by Matt Paulson
photography by Jenna Campbell
“You’re missing your story. Already, you’re missing it,” the Queens native blurts to his interviewer, his words riding a slightly retained New York flavor. He wears a vertically-striped shirt and maroon tie; his brown hair has long retreated from neatness, disheveled from what looks like a long day at work. He wears his pants baggier than one would expect from an executive, possibly the result of a 40-pound weight loss in the last two years—doctor’s orders.
A relentless philosopher and professor of any and all things that interest him, Steve O’Sullivan, the 50-year-old general manager of the Daily Bulletin, takes any chance he can to teach whoever is willing to listen.
University of La Verne, 6:30 p.m.
He has taken a short break from instructing a student in his Ethics of the Mass Media class at the University of La Verne to guide this writer. But this is not the first time, and it will not be the last. Upon hearing that La Verne Magazine wanted to do a story on him, O’Sullivan reluctantly agreed, replying, “As a controlling type, I will need to interview myself, write and edit the piece.” But that’s simply his nature, and never is it mean-spirited or patronizing. Frank Pine, managing editor at the Daily Bulletin, says, “Steve brings a sophistication to the work, and his language reflects that, and it is kind of professorial. And it fits. It fits his persona.”
But teach is not all O’Sullivan can do. Throughout his life, he has rifled through interests, picking up new quests and dropping old ones as the years progress. He is partly the product of a lifetime in newspapers, becoming a temporary expert on any topic that crosses his desk that day, and partly the product of possessing the soul of an artist. He simply finds his way into whatever he finds interesting at the time, and he sucks those around him into his momentary passion. “You have to roll with the changes that occur,” he explains. “If you’re lucky enough to have good health, and if you’re lucky enough to get paid to do what you like to do, you should be willing to pick things up and let things go as you go along.”
For O’Sullivan, it’s about playing the game of life. When he says, “You played,” it’s a compliment. This perpetually-shifting base of interest has provided for a wealth of talents, skills and areas of knowledge accumulated over the years. And his propensity to teach led him to the University of La Verne, where the adjunct professor shares his wealth of expertise with budding journalists.
“. . . as palatable as possible.”
When Charles Bentley, director of University Relations at ULV, as a favor for the Communications Department Chair called the Daily Bulletin in search of last-minute replacement teacher for a News Editing course, O’Sullivan’s ears perked up. “I said, ‘I’d like to do that.’ I had just finished graduate school, so I was still in that mode,” O’Sullivan says. So he called Bentley, who put him in touch with Department Chair George Keeler. After talking to Keeler, O’Sullivan had one day’s notice and was teaching the next night.
Students in O’S’s first class—ostensibly about news editing—got much more than they bargained for with treatises on xyz, analyses of the al-Qaeda business model and behind-the-scenes insight into newsroom culture. “We only did about three or four weeks of copy editing in the class,” he says, “but I tried to make it as palatable as possible.”
Last fall, O’Sullivan brought his approach into Ethics of Mass Media for his sophomore effort. Today, he has orchestrated an exercise in covering a scandal at a fictional company: “The Parts Company is the biggest employer in town. Everyone knows it. Everyone’s dad worked there. Everyone knows. They employ 1,000 people. They’ve been there 100 years. This is such an important company; the town is named after the company. It’s Parts City. You don’t want to live there.”
Not all students quite get O’Sullivan as a professor. In class, as it does everywhere, his brain darts from topic to topic, rarely giving its audience time to process; students frantically attempt—sometimes in vain—to follow. His philosophical rants and diction sometimes stretch students’ comprehension and escape their vocabulary. Few professors throw out words like heuristic and stochastic. To many students, he’s just the prof who ordered pizza on the second day of class and gives a good grade simply for showing up. During the exercise, one student told his group: “I love this teacher, man. We don’t get [much] homework.”
But some do get him: “We teach with our personalities, and Steve has the gift,” says George Keeler, chair of the Communications Department. “Many of my best students have taken his class even though it didn’t count in their major, just to be in his presence.”
