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Saturday, April 6, 2013

The dysfunctional situation that never truly has gone away

April 6, 2002. A routine Saturday for me at work at the Key West Citizen. The plan, as always, was to report to work around 3:30 p.m., collect whatever local sports news was happening in the Florida Keys that day and then help my assistant Jennifer put together the sports pages for the Sunday section.

Nothing out of the ordinary. Done this for over 2 1/2 years. No biggie.

And it wasn't. Then about 4:15 p.m., I see the executive sports editor walk in and make a bee-line to the managing editor's office and close the door. Kind of hard not to notice considering the door is no more than about 7 feet from where Jennifer and I are working. Still, business as usual.

Just over 10 minutes later, the door opens.

The managing editor peers out our direction and says, "Mark, can I see you for a moment?"


Walked in and the door closed behind me. It was just the three of us -- myself, the managing editor, a man who took over the position from a very popular woman who left to tend to family in Michigan and practically got the job by default, and the executive sports editor, who once was the sports editor and was appointed this extravagant-sounding position the previous summer before for reasons I'll explain in a bit.

In other words, two men I had little, if any, respect for.

So Mr. I Got The Job By Default starts the conversation.

"Mark, we've got a problem. Of all our departments here in the newsroom, the sports department is our most dysfunctional."

Here's the definition of "dysfunctional" within the sports department: An executive sports editor, a sports editor and a layout person. Two chiefs and only one Indian. Do you see a problem here? More on how this bit of dysfunction came about ... it's going to leave your head spinning.

Then I answered because I knew what direction this was heading in.

"This dysfunction would not have come about had we not been put in this situation in the first place."

"Well it doesn't matter," was how he answered back. Hey, umm, jackass, it did matter. More later.

"We've asked you to work with (the executive sports editor), but you haven't done that. And we feel at this juncture that we need to make a break here, so we are letting you go. We'll set up your compensation and final paycheck and that will be it."

And at that particular point, I was able to give a half-smile and say, "Thank you," shake these two incompetents' hands and walk out quietly.

"What happened?" asked Jennifer.

"I will not be here helping you ever again," I said to her, Jennifer's mouth half-open as I quietly made this announcement to her. "My services are no longer needed. I wish you luck ... you're gonna need it."

I got what I needed for the night and said my goodbyes with the only other people in the whole building that really ever mattered to me -- the paste-up people and the press-room guys. Since there were not even a handful of them there at that moment, I said goodbye to two of my favorite people there, Dave, my University of Georgia fan and friend who worked in the press room, and Art, who was the jack of all trades in the paste-up room.

It was hard. I had to explain to them what had just happened and I can still hear Dave in his Southern drawl saying, "This place is going to hell in a hand basket."

There weren't a whole of people in the newsroom at that particular moment, but to me, that didn't matter. I certainly wasn't looking for an audience for my departure. I remember saying goodbye to Dick Wagner, who had been there for me since the start of my time at the paper in 1999 and was a good friend to help with any of the editing I needed to do on local stories when I was stressed in laying out a section or needed a second read.

And just like that, it was over. I made the short drive in my new Toyota Corolla that I had just made my first payment on two days earlier back to my apartment on Duck Avenue. I got into my apartment, which I had lived in all by myself since I moved in the previous April and the first thing I did was plop down on the mattress I had bought to lay on when I moved in. It was somewhere around 5 p.m. Daylight savings time was not to start until the next day, so the darkness was settling in mixed with the sunshine as I stared out the window for the first 20 minutes I laid there. I was taking inventory of the events of the previous hour. And one prevailing point came to my mind.

For the first time in my almost 18 years in the business, I had nowhere to go to and it was a scary feeling. Since July 7, 1984, there was always work. And while most people complain about the idea of going to work, I always showed up regardless of how I felt. That's just how I've operated since I was 17. Now at 35, I had nowhere to be to get a paycheck.

