putting together editions of the student publication. Today, computers have replaced typewriters, and social media has made it possible for reporters to reach audiences like never before. Despite this transition, Koff says that the most valuable part of his education was learning the basics that don’t change.

“We were taught to not make mistakes and to be afraid to make mistakes: to double-check your work twice to make sure that it was accurate,” Koff explains. “It is terribly important to make sure you have a strong ethical compass in your work, and that was really impressed upon us at the university.” 

Up close and personal

Koff’s time at Northern Arizona University prepared him for the career he never expected. In working for two major newspapers over the past twenty years – The St. Petersburg Times and The Dealer – Koff has covered some of the most important stories of the past two decades. He was in Washington and New York on Sept. 11, 2001, and was on the front-lines covering the Challenger explosion in 1986. His investigative work has resulted in the exposure of crimes and scandals, and he today is honored with access to cover the White House.

“I can't imagine many jobs that would be this exciting,” Koff says. “It’s unpredictable: I woke up this morning not knowing what I was going to do today. I had some rough ideas and I just discovered a story that's quirky and unusual. Most reporters learn to never make plans for a Friday night.”

This flexibility has allowed Koff to become one of the most well-respected journalists working in Washington – no easy feat. The reward has been a front-line to history, whether covering the 2000 U.S. Presidential Election – “After we'd already begun going to press, everything changed,” Koff says – or reporting on President Barack Obama’s Inauguration.

The right guidance

Koff credits where he is today to his professors and instructors at Northern Arizona University who helped him find the confidence he needed to be a writer. He says students need to stay curious and be willing to learn and keep their minds open to possibilities that they never expected.

“Be as curious as you can be,” Koff says. “Learn about a lot of things because you have no idea what you're going to wind up covering: no idea whatsoever. I am the last guy who anybody ever expected to be a political journalist, that's for sure.”