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.
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.