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Confessions of a Dead Tribune
Posted on Aug 19, 2011
By Mark Heisler
There was a new policy for columnists throughout the paper: Once one of us took after someone (say, embattled-but-connected Dodger owner Frank McCourt), the rest of us weren’t supposed to continue in that vein.
Of course, this posed challenges in how to cover figures in ongoing controversies, like Frank McCourt.
Not that it applied in this case, unless the entire Laker organization fell under the interpretation. Bill Plaschke had torched the Lakers’ surprising hiring of coach Mike Brown, after which I had written about the hire as the debut of Jim Buss, the owner’s son, as head of the organization.
With more to say—like where was Jerry Buss if his son needed guidance?—I learned we had been told we had already run “one column too many” on the subject, a dramatic shift after years of All-Lakers-All-the-Time coverage had reaped hundreds of millions of hits on our site (and gotten lunch for three of us with Editor Russ Stanton after the Lakers won in 2010).
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A month later, while on vacation, I got the phone call giving me the rest of my life off.
So I got to go out in a blaze of in-group glory, after all, with severance pay through April.
Worked for me!
Of course, I’ll miss it. At least, I’ll miss the guys and dolls in the department and being “Mark Heisler of the Los Angeles Times.”
Otherwise, it was harder to work there daily, as if Someone Up There was saying, “You’re lucky you’re still here—and here’s what else you’ll have to do to stay.”
Of course, that Someone Up There had Someone Even Higher, telling him the same thing.
Unfortunately, compromising what we did was so entrenched as a way of life, we barely remembered things were ever different, while learning we would be making new, bigger compromises.
(Zell and the New Wave had a term for remembering, or clinging to what we had been taught were the principles underlying everything we did: “journalistic arrogance.”)
If our challenge was to get better when TV took the games away from us and the Internet beat the delivery time of our reportage by 12 hours, we got smaller and thinner, which was inevitable as ads declined, and worse, which wasn’t.
Newspapers entered the computer age in the ’70s and ’80s with promises of later deadlines that would give us more time to report, think through and write our stories.
Instead, the extra time went to the production side to cut costs. Our deadlines—particularly merciless for our main run at 10:30 p.m., with the average baseball game that started at 7:30 getting under way at 7:40 and ending around 10:45—stayed where they were. One memorable Saturday last fall, they moved it up to 9:30 p.m., too early to get the score of the USC-Stanford game, one of our lead stories, into the main run of the newspaper, as if the readers might not notice.
You may ask, how can you write a gamer before it ends, to say nothing of a column, which is supposed to be more than routine play-by-play?
Beats me. All we could do was figure out how to be as good as we could under the circumstances.
For me, that meant:
1. Get pregame quotes, with something timeless, informative and/or entertaining in them, hopefully.
2. Write the bottom of the column first at halftime, beginning with the quotes, filling in with the events that led up to the game and (sorry) play-by-play.
Quotes in midstory made it look as if it was reported thoroughly, unless you read closely enough to realize they were all before the game, which was now long over.
2. When the game ended, slap the best lead I could come up with on top. Postgame quotes were nice, even if they weren’t great, to show this wasn’t a total finesse job—but required at least 20 minutes before deadline for the coach to speak and the players to then become available, so you could ask a question pointed enough to get anything better than, “We missed a lot of open looks, and, of course, they shot all those free throws, but I can’t comment on the officiating.”
3. Try not to let it get to you and go home depressed.
This was easier when the games were one-sided.
The tough games were the ones with great finishes, when you didn’t have time to say much more than “The finish was great.”
In other words, the newspapers that landed on doorsteps the next morning were scamming our readers more and more, while ESPN, Yahoo, YouTube, et al., provided more and more sooner and sooner—including video of postgame interviews, in which we were the ones asking the questions.
Of course, the people we scammed were those running our papers, talking about the bang-up job we were still doing, which made it feel OK to make more compromises.
TV and the Internet slashed our audience, not by offering more (since we soon offered as much or more online) but by being user-friendlier platforms.
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