Sullivan tells his side: San Diego U-T CEO viewed him as ‘obstructionist’

For more, please read my Tuesday post on the U-T CEO’s desire for sports section to “support” local teams. Go Chargers!


Ever want to experience being at your own funeral? Just get fired as a columnist at a major paper.

It’s been a weird few days for Tim Sullivan ever since the San Diego Union-Tribune canned him Friday. Accolades have poured in throughout the country from the sportswriter fraternity. There’s also been a hefty dose of outrage from readers in San Diego.

“It feels like Tom Sawyer watching his own funeral,” Sullivan said.

Sullivan and his career, though, are far from dead. Since he has received several calls (including one from me) asking to tell his side of the story, he decided to do what a columnist does: Type it up.

Here’s Sullivan (with highlights in bold):

Short story long:

The links tell a little of the back story of my conflict with Union-Tribune CEO John Lynch (who I have yet to meet in person). The first is a column I wrote when he ran a local sports talk station. The second is a piece that appeared on the Voice of San Diego web site shortly after he became the new CEO of the Union-Tribune.

Clearly, the two of us were looking at stadium issues from different vantage points. My position has been that the paper’s primary responsibility is to protect the public from another bad deal, such as the one that resulted in San Diego agreeing to guarantee sellouts for the Chargers. That document was so badly drafted that even a sportswriter could see its flaws: no limit to liability, no cap on ticket prices. I have felt that the paper dropped the ball in failing to scrutinize that deal (years before my arrival) and should be exceedingly careful in endorsing another stadium deal. Mr. Lynch appears to be of a mind to make the stadium happen and bulldoze the opposition or even those who raise questions.

(Sherman: Note this passage from the Voice interview):

But Lynch said he wants the paper to be pro-business. The sports page to be pro-Chargers stadium. And reporters to become stars.

“It’s news information, but it’s also show biz,” Lynch said. “You get people to tune in and read your site or the paper when there’s an ‘Oh wow’ in the paper.”

He wants that sports page to be an advocate for a new football stadium “and call out those who don’t as obstructionists.”

“To my way of thinking,” Lynch said, “that’s a shovel-ready job for thousands.”

(Back to Tim) Shortly after the Voice of San Diego piece appeared, I initiated a meeting with U-T editor Jeff Light to provide him the background on what I had written about Lynch and to express my ethical concerns going forward. I told him then that I was not in a position to quit on principle but that I was worried that Lynch’s interview had inflicted serious damage to the paper’s credibility and that his leadership would result in compromised standards. (It has, and on several fronts.)

Later, as new management built a television station in the newsroom with the intent of launching 24/7 programming and using existing reporting staff to create content, I raised questions at staff meetings about how this could be done without compromising the printed product and about the hiring of a controversial radio host, who worked for Lynch’s former station and was fired for outrageous and potentially slanderous on-air comments about a woman prior to being hired at the U-T.

Based on some correspondence that has been forwarded to me, Lynch is telling readers I was not on board with the new initiatives.

“I have high regard for Tim as a reporter. However, we are no longer just a newspaper. We are are (sic) Multi-media platform business. Our content providers have to be willing to provide to, paper, to video, to tv, and blog as well as write.”

In a follow-up message to the same reader (, Lynch again implied that I was not willing to go along with the new mandate.

“We need all on our team rowing in the same direction.”

The implication is that I was unwilling to go along with the program. Quite the opposite is true. I maintain a Twitter account with more than 5,000 followers. I have made it a point to respond to virtually every reader e-mail I receive. When the paper had a weekly deal with a local TV station, I would drive the 25 miles from my home — often on a day off — for an appearance for which I was not paid. I have never refused or even resisted an assignment or a request from the paper; whether that entails speaking at pre-dawn breakfast meetings, appearing on local, regional and national radio, appearing at schools or representing the paper at the Del Mar Fair and the U-T’s aging expo. The suggestion that I was reluctant to embrace the new technology is preposterous. If I am not allowed to ask pointed questions regarding practicality without severe consequences — this while the paper employs a broadcaster as repeatedly offensive as is Scott Kaplan — I don’t even know how to respond.

I have stated on my Facebook page and in an April 26 e-mail to Light that I believe in the need for multiple platforms but have questions about the logistics of such an operation.

Here follows an excerpt from my April 26 e-mail to Jeff Light, which was written the same day I questioned him at the staff meeting:

“Be assured that I am in agreement with the basic principles of a multi-platform news operation, and recognize the need for the Union-Tribune to expand its reach through other media. If the printed paper is a dinosaur, as I fear it is, it must learn to adapt if it is to survive.

“My primary concerns relate to the inherent difficulty of serving multiple masters at the same time and serving all of them well in a finite number of hours. I wish I were more optimistic about how this new business model can work, and about our ability to bear the additional burdens being placed on a news operation that many staff members believe is already overtaxed, but I hope to be proven wrong.”

