When I returned to the Burlington Times-News in 2007 as executive editor, one of the first people I wanted to meet was Bob Sutton, the sports editor. Bob was hardly new to the job then. His dedication, commitment and work habits were already the stuff of legend. And if I recall correctly, he had just been named North Carolina Sports Writer of the Year for the first time. It would not be the last.
And because I was hired in Burlington, the first go-round in 1984 by the best sports editor in the newspaper’s history — Bill Hunter — I looked forward to meeting the best sports editor at the Times-News since Hunter retired after 37 memorable years on the job before passing away in 1998.
But Bob wasn’t excited to meet me at all. Part of that, I learned quickly, could be chalked up to his personality. But there was something more. In fact, I’m sure I made him nervous, even anxious. After all, I was the new guy in charge of the newsroom. I was the devil he didn’t know. He only had my reputation to go on. Because my disposition when I left the Times-News for the Jacksonville Daily News in 1992 could be generally described as “cranky,” I’m sure there was some concern. Who knows what kind of new horrors I would inflict on the sports staff?
I suspected he had one other worry as I settled into the office at the opposite corner of the room from his desk, which was always stacked high with old newspapers. When we finally did sit down to talk, I tried to allay that fear right away. I remember telling Bob: “Just because I got my start in sports doesn’t mean I’m going to micromanage your department. I’ve seen a lot of publishers or managers do that over the years, become hyper focused on whatever their background is. Ad directors who become publishers are hard on ad directors. Circulation directors who become publishers fixate on circulation. I’m not going to be that guy. I’m not looking over your shoulder. I may have a suggestion every now and then but if you keep doing what you’re doing, we won’t have many problems.”
So he did.
A few months later, after I had established myself and made some minor changes here and there, Bob came on his own to my office. “What can I do to get better?” he asked, which I took as acknowledgement that he approved of the work I was doing.
It was an interesting question on too many levels to list. When someone does so many things as well as Bob, the answers aren’t very obvious. After all, he almost daily designed all or most of the sports section, wanted as many local bylines on stories as was humanly possible and personally covered or made sure someone covered absolutely everything from local auto racing to the city bodybuilding championships. It wasn’t unusual to see him in the office at 9 or 10 a.m. and leave at 2 a.m. after the edition for that night had gone to press He might crisscross the state a few times a week if not a day to get from Winston-Salem to Raleigh to Durham to Chapel Hill then back to Burlington. Days off? He spent those covering Durham Bulls minor league baseball games. Vacation? He covered football games involving ACC teams when they played at Syracuse, which is near where he grew up and where his family still lives. And, yes, he wrote columns, typed briefs, edited Sports Flashbacks, made the daily local event listing. Overall, he wanted to produce the best sports section possible in a given day, even if that meant pushing the deadline a little. It was a personal challenge and I couldn’t fault him for wanting to pursue excellence.
It was amazing to watch the man work. So when I finally developed an answer to his question he was surprised. “You could do less,” I said. “Get some rest occasionally. Prioritize. Clear your head. It will give you more time to write and develop ideas for how to improve the section.”
Bob decided to ignore the “do less” advice. It wasn’t in his DNA. So he continued doing what he had always done. I’m sure it sounded ridiculous to him. How could he do less when there was so much to do? I was good with it. Over the years, we had no major clashes, but I did snap at him once that I can recall and I later apologized. And as the newspaper business changed and ownership seemed always in flux, there was no small amount of headaches and hassles. Toward the end of my time, I approached Bob and said, “I’m afraid I have some bad news.” To which Bob replied, “You never have good news for me, Madison.” He wasn’t wrong.
As most know, I left the newspaper business for good in November 2016 because I could see the industry burning to the ground and I didn’t want to be one of those glowing embers that last for awhile after the structure itself is long gone. I’ve written several times about the heartbreaking end of the newspaper business and people can find the collection in this link. After leaving the Times-News, I remained in touch with my friends there, including Bob. Over the last year, several newsroom or former newsroom people I know left for new careers (Jessica Williams, Michael Abernethy, Charity Apple Pierce) or retired (Linda Bowden). They all had the opportunity to exit on their own.
Bob isn’t so fortunate. Friday (May 1, 2020) is Bob’s last day at the Times-News. A week ago he was told to be available for a telephone conference call with corporate people he hardly knows. There he was laid off after 25 years of impeccable and loyal service to the the Times-News and the Alamance County sports community. And in the start of a global pandemic to boot. During his more than two decades, he was twice named North Carolina Sports Writer of the Year and won multiple awards in the North Carolina Press Association contest. He has the respect of his peers statewide, in the newsroom and among his sports staff — not to mention people in Alamance County.
It’s an outrage that this happened. Gannett never took into account the quality or quantity of Bob’s work. I told someone this week that Bob produced more content than every North Carolina Gannett reporter put together. It’s an exaggeration, but not a huge one.
In the end, he represented merely a salary on a spread sheet. The response on social media when the news was posted by our longtime friend and former Times-News colleague R.L. Bynum was immediate and intense. Here is a healthy sample.
Yes, Bob is the best. And the decision by Gannett is astonishing and sad but not surprising in an industry that grows more invisible every day. Others were laid off earlier this year at the Times-News. There will be more.
But I didn’t write this as Bob’s professional obituary. Far from it. I wanted to pay tribute to one of the most professional people I have ever known, someone who brought his A game — or fought his way there — each and every day. I never worked with anyone like him and don’t expect I will again.
More than anything else, though, I want Bob to know and understand that this is also an opportunity. It’s a chance to escape a bad situation and find something better. He’s too talented and diligent not to be making a major difference wherever he lands.
More than a year ago we met at The Oak House in Elon to talk about the inevitable “what next” after it would no longer be possible to work for a newspaper. He thought I had exited at the right time and in the right way. We talked about non-newspaper scenarios in a variety of fields, many connected to remaining involved in sports but not reporting for a newspaper. I landed in higher education and I told Bob it was the best thing for me. He only needs to open his mind to all the possibilities out there as the pandemic begins to ease.
My guess is, he’ll work hard to make this happen. It certainly won’t be for lack of effort.