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Confessions of a Dead Tribune

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I almost re-titled this "Mark Heisler Still Dead," having posted it on Truthdig.com Aug. 19, three weeks after the Los Angles Times laid me off, when my severance check arrived.

Waiting seemed prudent before looking at the media revolution from the zany perspective of our outpost in Sam Zell's Tribune Co., which I had been obliged to agree not to "denigrate... in any way"

It's not that what happened to the Times was any less tragic than what was going on throughout the industry.

At our place, it just felt like we were in the tragedy's cartoon version. So, without a further quack...


Who turned out the lights?

It's not that the end of my newspaper career was devastating, even if it was definitely surprising, since I thought it was going great... 44 years, the last 32 at the Los Angeles Times, 2006 winner of the basketball Hall of Fame's Curt Gowdy Award... to the day I was laid off.

I did begin to feel my body to make sure I was still here, asking myself, "Who are you?"

That was just a joke, I think.

For 44 years, I was "Mark Heisler of the Los Angeles Times" or the Philadelphia Bulletin, the Philadelphia Inquirer or the Rochester, N.Y., Times-Union.

Suddenly, I was just "Mark Heisler." Who in the hell was Mark Heisler?

Oh yeah... ME!

This isn't about bad things that happened to me, because I was way ahead. I got to live my dream, even if I bitched every step of the way. At 67, I was ready to go... give or take a few months... having told my bosses I would retire next July, until they told me it would be a little earlier, but gave me severance pay through April.

This is about the people in the biz who preceded me over the falls and everyone still on the job who can feel the current and hear the roar.

Before, during and after Tribune's zany Sam Zell era, I got in games for free, met great stars (some of whom were even fun to know) and wrote exactly the way I wanted to.

Everything else changed daily after 2008 when Zell, the billionaire wheeler-dealer, bought the Tribune chain, which included us, and our editors had to keep straight faces as Sam's Zellots, imported from radio -- now there was a boom industry! -- unveiled their latest ideas to reinvent us.

It was harder than the new guys imagined. With the challenge of TV, we spent decades trying to reinvent ourselves before the dawn of the internet, when Tribune made $1.2 billion in AOL stock, leading it to acquire Times Mirror, according to Trib-turned-Times Editor Jim O'Shea.

This financial trivia, at least, provided the answer to the question Times people used to ask:

How did THEY buy US?

O'Shea was one of several Tribune guys sent from Chicago to get us under control, who, instead, went native and were fired in our eight-year occupation, before, in more financial trivia, Zell discovered that fat ESOP he used to buy Tribune with so little down.

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."

Of course, this ignored the fact that two of his American institutions weren't American. Nevertheless, Abrams peppered us with more such insights and 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, who might have tried it once or twice, themselves, could recognize as an attempt to COVER UP HIS ABSENCE OF KNOWLEDGE OF THE BUSINESS.

If eye rolls were debilitating, we might never have published. I stopped reading the memos, which were not only dismaying, but a temptation to give Abrams some of that irreverent feedback they were always asking for, if you didn't catch yourself before hitting "reply."

I should note that as part of my separation agreement, I stipulated I wouldn't "disparage" or "denigrate" Tribune... which would have been ominous if they hadn't made an omnibus prohibition adding the words "in any way,"

Nevertheless, to me, disparaging the company meant calling it names or questioning its motives. Zell and Abrams were unapologetically unconventional and have resigned their positions, or, should I say, parachuted out. Tribune is now being run by a board, headed by Times Publisher Eddy Hartenstein.

(Highlights remain online, like Zell's 2008 session at the Orlando Sentinel, muttering "Fuck you" after photographer Sara Fajardo asked if his injunction to give readers what they wanted mean writing about "puppy dogs.")

(If that was accidental, picked up on an open mike, Zell went on to deride an unnamed executive for complaining that no one told 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 survival as the economy slows dangerously once more.

Notable in the Times' second-quarter revenue shortfall that precipitated my layoff 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 at 11, trying to stay twerpy-looking at 22.

So, if I want to look at it that way, I was done in by an aging twerp.

I don't interpret my agreement as signing away my right to talk about my life. This isn't conjecture, interpretation or based on third-person accounts. If anything reflects badly on anyone, it's the way it happened. In this business, the truth isn't one alternative, it's the reason there is a business and why the people in it will love it until the last edition rolls off the press.

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 the audience is sure to like, or the one everyone 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 was 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 was 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 counterparts (veteran character actors Alan Garfield, Charles Durning, et al.) traded jibes 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 their own versions ("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, 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, certainly not 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 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.

"In the good news for you, you're going to live 10 years longer than I will," I said. "In the bad news, you're going to have to work 10 more years than I will."

Last winter, the word came down the big bosses wanted me to stop writing for Truthdig, according to the policy banning us from displaying any political affiliation, even bumper stickers.

I refused. We negotiated. I gave up my Hoopshype column, since it was, technically, a competitor. Truthdig was OK.