Light did not respond to this message. Nor was I given any formal (or even informal) notice that I was in danger. Last Wednesday, I received an e-mail message that I was to meet with Light at 3 p.m. Friday afternoon. By 3:02, I had been fired.

I have asked a friend who is also Lynch’s brother-in-law to inquire if Lynch is amenable to a face-to-face meeting. I’d like to get a specific rationale for my dismissal and, if possible, to disabuse him of any notion that I was not a team player prepared to do whatever was asked to help the paper.

Case in point: Last Monday was a holiday and my day off. I received a tip that Phil Mickelson had joined forces with one of the groups trying to buy the San Diego Padres. I cancelled a family trip, broke an exclusive story that was the most viewed story on our web site and received significant national play. This was not an isolated example of my approach to my job.

Though I can’t read Lynch’s mind, I am inclined to believe that my firing was the result of multiple factors: 1) My failure to endorse a new stadium without wondering whether that’s good public policy, a justifiable expense or a good deal; 2) My comparatively healthy salary; 3) My age and/or demographic. Our two other sports columnists are also white males: Nick Canepa, who is older but a local institution, and the youthful Kevin Acee, who was just promoted to that position. Acee has been identified as one of the paper’s “stars.”; 4) The erroneous issue of whether I was “on board.”

Since I continue to hold out a slight hope that this situation can be salvaged — there has been strong support for me within the newsroom and on message boards — I don’t want to appear too combative. I’d like to point out that the public rationale being used to fire me is a canard and that the other factors are more plausible. If my salary was an issue, however, the idea of taking a cut was never broached. Nor was I offered a reassignment.

I do not believe I am a martyr for truth — as Don Bauder has suggested on the San Diego Reader website — but I do think I have been mistreated. Where do I go from here? I am working on several tracks: 1) Seeking a meeting with Lynch; 2) Applying for several positions known to be open around the country; 3) Learning of other positions on an unsolicited basis. I have talked to one sports editor at length and anticipate speaking to another one tomorrow. I am hopeful that I can find a satisfactory situation very soon. I am mobile and motivated.


25 thoughts on “Sullivan tells his side: San Diego U-T CEO viewed him as ‘obstructionist’

  1. Don’t beg with these guys, Tim. I know it’s tough to get hammered like this, but the paper’s loss will be your gain. Find another place where you can hold your head high, keep your values true, and continue to write great stuff as you always have done in the past. There’s gotta be something better out there for a classy guy like you. Keep the faith, Bob

      • It disturbs me greatly that comments of Mr. Lynch were not about journalism ethics, but about an agenda to get some polital goal accomplishied in his interests!

        I see the same method in the current news reporting and opinion columns of the rag since Doug Manchester bought the UT and has since used it as a tool to promote his own agenda. It, sadly, has lost all respectability as an honest newspaper! There is no more honest journalism there, just editorial advertisiong geard toward Mr. Manchester” own personal agenda! What a sad outcome for those people like Mr. Sullivan, and other dedicated journalists who search for the truth and report facts in an unbiased way! I will be canelling my subscription to this ashaming rad when it runs out in July! And, I hope Tim will find a good job at another paper or another form of media where journalism is honest!

      • tim, you have always shown class an the respect for you is virtually unparalled. the foregoing can never be associated with the new bully pulpit manipulators (( lynch and manchester ) the very best to you in the future!

    • Funny how history echoes itself – This is similar to what initially happened at the LATimes/Tribune Co. when Sam Zell (who is like Doug Manchester on financial steroids) bought the Tribune Company. Zell put Randy Michaels in as CEO and he nearly destroyed the LA Times and Tribune Company. Not coincidentally, Michaels, like U-T CEO Randy Lewis, came from a radio background.

      Sullivan’s mistake is trying to reason with Lewis. Instead, he should ask to meet with Manchester and let him know that Lewis appears to be headed down the same hole as Michaels (who was eventually fired and exposed as a poor example of humanity while at TribCo). The problem is Lewis is faceless to the public, so its Lewis’ actions that are going to ruin Manchester’s reputation.

      Good luck to Sullivan, wherever he lands.

  2. Dear Mr. Sullivan:
    I have enjoyed your writing. Cream rises. So will your career.

    Best wishes,
    george shipp

  3. What a sad day for San Diego sports fan. Tim Sullivan was the only decent reporter at the U-T. Acee and Canepa are trash, yes men. Not what the public wants.

  4. Stay strong Tim! I have always enjoyed your writing for the very reason that you aren’t just a cheer leader, or a yes man. We SD sports fans want the truth, not a printed pep rally!

  5. Tim, I don’t know you and never met you but I admire your commitment to your principles. Those are some qualities of a person that cannot be bought and sold unlike some of your former colleagues at the U-GH. My advice, move on and don’t look back, real journos know the truth.

