A look at the mind set of newspaper columnists and journalists as security boxes their belongings

By Mick Gregory

After the spring break/Easter holiday retail promotions, newspapers have a long, low period of advertising drop off, followed closely by subscription and single-copy sales declines. That’s when the next big wave of head-count cuts usually hits. It’s as predictable as a 2-hour commute in So Cal. The newsrooms don’t see it coming any better than hogs at a Bakersfield slaughter house. I take that back, hogs do get the picture about five minutes before the drill.

UPDATE:
(CAN YOU IMAGINE? WRITERS COMING UP WITH THEIR OWN HEADLINES?)

Word out of the Los Angeles Daily Journal newsroom is that the legal paper lopped off its copy desk last night — the whole thing. I’ve heard it from a few sources, one of whom emails that deadlines will be pushed earlier in the day, writers are being asked to suggest their own headlines and line editors will back read each other’s edited copy. The editor staffing was already thin, with recent departures not replaced. Emails one staffer:

Honestly, how do you put out a paper without a copy desk? We’re all very shell-shocked. The lay-offs included a veteran copy-editor who had been at the paper for 15 years, and who was completly unaware she was on the chopping block. We’re all scrambling around, trying to figure out how we’re going to keep doing our jobs without copy editors. — Kevin Roderick of the LA Observer

TIP TO PUBLISHERS: TRY USING WEB-BASED CONTENT MANAGEMENT SOFTWARE AND HAVE COPY EDITORS IN PUNE, INDIA DO THE EDITING FOR 20 PERCENT OF THE EXPENSE. THOUGH, GIVE YOUR WRITERS A CHANCE. ALL THEY NEED IS ABOUT A WEEK OF PRACTICE.

Here are the latest cuts:
The Seattle Times –175 to 200.
The Dizzy Dean Singleton cuts in California — bottomless.

Here is some open grieving from what was once a real fluff position, sports columnist in Southern California. Free food in the press box, jokes about the sports stars, great seats for all the best games, somebody had to do it. Well, not any more.

I have a suggestion for your exit interview, say “Pull my finger!”
And blow one a burrito/beer fart that they will remember.


‘We’re Eliminating the Position of Sports Columnist’
It took me, oh, about three seconds to process the meaning of the call from the newsroom secretary.

“Steve wants to see you in Louise’s office.”

Steve would be Steve Lambert, editor of The Sun/Bulletin/Titanic. And Louise is Louise Kopitch, head of personnel for the same foundering entities.

These days, your editor wants to see you (in tandem with the HR boss) for one reason only. And it’s not to congratulate you on being named Employee of the Year.

It was about noon, and I was in the new, north San Bernardino offices of The Sun to do my weekly IE-oriented notes column. I was going to lead with several paragraphs on Don Markham, the mad genius of Inland Empire prep football who, at age 68, is attempting to put a maraschino cherry atop his “mad genius” credentials by starting up an intercollegiate sports program (and, more importantly, to him, a football team) at something called American Sports University (current enrollment, about 30). A school planned and created by a Korean mad-genius businessman who either is about to fill a niche in academe or lose a boatload of money.

As it turns out, American Sports University is located in downtown San Bernardino in the very same collection of buildings occupied until October of 2006 by The Sun. The same buildings I reported to for my first day of work, Aug. 16, 1976, and then spent the next three decades of my working life. Later, I found that meaningful.

When the phone rang, my colleague, Michelle Gardner, had been talking to me about Cal State San Bernardino basketball, the aspect of her beat that most interests her. As usual, she was highly animated and barely paused for breath as I took the call, said, “OK,” and hung up. Michelle resumed describing the permutations of the CCAA basketball tournament and what it meant for the Division II NCAA playoffs. She was just getting warmed up. I basically had to walk away from her to answer the summons. Michelle does love her beats, and I admire her for that.

I may have laughed aloud as I went down the stairs. Certainly, I smiled. It seemed so silly. “They come for me at a random time and a random day. A Thursday. At lunch. Huh.”

I walked down the hall, looking for the personnel department offices. All the doors were closed, so I had to glance through the glass to find one occupied. I noticed a guy sitting across the walkway, a guy whom I once had worked with on a daily basis, when he was in the plate room and I would run downstairs to build the agate page. Mark Quarles. I remember wondering if he knew what I was doing down there, Thursday afternoon, and whether he might actually call out to me. Or whether it’s politically dangerous to acknowledge a Dead Man Walking.