“Most of the students are going to find the story,” O’Sullivan says, the back corner of his shirt untucked. He clutches a Diet Rite, which describes the arc of his frequent gestures. “How will they pursue it? How will they write the story?” During the exercise, the different groups of students interview their subjects as O’Sullivan peers in. His passion is perpetually throbbing. He is constantly moving. One minute he lounges with his legs up on the couch, the next he strides down the hallway to buy a bag of Grandma’s cookies, never staying in one spot for more than 15 seconds. “The trick is to get the corporate document,” O’Sullivan explains. “I don’t think they know to get the document.”
Soon after he finishes speaking, a girl in the class grabs for the document from the interviewee, saying, “It’s a legal document. If it’s legal, we can have it.” O’Sullivan responds, “They know.”
“. . . a big joy ride.”
O’Sullivan has never hesitated to dive into something headfirst. Thirty years before diving into teaching at a private college with professedly one day’s notice, O’Sullivan took a substantial leap of faith, diving into an experience few could even imagine—much less pursue—today. Early in the 1970s, as a freshman at the State University of New York in Fredonia, O’Sullivan found Jack Kerouac. He immersed himself into the then-recently-deceased of the beat-generation sage. “I just devoured everything that he wrote, and I said, ‘Well, I’ve got to leave school and go hitchhiking,’” O’Sullivan recalls what must seem to be a lifetime ago, sitting in his casual Friday attire, which has replaced his usual shirt and tie. So accompanied by a friend—whom he hadn’t seen for 26 years until a few weeks ago— he left school the summer after his freshman year to heed a classic impulse. Go West.
Working his way picking fruit and as a carnie, O’Sullivan traveled up and down the coast from Mexico to Canada, constantly satisfying his innate appetite for new people along the way. “They were all colorful characters. It was everything you’d expect. There were people who had just been released from prison, who had colorful stories. I stayed with carnie people. I stayed with colorful people: clowns and tramps, religious people, people trying to convert you. It was just a big joy ride.”
When he was not working whatever odd job he had acquired for the day or week, O’Sullivan simply relaxed, hitchhiking up into some remote piece of Washington with some fishing line and a pen, pulling fish from whatever waterway he found, writing about the people he met and the experiences he forged in the numerous journals and diaries he kept during the trip, most of which have been trashed due to their painfully adolescent nature, he says.
And things remained that way for about the next six months. He continued to roam, working with and meeting new people. He was simply having fun. “You can do that when you’re 18, back in 1973. But you can’t do that now; it’s a different era. It was different. The country was different. California was different. It was safer. It wasn’t safe, but it was safer.”
Indeed, times have changed. The laid-back era of acceptance and coexistence that so many people of O’Sullivan’s generation embraced is all but gone. With the summer of love giving way to autumn, O’Sullivan reflects fondly on the sincerity of the time. “It was a blast. It was something from that time. I was the end of that era,” he says. The self-proclaimed “liberal” youth of today, although attempting to latch onto whatever second-hand 1960 and ’70s peace and love they can through the books and movies of the time, just can’t get it. The country has changed. “I don’t think anyone could do it anymore,” O’Sullivan says. “Things are too hard-edged.”
Eventually, O’Sullivan had to step back into the real world. His full-time rover days had to end, so he went back to school part time. He picked up a gig on the school paper, not knowing it was the first step in a new life that would lead him, nearly 30 years later, to his desk today in the president’s office of the Inland Valley Daily Bulletin. After graduation, he went to work as a copy editor at a small paper in 1978. He’s been in newspapers full time ever since.
“She’s much more interesting than I am.”
But rarely has his quest been alone. O’Sullivan’s wife Laurel Long, who teaches illustration and graphic art at Cal State Northridge, a fact he proudly states twice during the interview, also grew up in New York. They met in his fourth year of college and have been together ever since. As he traveled to his different positions throughout the country, Laurel simply came along, teaching nearby wherever O’Sullivan was editing. “Our careers have been similar. We’re doing exactly the same things now that we were doing in college. In college, she was an artist; I was a newspaper editor. She’s been an artist, and I’ve been a newspaper editor.”
