This is a little different than the main theme of this blog, but again is part of something larger I’m working on, and it includes a little bit more background on the specifics of how and why I ended up outside sports journalism and in education leadership (That’s a good thing).
But I think it’s the right time to share some of this. Let me know if you want to hear more.
The afternoon of July 13, 2009, should have been a quiet one, especially for sports fans in Chicago. It was a Monday, and the first day of baseball’s annual All-Star break, one of the very few days of the year in which there are no major professional sports games scheduled. For me, it was the first day of a 4-day mini-vacation, one which I felt I’d earned after working more or less for three months straight for Comcast Sportsnet, a regional sports television network based in Chicago, primarily as the beat reporter and studio host assigned to follow the Chicago Blackhawks hockey team. But the day turned out to be anything but quiet.
I was having an alfresco lunch with a friend at an outdoor neighborhood café not far from Wrigley Field, when my Blackberry buzzed. One of the producers from our network said he had just read an Internet report saying that the Blackhawks – the NHL hockey team I covered – was about to fire their General Manager. Did I know anything about it?
By way of brief background, the Blackhawks had just completed a wonderful rebirth, having reached hockey’s semifinals in late May, after being one of the worst teams and most dysfunctional organizations in sports for the previous decade. The General Manager, Dale Tallon, was an astute judge of talent and a popular, engaging personality. He had engineered much of that turnaround when he took over as the General Manager in 2005, after previously spending a long time in the organization in lesser or different roles. But there had been rumblings that he and other members of the team’s front office were having trouble getting along. And a week prior someone in the front office had made a clerical error in re-signing some of the team’s players, which the team claimed cost them several million dollars. Tallon acknowledged the mistake publicly and took responsibility, but in reporting on the subject I discovered that the error was not his, but that he took the fall to protect an underling. Through the implications of several industry contacts, I was also able to speculate (essentially, to report without attribution) that the error was not nearly as financially costly as the team was attempting to portray. Because of all of that, there had been inside gossip that the Blackhawks might fire Tallon, and so yes, I told my producer, I did know quite a bit about it.
Also by way of background, responding to my producer’s text, even while I was on vacation after a long, consecutive stretch of work is typical in my business and what a good reporter has to do. I knew this subject better than anyone else at my network. I had connections and sources that would eventually be able to get me some answers, or some context, or would say something in a way that I would recognize as out-of-character and that would cause my ears to perk up, leaving me to chase after the threads of a story. So though I had been looking forward to this day off for a long time, and though I was a little skeptical of the internet rumor because the story had been floating about for some time, I returned the call, told my producers I would put feelers out, and then excused myself from lunch to plug into my network of contacts. I plugged in, reached out, and then went on with the rest of my vacation while I waited for the responses to come back in.
Several hours later, after the wheel of evening news had spun into the nighttime hours, I was picnicking on the lawn at a crowded concert at the Pritzker Pavilion in Chicago’s beautiful Millennium Park, when I touched base with my producer to tell him that I hadn’t heard anything from my sources either way. He said that the story had not advanced from the rumor page and that he was getting ready to produce our 10 o’clock shows, but he asked if I would check with my sources again to see if there was any update to the story.
I left the concert and as I was walking out of the pavilion, I went back to my contact list for another try, this time expanding my outreach to contacts slightly wider than my circle of closest confidants and inside sources. That decision allowed me to make an additional seven or eight phone calls to people with outside connections, instead of the three or four on the inside who might have reason to stay quiet because they were keeping a story secret. Two of the seven or eight people in this secondary circle of contacts actually picked up the phone. The first said that he thought this was just the old rumors gaining steam again on a quiet sports day, which was the main track playing in my head when I started through my contact list hours earlier. But the second person said that while he didn’t have any hard evidence, discussions within the team, as he knew it, had moved again in the direction of firing Tallon as the Blackhawks’ general manager.
With that quasi-story, I felt like I could go back to my top inside contacts for reaction. Often, in these situations, the people closest to the story are the people a reporter wants to contact least and last. They are the ones who have a plan for how to release that information, and they have a vested interest in the execution of that plan. Usually, they will stonewall or ignore a reporter, or often lie outright, which is frustrating to a reporter, but at the same time it is understandable because those people have a lot to lose if they are found out to be the source of a leak. But one task a reporter has in his job is to build up relationships of trust over time, which he does by handling stories fairly, being ethical in his approach and in the execution of his work, and by earning the respect of the people on whom he reports. Fortunately, I had a few people with whom I felt I had that kind of relationship, and after several attempts to reach all of them, one finally responded by text, saying, “If that’s all you have, I can’t confirm it.”
Now, that probably sounds like a denial, or maybe it doesn’t read like there’s a story there, but I knew this person well enough to read between the lines of what he was saying. Let’s try it again:
“If that’s all you have, I can’t confirm it.”
That person wasn’t telling me that my supposition was incorrect. He was telling me that I needed to do more digging, and that as long as I could report the story from another source, preferably a source who had been a part of the meetings, and who had more solid information than someone outside the proceedings telling me what he’d heard about the tone of preliminary discussions, my inside contact would be willing to confirm it for me. In other words, my contact was pre-confirming it, letting me know without saying so that the story was true, but until I found out more I couldn’t use him as a source. What that did, however, was to give me confidence to ask questions of my other contacts differently, or more aggressively, to elicit a response that would give me the information I needed to go back to my inside source to get the confirmation.
So now I’m pacing in my living room with the phone at my ear, my wife is calling me from upstairs to come kiss the kids goodnight before bed, and my producer is buzzing in trying to get the very latest because his live show is about to start, and we’re all trying to keep track of our competition in the business, because we have to assume we aren’t the only ones working this story. We desperately want to win this story. But we can’t run with it yet ourselves, because even though I believe the story is true, I don’t quite have it. Yet.
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.
I think that’s all I should share for now, but if you’re intrigued, please give a response on this site letting me know that you want to hear more.