I pushed open the door to Kopitch’s office, was invited in, and there was Lambert, looking smaller and thinner than I recalled him. Not that I had seen him often the past year, between my doing so many L.A.-oriented columns and him doing whatever it was he does. Corporate stuff, meetings off site, whatever.

I said, brightly, “I’ve been trying to think of a scenario in which this meeting is a good thing.”

Lambert said something like, “It’s not a good thing.”

I sat on the other side of Kopitch’s desk. As did Lambert, but he was turned slightly toward me and was about six feet away. Maybe that’s the way you do these things? On the same side of the desk but a bit removed? I remember a managing editor, name of Mike Whitehead, telling me, 20-odd years ago, that you never fire someone in your own office because if they insist on talking/complaining you can’t get up and leave. It’s your own office, see? So you fire people somewhere else.

Anyway, Lambert had a bit of a preamble. Something we hate to do, forced on us by economic realities, sorry … “but we’re eliminating the position of sports columnist for the Inland group.” I remember that fairly clearly, and I recall thinking “hmm, they leave it to me to grasp that I am not just a columnist but “sports columnist for the Inland group,” a title I’d never heard, let alone used. There was a flicker of “what if I were really dim, or contentious, and made him say it more directly? Like, “you’re fired.”

Lambert may have said he was sorry another time or two. How often he said it doesn’t matter because I don’t believe he meant it in the least. He could have said it 20 times or not at all and it wouldn’t have mattered. The guy hasn’t liked me since, oh, 2004, and I bet whacking me was the easiest call for him, of the 11 Sun newsroom people he fired that day. Dump a big salary (by Singleton standards) and a guy you don’t like at the same time? Easy. Fun, actually.

I believe it is telling I was not offered an opportunity to remain at a lower rate of pay, nor offered a transfer to any other job in the paper (or any other in LANG), not even the ones usually associated with entry-level talent. Steve Lambert wanted me gone. What I did the previous 32 years? Didn’t matter to him.

I digress.

Louise then went through what, by now, ought to be a well-rehearsed series of remarks pertaining to putting people on the street. Here is a check for unused vacation (I was near the max, as I had been for years, and not by accident), you will receive six weeks of severance pay, you’re covered by insurance for three months, you’re entitled to file for unemployment, here is a packet of stuff and, yes, there are some openings in Palm Springs. For half what you’re making now, and 70 miles further into the desert, and I remember thinking, “this is farcical.”

She said something like, “You probably won’t remember much of this,” but I told them, no, I will, because the event was no surprise to me. Only the particular timing of it was.

I’ve been telling people since my first serious dust-up with Lambert that I would be fired if he stayed long enough. Most people I told that to would scoff. Some would argue. “They aren’t going to fire you. You’ve been here too long. You’re too well-known in the community.” Etc.

I disagreed. I knew how much money I was making. Not Los Angeles Times money, but serious money in MediaNews, and becoming more so by the minute. I knew they could hire two entry-level reporters for what I was being paid, and I knew that it was more than possible that would occur to someone – oh, say, Lambert – when some financial crisis hit.

And MediaNews is in severe crisis. The corporate credit rating of Singleton’s company, which brings new meaning to the words “highly leveraged,” has been reduced three times in a matter of weeks, and there were stories out about how he couldn’t meet his obligations to the bankers. And only the previous week I’d been told The Sun lost money in January. LOST money. Didn’t just “not make plan,” which is why Gannett dumped San Bernardino eight years ago, after a year in which The Sun turned a profit of “only” 8 percent. No, The Sun lost money. That never happens in newspapers. Well, it never used to.

I will concede the specific timing of the firing surprised me. There wasn’t a breath of talk about the Inland grouping getting hammered. Since none of the Singleton papers east of the 710 freeway has a union, no formal notice had to be given … and I also believe Singleton’s latest setbacks made for a very quick decision to slash costs. People, that is. Me.