But there was another prevailing point that soon followed that first one -- I'm glad I didn't have to go back to that shit hole ever again. The dysfunction that permeated that building from August 2001 just wreaked. I wanted off this ride, but finding another job and where I was located at the farthest end south in this country (location! location! location!) was not making the prospects of future employment that much better. Who the hell wants to pay for my moving costs after all?

The first phone call I made was to Toms River, N.J. My mom picks up the phone and the first thing I said to her was, "Guess what?"


"I don't have a job to go to anymore!"

There was this sound of shock. Then I explained what happened and she got a better and clearer understanding of what was going on.

"Believe me. I'm relieved that it's over. I never was one to own a pair of knee pads."

I then explained the whole "knee pads" comment to her in which I wasn't in a mood to acquiesce to the publisher, which seemingly everyone in a higher-up position did at that particular time.

So how did it become so dysfunctional in such a short amount of time? Well, I will pick up the story on Thursday, August 23, 2001, the two-year anniversary for myself at the Citizen after my escape from the dysfunction that was taking place at the Ocean County Observer. 

I had just returned from a 2 1/2-week vacation on that Tuesday where I went back to Toms River to see my family. By May 2001, the company owed me 37 days of comp time -- yes, you read right, 37 days! Why, you may ask?

 The first part of this dysfunctional story began on Monday, December 18, 2000 when my managing editor called me up to tell me she was firing my assistant of 10 months. Seems the previous Friday, he had run out of a Key West bar that was open an hour later than it should have when the cops came in to find out what was going on and when they caught up to him, he had an ounce of pot and an ounce of cocaine on him. Now keep in mind one thing and one thing only -- he was not my hire. That was forced on me by the man who hired me, the previous managing editor, who wasn't willing to look at one more candidate that I wanted for the assistant's job in 2000.

That alone should have raised a red flag that this may not be the best organization to work for.

With the firing of my assistant of not even 10 months, I was now the only person in my department. And what was about to take place in the first week of 2001 was going to complicate matters even further. We were about to become a seven-day-a-week paper thanks to the new management. So guess what that meant for me? Yes ... I had to work every single day, which I did starting on December 31. By the middle of January, they hired this very knowledgeable layout guy named Matt from Chicago who was to be there to lay out my section and free up the work load for me.

That was all great, but that was Matt's sole purpose with the sports department -- layout. That's what he was hired for and I still had no assistant to actually help me put together a sports section. Another bit of help to me was that the paper had just started doing a Saturday recreational tab that was 16 pages and full of ads. They hired this guy who was once the sports editor at the paper in the 1990s and was glad to get out of the weekly he was working at to take on this new venture. But this was a section that was not completely affiliated with the daily sports section. He had his staff of one part-timer who would do games for me from time to time, but that was it.

Still, no one to directly help me. And until my managing editor directly said she did not want to see me in the building for one weekend in February, I worked every single day for 41 straight days. Why? The last thing I wanted to do to poor Matt was show even the hint of the dysfunction that was happening in that newsroom. But ultimately, he was OK with the idea of working six days, so I gave him Thursdays off since they were fairly easy for me to work and I'd find a day here or there that he didn't have to be at work. I would take off Sundays and be back at work on Mondays.

This went on while my relationship with my girlfriend of nearly four years was falling apart at the seams. By late March 2001, it was over and we moved out of our two-bedroom, two-bathroom apartment into separate one-bedroom, one-bathroom apartments in the same complex. The constant work schedule was not the reason for the breakup, but it wasn't helping that we weren't around each other much at this point. I ended up taking an entire weekend to move into my new apartment, but the task was finished late Sunday night/early Monday morning.

The schedule of six-day work weeks was taking a toll and it wasn't until May when finally -- finally! -- we had hired my assistant, a guy named Nick. And it meant Mark began taking time off from work starting in June. I ended up taking not one, but four weeks of vacation that no one raised any opposition to nor said anything about. They knew I was owed the time off for working all of 2001 with the exception of 14 Sundays total.

