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.
Who turned out the lights?
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.
Suddenly, I was just “Mark Heisler.” Who in the hell was Mark Heisler?
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.
Notable in the Times’ second-quarter revenue shortfall that precipitated the last round of layoffs was the minimal ad buy for “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2,” the eighth movie in the series with Daniel Radcliffe, originally cast in the role at 11, trying to stay twerpy-looking at 22.
So, if I wanted to look at it that way, I was done in by an aging twerp.
Nevertheless, I don’t interpret my agreement as signing away my right to talk about my life. This stuff isn’t conjecture, interpretation or based on third-person accounts. It’s real, as I lived it. Anything that reflects badly on anyone is, nonetheless, what happened. In this business, the truth isn’t one alternative, it’s the reason there is a business and the reason the people in it love it, despite everything that has happened or will happen.
If newspaper people often talk in heroic terms, which their papers don’t always live up to, there really is something cool about a business in which your job is to seek truth. Not a version of the truth that the audience is sure to like, or the one the rest of the biz is running with, or one that doesn’t harm the company, or a socko headline that garners attention. Only one thing matters—Is it true?—and you’re one of the people sent out to see, like a Knight of the Round Table seeking the Holy Grail.
Unfortunately, with recent developments—by recent, I mean the last 100 years—it’s also like working in a haunted house.
Jim Murray, our living legend during my first 19 years at the Times, would often say he expected to wind up on the copy desk, putting paragraph marks in other people’s stories. Of course, he beat the rap, writing in his inimitable style until his death in 1998, but the gloom predated him by decades.
In Ben Hecht’s 1928 Broadway play, “The Front Page,” his star reporter, Hildy Johnson, snaps out at being ribbed by the guys in the police press room for selling out and going into advertising.
“I don’t need anybody to tell me about newspapers,” says Hildy. “I’ve been a newspaperman 15 years. And if you want to know something, you’ll all wind up on the copy desk—hump-backed slobs, dodging garnishees when you’re 90.”
By Billy Wilder’s 1974 movie remake, Hildy’s speech had been updated to:
“So what’s the newspaper business ever done for me? See, I don’t want to end up like you guys will, on the copy desk, gray-haired, hump-backed, half blind, bumming cigarettes from office boys.”
In screenings in 1974, real-life press people were observed laughing it up as their cigar-chomping movie counterparts (veteran character actors Alan Garfield, Charles Durning, et al.) wisecracked while playing poker before a hanging (“I haven’t won a pot since Leopold and Loeb”), listened in on anyone who dictated (“Officials are prepared for a general uprising of radicals at the hour of execution but the Sheriff still refuses to be intimidated by the Red Menace”) and sent in versions that went one better (“Sheriff Hartman has just put 200 more relatives on the payroll to protect the city from the Red Army, which is leaving Moscow in a couple of minutes.”)
However, when Jack Lemmon, as Hildy, delivered his dire eulogy for his pals, the real-life press people grew silent. In 1974, with fewer and fewer cities that had competing newspapers, it hit even closer to home.
* * *
It shouldn’t be a surprise that bad things happen when an industry has been under the gun year after year, decade after decade, century after century.
At 67, one NBA season from retirement (I thought), the rising tide of BS was enough to prompt me (and, I’m sure, half of the building, including bosses) to muse about throwing the job in their faces.
Whose face I would throw it into wasn’t clear. It certainly wasn’t anyone in my department, where my bosses, Bill Dwyre, Rick Jaffe, Dave Morgan, Randy Harvey, Mike James and John Cherwa, treated me like a prince.
“You don’t understand,” I told Cherwa last spring, when he asked me to work a day I figured I had off. “I’m 67. I’m drawing Social Security. I don’t need this job.”
“Well, I’m 57 and I need this job,” replied Cherwa, who knew better than to take me seriously, since I always did what they wanted (or, at least, that’s my story).
“In the good news for you,” I told him, “you’re going to live 10 years longer than I will. In the bad news, you’re going to have to work 10 more years than I will.”
Last winter, the word came down they wanted me to stop writing for Truthdig, which I had no intention of doing. We had been told to avoid displaying any political affiliation, even bumper stickers on our cars, but as a sports writer with no conceivable conflict of interest with anything I covered, I was beyond the point of conceding the paper’s right to whittle the Bill of Rights at its whim.