I walked back upstairs. Before the day was over, a very good (and very senior) assistant city editor named Wes Hughes was fired (I think he was fired; I wouldn’t put it past Wes to have voluntarily quit, to save some kid’s job), a quite competent reporter, Gina Tenorio was fired. Also fired at The Sun: A sports desk guy, a sports part-timer and two photographers, including Brett Snow, whose wife had given birth to their first child the day before. (Nice timing, Steve.)

I didn’t talk to anyone about it right off. I just didn’t feel like going through the whole process. But as the day went on, the fact that Kopitch had given me three cardboard boxes should have been a tipoff. That, and the fact that I was saving some files out of the computer and packing up stuff …

This is a bit telling, too. About 4 p.m., after a staff meeting of the surviving members of the sports department (I think it’s 10 of them now, counting the last part-timer) … most of my fin de siecle colleagues came over to shake my hand … but none seemed surprised. Firings and layoffs are too much a part of the landscape now. And, too, some of them are so young that all they know me for is being the old guy who wrote columns.

I didn’t feel like acting out. I didn’t go home and get drunk. Actually, I watched “Survivor” (hmm, symbolism there) and “Lost” (getting thick in here, now).

I’ve gotten several very nice calls from people in the business, mostly those with whom I have worked, who have suggested The Sun erred by firing “the face of the newspaper.”

Maybe. That’s nice of them to say. But things are so weird out there, maybe columnists are luxuries, especially columnists who have been writing a lot of L.A.-oriented pieces. Sure, my columns were getting used throughout the LANG group, but how was that helping San Bernardino/Ontario with its local-local mission?

The roster of gone-and-not-replaced LANG daily sports columnists is getting quite impressive. It includes, in chronological order, Jim Gazzolo (Ontario), Keven Chavez (San Gabriel), Kevin Modesti (promoted by LADN, not replaced), Mike Waldner (Torrance) and, now, me. (The last three all disappeared from regular column writing in the last eight months, after a collective century or so of hacking.) Leaving Steve Dilbeck (LADN), Doug Krikorian (Long Beach) and Bob Keisser (Long Beach), who does more than a little beat reporting, as the only general sports columnists in all of LANG.

Am I bitter? Not really. I could see this coming. I had thought about it many, many times. I didn’t have a serious backup plan in place, but that’s my own fault.

I had been hoping to survive another couple of years, till my youngest child got through four years of college, but it didn’t happen.

I must concede, too, I had reached a point where I routinely was embarrassed by the product I worked for, and if you find yourself feeling that way, maybe it’s time to go. I had been there when The Sun was a good little paper, and it was hard for me to watch it slide into nothingness.

Suburban newspapers across the country have been ravaged in recent years, and San Bernardino certainly is one of them. We had a quality, complete section from about the mid-70s until 2004, or so, when the shotgun marriage with the Inland Valley Daily Bulletin (Ontario) took place and standards began tumbling.

In the 1980s and 1990s we traveled with the Dodgers and Angels, Rams and Raiders, USC and UCLA. We had a staffer at Wimbledon for 11 consecutive years. I did the Olympics and four World Cups. Gregg Patton did several Olympics and Steve Dilbeck was an NBA Finals regular. Mike Davis did Final Fours. There was a day in 1988, I believe it was, when we had four staff-generated datelines from outside the U.S. – two of them Seoul, one of them Toronto, and I believe the fourth might have been Dilbeck in Europe for a Rams exhibition game. We were a serious player in the APSE awards/judging during that period. A concept that, now, seems impossible to imagine.

As sports editor, from 1980 till 2003, I got to work with a great group of people, energetic and ambitious, and the section got better and better until at least the middle 1990s, and even then a new set of talented, rising people came in and we had another spurt of quality. We weren’t the big city, but we covered things as if we were, and we were a great place to start or to take that next step forward.

Some of the people I had the pleasure to manage include (alphabetically), Suzie Ahn, Louis Amestoy, Claude Anderson, Andy Baggarly, Chris Bayee, Joel Boyd, Albert Bui, Ian Cahir, Katie Castator, Mike Davis, Steve Dilbeck, Dan Evans, Bob Flynn, Michelle Gardner, Brian Goff, Dan Hawkins, Chuck Hickey, Gil Hulse, Nick Leyva, John Murphy, David Leon Moore, Brian Neale, Larry Nista, Doug Padilla, Gregg Patton, Mark Reinhiller, Leah Reiter, Cindy Robinson, Nate Ryan, Jim Schulte, Mirjam Swanson, Mike Terry, Pam Tso, Vic West, Chris Wiley. I’m probably missing someone obvious. (Forgive me up front.) Most of those people remain in journalism. (At last check.) A few have died.

