Media Musings: Bob Sutton made Burlington better.

written by R.L. Bynum


Gannett laid off one of the best in Bob Sutton

It would be natural for some people to let up on the accelerator in their last week after being laid off. 

But that never would be natural for Bob Sutton, whose work ethic over his nearly 25 years as sports editor at the Times-News of Burlington was remarkable. 

Two weeks after taking a furlough week, Gannett management told Sutton by phone on April 24 that he would be laid off, and that his last day would be May 1. 

“It’s not a surprise when those things happen anymore. It doesn’t mean it’s not a shock to the system. But it’s not surprising in the big picture,” said Sutton, who was better known as “The General” by his staff.

The May 2 issue of the Times-News included four stories from Sutton, which wasn’t that uncommon. Few in sports journalism work harder or longer hours.

Sutton, 54, was one of many across the chain of 261 newspapers Gannett laid off that week, including Bob Dalton, the former Times-News of Hendersonville sports editor, and Jordan Honeycutt, who was the only remaining sports writer at The Sun-Journal of New Bern. The latter departure left only one sports writer between three longtime sister newspapers in New Bern, Kinston and Jacksonville: Jacksonville-based writer Chris Miller.

Those three papers, as well as the Burlington paper, have gone through many changes over the years as ownership shifted from Freedom to Halifax to GateHouse before GateHouse and Gannett merged late last year.

“When Gannett and GateHouse merged, my understanding was that they said that there was going to be a lot of debt and they would have to cut positions,” said Madison Taylor, a development writer in university advancement at Elon who was executive editor at the T-N from 2007–16. “I remember my thinking at the time was there’s not much left to cut at Burlington. I think it becomes sort of a numbers game. It becomes, OK, who’s next on the spreadsheet?” 

THE Bob Sutton

In a time when chains are trying to maximize their budgets, Gannett let go of a journalist in Sutton who

did the work of two people. As the most senior member of the Times-News newsroom before the layoff, he no doubt was one of the higher paid people in the newsroom, which probably got the attention of the bean counters.

At one time, Sutton was part of a six-person sports staff at the Burlington paper. The entire newsroom is now down to six people: sports writers Adam Smith and David Kehrli, two news reporters, a city editor and a photographer. Instead of an executive editor for the Times-News, there is a regional editor, Donnie Fetter, who oversees the newspapers in Burlington, Asheboro and Lexington. As recently as 2007, there were 28 people in that newsroom.

Overwhelming outpouring of support

Sutton was on the phone constantly in the days after he left the Times-News, bombarded with well-wishers from all corners, including sports media, sports information, public relations, coaches and school administrators. His full-time job at that point was answering the phone, as he estimates he heard from more than 100 people. 

Once Sutton said he was OK with me tweeting his unfortunate news, a flood of retweets with comments and replies praising him and his work ensued. 

“The response on Twitter was incredible,” Taylor said. “That blew up Twitter because this is where all the media people hang out. So many people know Bob, Tar Heel fan sites were retweeting it. N.C. State fan sites and Debbie Yow retweeted it. Everybody knows Bob. He’s been around so long. He’s so widely respected.”

The repeated themes were that people were dumbfounded by the egregious decision and they lauded all he did.

“If you look at the big picture, it meant more to me — just the reaction and the response and the people that reached out — than the job did, as it turns out. Sometimes you get a different perspective in a hurry,” said Sutton, who is likely the first National Sports Media Association N.C. sports writer of the year recipient (he won it in 2006 and 2010) to be laid off.

The reaction may have been a surprise to Sutton but not to many others. He has been a pillar of the community and was ubiquitous. He covered games in Alamance County, all over the Triad and Triangle, in Charlotte and the ACC footprint, whether it be a local softball field or a large, packed stadium.

“It was kind of overwhelming,” said Sutton, who is still trying to contact some of the people who said nice things about him. “It makes me feel good. At least it makes you feel like, ‘OK, you must have done something right. You must have been out there for a reason and something good comes out of it.’ ”

Many people have personal stories about working with him, and there were two well-done columns by former colleagues: One by Taylor (which includes many of the tweets praising Sutton) and another by Smith, a Times-News veteran. 

I had the pleasure of working with Sutton, including as copy desk chief at the T-N in the late 1990s. He was the hardest-working colleague I worked with at any of my five newspaper stops. It wasn’t uncommon for Bob to still be in the office when I left in the early-morning hours after we checked the paper following the press run. Then, during my run the next morning, I would notice that his car was in the parking lot. 

He confirmed this week that he did, in fact, go home the night before.

Sutton wasn’t just committed to the newspaper but to the community he serves, and that’s part of the reason four stories were published right after his last day. 