“I’m broad. I’m not deep.”
O’Sullivan’s life as a born-again newspaperman began in earnest with a job for a Syracuse paper. True to his blue-collar roots, he slowly worked his way up, becoming the night editor. He eventually found himself on the West Coast, heading the features section of the Los Angeles Daily News. Since, he has occupied posts at papers throughout Southern California, punctuated by a year-long stint in Georgia, all part of a progression leading to the Daily Bulletin president’s office.
Now, he humbly declares the mundaneness of his life as general manager, a position related much more closely to business than news. In an e-mail response to the announcement that the Magazine wanted to do a story on him, he replied, “My life is soooo boring, except when performing with the Daily Bulletin house band— the Bullet-Tones. Otherwise, it’s meetings with ashen bureaucrats, punctuated by idle tedium and too many lunches with—you guessed it—bureaucratic associates following meetings.”But according to Daily Bulletin Managing Editor Frank Pine, O’Sullivan still occasionally sticks his nose into the newspaper side. “I think that he’s having fun, but certainly I think there’s a longing for the newsroom.” He recalls O’Sullivan editing stories as executive editor at the city desk on busy nights. “How could he not want to be a part of it?”
And in his quest to reach the ninth circle of newspaper bureaucracy, O’Sullivan’s 27-year climb has also helped lend to his broad band of knowledge and interests. Newspaper writers constantly change from story to story, from topic to topic, becoming temporary experts on whatever they are covering that day. They scratch the surface of a certain topic and then must move on. “I’m broad. I’m not deep,” O’Sullivan says. “I think some personality types are attracted to depth, and I think some personality types are comfortable with a broader, more general approach. Newspapers are filled with generalists. The business world is filled with specialists.”
“. . . a positive response to a midlife crisis.”
Although a self-proclaimed generalist, O’Sullivan recently joined the business world of specialists, earning his MBA from Drucker School of Management at Claremont Graduate University, a move he calls a “positive response to a midlife crisis. Most people at midlife reflect, and they look back and think about who you are, where you’re going, how you got doing what you’re doing. I’m proactive in general. I like to look ahead. I’m future-oriented, so I just decided I’ve always wanted a master’s degree.”
So in his late 40s, O’Sullivan—accompanied by a slew of 30-somethings—dived into business school. As an undergraduate, O’Sullivan attended school on a state university scholarship, and it took him six years to obtain his undergraduate degree, partly a result of going to school part time and also focusing elsewhere. But Claremont was different. “We talked about F. Scott Fitzgerald, and the question about second acts in human life. It was a classic second act in human life. Not only to go to graduate school somewhat later in life, but to go to a top-quality graduate school and work very hard at it, and do well; and I did well, graduated with honors. I had never achieved honors before.”
“It’s sort of like a sonar. I just listen all day long.”
The degree from CGU also helped prepare O’Sullivan for his role as boss, moving him from the newspaper side to the business side of the Daily Bulletin, a move he welcomed with alacrity. A newbie to the business side, he seems to be getting the hang of it, constantly honing his technique, and—one of his “idiosyncratics,” as he calls them—introspectively analyzing his duties and his role in the world around him.
By 9 a.m. this morning, O’Sullivan has already talked to Pine about a possible libel suit, in addition to talking over the phone with the group publisher about cost assessments for co-production of a weekly, a special bonus for a salesperson, which he initiated as soon as he got off the phone, and setting up a meeting with the publisher for later today. Now, he strolls around the newsroom, looming over the half-walled cubicles. “It’s sort of a passive listening,” he says. “It’s sort of like a sonar. I just listen all day long. I’m like a radar station.” Within five minutes of roaming, O’Sullivan has been informed by his employees that there will be a split D section in an upcoming issue, has accepted an invitation to a pizza party at noon by a graphic designer and discussed archival storage options.
“The goal is not to call meetings on this stuff. The goal is to be plugged in. The top goal for management is not to be surprised. For the most part, people know what to do better than the management. It’s all about the information,” he explains, speaking softly, as if attempting to keep the conversation private.