And then there were several part-timers who made lasting impressions and did a lot of heavy lifting. They include Luis Bueno, David Bristow, James Curran, Matt Drouillard, Adam Harper, Jim Inghram, Nick Johnson, Jim Long, Dennis Pope, Lisa Renfro, Damian Secore, Danny Summers, Graham Watson, Lisa Wrobel. Several of them still are in the business, too.

We worked hard and long, and we had pride in our product and standards we attempted to meet or exceed. And, oh, yes, we had fun. The kind of fun peculiar to newspaper sports departments, where people labor long into the night, make a frantic rush to deadline about 11 p.m. … then reassemble at a tavern or someone’s house and recap what we just did and complain about this, that or the other and try to wind down from the adrenaline rush we all just experienced.

I enjoyed what I did about 95 percent of the time. It was my own choice to work crazy hours and channel almost all my energy into my work. Yes, it damaged my family life, and I regret that … but newspapers do that to people. You HAVE to make a big effort in the next eight hours to get this section out … and then it happens again the next day, and the next … and then you look up one day and you’re eligible for AARP membership and wondering where all the time went.

In subsequent posts I may look at my failed relationship with Steve Lambert, and the culpability of Sun/LANG management in the collapse of the newspaper … and I definitely will get back to sports topics. Such as the Lakers screwing around vs. Sacramento (again) and this time losing.

I also will look at the place of the Inland Empire in the sports world. One of the nation’s top-20 markets (by population), and the only one lacking a major-league sports franchise.

But now I will be looking at it as an outsider. It’s going to seem odd for a time. Maybe a long time.

This entry was posted on Monday, March 10th, 2008 at 2:36 pm and is filed under The Sun. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

68 Responses to “‘We’re Eliminating the Position of Sports Columnist’”
Bill N. Says:
March 11th, 2008 at 10:39 am
Think of it this way Paul … you don’t have to be there while Rome burns (any more).

You have plenty to proud of, and don’t worry about those fools. There’s plenty of ways for you to stay relevant in this region … and a lot of people will always look to you as a source of relevance in local sports.

Danny (Jack) Summers Says:
March 11th, 2008 at 10:46 am
Paul, I would like to hear from you. I think of you often. I hope you have gotten my Christmas cards and phone messages. You have meant a lot to my life. Thanks, Jack at tellsummers@aol.com.

David Guerreva Says:
March 11th, 2008 at 11:13 am
Thank you for sharing. Good luck to you, you will be missed.

Still it is sad to see all of it end this way, this is the middle of the end for a lot of good paper and sadly, things are going to get worse.

March 14th, 2008 at 4:02 pm
I walked away from my mid-level editing job after many years because I could smell the blood in the water. first I’d have to train a bunch of newbies how to do what I do. then I’d watch as the experienced folks fled and the deadwood cowered in fear. Then I’d have to cut people and eventually someone at corporate would look at my paycheck and say “Hey, that’s three times what we pay entry-level types in at the Buttfart Bugle,” and I’d get the call. In return I’d get to work my ass off for another year or so with a skeleton crew for a company that no longer cares and has dropped in value (stock and book) by some 75 percent in one year and wait for a puny severance check. So I fired them first and said “This is your mess. You clean it up.” In return I get to watch their absolutely crappy news product come out each day looking worse and worse by the minute while I gain experience in a new career. The web site and the paper have begun to convey all the community stature a Penny Saver and the buzz word is “we’ll do it with interns and outsourcing”. The sad part is not everyone could afford get out in time. Take a tip. Run while there are still a few lifeboats available.

