Okay, so first of all, I believe we should be clear of all legal hurdles here. I DID have to change a few things, so I thank you for your patience in waiting for the rest of the story.
Several people have pointed me to the numerous blogs that have taken this up as discussion. To that I thank you sincerely for your interest in my story, in Dale Tallon and in the Blackhawks. Many respondents have been critical of several aspects of my presentation — my motivations, my methods, my facts. That’s fine. I would expect that many people would find fault in my actions or performance. I’m not blameless here. To answer those questions:
*I stand by my facts both in the story I initially reported in the summer of 2009, and I stand by those I am presenting here. There were a few details which were not entirely correct, but they had more than kernel of truth to them. I will admit below to the things that were incorrect at the time I reported them, and why they were incorrect. In total, however, I have never been more proud of a story than this one.
*My methods are and were clean. Anyone who knows the way I did my job knows that I was 100% ethical, completely dedicated to getting the story right, and if I had any questions or doubts about the conflicts a story might present I always erred on the side of caution with management, but pushed very hard to make sure the reported story told the truth, or I wouldn’t tell it at all.
*My motivations then were to tell the story honestly. My motivation now is two-fold: therapeutic (to help me get past this), and commercial (this story is the starting point of a much larger piece, what I hope will be a book, about how one goes about making huge career decisions while his professional and personal life is crumbling around him). Judging by my initial feedback, I have something substantial, content-wise, and I’m looking for a publisher.
This piece of the story probably won’t satisfy fans looking for answers of what went on internally with the Blackhawks as to how and why they fired Dale Tallon, their former GM. I do care about that point, and there’s a big part of that story that has never been entirely told. I’ll share what I know, eventually. But that part of that story is unrelated to the one I’m attempting to share here, which shines a pretty interesting light on the (dying) broadcast television news industry.
So all that said, I look forward to all of your comments, critical as well as supportive. I will publish all that are clean and that don’t take personal shots at anyone else. Please feel free to spread this story to anyone you might feel would be interested in reading about it.
We resume with the last full paragraph from part 1:
By this time it’s well after the workday has ended, ten-fifteen or so, which means I’m attempting to reach people who are friendly professional contacts, but probably not actual friends, at home or on their cell phones or by text. That’s always a little bit of a dicey proposition. Most of these people are not responding. I try different approaches as I leave messages – with some I’m polite and straightforward, with others more aggressive – while still not revealing what story I’m working on. Finally, I try a playful tack with a person who might not be on the inside of this decision, but would be close enough to know it happened. “So what are you guys going to do with the new office space?” I text. The response I get is rapid and terse, “Call me” is all it says.
From this source, I get a pretty solid story. He doesn’t know the details because he wasn’t in on any of the discussions, but he knows there was a meeting of all the front office people. He saw the general manager leave, and leave angrily, about an hour before everybody else. He’s been told to clear his schedule for the afternoon, he presumes for a press conference, but to tell no one that he is emptying his schedule. I take all of this information back to the source who had said he would be willing to confirm, and he does, telling me that the Blackhawks had indeed fired Tallon, who cleaned out his office, and he tells me that the team is going to announce that Stan Bowman will be the next general manager. The contact then outlines the way all the promotions will work so the team can fill out its front office.
(As it turned out, some of what my source told me in this would later turn out to be a little premature and/or not quite correct. The team, in effect, did NOT fire Tallon as the GM. Once they realized they still had to honor his contract and that there would be some negative public relations associated with firing him, they assigned him a different title to allow him to stay in the organization. Though that title would be completely ceremonial, and while he would remain with the team on paper, Tallon would never go on to contribute to the team from his new role. But as reporting goes, to the extent that one would call those errors, that’s really more about semantics than it is factually erroneous. Second, in what would become a bit of a sticking point for me, and what my sources did not know, was that Bowman, the man who would eventually become the new GM, had not yet agreed to take on the new position. The team had offered him the job, but at the time I was going to break the story, he had not yet accepted, and many members of the Hawks’ front office thought it appeared to be a close call. Still, most of the story, and all of the breaking news points, were completely correct. At its most base level, the team had removed Tallon from his title as the general manager).
