Blue No More
More than a year after they were fired from USA Today for messing with a piece of sculpture at Gannett Co. headquarters, three women journalists are doing just fine.
By Kathryn S. Wenner
After some detours and rough spots, three women who were fired from USA Today in late 2001--over an unfortunate incident involving a large, expensive blue ball--land on their feet in journalism jobs they love.
Kathryn S. Wenner, a former AJR associate editor, is a copy editor at
the Washington Post.
On December 3, veteran Gannett sports journalists Karen Allen and Denise Tom, along with database editor Cheryl Phillips, an eight-year employee, were fired without severance pay. A few days earlier, Allen and Phillips, in a moment of thoughtless levity, had scrawled Tom's name and "Kilroy was here" in the dusty coating of a specially commissioned sculpture outside the office of Gannett Chairman and CEO Douglas H. McCorkindale (see Bylines, January/February 2002). Apologies and offers to make restitution were fruitless.
Tom, now 50, sold her house in Virginia and, with her son, moved in with her mother in the San Francisco Bay Area. In August, she found a full-time job as an office assistant, then began working Saturdays as a sports copy editor at the San Jose Mercury News.
After 26 years in journalism, nearly all in sports--including an episode that drew national attention when she was barred from the Cincinnati Bengals locker room in violation of National Football League policy--she wanted to stay in the business. Her break came last month, when she started work as the new journalism program officer for the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation in Miami.
"Everything that happened...just was meant to create a new opportunity for me to go try something new," Tom says. Although "the sports section will always be the first section I pick up every day, it will be nice to watch it as a fan and not have to worry about it as a deadline."
Phillips, 41, a board member of Investigative Reporters and Editors, landed a freelance gig last spring doing data analysis for an NBC "Dateline" special on drunk driving. In June, she joined the Seattle Times' investigative team. The Washington, D.C., sniper story, with its Washington-state connection, temporarily interrupted her project work last fall, sending her to Antigua to report on the two suspects.
When she was fired, Phillips says, "I didn't know I was making a great career move."
Allen, who turns 50 this month, spent last February working the Olympics for the Salt Lake Organizing Committee. In April she rode a bicycle around South Africa, encouraging villagers to donate blood while protecting themselves from HIV infection. She walked dogs during the summer and fall, and in December, she unloaded U.S. Postal Service trucks.
The only one to stay in the Washington area, Allen in January became a features and arts and entertainment editor for Scripps Howard News Service.
Of the firing, Allen says, "It's almost too weird to put a meaning on. You can't take it personally when something that weird happens."
The women have filed complaints with the federal government alleging gender discrimination, and for Allen and Tom, age discrimination. The complaints are under review.
Says Phillips, "I still wake up in the morning sometimes and go, 'Was I really fired for that?' "