Mike Klocke Says:
March 14th, 2008 at 4:09 pm
Reading this was like a shot to the gut. I did four Olympics and probably eight Supers Bowls with Paul. I did California League games with him. I looked up to him as a valued colleague. I modeled a lot of the things I tried to do as a writer and an editor after you, Paul. I truly hope everything turns out well for you and your family. — Mike

Bob Ritter Says:
March 14th, 2008 at 8:23 pm
Paul: We didn’t always see issues the same way, but I have never lost my respect for your work. You remain a fine journalist, one of intellect, commitment to community and dedication to those who worked for and with you. It’s hard to believe that your many years at The Sun ended this way. Newspapers are dying a self-inflicted death as companies such as Media News not-so-slowly drain the business of talent and character. My best to you. Let me know if I can ever be of assistance.

Paul:
Considering the same thing happened to me in Tallahasseee, I can sympathize. And I now know that I’m much better off not working for an egotistical editor who is more concerned about protecting his bonus than producing a good newspaper. I was fortunate because it took me just a few weeks to nail down another job, albeit in another state. Other than still having a house to sell, I’ve had little trouble moving on. So hang in there.

Joe Says:
March 14th, 2008 at 11:03 pm
Not that it is any comfort to you but I am a sportswriter for a very large metro paper in a top 5 market and it is the same here. Cut backs, downsizing, layoffs, misery.

The good news is, of my friends and colleagues who had left the newspaper business voluntarily or otherwise, a year later no one has any regrets. Everyone has moved on; everyone has found something new and different and fulfilling.

Rob Says:
March 15th, 2008 at 12:18 pm
I’m an outsider to this but I almost wasn’t some 15 years ago. I had an offer to cover the Los Angeles Raiders for Ontario back in the early 90s that I turned down. I took another job where I still work today. I can only wonder where I’d be or what situation I would be in had I taken that position. I’ve been in newspaper 20 years, and it is clearly dying. And like you, Paul, I’m sometimes embarrassed by the product that is produced now. It’s almost as if no one cares and, or, no one is reading either.

I’m sorry to read your story. I’m sorry to see our business die like this. Don’t be surprised if it turns out to be the best thing for you. Of the many colleagues I have watched leave newspaper, none of them have ever told me they regret it. Every one of them has gone on to find something more rewarding and less stressful. I’m sure you will too.

Dave Edwards Says:
March 15th, 2008 at 1:00 pm
PaulO, I am a former San Bernardino resident having resided there from 1969 to 1997. I read your column religiously from 76 till leaving in June 1997. If I still lived there, the first thing I would do is cancel my subscription. The have really shot themselves in the foot as some companies will do. Why don’t you move to Arizona and start over here in the Phoenix area. Good luck to you and your family, somehow you will be ok.

Pamela Fitzsimmons Says:
March 15th, 2008 at 6:59 pm
Paul: I was never much of a sports fan but when I worked at The Sun I always read you because of your style and your ability to link sports to the larger world. And you did it all on deadline. Weren’t there days when you would produce a column plus two stories? Anyway, I found myself in your very situation a couple of months ago when I was laid off as night city editor at The Spokesman-Review. I wasn’t even sad, because newspapers have lost their nerve. They’re running scared, and the readers smell the fear. It will stay that way in the short term. In the long-term, real reporters (not cheap “citizen-generated content”) are going to be needed more than ever to convey information and to entertain with words. Meanwhile, isn’t it interesting how often the big dogs, i.e. the Steve Lamberts, decline to take one for the team.

lyle spencer Says:
March 16th, 2008 at 1:09 pm
Paul — I beat you to the punch by a few years, and I know what you’re going through. I appreciate how beautifully you articulated your feelings about this; I was a mess for a while, trying to make sense out of something that was completely senseless. That’s just the way it is in the newspaper game now. The world we grew up in is long gone, and it is being replaced by something difficult to understand. But I admire your efforts.

Your exact story is being played out dozens of times every day across what’s left of America’s newsrooms.
It started before the internet.
It started when newspapers (I mean their stockholders) decided bean counters knew how to run them better than journalists.
I wonder if it will take some national crisis that happens (because all the former watchdogs are in the unemployment line or camped out in front of Britney Spears’ house) to snap us out of it.

Meanwhile, here’s a thought:
Flip your 401K company stock into something else, open a margin account with an online broker and short your former company’s stock.
If it goes to $0, you’ll make 100% returns.
And get the last laugh.

steve cooper Says:
March 17th, 2008 at 6:42 am
Paul: Voice from the distant past — those far off 1980s. The wheels are falling off the journalism handcart all over the place, and it’s a shame.