Nonetheless, at this point, I believed we had enough to go with. I checked my watch – 11:10pm — too late for the nighttime news, but in time for the show that would run at midnight and through the overnight hours, as well as online. After relaying everything to the show producer and to the acting executive producer, we broke the story on our website and via a breaking news crawl running at the bottom of our screen on television. During the midnight show, I was on live with the anchor, Kip Lewis, via phone announcing to the world that this reborn team had just fired the man who had orchestrated its revival. By 12:20, at the end of the show, we were all on the phone again doing the post-mortem on the show, agreeing that this was a terrific journalistic moment for our network and a big win for our station. Maybe it was as clean and big a story as the network had broken to date. Before we hung up, our acting executive producer asked one question – would I blog about the story for our website before I went to bed? I said that I would. I finished the blog and went to sleep just after 2 in the morning.
My blackberry first buzzed about 4 hours later. One of the radio stations in town wanted me to join them on the air. I told them I’d be happy to, but I needed a cup of coffee and, per network protocol, I had to check in with our media relations director first. While I waited for his return, I checked on how the story advanced from when I went to bed. All of Chicago’s morning news shows and websites, and most national sports websites, were reporting, “According to Comcast Sportsnet Chicago, the Blackhawks have fired their General Manager.” I was mentioned in many of the stories by name. My wife and I high-fived each other because in that instant, we both recognized that this was the story that should firmly cement my authority on the beat and should make me indispensible to my network. I certainly hadn’t set out on this story with that goal in mind. This story had kind of found me, but it was going to be the one that should finally grant me leverage for my contract talks, which I hoped would begin in 3-4 months.
And this was a significant development for us. As a family, we had been struggling for some time. Even though I had been the main anchor in my previous job in Buffalo, I had accepted a reporter position in Chicago which paid less in real dollars in order to have the chance to work in my hometown, and the chance to work in a large market. I had absolutely no problems with that contract, at least in part because I received promises from the management people who had hired me: assuming I performed well in my first contract with them, they would make up the difference to me in my second contract. I was satisfied.
But we had several personal hardships during that first contract, including my older daughter having to endure some medical issues that were only partially covered by our insurance. Because those medical issues were complicated, and because my daughter needed some assistance, my wife was unable to go back to work, and we had accepted the position in Chicago based on a budget with her having some part-time income. We adjusted, we made some sacrifices, and we got my daughter past all the medical problems. It all turned out fine, but we were counting on the promised salary increase in contract number two.
But the networked reneged on those promises because that increase never came. To be fair, the network did fulfill some provisions of my contract; for example, the managers had to let me know in writing that they intended to renew me within 90 days of the contract’s expiration. I received that notification, so I didn’t have to worry that an offer was forthcoming. But my contract date came and went, and none of the managers communicated an offer to me or to my agent at the time. I ended up working three months past my contract, and thus without any protection, before I received an offer. When I did receive an offer it was only for a cost-of-living raise, not what had been promised three years prior. Looking back through the prism of the deep recession that was only beginning to arrive, I probably should have been grateful. But given what we had gone through as a family, that was tough news to hear. That said, I accepted that second contract, and set about trying to make myself as indispensible and valuable to the network as possible so that we would do better in the third contract. My family was on the right track, and now we had this triumph to present when we actually talked with the network about a contract extension.
But closing in on 3 hours since the radio stations had started calling, our network’s media relations director still hadn’t returned my call to give me the permission to go on the radio stations. That seemed to fly in the face of what most networks do when one of their people breaks a big story. It should have been my first hint that things were starting to go haywire.
After both Chicago sports radio stations and one national show had called me again, I tried the media relations director again and this time I got through. “Josh,” he told me. “Just hang on. We’re working through a few issues about the story.”
I said, “What kind of issues? I’ve got this story right, don’t I? Are the Blackhawks denying it?”
“No, they aren’t denying it” he said. “But there are some things that they aren’t happy about.”