“I had a bunch of things in the works that I wanted to finish because people had called back for interviews,” Sutton said. “I just felt like, rather than having wasted their time, I might as well finish them. We’re shut down. There was nothing else to do. There were a couple that I would have reached out for an additional source or two but I just felt like, ‘let’s just tidy that up.’ ”

Insane days typical 

Covering two ACC games in one day wasn’t uncommon. Neither was reporting from a high school cross country meet on a Saturday morning before heading to Chapel Hill for a UNC game. After covering all of that, while probably editing copy during games, he’d usually be back in the office when he returned to Burlington.

Taylor jokes that they could name the interstate between Winston-Salem and Raleigh after Sutton.

“Bob’s the kind of guy who might come in in the morning and set up the pages he was going to paginate later that night,” Taylor said. “Then, he might go to a game at one o’clock in Chapel Hill in basketball season. And then, after that game is over, he’ll file something and he was getting ready to drive to Blacksburg to watch Duke play Virginia Tech and file a story from there and then get back almost in time to catch the press run. I mean, those are the kind of insane days that were not atypical.”

His control of pages was gradually taken away when the design duties moved to GateHouse’s design hub in Austin, Texas. 

“So, just a few more few more surprises every day,” Sutton said of the difference between his vision of what a page should look compared to how it came out. “Obviously someone else who doesn’t have that vision is doing it, who you haven’t met or don’t know. You have a vision for what it’s going to look like and sometimes it will turn out that way. Sometimes that turned out better.”

Some people have hobbies outside of work. Other than going to church every Sunday, an occasional round of golf and going for walks, Sutton really doesn’t have any hobbies. 

Well, he had one.

“I don’t know how to make this sound rational, but the job was a hobby, I guess,” Sutton said. “Maybe sports was my hobby. For me, it was going to events and some of the more localized stuff and doing some of that stuff that was just as important as [high-profile events] were.”

Local coverage most important

There are many sports writers who cover the NHL, the NFL, the PGA, the ACC, Super Bowls and the NCAA tournaments who don’t take the time to report on high school, women’s basketball or minor-league baseball games. Sutton did it all and was the only newspaper sports writer who covered the Durham Bulls on a regular basis the last two seasons.

“If Bob couldn’t find somebody else to go to something, he would definitely go if he thought it needed to be covered,” Taylor said. “Bob covered the city bodybuilding championships. Bob covered the Mission Man Triathlon.” 

Sutton enjoyed covering Final Fours, so much so that he paid his way to cover UNC’s 2017 appearance in Glendale, Ariz. But he also understood that it was important to cover local games.

“I think that was the most important stuff, really,” Sutton said. “Because those are the people that are in your community. Those are the people that you see in town. Those are the people … you run across them or the parents or whatever. And I just think that’s kind of the nuts and bolts. 

“The other stuff may look bigger and maybe more important now from a larger vantage point. The local stuff and those people are who I’m going to miss as much as doing some of the other things that may have a higher profile, just because that’s the grassroots stuff. You’ve made a bigger impression when you’re there. They remember you more than they will some of the other places. If you take the time to check in on some of the so-called non-rev sports that maybe don’t get the attention a lot, there are certainly some good stories out there.”

To many, a father figure

Sutton has been a father figure — although he’s quick to say he doesn’t look at it that way — to many sports writers and to Elon students who were stringers for him. At least a dozen times, he attended Elon graduation because one of his former stringers was graduating. He’s missed some ceremonies because they conflicted with Elon postseason baseball games.

“A lot of times it was just a chance to meet their parents or grandparents,” Sutton said. “We appreciate what they were able to contribute and do for us. And then, obviously, it probably helped them and their careers too, depending on what they were trying to do.”

One of Sutton’s former sports stringers, Colin Donahue, is now Elon’s director of school communications, student engagement and journalism professor. Tommy Hamzik wrote for the Times-News all four of his years at Elon, worked at the Roanoke Times in 2017 after college and is now newsletter editor at the Houston Chronicle. Hamzik’s Twitter avatar photo is of him next to Sutton at a Duke basketball game.

“[Donahue] told me how important Bob was to Elon students, and he had three or four every year that came in and would work basically the whole year,” Taylor said. 

Among the sports writers who have worked for Sutton are Conor O’Neill, the Wake Forest beat writer for the Winston-Salem Journal; Ed Daigneault, the longtime UConn beat writer for the Republican-American in Watertown, Conn.; and Stephen Schramm, the former Fayetteville Observer sports writer who is now a senior writer for Working at Duke and Duke Today.

What’s next for Sutton? He says that since nobody is probably hiring in sports during the pandemic, he really hasn’t been “beating the bushes” yet looking for a job.