I recall a former editor-in-chief at The Sun who left for a job at one of the Denver papers. This is in the early 1980s. Bob something. Can’t recall the guy’s last name (Gimme a break — I can hardly remember mine half the time). Anyway, he later came back through SB for some reason and we had a drink together. He made one prophetic statement that has been with me all these years: “The industry can’t survive if it’s in the hands of publically owned media corporations that are ruled by stock prices. They’ll never understand what we really do. They’ll never appreciate the intrinsic value of a well-told story.”

It’s more than that, certainly. It’s the rise of the Internet, the dumbing down of our readership, the always-increasing complexity of things. But Bob was largely right. It’s also the whole corporate deal. That’s a huge piece.

Paul McLeod Says:
March 17th, 2008 at 8:52 am
Dude – I went surfing for six months after “buying out” of the L.A. Times under similar conditions in 2004 – something about saltwater up your nose cleanses the soul following a long journalistic career that ends with HR on the other end of the line. One day you’re a byline – the next, as you painfully point out, you’re on the outside looking in. But, hey – we made it a long way from our days as bright-eyed, long-haired bell bottom wanna-bes at Long Beach State, didn’t we?

Paul — You left off one of the accomplishments of yours at The Sun: Shortest career as USA TODAY sports writer/editor! You are right to show off about the prime rib days at The Sun. Back in the 80s it was a truly fine newspaper with great people: editors and writers. The days of Wayne Sargeant and Marie Saulsbury are good memories of the glory days of what newspapers were. It’s sad that the newspaper had to fall so long and slow to where it is now.
Best to you and all other news folks who face and have faced similar fates.
Stan Russell
former Sun editor/writer

nickj Says:
March 22nd, 2008 at 2:15 pm
The Sun was once a cool paper
It didn’t look this this
And with the latest caper
Now it smells like piss.

With no offense to current staff
The mighty blow was made
The last man has the final laugh
The Sun is now in shade

It’s been several weeks since the “bad thing” happened, & I will tell you, I miss reading both your column and your blog. None of the other columnists I read with such intelligence, and several who have remained (esp. those not covering sports) lack that soooo much, I wonder if why the paper lives to thrive on those who “lack some gray cells”. I did not always agree with you, but I felt you have the ability to write about sports AND other topics. One example was columns you wrote about road trips on your way to the Super Bowl and other sporting events.

Was filing some paperwork & found two of your columns that were excellent. Your interview w/Vin Scully and writing about Dodger Wes Parker.

If anything “good” comes out of this, it would be maybe the door to open you to bigger opportunities. You deserve a bigger audience BEYOND the Inland Empire. Believe me, there are those if they read your work, they could see you are worth hiring.

I wish you good luck! Please tell us when that opportunity happens.

cindy robinson Says:
March 31st, 2008 at 8:10 am
NickJ — what a great idea having a reunion. Let me know where and when and I’ll be there. As everyone before me wrote — this was a shock and a loss as well as very telling what is wrong with newspapers and why they are failing.

To the guy who always believed in my investigations and gave me the encouragement to ask the hard questions no matter how many times the subject would then end the interview (remember Bobby Bonds interview?) thank you.

Thanks to all those times you believed in me despite my horrid spelling skills. Despite our friendship hitting a rocky slope, true friends always do find a way back to each other.
Love you
Cindy

Carolyn Schatz Says:
April 1st, 2008 at 9:25 am
Paul, Though we all could see the writing on the wall, I was stunned to hear you were one of the ones to be let go. I still tell everyone you’re one of the best writers ever, with absolute wisdom and intelligence — and verve!
I never was into reading the sports pages till I started reading your columns. And I learned so much more than sports from them!
I remember walking by your desk the day I left — I didn’t want to be one of the last rats on a sinking ship — and you said newspapers were the only thing you knew. Well, I never thought it would come to this. But you will go on — the power of the pen!
You are truly a remarkable, gifted writer whose passion and commitment will live on. I salute you!

Terry Greenberg Says:
April 3rd, 2008 at 4:43 pm
Paul:

Sorry to hear how things went down … caught this off Romenesko. Hope things work out.

Terry Greenberg
Editor

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