At this point, I should disclose that our network was owned in percentages by the teams whose games we broadcast – the Blackhawks, the NBA’s Chicago Bulls, and Chicago’s two baseball teams, the Cubs and the White Sox. By definition, there was always the potential for some conflict between a journalistic enterprise, like ours, that reports on its owners as part of its regular practice. The complexities of this conflict are enough to be the subject of an entire book, or at the very least, the subject of a course in sports journalism and sports business ethics. But in our newsroom, as a rule, we were encouraged by our managers to go get information and get it right, because it was important to break stories and our own teams would expect it of us. The only rules to that end were that we were to make sure we had at least two solid sources, like all good journalists, and to not to take unfair or unreasonable verbal or written shots at anyone associated with any of our teams without sufficient evidence to support it. I felt pretty confident that given what I had reported verbally, and given what I had written, that I had operated within those parameters.
With my reporting skills, I would learn much later about the course of events that was still in the process of playing out at our studios. Going back to the previous night, as I was gathering the evidence and information about the story we were breaking, I had been in touch with our show producer and my good friend John Schippman, who as the most veteran producer in the building was acting as executive producer, meaning he oversaw all the information coming into the newsroom. John also organized the way we would present it – what information we would use and what distribution platforms, including television and website, would contain that information. John was and is an extremely talented producer, but at that time he was not officially considered management.
None of our actual managers were present as I was breaking the story. Charlie Schumacher, who was 9 months into his first stint as a news director at any station anywhere, was home for the night. Our Executive Producer, Lissa Christman, was on vacation. Our Assistant News Director, Kevin Cross, who would normally be in the office at that time of night, was absent for some reason (I don’t recall the specifics, but I do recall that it was legitimate). I assumed, wrongly on my part and probably unfairly on my part, that while I was news-gathering to break the story, someone in the newsroom had been in contact with someone from management. That said, producers usually had clearance to clear stories, and I was very consistent about making sure that all my written stories were first previewed by someone in authority.
Additionally, the blog I had written was also supposed to be vetted by someone in management. The process was that I would submit my article to one of our webmasters. The webmaster was then supposed to turn the article over to our media relations director. The webmaster on duty that night was a very sweet 22-year-old woman named Katie, who had practically been my personal assistant through the Blackhawks’ playoff run because of how frequently I had been updating the blog. In the course of that two or three month stretch of time, she maybe had to alter 3 or 4 minor items, like typos, over what must have been 30 blogs. Katie stayed up late that night, waiting for me to finish writing. When I sent her the blog, it was past 2 in the morning. Not wanting to wake anyone up at that hour, but also wanting to make sure the blog was on the website as promptly as possible, she posted the blog immediately, without first having it proofed by management.
So at 6:30 in the morning, our General Sales Manager, Phil Bedella, a man with a great head for business but a frigid heart for all things artistic, journalistic and humanistic, found the blog on the internet, and for some reason there was something in it that he found objectionable. Bedella had several options available to him at that point. He could have let it be and waited until he arrived at the studios to discuss his objections with our news people. He could have called one of our webmasters and asked to have the blog taken down until we could discuss his objections. He could have called me personally and asked me to rewrite it or edit out what he found objectionable. But Phil Bedella was the man who controlled our network’s budgets. And with my contract six months away, what Phil Bedella did was to send the blog directly to an executive at the Blackhawks with a note that essentially said, “We just reported something on our website that you won’t like”. That said, the blog stayed on our network’s website for another three hours or so before it was pulled. The fact that it was pulled became a conversation topic in the blogosphere by people who had witnessed it (and some who had saved and reposted it) before it was pulled.
I’m still not sure what the team found objectionable in the blog, and neither did most of the people who commented about it after it was pulled. After thousands of readings, I still consider the blog to be centrist and balanced. At one point, some weeks later, one of the Blackhawks’ executives told me that he felt that in the blog I took a pretty good shot at an individual in the team’s front office. Yet while I was critical of the ham-handed way in which the team handled the situation, and while I disagreed with the move on its face, I also wrote that the logic behind their decision was sound and understandable. And to the point that I had taken any individuals to task, I had not named any names. In fact, you would have had to know very intimate details of the situation – the way only a team insider could — to know that I was taking a certain individual to task.
