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Known for exceptional columns, Sullivan’s opinions sealed his San Diego fate

Writing, Tim Sullivan had a helluva week.

It’s old news that Sullivan can bring it. A literate, graceful and thoughtful columnist, he’s also a dogged reporter who has been at it for a long time, first for the Cincinnati Enquirer and the last 10 years for the newspaper once known as the San Diego Union-Tribune, now the U-T San Diego.

His latest run of extraordinary work began with a column on a local neurosurgeon. The doctor was so concerned about the burgeoning concussion crisis that he talked his 260-pound son out of playing football. In these media-revolution days when news organizations believe hyper-local is the answer to creating new revenue streams, Sullivan brought a national story down to a grass-roots level.

Next, he broke news in a column telling of Phil Mickelson’s interest in becoming a part-owner of the San Diego Padres. As good as it was to report that news, Sullivan did better for the U-T San Diego by getting an interview with a man famously reluctant to talk to the press in anything but mass-interview situations. Best, the interview went beyond the usual pap. Mickelson said he’d be a real player making a significant financial investment in the deal.

Going 3-for-3 with every one a home run, Sullivan then gave his readers one of those inside-baseball columns that can cause eyes to glaze over when done by mediocre writers and reporters. But such is Sullivan’s skill that he engaged even the casual reader who cared nothing about the Padres’ long and fruitless search for a hitter who can anchor a lineup for years. He wrote about the Angels’ outfielder Mike Trout, a 20-year-old who’s hitting over .300 with power and “covers ground as if he were being chased by a cheetah.” The most fascinating piece of reporting in the column was that the Padres’ general manager passed over the chance to draft Trout – not once, twice – and told Sullivan how he’d missed on the phenom.

Those columns are the stuff that make newspapers and their websites worth reading. Sullivan’s pieces ran on Sunday, Monday, and Wednesday.

Friday, he was fired.

He was at work on the Mike Trout column when a window opened on his computer screen. At 3 p.m. Friday, he had an appointment with the paper’s editor, Jeff Light.

The note was ominous. Six years before, Sullivan had made an enemy. That man was now his newspaper’s president and CEO. He had criticized XX Sports Radio station owner John Lynch for “heavy-handed” editorials in favor of a new stadium for the San Diego Chargers. “The man has all the subtlety of a sledgehammer,” Sullivan wrote of Lynch, and then quoted a Lynch editorial threatening the city attorney: “If you attempt to be an obstructionist in a county or other deal with the Chargers, we will lead a campaign to recall you. That’s a promise and we will spend whatever it takes to remove you from office.”

Then, in November 2011, San Diego hotel magnate Doug Manchester bought the newspaper and installed Lynch as its top executive. The Voice of San Diego, a non-profit news organization, reported that Lynch wanted the U-T sports page “to be an advocate for a new football stadium” and quoted him saying the paper should “call out those who don’t as obstructionists.”

A journalistic product of the Watergate era – reporters as skeptics, as idealists – Sullivan didn’t like anything Lynch said. He went to Light with misgivings about their new boss. Sullivan says he wanted to provide Light “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.” Sullivan also says he “expressed concern that (Lynch’s) heavy-handed ways had not changed since my 2006 column and, as a consequence, my position on the stadium question might cost me my job – that Lynch might see me as an obstructionist.”

Sullivan had not been an obstructionist. He had been a reporter asking questions and forming opinions, which is what the best columnists at real newspapers do. “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 (taxpayers) 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 deals (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.”

At age 57, Sullivan has embraced, truly if lightly, the media revolution. He has built a social media presence on Twitter and Facebook. He does all the radio, TV, and promotional appearances that have become the pro bono duties of a metropolitan sports columnist. And yet, like many journalists, he has asked in staff meetings at some volume the questions that every thinking journalist has asked for the last five years: How can we be expected to do more with less? How can we do right by the printed paper which makes 95 percent of the money while being asked to produce added content for the website? In short, and not that he ever said such a thing but I, for one, have often asked: Have all newspaper executives lost their minds?

So, on that fateful Wednesday with a message from Light on his computer screen, Sullivan suspected trouble. “For two days,” he said by email, “I attempted to ascertain the subject of this meeting without success. Tracked Light down in the newsroom Thursday and he claimed he couldn’t talk, and that he would talk to me Friday. When I was admitted to his office, he was talking on his cell phone, pointed me to a chair at his conference table and closed the door. When he got off the phone and sat down, he blithely said something about how I had been right (in November), that John Lynch had gotten me. I don’t remember much after that — too shocked . . .My shock quickly morphed into anger. I am told I slammed his door pretty hard on the way out.”

Sullivan doesn’t know what’s next for him. He has asked an intermediary to arrange a face-to-face meeting with Lynch. He has spoken to newspaper sports editors in major markets. He calls himself “mobile and motivated.” A couple days after the firing, Sullivan dropped in a note on his Facebook page. “A sports editor prone to overstatement says I am the Albert Pujols of sportswriter free agents,” he wrote. And then, ever the columnist looking for the next bright analogy, he said, “Well, I am grumpy and having a bad year.”

Dave Kindred’s latest book, “Morning Miracle,” is an inside-the-newsroom account of two years in the life of The Washington Post. Now a contributing writer at Golf Digest, Kindred is a Red Smith Award winner and member of the National Sportscasters and Sportswriters Association Hall of Fame. He can be reached by email at inkstained1@aol.com. He can be followed on Twitter and Facebook.

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