  6. Warning to all employees employed at the U-T. Mr Lynch will fire you next. He is a radio person.. Not print. Kaplan.. Cmon.. canl my subscription to the U-T.. Go N.C Times

  7. The fact that someone who professes to be an expert on “the industry” employs a hack like Kaplan but fires Sullivan says it all. Kaplan was able to bilk XX Sports Radio for years because there was no competition in the market. There were far better hosts like Chris Ello and others who could’ve done a much better morning show with BR. Tim, you are a talented journalist. We’ll follow you. As long as Kaplan continues to pollute our airwaves, I’ll be reading North County Times.

  8. Rest assured Tim there is a much better life after the UT. I was there for 22 years and found a true life after I left. The UT is a lesser paper without you, but that is what they want. The UT executives apparently believe they can force their beliefs on the masses. Little do they realize that with their tactics the circulation is tanking and so is any influence it may once have had. You will do fine. Enjoy your short vacation. You will be working shortly!

  9. Having worked under the Jeff Light umbrella at the OC Register, this does not surprise me in the least. Unfortunately, the UT has an editor who will not stick up for its employees and will do what it takes to cover his own butt and that of his little assistant editor groupies. Tim, you are too good of a journalist to let this stop you. I look forward to reading you again at your next stop.

  10. Tim, move on. Change comes to us all and it usually is a good thing in the long term. I enjoy the UT but will miss your columns. I’m disturbed that “news” in the UT is slanted towards opinion, but I suppose that I’ve been kidding my self all my life that news organizations don’t slant news…I guess its just the the degree of slant where news turns into propaganda.

  11. Mr. Sullivan,

    With your departure I can only confirm that my impression of the UT being turned into a platform for pushing business agendas forward instead of actually reporting on news is true. I used to be a Canepa fan but he has lost his way. Acee never really convinced me and I actually like him less as a columnist than as a beat writer. I don’t feel like I’m being fed a BS fluff story with an agenda when I read your articles.

    The UT officially became a rag as of 3:02 PM last Friday. I guess I need a new paper to read.

    I wish you the best wherever it is you end up.

  12. Everyone’s worst fears about Manchester and Lynch are being realized. So disappointing to see the way they’ve treated you, Tim. I really feel for all the hard working journalists still at the UT. If they’re willing to fire the region’s most respected columnist because they think he’s an obstructionist, no one is safe. The fact that Jeff Light isn’t willing to stick up for his staff, or journalistic integrity, is really disheartening.

  13. Looks like this was inevitable from the moment that Manchester & Lynch bought the U-T. Lynch is someone who would hold a grudge and I am sure that Lynch remembered what Tim Sullivan wrote in that column in 2006. Best of luck to you, Tim.

  14. Tim, from Billy7 of Cincinnati. Loved you when you were here. Facebook with Mark Purdy, cause I’m from his home town in Ohio. Old saying…. the cream always rises to the top. Principles keep you afloat. All My Best…Wishing Great Success.

  15. I got cut from the UT three years ago (IT, not editorial). It was painful at first because, like Tim, I gave it my all and was fully invested. After awhile I realized it was for the best. Since Aunt Helen (as we called her) passed away it just was not the same. You will be fine Tim. You deserve better.

  16. It’s a bummer that things ended this way but knowing your reputation and history you will be fine and I think better suited with another organization. It would be nice to speak to Mr. Lynch if you could only perhaps because it may give you a bit of closer but I would just move on and make the most of new opportunities that come your way. I wish you the best and will continue to follow you wherever you end up.

  17. Some good advice here about moving on. But the situation for other principled folks in the newsroom–not “troublemakers,” but people who insist on seriously thinking through the realities of this changing media marketplace and the consequences of the boss’s desires and demands–is disturbing. Critical thinking and asking serious questions are among journalists’ most important qualities. The message here is pretty clear: Ask a serious question, and it doesn’t matter what else you’ve done for us or our readership: You’re asking to be fired. That’s coercion, not management.

  18. I admire Tim for his mind and his principles. My whole stomach sunk when I read that bit about him hoping things could be righted and what a team player he could be, including the horrendous implication of a pay cut.

    That ship, the ship you don’t want to be on, that ship will not change its livery — that ship has sailed and you are so much better NOT ON IT. Stick by your principles. Nothing makes me sicker than corporates who inherently believe that everyone has a price and everyone will sell out and buckle. Walk away with your head held high Tim and tell ’em to stick it. The world is full of so many of “them” and so few of “you”.

  19. Journalism is dying before our eyes. It is not only sad. It is dangerous. It threatens the ability of our republic nation to remain free. For any executive of a media company to demand “boosterism” is obviously a joke, but, somehow, they’re getting away with it. From coast to coast, reporters and columnists are being cast aside in favor or “infotainment” and glorified “tweeters”.

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