Whatever happened in the meetings at the studios between my managers and the team, whatever was discussed over the phone and at what volume over the next several hours, all I know is that in the end I was not allowed to go on the radio to continue the story. None of my managers, nor anyone on the business side of my network, had the courage to tell me this to my face. They left that task to our assignment editors – the blue collar guys who handle distributing the assignments to the reporting staff for the day. So that editor, my good friend Joe Collins, told me that not only could I not be on the radio, but my assignment was that I would have to cover the Blackhawks’ press conference introducing the new general manager.
Of course, I went ballistic. By management’s logic, I had caused enough problems so that I couldn’t go on radio stations to talk about winning the story, how it had developed, how I got the break, or to promote my station or myself, but I was still okay to cover the next step of the story. And given that I’d been told the Blackhawks were upset, I was concerned that when I went to the press conference, I would be walking into an ambush. I insisted on talking to Charlie Schumacher, my news director, before I went out to my assignment.
Our discussion was animated, and, after spending the morning being chewed out by his boss, our General Manager, Jim Corno, Charlie was clearly and understandably agitated. In retrospect, the discussion was pretty interesting, and would also make a great case for a journalism ethics class. Charlie started out advancing the point he had been hearing all morning – from the business perspective. The position was essentially that in breaking a story about one of our business partners, and writing about it critically (though honestly and fairly), I had abused my access to the team and violated aspects of the partnership between the team and the network. What was interesting was that as I argued the journalist’s perspective, illustrating point by point how I had only used access to provide perspective, and that even where I was critical I had refrained from taking unfair shots or writing unsubstantiated rumors, Charlie listened to his newsman instincts and agreed with me on a large majority of those points.
The part where we disagreed most was about whose responsibility it was to have the story vetted. I told him that I had followed all the proper procedures that we had in place. I’d double-sourced the story. I’d cleared it with the managers on duty. And I’d sent my blog to the webmaster, who was supposed to vet before posting. We agreed to disagree on this point, as Charlie indicated I should have been more cautious. And we agreed to agree that we should put better structures in place in the future for these kinds of breaking stories which involved our business partners. I was far from completely mollified about the way things had gone down, but I felt okay enough about my newsroom and proud enough about the story to go to the press conference, though I had plenty of trepidation about how members of the team’s front office would react when I showed up.
Much to my surprise and relief, the Blackhawks’ front office personnel were all terrific. Every single one said hello, shook my hand and treated me with the same respect and professionalism that they had for the previous four years in which I’d covered the team. I couldn’t have told you then which of them had been upset by the blog or by the reporting, or which ones knew I had even written a blog or broken the story. The actions of the involved personnel, from the team and the network, indicate a lot about their characters as well.
After the press conference, part of my job was to interview both Bowman, the team’s new General Manager and the Team President, John McDonough. After I interviewed McDonough on camera and for the record, I asked him if we could have a private moment to chat. He said sure, and asked my photographer if he would leave us for a few minutes. McDonough and I had a very pleasant, very private conversation in which he expressed some disappointment not that I had broken the story, but in what I had written. I defended it on the grounds that what I had observed over the course of the season – and wrote about in the column – added much-needed context to the story. I said that from my point of view it removed a lot of ambiguity about why the team had made the move, and that it actually did so in a way that made the team look more professional and less petty, even though that was a by-product of the story, not my personal goal in writing the story. (He then added that if I ever wanted more context for a story to call him, just not after 10 o’clock at night. I chuckled to myself, because journalism doesn’t work on anyone’s sleep schedule, and that after 10 o’clock was exactly when I would have needed to call him regarding that story!) But in the end, McDonough said he understood that I was doing my job as a reporter and doing it well, that he had no problem with my actions and that he looked forward to my covering the team going forward.