Let's just say the death eye would have been flashed any one's way if they even disagreed.

And so I took off for my vacations, two one-weekers that I stayed in Florida for, then the one to New Jersey from August 5-20. Frankly, I just didn't given a shit.

So I come back into work on Tuesday, August 21 and the first two days were getting re-acclimated to the everyday grind that now I was going to have to get used to. We had a football section to put together and thanks to Matt, we were able to get it done before the first regular-season game, which was August 31.

But before that was the two-year evaluation. I go into my managing editor's office and we talked about the previous year. She knew the craziness that had taken place to this point. The thing that endeared me to her was the fact that I worked hard. Though I had disagreements with a couple of people in the newsroom (one being the former assistant that worked with me), she knew I had the right intentions for the paper and the business.

"You're getting your raise," she started.

Then ...

"There's something you need to know."

Oh, no. What the hell else could be going on here?

"They had to deep-six the recreation section. The last edition of it is coming out Saturday."

Then she went on to explain how advertising had fallen asleep at the wheel, going from selling eight solid ads for a 16-page section when we started to just having three. That's not a good ratio and ultimately, it usually means the end. So now I'm waiting for the punchline -- what are they going to do with the guy in charge of the recreation section after she told me any recreational stories or agate that came in was going to be now put into the regular section.

"Management here has decided they wanted to keep him around," she began again.

I am pretty sure I'm not liking the direction of this.

"And so they have decided to create a 'new' position and have made him the 'executive' sports editor, which means you'll have to report to him."

There was about a 10-second silence after she said that.

"Let me see if I have this straight ... I'm getting my raise, BUT I'm no longer in charge of my department."

"I'm sorry, Mark. I don't like this any more than you do. But this is what they decided."

To this very day, I call that decision the most dysfunctional and stupidest idea any newspaper I've ever seen or heard of come up with. What f**king organization pulls off a stunt like this? For the following 16 months after my termination, I had to explain this whole situation to future employers, whether in person or on the phone and the reaction was usually the same.

Dumbfounderment. As far as they knew, they never heard of an organization this small that pulled this "prank" and ran with it.

Thursday, August 23, 2001 will forever be known as the day I stopped caring about what others outside my department that had been there already did at the Citizen with the exception of the press room and the paste-up people.

Suddenly, everyone else was the enemy. It did not make for the best environment to work in, but I kept a smile nonetheless and pretended I enjoyed working with the others. And I had to occasionally report in to my "executive" sports editor to tell him what's going on -- even if this guy was coming in after 9 a.m. and leaving at 4:30 to go home to his family and spend time with his wife, while the real sports people hung around to lay out the paper.

At a paper the size of say, the Miami Herald or the Sun-Sentinel, you can have an executive sports editor. At a paper with barely 11,000 circulation, people may want more answers as to why our crappy organization suddenly had an "executive" sports editor. 

And still to prove the point we were understaffed for a seven-day-a-week newspaper, we had to get football games over the phone. Our coverage, which was beyond stellar in the 2000 season when two of our Keys teams went to the state tournament, had turned into crap the next fall having to cover a Friday night game and now laying out a section for a Saturday. Every Friday night seemed like a circus, and it was about to get worse -- within two weeks of each other, Nick left to take a teaching gig over at Key West High School and Matt left to go back to Chicago.

Thankfully, we replaced both of them with Jennifer, a 22-year-old fresh face out of the University of Florida. Jennifer was supposed to play the role of two people, but I knew that was unrealistic. She even admitted to me she wasn't really a writer. There was going to be no other hires -- Jennifer and I were the real sports department. And the worthless guy went home after 4 f**king 30 every goddamn day Monday through Friday to be with his family.

Great set-up!