(I can now reveal my outlaw participation: My wife and I not only put Obama stickers on our cars, we worked for him before the California primary.)
The word came back, Truthdig was OK. Things went back to normal ... until June when they wouldn’t run a column I wrote, a first for me.
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).
I asked to talk to Stanton. Before I could arrange it, I revised the column, it ran and I decided to see if I could let my last season play out.
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.
We learned that people would rather watch than read in mid-20th century. In the new millennium, we started to learn that what young people read, they wanted on mobile devices that also made phone calls, texted, took pictures, streamed video, carried their music library, etc.
Eventually, we learned that most of all they wanted to do their own publishing and broadcasting, via the social networks, as opposed to waiting at the end of the information chain, consuming ours. If that mandated shorter stories, or 140-character tweets, that was no problem, unless you wanted to recognize nuance and report in depth, an increasingly endangered species known as “long-form journalism.”
If that meant journalism became a global tabloid war which valued attitude over information, with an audience that was dying to dog out superstars the way Jim Rome did, welcome to the new age!
Within newspapers, it’s assumed we’ll wind up as websites, whether or not some of us continue to print and it takes 10 years or five (or one recession).
I used to think of today’s interim as an ongoing effort to fit the building through a garden hose. The parts that didn’t fit—us—they would make fit, until the Times, which once had 1,400 editorial employees was down to today’s 500, on its way to 100, or 50.
If there’s finally no newspaper you can hold in your hands, and only a small percentage of the old revenue, there will also be no more newsprint, presses, trucks, gasoline to put in them and a physical plant, which account for all but a small percentage of the old cost.
The question is, what will be in tomorrow’s newspapers, paper or pixelated?
With all that newspapers have lost, they have something no other outlet has: the staff, institutional knowledge and experience to put things in perspective. Any bozo who can afford a rights fee can televise a game; we were the ones who can tell you what it all added up to, before, during and after games.
We, or they, still may in some happy future. At present, there’s less and less mention of “perspective” or “depth,” and more and more directives to tweet, blog, stream video and otherwise digitize more stuff, all day, every day, however mundane.
Unfortunately, in the absence of perspective, the blizzard of data hides meaning, or avoids it, rather than reveals it, leaving media outlets to shape into its most salable form—sensationalized—to be recirculated by the audience in more tweets, texts and blogs, many anonymous, injecting the equivalent of road rage in a mean-spirited exercise that’s not healthy for children and other growing things.
Forget sports, which was always about Us and Them, and harmless, besides. Check our political process, which is supposed to be about ideas and is now, instead, about the law of the jungle.
How wild is this?
The Democrats recapture the presidency in 2008, ending eight years of wandering forlornly in the wilderness.
President Barack Obama, their new hope, ignores warnings not to tackle health care.
The Democrats’ left wing withholds support, arguing for a public option, a nonstarter with the GOP.
The left comes around—a year later when a bill passes, having exposed its new hope to fire from the right until then.
Rather than getting credit for his monumental achievement, or sympathy for trying to lead a nation that doesn’t want to be led in subsequent confrontations with the Nihilist Front, Obama is abandoned by liberal pundits, like the Washington Post’s Richard Cohen, who just called him “the personification of cognitive dissonance—the gap between what we (especially liberals) expected of the first serious African American presidential candidate and the man he in fact is ... [lacking even] the rhetorical qualities of the old-time black politicians.”
This, of course, assumes we’re still the nation that came together under FDR, JFK and Ronald Reagan, instead of one that has fractured into warring tribes with opposing worldviews and theories of history, people who are more like inhabitants of alternate universes than citizens of the same country.
The tribes are succored in their righteous anger by media outlets that play to their fears, determined to keep their niche audiences from coalescing back into any mainstream by any means necessary.
No, I don’t think what happened to me or the challenges facing newspapers and/or the anti-social aspects of the communications revolution presage The End.
If the world has made it this far through war, plagues and pestilence, a little communications revolution shouldn’t end life as we know it. But then, I’m an optimist.
I’m actually hoping to keep my severance, but most of all, I wanted to be a stand-up guy and to stand for something.
On the bright side, I didn’t go out on the copy desk.
Illustration by Peter Z. Scheer