It’s also worth noting that after the press conference, Charlie Schumacher distributed an e-mail to our newsroom in which he congratulated by name everyone on the team who had produced all the coverage of the story from inception to conclusion, including me. It was the right thing to do, especially to include all of the support staff who busted their asses to make the story happen. In the memo, he cited our hustle and thoroughness, and called it “A great day for our network”.
I had a few opportunities to interact with the hockey team over the next several days, including covering the team’s annual fan convention and doing a feature story that took viewers behind the scenes of their practice facility. That story was part of a collection of stories by our network’s beat reporters that was later nominated for a regional Emmy Award.
I spent much of the next few weeks on vacation, both recovering from the season past, and girding up for the season ahead, which, because of the Blackhawks’ assemblage of talent, I assumed would be another long one. On the Thursday before Labor Day, I was scheduled to anchor our midnight news and highlight show. After our early news, I poked my head into the office of my news director, Charlie Schumacher, and said something along the lines of wanting to figure out how our schedule would work for the upcoming season. After the midnight show, I was surprised to find him sitting in his office in the wee hours of the morning, still working. Charlie asked me to come into his office and have a seat.
He said, “You have a contract coming up in February, and I wanted to let you know that we are not going to renew that contract. We’ll honor the rest of the contract and if you should get a job in the meantime we’ll let you go within reason.” That last part was meant to sound gracious, but it just meant they would only get in the way if I went to a direct competitor in Chicago. It did not mean that I was free to leave and to continue to be paid while my contract finished its length of term. If the network had fired me, they would have been obligated to pay me while I sat on the sidelines.
When I asked him why my contract wasn’t being renewed, Charlie told me he had been concerned about my sourcing in the Blackhawks’ story (even though everything I reported had been proven dead solid, and two of our other reporters had since gone on the air with stories that were blatantly factually incorrect), that he was concerned about how I would cover future controversial Blackhawks’ stories, and that he was unhappy about some of my recent performance. When I pressed him for examples on the last point, since it was the first time I had heard about it, he cited two specious occasions: one in which I didn’t correct a co-anchor’s mistake on the air (which would have been very bad newsroom politics), and another which had happened over 10 months prior. Ten months, and yet he was telling me now for the first time. I was pissed, and I knew he was lying. Charlie did allow me to take the next day off.
The next couple of months went by in a blur. I was confused, and a little sad, but also relieved. My wife was a mess. I talked to several people in the Blackhawks’ organization to make sure that they hadn’t forced the decision, because even if they believed I had made some transgression, given the amount I had given to the team over the 4 years prior – a record which included Emmy-nominated stories and coverage, as well as writing a book about the team for their charities – I couldn’t understand how that transgression could lead to my losing my job.
There was a telling moment when I talked again with McDonough, the team President, roughly a week after I got the news. He said, “I fail to see how this is a Chicago Blackhawks’ problem.” Separately he said, “We have our staff in place, but if you need a recommendation to work for another team or to cover another team, or to work for another television station here in Chicago we would be happy to speak to them about you and we would speak in superlatives and only in the positive.” Much, much later in the process, after I knew the direction my search was taking me, I again summoned the courage to reach out to some members of the team’s front office staff. On at least four occasions, in discussions with four separate team officials, each one reiterated that once the initial shock of my getting the story had worn off, they understood I was just doing my job and doing it well. They had no problems with my reporting. They said in no uncertain terms that they had not asked the network to relieve me of my job and that they were disappointed that I wasn’t asked to return.
And so, in short, the conclusion I reached is that I was let go simply because I made too much money for what the managers at my network had budgeted for the slot. As I write this, more than ten months after I was told I was not going to be renewed, the network still hadn’t replaced me on its on-air staff roster, though someone else had taken over the Blackhawks’ beat. That’s the prerogative of any network, or any business, to make sound financial decisions. Ultimately the managers at such a network have to determine what is the best business move for them. But they never told me that was the reason I was being released. If they had told me, while I would have been upset, at least I could have understood the math. Those kinds of decisions are being made at television stations all across the country. The local television news industry is an industry that is on life-support, and anchors and reporters will never again
Instead, the network did something truly despicable. They called my ethics into question, and they let me hang on the implication that I had been irresponsible professionally. At one point, in an article that appeared in the Chicago Tribune, the writer of the article quoted Charlie Schumacher saying, “I had trouble with Josh’s sourcing on this story.”
