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 (MALLenSanDiego@aol.com), 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.