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Confessions of a Dead Tribune
Posted on Aug 19, 2011
By Mark Heisler
Editor’s note: The Los Angeles Times’ Mark Heisler, 2006 winner of the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame’s Curt Gowdy Award and a Truthdig contributor, was laid off by the newspaper in July, one year before he planned to retire. With 44 years in the business, and 32 at the Times, he reminds us that newspapers were in trouble long before the Internet but still offer at least the promise of something their competitors can’t match. Bearing in mind his severance agreement not to “disparage” the company “in any way,” he nonetheless provides an inside look as one of the world’s great papers is bought, sold and turned into a caricature of its former self.
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Not that the sudden end of my 44-year career in newspapers was disorienting, but I found myself feeling my body to see if I was still here, asking myself, “Who are you?”
It was a joke, I think.
For the last 32 years, I had been “Mark Heisler of the Los Angeles Times.” Before that, “Mark Heisler of the Philadelphia Bulletin” or “Mark Heisler of Somewhere” since June 1, 1967, when Gannett hired me at $125 a week.
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Oh yeah ... ME!
Not that this is about the bad things that happened to me, because I got out way ahead of the game. I got to live my dream, even if I bitched every step of the way. At 67, I was ready to go when I did … give or take a few months, from next July when I planned to retire, to next April, which is how long they paid me in severance.
This is really about the biz, and everyone who preceded me over the falls, and everyone who’s still on the job but can feel the current and hear the roar.
I got to do what I did—get in games for free, meet great stars, some of whom were even fun to know, and, best of all, write about it exactly the way I wanted to—before, during and after the Sam Zell era, which began in 2008 when the billionaire wheeler-dealer bought the Tribune chain that included the Times.
Everything else was changing daily, as holdovers in the chain of command learned daily, obliged to keep straight faces as Sam’s Zellots, imported from radio—now there was a boom industry—unveiled their latest idea to reinvent us.
It was harder than the new people imagined. The challenge of TV had newspapers trying to reinvent themselves for decades before the dawn of the Internet (when Tribune made $1.2 billion in AOL stock and later went looking for a corporate acquisition that turned out to be Times parent company Times Mirror, according to Trib-turned-Times Editor Jim O’Shea, providing the answer to the question we used to ask: How did they buy us?).
(O’Shea was one of several Trib-turned-Times execs sent out from Chicago to get us under control who went native and were fired in the eight-year occupation, er, in the time before Zell discovered that fat ESOP fund he could use to buy Tribune.)
Not that I, or anyone, could tune out Zell’s “chief innovation officer” Lee Abrams, whose success in radio seemed life-defining to him, or mind-altering, leaving him capable of announcing upon arrival:
“While my background is steeped in ‘Rock n Roll,’ I strongly believe that News and Information is the new Rock n Roll. ...
“The Tribune has the choice of doing to News/Information/Entertainment what Rock n Roll did to music ... to be the Ray Charles, Dylans, Beatles and U2s of the Information age ... or have someone else figure it out, or worse, let these American institutions disappear into irrelevancy.”
Abrams peppered everyone in the chain with memos full of more insights like this one, which somehow ignored the fact that two of his four “American institutions” weren’t American, and thundering proclamations (“You are either WITH the revolution or AGAINST it”), even after a WAVE OF MOCKERY of his use of caps, which, THE PROFESSIONAL WRITERS IN HIS EMPLOY assumed he did to press points IN THE ABSENCE OF ANY KNOWLEDGE OF THE BUSINESS.
If eye rolls were debilitating, we might never have published again, but nothing stopped Abrams from leaving his mark in newspaper history in the role of the fabled emperor, parading proudly in the breeze, dressed only in his nonexistent new clothes.
I didn’t read the memos, which were dismaying, not to mention an open invitation to tell him where to put his revolution if you didn’t catch yourself before hitting “reply.”
I should note I have signed a termination agreement, stipulating I won’t “disparage” or “denigrate” Tribune. Since interpretations can vary, even if they hadn’t stuck in the words “in any way,” I thought it only prudent to wait for my severance check before writing this.
Nevertheless, to me, disparaging the company means calling it names or questioning its motives, which I’m not.
If Zell and Abrams were publicly and unapologetically unconventional, both have resigned their positions with Tribune, or, should I say, parachuted out. The company is now being run by a board, headed by Times Publisher Eddy Hartenstein.
(Highlights remain online, like Zell’s 2008 session with the Orlando Sentinel staff, when he muttered “Fuck you” at photographer Sara Fajardo, who asked if his injunction to give readers what they wanted mean writing about “puppy dogs.”
(If that one was accidental, picked up on Sam’s open mike, he went on to deride an unnamed Trib executive for complaining that no one was telling him what he was supposed to do, snarling: “Now this motherfucker makes $750,000 a year!”
Tribune isn’t what it was in 2008, as it prepares to emerge from bankruptcy, in the process of deciding what it is to be, still obliged to fight for its very survival as the economy slows dangerously once more.
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