Lesson of Simmons-ESPN divorce: Nothing new for famous journalists and why it will happen again

May 11, 2015
Category: Uncategorized
Bill Simmons (Photo by Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP, File)

Bill Simmons (Photo by Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP, File)

The divorce of sports journalist Bill Simmons and ESPN may have been inevitable. It personifies an inherent friction between a high-profile star employee and employer — and one that will get more frequent as self-branding by journalists is more frequent and even encouraged by their bosses.

Indeed, the whole subject of self-promotion packed a large room recently when the Society of Business Editors and Writers convened in Chicago.

There, several hundred journalists, publicists and marketers sought counsel from a trio: New York Times “Your Money” columnist Ron Lieber, advice columnist-author Amy Dickinson and Ilyce Glink, a former TV reporter-turned-financial writer and strategic consultant.

“There is this tension,” Dickinson said about building yourself up but a company not wanting you to get too big. When she succeeded the late icon Ann Landers, “they [the Chicago Tribune] were careful in not deliberately giving the things Ann Landers had been given…They have deliberately kept me confined.”

That might strike some as surprising, given syndication in 200 papers, a starring role in the NPR show “Wait Wait…Don’t Tell Me!” and a seven-figure book deal several years ago.

But she was candid in alluding to some qualms at the gathering. For sure, I sat there knowing that she was pretty well compensated since I hired her (she was a Washington-based NPR freelancer) to succeed Landers when I was overseeing features at the Chicago Tribune. But she didn’t come close to the deal given to Landers and, for sure, now works in a far more austere corporate environment, given the newspaper industry’s downturn.

But Landers was an international powerhouse who had come to the Chicago Tribune in the mid-1980s from the Chicago Sun-Times after the paper’s sale to Rupert Murdoch.

She revolutionized the genre of advice columnist. The contracts she ultimately bargained were very big for a newspaper person and justified, given her following and the profit-filled times. The Tribune included a personal staff for her on full-time salary and benefits, which handled much of her substantial reader mail and other duties. In a deal negotiated way above our newsroom pay grades at the corporate level, the paper also gave Landers a car and driver and even built her a very nice private bathroom in her personal office suite at Tribune Tower in Chicago.

Notably, she kept the lion’s share of her syndication revenues since she was syndicated by Creators Syndicate, which had been started by a friend whom she’d known from her days being syndicated by the Sun-Times’ then-corporate parent.

Thus what was then known as Tribune Media Services came up short since a new rival syndicated a superstar of the company’s own flagship daily. Fast forward to her passing in 2002 and our decision on a successor: We were pretty intent on not repeating that mistake with Dickinson, as much as we loved her and wanted her to succeed.

So she got a very good salary, Tribune Media Services syndicated her and thus shared revenue, and she had a small office without any assistants. We pushed hard to promote her and the early rollout included appearances on NBC’s “Today.”

Her work was and remains excellent and clearly supports the decision (not an instantaneous one at the time) to not put the column to rest upon Landers’ passing. She was always more than happy to be a team player and promote the paper, I found before I split in 2008.

For sure, the Tribune was no newcomer to dealing with big figures. Mike Royko who was arguably the greatest newspaper columnist of his time, had arrived from the Chicago Sun-Times right after the Murdoch purchase. In addition, a young Gene Siskel turned a seemingly temporary film critic’s gig into national celebrity as he and the Sun-Times’ Roger Ebert changed the movie reviewing business with their TV show’s national success. Working in Chicago, they were Hollywood movers and shakers.

But Siskel also rankled James Squires, editor at the time, when the Siskel-Ebert TV show moved to a division of Disney, the entertainment giant that was obviously also creator of many films they’d review. Squires announced Siskel could no longer be the film critic, to avoid conflicts of interest, and knocked him down a peg to basically being a film feature writer in the Sunday paper.

With his TV success, it didn’t matter; he just had less Tribune work. For the rest of the world, he remained the Tribune film critic, regardless. It was clueless about the change in title and role at the paper. Internally, Squires came off to some as being quite petty.

“In this age of self-branding (where your NEXT employer is going to try to monetize your Twitter and Facebook following) what of your own brand is portable?” Dickinson wondered to me during an email exchange over the weekend in which she preferred not to get specific in elaborating about remarks made at the conference about her own employer.

Lieber, a New York Times personal finance columnist, shared the panel with Dickinson at the gathering and briefly turned from panelist into interrogator by asking her about her sense of being confined by her employer.

How mixed are the feelings of Tribune Publishing, the parent of the Chicago Tribune, toward her profile, which includes a regular gig on the fun weekly NPR staple, “Wait Wait…Don’t Tell Me!”?

“They want me to succeed but keep the monster in the box,” she said. “I’m on ‘Wait Wait…Don’t Tell Me!’ but I think they’re conflicted. I have a lawyer. If I build up a huge audience, I can go into meetings and ask for more. I have contracts with the Tribune and the Tribune (syndication arm). And they don’t want to pay me more. The conflict is very much on the table.”

Meanwhiile, Lieber finds his paper pushing reporters and columnists “within reason.”

That prompted Dickinson herself to turn into interrogator by asking Lieber a question: “Could you work for NPR? My bosses love that radio persona but, then, ask why I’m not on WGN [Radio], which they own.”

Lieber said that while his employer is sometimes “thrilled when people are off doing a book, sometimes it’s not so thrilled.” It’s generally “everybody into the pool, within reason” when it comes to social media. The “within reason” includes not making “bold, opinionated statements.”

He cited the growing number of colleagues charged with audience development, focusing on Twitter and Facebook,” and that “to have the full force of those folks behind one’s work is incredible. There is an ever growing group trying to figure out how best to take our stories and push them out at just the right moment, with just the right language.”

“When you feel the wind of the institution at your back, it dwarfs whatever you could possibly accomplish on your own.”

Dickinson then caused a slight kerfuffle by suggesting that the late David Carr, the Times media writer, “was all about pushing out his name. That film [“Page One: Inside the New York Times”], that was so wonderful but he was really good at that.”

She soon qualified her remark by underscoring her deep respect for Carr. Lieber defended Carr and Carr’s role in the movie and then discussed the utility of different platforms in pushing out his own work.

“We’ve all seen how Facebook has tinkered with the algorithm,” he said, then noted the “incredibly low” engagement metrics for Twitter, suggesting people largely use it as a wire service, rather than a means to generate a back-and-forth with others.

To that extent, he’s a fan of email. “Email is the way you get people,” he said, mentioning the work of others that he receives via email.

“One thing I wish I had done 15 years ago was to collect all the email of everybody who wanted to read me,” said Lieber.

In response to a question from a Newsday journalist, Dickinson said that she, too, has changed her modus operandi. She found that a personal web site wasn’t all that effective and instead relies on Twitter and Tumblr.

Lieber’s final bit of advice involved moderating online comments to one’s work. He reads every one and moderates them by himself, sometimes finding it an avenue to cultivating readers as sources and generating good story ideas.

It’s all part of a new media universe where branding is clearly essential but, on occasion, a double-edge sword for the most successful of practitioners.