Not only does O’Sullivan, the boss, listen to his employees, he teaches as well. As it happens so often, O’Sullivan, the teacher/philosopher, sneaks out of the boss exterior, frequently lapsing into philosophical conversations on anything that has to do with journalism, a trend Pine noticed while working under him as managing editor when O’Sullivan was executive editor. “Many people came out of that office with their eyes a little wide. I think he would surprise them with a quick mini course.” But Pine says the lessons are typically on topic and nearly always helpful, even if only after a bit of reflection.
One year before an election, O’Sullivan presented the idea of doing slices of life from election polls. Reporters would go to polling places and hunt for odd stories, which would then be published as a sort of reporter’s notebook. When O’Sullivan first told Pine about the idea, Pine recalls confusion: “What? You want me to do what? Then, a light clicks on, and you say, ‘OK, that’s what he wanted to do.’” That year, they implemented O’Sullivan’s idea, and since, “It’s become a house trick.” Pine says this type of philosophical-turned-nuts-and-bolts conversation exists frequently with O’Sullivan. “He gives you enough to go with that you can add to it yourself, and you can run with it. It’s enabling.”
“. . . a pure, sheer lack of talent.”
Entering the break room at the Daily Bulletin, employees expect quiet, maybe a few low conversations bouncing off the vending machines, but nothing fantastic. Not today.
The house band, the Bullet-Tones, are jamming through whatever style of music they have chosen, and the boss is on bass.
As he does for many of the other parts of his life, O’Sullivan downplays his musical ability. He has an air of extreme modesty about it, almost as if he does not deserve to be deemed a musician. “I’m good at some things. I’m not good at others. I’ve been playing forever, and I can’t play very well. It’s a pure, sheer lack of talent.”
“I think he doesn’t give himself a lot of credit. He’s a good bass player,” says Melissa Pinion, singer and keyboardist. Pinion sees the band as the great equalizer. “Even though he’s the publisher, we all kind of feel like we’re on the same level because we’re all musicians.”
The Bullet-Tones—O’Sullivan came up with the name on an invitation to a party—formed simply for fun to play charity gigs. “It’s less formal than a real band,” says Gordon Campbell, who’s been playing for 40 years. “But we take it seriously when we do it.” They really have no sound, as they try to incorporate all types of music into their performances. Campbell loves the blues, while Pinion plays alternative, despite singing Ella Fitzgerald’s “At Last” at last year’s Christmas Party.
O’Sullivan’s modesty transfers onto the stage, where, as the bass player, he lets everyone else shine, ducking into a dark corner to play, “He’s a bit of a neophyte when it comes to playing on stage,”says Gordon. “They all play well, except me, but I brought the gigs,” O’Sullivan says, only half-joking.
University of La Verne, 9:50 p.m.
Class has ended for tonight. “We’re done otherwise,” O’Sullivan says, following a short debrief. “You can do whatever you want.” Students file out, possibly reflecting on class, but most likely not.
“It’s not over everyone’s head,” O’Sullivan says after class. “Everyone gets it on their own level. The challenge is for everyone to cross the finish line together. That’s the high point of my evening.”
His unconventional teaching tactics—ordering pizza, bringing current events of his life into class, using games he made up—have inspired some lighthearted ragging from friends in the profession. “My response to them is: I’m not a real professor. I’m nothing but a liberal arts guy. I’m going to bring the liberal arts orientation into anything that I do. It if works, great. If it doesn’t work, they don’t have to ask me to come back. It’s up to them. They know what they’re doing.”
Whether he comes back or not, O’Sullivan “played” at ULV, as he’s done all his life—traveling up and down the West Coast searching for Kerouac; bouncing from paper to paper, his beloved wife in tow; ducking into the corner on stage, humbly plucking his bass; diving into graduate school, 15 years older than all his classmates. His life remains a collection of waxing and fading interests, an arsenal of haphazardly accumulated knowledge, a heaving sack of existence.
“I don’t do it for the money,” he says of his teaching job at ULV. “I don’t even know what it pays. I just do it for the experience.”