(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.)

Things went back to normal ... until June when they wouldn't run a column I wrote, a first for me.

Another new policy forbade columnists throughout the paper to take off after someone another columnist had written about, like, say, embattled-but-connected Dodger owner Frank McCourt.

Of course, this posed challenges in how to cover figures in ongoing controversies, like Frank McCourt.

Not that it seemed to apply in my case unless the entire Laker organization fell under the interpretation, writing about the implications of hiring Coach Mike Brown as owner's son Jim Buss' debut as its head after our Bill Plaschke torched the hiring, itself.

With more to say -- like where was Jerry Buss if his son needed guidance? -- I learned that people had been told we had already run "one column too many" -- a stunner after years of All-Lakers-All-the-Time coverage got millions of hits on our web site (and lunch for three of us with Editor Russ Stanton after the Lakers won their 2010 title).

I asked to talk to Stanton. Before I could arrange it, I revised the column, it ran and I decided to see let my last season play out.

A month later, I got the phone call, sending me 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. Compromising what we did was had become a way of life, it was hard to remember that things had ever been different.

(Zell and the New Wave had a term for clinging to the principles underlying everything we did: "journalistic arrogance.")

In sports, the challenge had long been to get better as TV showed the games before the internet started to beat our delivery time by 12 hours. Instead, we got worse as staffs were trimmed, space slashed and deadlines moved up to cut costs.

Newspapers entered the computer age in the '70s and '80s with promises of later deadlines which would give us more time to write in more depth.

Instead, the extra time went to the production side. Our deadlines -- particularly merciless for our main run at the Times at 10:30 p.m., before the average baseball game ended -- stayed where they were.

One memorable Saturday last fall, the paper moved our deadline to 9:30 p.m.. We couldn't even get the final score of the USC-Stanford game, one of our lead stories, in the main run, as if readers might not notice.

You may ask, how can you write a gamer before it ends, to say nothing of a column, which supposedly has more than routine play-by-play?

Beats me. All anyone 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 at halftime, beginning with the quotes, filling in with the events that led up to the game and (sorry) play-by-play.

Quotes in mid-story made it look as if it was reported thoroughly, unless you read closely enough to realize they were uttered 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 for the coach to speak and players to become available, so you could ask a question pointed enough to get anything better than, "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. It was harder after great finishes, when you couldn't say much more than "The finish was great."

So the newspapers that landed on doorsteps the next morning scammed our readers while ESPN, Yahoo, YouTube, et al., provided more, sooner -- including video of interviews in which we were the ones asking the questions.

Of course, the people we really scammed ran our newspapers, who never stopped hailing the bang-up job we were doing... which made it feel OK to make more compromises.

TV and the internet didn't slash our audience by offering more -- we soon offered as much or more online -- but by being user-friendlier platforms.

We learned, painfully enough, that young people now preferred reading our stuff on all-purpose mobile devices... or, even better yet, publishing their take instead of sitting at the end of the information chain, consuming ours.

Thus came our mandate to to write shorter stories, or 140-character tweets, leading away from reporting in depth, which had been rare enough and was now the doomed "long-form journalism."

If journalism became a global tabloid war valuing attitude over information, supplying data to an audience eager to recirculate it so it could dog out superstars as Jim Rome did, welcome to the new age!

Within newspapers, it's assumed most, if not all of us will wind up as web sites, whether in 10 years, or five (or one recession).

I used to think of today's interim as an ongoing effort to fit our 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, and heading lower.

The question is, what will be in tomorrow's newspapers, or pixelated?

Newspapers have a unique advantage: the staff, institutional knowledge and experience to put things in perspective. Any bozo who can afford a rights fee can televise a game; we could tell you what they meant.

Unfortunately, at present, there's even less emphasis on "perspective" or "depth," as opposed to tweeting, blogging, streaming video and otherwise digitizing stuff, however mundane, all day.

With no perspective, the blizzard of data confuses rather than reveals. Media outlets shape it into its most salable form -- sensationalized -- to be recirculated by the audience in its own tweets, texts and blogs -- many of which are anonymous, injecting the equivalent of road rage.

The result is a mean-spirited cacophony that's not healthy for children and other growing things.

Forget sports, which is harmless and was always about Us and Them. Our political process, which affects lives, is now mindlessly partisan... and media-driven in no small way, with warring tribes that are more like inhabitants of alternate universes than citizens of the same country, succored by outlets bent on keeping their niche audiences from melting back into any mainstream by any means necessary.

No, I don't think the challenges facing newspapers and the anti-social aspects of the communications revolution presage The End. Our civilization made it this far through war, pestilence and prior communications revolutions. But then, I'm an optimist.

Happily, the Times mailed me my severance, expressing no dissatisfaction after this piece ran on Truthdig.com, but one way or the other, I always wanted to stand for something.

Anyway, I didn't go out on the copy desk.