“Until the shutdown eases up, I don’t think there’s a sense of urgency,” he said of media outlets hiring sports journalists. “I can’t imagine they’re adding those things at least until sports start up again.”

Being laid off is never easy, but Sutton is keeping it all in perspective.

“There are worse things that could happen to people,” he said.

A side note on the Gannett layoffs: Rich Jackson replaced Taylor as Times-News executive editor and subsequently became the top editor at The Herald-Times in Bloomington, Ind. Gannett laid off Jackson, 54, who was living in an apartment in the newspaper building. Jackson has a blog called “The Homeless Editor” and The New York Times wrote about him.

Rodrigue shifts to Los Angeles Rams beat

Jourdan Rodrigue, who covered the Carolina Panthers beginning in 2016 for The Charlotte Observer, then since July for The Athletic, has shifted to covering the Los Angeles Rams for The Athletic.

It isn’t clear if a second Panthers writer for The Athletic will be hired to work with Joe Person, who joined the subscription-based sports journalism subscription site in 2018.  

Rodrigue will take over for Rich Hammond, an NFL editor for The Athletic who took on the Rams beat after Vinny Bonsignore left. Hammond will go back to editing. Bonsignore now writes for the Las Vegas Review-Journal.

WTVD makes fans highlight of play-by-play calls

Every Wednesday night on WTVD’s late newscasts, Mark Armstrong gives a fan of a local team a chance to be the star of a play-by-play call.

In coordination with the play-by-play voices, Armstrong selects a fan of a local team. For example, longtime N.C. State fan Josh Roddy was featured as the star of a Wolfpack touchdown, with the voice of the Wolfpack Gary Hahn providing the call of the fictional play. 

The call usually lasts 15 or 20 seconds and the lucky fan is shown on the screen as he listens to the announcer give the call.

“Just the idea of being there to brighten somebody’s day, hearing their favorite play-by-play person calling their name, making them the star of a play,” Armstrong said. “And, so obviously, in order to do that I had to reach out to all the play by play guys, so they were all super cool about it. And we’re happy to do it.” 

This week, it was North Carolina FC’s Dean Linke doing the call of a fan making a big play.

In the first installment, the Carolina Hurricanes John Forslund was on the call for a fan scoring a big goal.

“So, we were recording his reaction to it the first time hearing in real time,” Armstrong said. “That was really, really cool to see. He was really taken aback and Forslund, of course. really sold it.”

Graham feuds with Kentucky radio host

It all started May 5 when new Wake Forest men’s basketball coach Steve Forbes was a guest on “The Drive with Josh Graham” on the SportsHub Triad (starting at 35:40 on this link) and questioned why Olivier Sarr would study at Wake Forest for three years only to get a degree at Kentucky (the comments starts at 43:00).

Those comments, which came before Sarr announced that he would transfer to UK, were debated on ESPN’s “Pardon the Interruption” and “Highly Questionable.” In that latter debate, former Triangle sports radio host Bomani Jones said Forbes wasn’t wrong.

After Matt Jones of Kentucky Sports Radio took shots at Wake Forest, talking about when “we” beat Wake Forest, Graham, featured in this column in March, took shots at the Kentucky program and made fun of Matt Jones’ show.

Nothing like a media feud.

SportsChannel 8 radio show on hiatus

“SportsChannel 8: The Radio Show,” which has aired 10 a.m.–noon weekdays on WCMC (99.9 The Fan) since Aug. 15, is on summer hiatus until Aug. 31.

There is, however, “SportsChannel 8: The Game Show” online every Wednesday night at 9 o’clock.

North Carolina-related sports stories of note

On WRAL, Jay Jennings reminisced about how he covered North Carolina’s game with Indiana in the 1981 NCAA championship despite not having a press credential. Bribing a doorman is the only way he got in.

In the Winston-Salem Journal, John Dell wrote about Winston-Salem ultramarathoner Bill Keane, who runs six days a week at age 75 and puts in mileage that would be daunting to runners half his age. He’s run 387 ultras and ran 3,129 miles in 2019. 

In The News & Observer and Herald-Sun, Luke DeCock wrote about a UNC student from China who translated two episodes of ESPN’s documentary “The Last Dance” from English to Chinese. When it came to one comment from Carolina coach Roy Williams, it was frickin’ hard. 

Fodder for a number of debates over a few beers, The Athletic’s Brendan Marks wrote about the best players to wear every jersey at Duke, and also wrote a similar story on UNC.

Most stories about “The Last Dance” have been understandably complimentary. In The Guardian, Bryan Armen Graham took a more critical look at the documentary, questioning whether there were journalist compromises.

In the News & Record of Greensboro, Ed Hardin wrote about Forbes and his small-town roots in Iowa.