Longtime NBA columnist Mark Heisler was laid off by the Times in July, about a month after he asked to speak to editor Russ Stanton about being told the paper had run “one column too many” on Jim and Jerry Buss of the Lakers — "a dramatic shift after years of All-Lakers-All-the-Time coverage had reaped hundreds of millions of hits on our site." Heisler gets into that and more — Sam Zell, Lee Abrams, his editors — in a long piece for Truthdig, and reveals he was told by editors not long ago to stop writing for the liberal politics site run by former Times columnist Robert Scheer. (The ban was rescinded.) Heisler skirts around the edges of the anti-disparagement clause he signed to get his final check, saying he's just talking about his life.
His comments on the earlier deadlines the Times imposed last year are interesting. The result, he says, was that the print papers that arrived on doorsteps "were scamming our readers more and more."
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 scheduled to started at 7:30, getting under way at 7:40 and ending around 10:45—stayed where they were, or were even moved earlier. One memorable Saturday last fall, the deadline was moved up to 9:30 p.m., too early to get the score of that night’s USC-Stanford game, one of our lead stories, into the newspaper.
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.
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.”