Things hit a fever pitch on the first weekend of November 2001. I was set to cover the final game of the football season between Keys neighbors Coral Shores and Key West over at Tommy Roberts Stadium. Well, the "executive" sports editor tells me one day before the game -- one day -- we were going to have to switch up since our Marathon guy could not be at his game and so I was switched to go up to Marathon to cover that game against Gulliver Prep while our part-timer would do the Coral Shores-Key West game, a game that turned out to be a terrific one won by Key West in the final moments. I got stuck with a 49-7 Gulliver rout.

The next day, November 3, 2001, I was scheduled to cover the world powerboat championships off Key West, something I enjoyed covering every year. The event, unfortunately, was canceled because of the impending Hurricane Michelle, which glanced past us without ever hitting the next day. But I had set that up with Jennifer that she'd come in to do the paper and I'd leave after a long day of working the powerboat race. This was not to be an issue whatsoever.

When I get to the paper after 4 p.m., Jennifer had not gotten there yet. Figured maybe she was doing something, but she'll get here within the hour. By 7 p.m. she had not gotten to the paper and I'm now concerned. I wound up calling her and asking her if things were all right.

"Oh, I'm fine. I was given the day off today."

Yeah. HE f**ked up my day and never even once had the nerve to even tell me he was doing so. If this powerboat event had gone off, I would have worked from about 10 a.m. until 1 a.m., covering the story and laying out a six-page section when I had prepared for my assistant to do the layout except for one page that I would do.

The hurricane blew through on that Sunday and come Monday, I was seething just looking at my so-called "boss." I basically ripped him a new one, how dare him not even say one word to me that he was giving Jennifer a day off when I needed her in the office.

His excuse: "I'm the boss! I'll make the decisions!"

Whatever relationship he and I had at that time ended. Period. Real management would have said something to me about their plans, but now, he was admitting to me for the first time that he was far greater than anyone else was in the sports department in not so many words.

You could have taken bets in the newsroom or the building for that matter of how long this relationship was going to last. I certainly was not in a mood to place nice or mend fences and whatever contact we did have was for the betterment of the section.

And having a product done by 11:30 p.m. every night was also grating on my nerves. And yes, we missed our deadlines, sometimes by about 45 minutes, but that was nothing compared to the managing editor, who must take years to reach 300-page novels because I can still see the look on our new news-side layout guy who waited on him to read and edit stories so he could  put headlines on them, slap them on the page and send them out. If they were so hot and heavy about us making deadline, didn't that also involve him being done on time, too?

I tell people now about my experiences at the Citizen that if I had known I was jumping from the Titanic (the Observer) to the Andrea Doria (the Citizen), I wouldn't have done it. After the two experiences as a sports editor, I am hesitant about wanting to run a sports department ever again.

And all may have been fine after they let me go on that April 6, until I went for my unemployment over two weeks later and got denied for it. I called up the woman who told me the reason they rejected me was that I was "insubordinate," according to the "executive" sports editor.

Geeeeeeeeeeeeeez. Shooooock-eeeer!

I told the nice lady my story and went practically chapter and verse with everything that had taken place from the beginning of 2001 until termination. I know I had to keep it to the abridged version because I would have taken up three hours of her time on the phone. Needless to say a week later, the paper didn't challenge and I got my unemployment.

But to this day, I haven't forgotten all the crap that took place. I don't think I ever will. The "executive" sports editor wrote me an email in 2005 after I was quoted in a story in the Charlotte Sun about the trials and tribulations of running a high school state poll, which I was doing with the Florida Sports Writers Association for boys basketball.

"Saw your name in the Charlotte Sun today. Didn't know where you were. Congratulations. Hope all is going well for you."

Needless to say, I never wrote him back. I was pissed off then. Still pissed off now of how things went down. I can never forgive him for what took place in those last seven-plus months. He had a chance to do something other than take a position that complicated matters beyond repair and he didn't.

Both he and the managing editor who told me we were running a dysfunctional sports department can both go to hell as far as I'm concerned. I know I worked my ass off a lot harder than those two did combined. As for the publisher who helped concoct this great idea of an "executive" sports editor in an 11,000-plus circulation newspaper ... yeah, same fate.

