Al Sullivan’s Personal Blogs

Al Sullivan’s Personal Blogs


Talent and lucky breaks


This has been a very frustrating year and a half.

I’ve always believed that talent wins over luck, but lately, this has wavered.

Since moving my beat to Bayonne, a lot of the drive I had as an anti-corruption crusader evaporated when I found my role reverting to a little town reporter.

I have nothing against little reporters, despite the misperception in the media that weekly reporters do not pull their own weight, and for the most part report on what goes on in a rose festival rather than in the Rose Garden.

For me, reporting on most daily newspapers is a chore of frustration. Most media – even things like the New York Times – are bloated bureaucracies with nearly constant internal conflicts over how news should be covered, if at all.

This is the reason I started my own newspaper in the 1990s, determined to show how little contemporary media lives up to its ideal of serving the public. I always believed – and I still do – that a committed local weekly reporter can kick the ass of any daily from the New York Times to the Washington Post.

The problem is no one will notice.

Until this year, I didn’t care. For some reason, I did my job as hard as I could, becoming a force for decency in the small world where I reported.

Perhaps being shifted out of that world had its effect on me. I was doing significant investigative pieces (some of which even got a county executive sentenced to jail) only to find myself back at the rose festival – not so much a significant step back in reality, only in my mind.

I thought people were starting to take notice, despite my status as a weekly reporter.

Then, things went amiss. A threat of a lawsuit by powerful state Republicans backed me off a story of fund raising abuses that could have led to the President. (Oh, how glorious a thought that was, a new Watergate perhaps with a weekly reporter at its lead!) Then, through several connections, I came within a half hour of an exclusive interview with the Governor of New Jersey just after he announced his resignation. The phone call was scheduled, but never came. A political feud interrupted it. After which the governor flaked out in his lame duck status.

My bosses – who had witnessed both of these promised scoops – began to look at me oddly, seeing me perhaps as an over ambitious fool who could not deliver on his promises.

Then, Steven Spielberg and Tom Cruise came to Bayonne.

This was one of those rare moments in time when even a small town reporter can excel, and over last nine months, I wrote my ass off, trying to out do anyone else, using skills I had used in other venues to obtain access to movie sites and such.

I thought perhaps I could even get an interview with the legendary director or his star.

While gnats may sting a little, they are generally beneath attention. No interview. No real official recognition.

Then last week, the New York Post called looking to use pictures I had posted on my website. I didn’t take them, but came into their possession through contacts inside the movie company. I agreed to let the Post use them free as long as they credited my newspaper.

A photo credit in the post is gold for a journalist. But more importantly, it could elevate a gnat to someone worthy of the director’s attention.

For some reason, no one has yet explained, the Post backed off use of the photos, but worse managed to get an interview with Spielberg.

There are lessons in all his, of course. A story is a story no matter whom or what it is about – in a weekly or a daily.

Powerful people tend to hob knob with other powerful people, yet often less worthy of coverage than the local butcher.

Personal satisfaction better not depend upon whether you are noticed by important institutions.

Don’t let ambition for attention force you out of what you do best. If you are a great local reporter, local people will notice.

Humbled, I go back to being a big fish in a small pond rather than a guppie in a sea of sharks.



After I wrote this diatribe on talent and luck, the NY Post got back to me to thank me for the use of one of my photos. This, of course, forced me to go back to the copy of the Sunday Post to take a closer look at the images. Indeed, I got a photo credit. Unfortunately, it was for a similar photo to one of mine, but one that had to have been taken by Steven Spielberg’s staff because the angle was higher than I was able to get when shooting the sets. Many of my photos of the Bayonne set are very close in quality to the Paramount’s, but the shot the Post used was taken from the motion picture camera platform which Spielberg used so effectively in depicting the Bayonne yards in which his main characters acted out their scenes. Every other shot in the Post spread comes from Paramount. Ethics, of course, demands that I point this out to the Post so that they can make a correction. I suppose eventually, I will – if Paramount doesn’t beat me to it – but for a few moments, perhaps a week, I shall bask in the glory of fate and let my name hang unsullied in the archives of the Post, up there in lights next to great photographers.

Maybe if I sacrifice to the Luck God, I’ll accidentally get credited with a Spielberg interview.



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