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American Journalism Review
Blue Christmas  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  The Beat
From AJR,   January/February 2002

Blue Christmas   

Three women on the sports staff at USA Today get fired for writing in dust on a specially commissioned sculpture at Gannett Co.'s expensive new digs.

By Kathryn S. Wenner
Kathryn S. Wenner, a former AJR associate editor, is a copy editor at the Washington Post.     


An apparently lighthearted moment in the hall of power at Gannett Co.'s fancy new headquarters outside Washington, D.C., goes terribly wrong, leaving three female sports staffers at USA Today jobless at the start of the holiday season.

The story of Karen Allen, with 25 years at Gannett; Denise Tom, with 26; and Cheryl Phillips, an eight-year employee who was named an "Enterprise All-Star" last year, saddened and infuriated many in the journalism community. The outpouring of support included donations to a legal fund set up by a journalist friend of Tom's. Here's what happened, according to interviews:

On November 27, Phillips, 39, a database editor; Allen, 48, a reporter who was preparing to cover her eighth Olympics; and Denise Tom, 49, an assignment editor on the special projects desk, went on a fateful afternoon expedition. Phillips and Allen, like other employees, had heard about the "blue ball," a specially commissioned sculpture titled "Aperture" that had recently been installed outside the 11th-floor office of Gannett Chairman and CEO Douglas H. McCorkindale. They decided to take a look, and

Tom, who had already seen it, went along. Gannett owns USA Today and the paper's offices are in the company's new complex in McLean, Virginia.

"It's a beautiful piece of art," Allen says, describing the ball as big, about 5 feet tall, and too wide to get her arms around. "It had like a dusty sheen on it."

Phillips says they saw fingerprints on the ball. "So we touched it and noticed that this blue powder came off on our hands," a substance Allen describes as being the consistency and color of pool cue chalk.

"We were just in a playful kind of foolish mood," Allen says. "We said, 'This is a beautiful place, but this doesn't look like a newspaper office.' " It needed something classic like a linotype machine, the women thought. "So we took our fingers and put 'Kilroy was here' in the dust, never thinking it wasn't something that wasn't just wiped off at night," she says.

Tom didn't write anything. "I'm in middle management...so that's what stopped me.... As soon as they started writing it...I kind of backed away." Phillips wrote Tom's name on the ball, which Tom tried to wipe off. Tom says she remembers saying, "Don't touch anything else," as they were leaving.

Two days later, the three were called to the human resources department, one by one. Allen, who went first, says she was told their actions had been recorded by security cameras and was asked: "Are you aware that you irreparably harmed this piece of art?" Embarrassed and chagrined, she and Phillips apologized. Tom maintained her innocence. The three then went to their boss, Sports Managing Editor Monte Lorell.

"We told Monte, 'Gosh, we're sorry. We had no idea,' " Allen says. "We offered to pay for the damage. Cheryl and I offered to pay Denise's share since she didn't actually write on the ball."

Phillips, who wrote an apology to USA Today President and Publisher Tom Curley that evening, says Lorell told them, "Yeah, it was a dumb thing to do." He said the women might have to pay for the damage, Phillips says, but that he didn't think it was a "firing offense."

The next day, Friday, when most staffers are off, the women say Lorell called them at home and told them not to come to work Sunday. Instead, he told them to report to his office Monday morning.

When they did, Lorell fired them, telling them they'd be paid through the end of the day. They received no severance, the women say. Even though Tom hadn't written anything, he told her she was complicit because she didn't tell anyone about the incident, she says. Allen says Lorell told her the company had considered and then decided against filing felony charges.

Lorell declined to answer AJR's questions. A USA Today spokeswoman said there had been "an act of vandalism involving a piece of artwork at Gannett headquarters...it was investigated, there were security tapes. Criminal charges were considered, [but] we're not going to do that." She said that the three people involved had been terminated but declined to give further details about the incident. A spokesman said neither McCorkindale nor Curley would discuss what happened.

After the women were fired, word of the episode spread quickly. The Washington Post's Lloyd Grove reached the artist who created the blue ball, Lita Albuquerque. She called the firings " 'a terrible thing,' " laughed at what Allen and Phillips wrote, and said, " 'it's certainly reparable for not a lot of money.' " Albuquerque's staff referred AJR's questions to a USA Today spokesman, who declined to comment.

"None of the people I've talked to think it was a firing offense," says NBA reporter Roscoe Nance, who's been at USA Today for 15 years and worked with Allen on the college sports desk and the NBA desk, where she was his supervisor. "Were they wrong in what they did? Yes. I just think that the punishment far outdistanced the crime."

Some staffers suggest that the imminent Gannett board of directors meeting, which took place the following Tuesday, made executives especially touchy.

The women have hired Washington labor and employment attorney Steven K. Hoffman, who says he's been inundated with unsolicited communications from "people who have been at or are at" USA Today and Gannett providing details about how the company dealt with other instances of misconduct.

"The fact that this discipline is so disproportionate to the infractions that triggered it opens up a question," Hoffman says. "What kind of disciplinary system do they have there? Is it meted out with any consistency from person to person or from group to group?"

He notes news reports about a fistfight between two male employees who were subsequently charged with disorderly conduct. Charges against one were dropped; the other must do community service. Neither was fired. "These three women got the boot," Hoffman says.

Linda Mathews, USA Today's cover story editor, says, "I think what [the women] did was stupid and thoughtless, but it wasn't malevolent.... They're not troublemakers, and they're very conscientious....

"I would have thought that...everything we knew about their character would've been taken into account before they were fired."

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