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Deja Newspapers: On Getting Canned by Los Angeles Times ... Again

Photo by Gerald Angeles (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Photo by Gerald Angeles (CC BY-SA 2.0)

A funny thing happened on the way to my second column since the Los Angeles Times hired me back.

There wasn’t one. They fired me. This isn’t a put-on. I feel like I’ve been here before. Oh, right, I have.

I regret that I have only two lives to give the newspaper business — as if. Two will do after being laid off in 2011, making a freelance deal to come back and write my old NBA column this season and getting, uh, rebooted.

(Or was it three lives? It’s hard to remember. Oh, right, No. 3 is the actual, non-metaphorical life that I share with my wife and daughter.)

My homecoming lasted one column, published Oct. 25 as part of a preseason package. Two days later, heading to the Laker opener, I returned a call from the sports editor — I was thinking about joking, “I hope this isn’t what it was the last time you guys called me.”

It was exactly what it was the last time they called me.

As opposed to all the paperwork in 2011, I was just dropped off the sports department freelance roster, which, budget-wise, consisted primarily of me. I can’t tell you why it happened, because they didn’t tell me.

The Times will always be family to me, at least the people I worked with and, institutionally, as an ideal we shared. Our section reached dazzling heights in the 1980s with the great Jim Murray and a staff so talented that phenom of phenoms Rick Reilly had to work his way up writing sidebars. I still catch myself referring to the paper as “we” with Times people.

Coincidentally or not, I wrote about the paper after leaving in 2011, starting with a Truthdig article called “Confessions of a Dead Tribune,” about working for Sam Zell, who bought parent company Tribune with borrowed money — from our employee stock ownership plan — and ran it in “Animal House” style, as chronicled by The New York Times’ David Carr.

Much of the hierarchy from Zell’s time remains. Someone at the Times or Tribune may have seen my byline and decided it wasn’t appropriate.

Either that or my $200 per column was a deal-breaker.

If something seems out of proportion, it’s a crazy time for newspapers — none more than the Times, emerging from bankruptcy with a new publisher and hypersensitive holdover editors. (Assuming the two matters are related, my little saga is dwarfed by former columnist T.J. Simers’ wrongful termination suit against the Times and its top editors.)

In any case, I wanted above all to stand for something. In the end, the newspaper business I worked in was more important that anything I covered.

With media changing faster than our ability to remark on it, the audience’s view of the world rides on its future. Unfortunately, everyone — even ESPN, the biggest coup in the history of journalism or whatever it is — is in a “war for eyeballs,” deifying, deconstructing and otherwise exploiting celebrities like LeBron James, golden-child-turned-object-of-scorn, now once more admired and fawned over.

Political coverage runs on cheap attitude, too, but with a different dynamic: media outlets pandering to feuding factions — Fox on the right, MSNBC on the left — intent not on seeking compromise but keeping their audience alarmed and tuning in.

Journalism, which always meant rising above powerful interests, now means rising above the noise, too. If thinking you’re part of a mission seems childishly idealistic, it remains an occupational hazard — actually a gift — in newspapers.

“Socially, a journalist fits in somewhere between a whore and a bartender,” wrote a Chicago newspaperman named Sherman Reilly Duffy at the turn of the 20th century, when they apparently had more fun. “But spiritually he stands beside Galileo.”

You don’t actually stand beside Galileo every day, but the challenge is now available to bloggers, tweeters, et al. — once stuck with being merely the audience — who learned what we always knew: You get to show off for everyone you know every time you hit “send”!

As for my newspaper career, at the end (presumably), it was (still) worth it.

Mark Heisler
Contributor
Mark Heisler, who avoids writing about himself in the third person when possible, preferring the royal “we,” is a regular Truthdig contributor and a former NBA-at-large reporter for the Los Angeles Times…
Mark Heisler

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