This also led me to believe that the solid relationships I had built with the team I had covered had been poisoned, and that denied me access to what could have been a landing place, or at the very least an excellent resource as I looked for more opportunities.
That was a very difficult thing to go through emotionally.
In fact, it was one of many things that were difficult to go through emotionally. For starters, I couldn’t just walk out. I had five months left on my contract and I needed to have that income while I looked for something new. (And as an aside, it is very unusual in television for a station to tell you that you are out and yet keep you on the air. More often than not, the station will pay you to stay home for the rest of your contract, but will enforce all the no-compete clauses in your contract). So I still had to go back into that workplace every day, watching someone else take over what had been my beat, and on a daily basis encounter the people who were presiding over my figurative execution. I probably did years of damage to my psyche by staying, but it was either that or become financially bankrupt.
But that was nothing compared to the damage that reigned on my hopes and dreams. I had built a career of nearly 20 years, from a dream that had existed at least 15 years longer than that. I had never pictured myself doing anything else. I had carved out an identity, and loathe as I am to admit it, that identity was personal as well as professional. Suddenly, the arc of that career, and of my identity, was gone. With a family depending upon me and my income, I had to figure out not only where we would be earning money and the effect of the temporary loss of income on short-term and long-term plans, but also other large-scale questions as well: Who was I in the working world? Did something about me, or the way I am in the workplace, cause this to happen? And now that I had reached the end of this path, what would the rest of my life look like?
But why is any of this important to you? Given the depth of the recession we are still climbing out of, you probably know someone who experienced something similar to what I went through. Maybe something similar happened to you personally. My story, while it took place in the public eye and with the soft-core sex appeal of sports and big city media as a backdrop, is without question less important to you than is the story that touched you personally, as it should be. My story illustrates that people lose jobs for all kinds of reasons that are unfair, or out of their control, or just plain wrong. And yeah, it sucks out loud. The process of losing that job in that manner is not only deflating, but it can also be paralyzing, especially for someone who considers himself to have been a productive, industrious and loyal employee.
The positive for me is that by being denied access to so many things I had worked for forced me to look at my skills, my goals and my opportunities in a completely new light. From that experience, as difficult as it often was, I learned that I didn’t have to be limited to being a television journalist, nor did I have to be limited to talking about hockey. I discovered that I could present my talents in a different way that could bring value to another company, in another industry, in a completely new kind of role. I found out that I didn’t have to suffer through the frustrations of seeing my old childhood dream not quite live up to my imagined expectations, and that I could create a new dream more appropriate for my current self.
The goal of the book I have written is to help you others get past the clouded uncertainty of a mid-life career shift so those people can see the way out to a brighter future. It won’t be like following a recipe, where one can measure the exact amount of ingredients one needs and the perfect amount of cooking time to prepare the savory meal of the new career. But there are a few steps that are necessary to follow in general, and we can play with the measurements to fit personal tastes and inclinations, in order to get everyone into the right frame of mind to succeed. Perhaps my followers (and your contacts) will even succeed beyond the limits of their wildest imaginations, in a role or in a place where they never imagined they’d find success.
A final thought before launching the larger story: When I was starting the process of going through my own job search, tons of people tried to pick up my spirits by saying, “Everything happens for a reason.” I don’t quite buy that. What I would say to them then, and what I still believe now, is that we are responsible not for finding that reason, but for creating it. When one has a break in the continuum of life, one receives the chance to assess his set of skills and learn new and exciting ways to apply them. He has the chance to redefine himself by learning new skills and launching new goals. He can look at r\his current job situation as an opportunity – an opportunity to launch new dreams, an opportunity to network with new people, an opportunity to have a better, more satisfying professional life, and an opportunity to become a different person with new ways in which to define success.