He and his father are the worst bosses I've ever worked under in my career.

Still, the day after my termination, I went back to the office to clean out my desk after deadline and the very next day, I picked up my paycheck and compensation check. That was it. And to show how bad things had gotten, my dear friend Mr. Wagner was let go three weeks later, apparently aggravated by the lack of leadership shown there and not being shy about it, apparently still upset they let me go

I stuck around Key West until Wednesday, June 5, 2002. The $275-a-week excuse for unemployment in this state wasn't going to allow me to live in this town long. I was gently coerced into sticking around Key West by my good friend at radio station WKWF-AM, Rick Lopez, who did a 5 p.m. local radio sports show from Chili's restaurant with his good friend and partner Todd Swofford.

The Monday after my termination, I was invited on to tell my side of the story. And I was being sincere when I said that I showed no ill will to the people who let me go. I actually said that I was "relieved" that it was over. I'm trying to tell my story while their "third" host -- my first assistant at the paper who left the company in 2000 -- kept interrupting me to tell the entire Keys listening audience of the horrible place the Citizen was to work at. And for the next two months, I had at least somewhere to go instead of sitting around my apartment and doing nothing all day. I was able to cull together a group of guests from coaches to athletes on the show that maybe Rick or Todd couldn't get. And for the first time in a while, I had fun doing something I liked until it was time for me to leave once and for all and head back to live with my folks in New Jersey until seeking out another job.

And the Saturday before I left to go back to New Jersey, my good friend Art gave me a "going-away" party that included a number of the paste-up people, Jennifer and Dave. I'll never forget that, especially the fact that after all was said and done, I was appreciated by those at the paper. Every one of those people there that June night will always get my love and respect no matter what.

As for my former department, let's say things didn't go so well after I left. I met my so-called "replacement" at the Key West High spring football game in late May and he was fresh out of college at Rollins. Nice kid, but when I told him what the job was to entail if he hadn't been told already (I think he was already seeing what was going on there), the smile was slowly wiping itself from his face. Story goes that one night, he told the managing editor that he had to go to take care of his grandmother on the Florida mainland and never came back.

And as for Jennifer, she and I kept in touch for over the next year. She was my sanity in a storm of insanity throughout the last seven months. She eventually moved over to the news side to lay out there after the news side layout guy left. But after one too many nights of being late and not enjoying working for the dynamic duo of the "executive" sports editor and the managing editor, she told me she wrote a letter to the publisher that she quit on the spot, stuck it under his door, packed up all her things and left and said in the letter that it was those two who were the cause of her leaving.

Jennifer was only out of a job for a couple of months. I helped her to get a layout job working for a CNI newspaper in Fernandina Beach. When the woman at the paper I was interviewed by on Jennifer's behalf asked me of what went on at the Citizen, I didn't hold back. I went chapter and verse of all the dysfunction that had taken place. She got the job in September 2002 and I ended up visiting her at the newspaper in late February 2003 while I was waiting on possible job offers and I had time on my hands, so I left cold New Jersey and traveled to Florida for two weeks.

As for myself, it took 16 months and a day before I finally hooked up with the newspaper I'm at now in Palatka, the Daily News. And believe me when I say this -- I don't wish unemployment on even my worst enemy. No one should ever go through that in their lives. Ironically, the PDN, I found out, was also under the same CNI umbrella as the paper I got Jennifer into, but by the summer of 2003, she had left to move on to wherever else she went to. Let's just say I never got a forwarding address.

I admit the whole experience of the last year or so at the Citizen left me jaded and cynical for the rest of my career, even though some of that has worn off over time thanks to the treatment of the people I've worked with at my current office and the 17 awards I've been handed for various stories, columns, features and layout I've done since 2005. I could never thank them enough for what they've done to rehabilitate my career.

Eleven years to the day, I still think about what happened and how all of it could have been avoided. But it wasn't.

The scars still remain no matter how much better the situation is.

Dysfunction does go a long way in life apparently.

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