Chapter Two

Warning, for Adult use Only

The National was published for almost 17 months, but the planning began much earlier. All told, many people were involved with the newspaper for two years, some, like Deford, for almost three. One might expect that those employees, who tied their hopes and dreams to a ship that ultimately sank, would feel bitter that a project they believed in so strongly didn’t succeed. But of the 10 people interviewed for this story, all of them said they would be thrilled to try it again. That’s the party line, but is it the truth? On first blush, many of the people I tracked down were happy to talk about their time at The National. It was as if “The National” was the password for entrance into a prohibition-era speakeasy. I called photographers Chris Covatta and Brad Mangin in the midst of their assignments – and they both immediately dropped their guard and talked with me – Mangin over the roar of the crowd at Pac Bell Park in San Francisco. A quick e-mail sent during a weekend elicited a Monday afternoon phone call from Van McKenzie, the paper’s managing editor, who promptly spent an hour telling me about his great experience at The National. Digging a little deeper, one memory leads to another and some of The National staffers let their guard down. While none said they wished they hadn’t been involved in the project, it became clear that the memories are still raw and painful.

“Anybody that we spoke to, anyone that I hired or somebody else hired, we always said: ‘You understand this is a gamble, it’s risky.’ It was almost like when you sell a stock, you have to put that on the front. ‘This is not approved by the SEC.’ We made sure that everybody understood that this was a very romantic adventure, but like a lot of romantic adventures, there was a good chance it wasn’t going to work. Which sadly turned out to be true,” Deford said in the poetic style he’s known for. “It was quixotic, lovely, romantic and I think everybody thinks it was worth the two years, because among other things, just about everybody moved on to better things when it folded. Some of them took a little longer than others, but it was a good mark against your name that you’d served on The National, and it turned out that even though we lost the battle, a lot of these guys won the war in their own careers. But I think they really loved it, too. (It was) a little bit like going to war.”

Most conversations about The National start in a sterile fashion, but by the end of the discussion, memories become more vivid and emotions bubble up to the surface. Once Scott Ostler, The National’s West Coast columnist; Reid Laymance, a senior editor; Tim Guidera and Ken Carpenter, who were statistics editors; and Deford get rolling, mentally traveling back in time to June 1991, they remember the days when 150 journalists got together every afternoon at 4 o’clock to create a fresh newspaper for sports fans. They had access to all of the designers and photographers they needed; there was no fighting with the news department for resources. As Ostler wrote in his first column: “Before, sports was the caboose. Starting today, it’s the whole freight train.”

Ostler couldn’t have known, however, that the train was a runaway. Once it left the station on the last day of January, it couldn’t be stopped. Millions of dollars had already been spent, calendars had been filled with sporting events for weeks to come, photo assignments had been made, but the first time a full edition The National Sports Daily came off the presses was also the first time it hit the newsstand. There was no dress rehearsal. You might think that a newspaper that covered sports the way the Wall Street Journal covered business – a newspaper without a natural predator – couldn’t have been late. You might think that American sports fans, who had been waiting more than 100 years for a sports daily, could wait another six months. But The National was on Azcarraga time, and for him, the paper couldn’t start publishing soon enough. While he was thrilled to finally see a hard copy of the paper on January 31, (So thrilled that he gave all 300 employees a gold coin worth $500.) he was disappointed that it hadn’t come out weeks or months sooner. But he was especially disappointed that it missed a hopeful deadline by two days. He would have been much happier if the paper had hit the market the Monday after Super Bowl XXIV. (San Francisco’s 55-10 drubbing of the Denver Broncos.) And why not? He had spent thousands of dollars to send 10 reporters to cover the event.

“Not only did he want to get to market, he wanted to get to market immediately, and not because it was a particular sports season, it was because he wanted to get the show on the road. We should be in the marketplace, get out there and swim and not just talk about it,” said Price, who is now the president of NATAS.

When all the work was done, all the articles written and edited, and the newspaper did come out for the first time, there was great celebration, but at the same time, there was the question of whether they could get the paper out on the second day.

“I remember getting the first issue out,” Deford said from his home in Connecticut. “Do you know, we never put an issue out before we put the first one out, isn’t that amazing? It was absolutely amazing. It was insane, just absolutely insane. Talk about walking a tight rope. I remember (Van) McKenzie and I just about cried for joy when the thing actually came out, and then we turned to each other and asked, how are we gonna do it tomorrow? Because we had been able to bank a lot ahead of time, get a lot done ahead of time, and then we had to get it out the next day.”

Both McKenzie, who had been the Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s sports editor, and Deford remember it that way, but one editor said that the newspaper had been in practice mode for weeks, demonstrated by its sending 10 writers to cover the Super Bowl.

“We covered that game and put out an issue as if we were live, and we weren’t.” said Ken Carpenter, who had moved from Cleveland to join Lee Gordon, his sports editor at The Plain Dealer, at The National. “That’s the kind of money they were spending. I don’t remember exactly how many prototypes we did toward the end of January, but we did a bunch.”

They did get one scoop however. Laymance remembers that football writer Chris Mortensen got some exclusive information about a college player who was going to turn pro, but without a paper, they offered the story to the Associated Press, on the condition that they would credit The National. And they took it. It was good advertising and a signal that the writers end editors weren’t goofing around.

The first issue reached customers in New York, Chicago and Los Angeles. Each issue featured the town’s reigning basketball hero on the cover, Patrick Ewing (New York), Michael Jordan (Chicago) and Magic Johnson (Los Angeles).

From what people say 15 years later, that first issue triggered a part of the business plan that wasn’t well thought out – the secondary city rollout schedule. An Inc. magazine story about the extraordinary start-up, published a few months after the first issue, noted that the plan was to hit 12 new cities by the end of 1990. From his office within the Orlando Sentinel, McKenzie bristles at the memory.

“We were off to the races that first day, the expansion happened too quickly, which compounded whatever problems we were having. We wound up in 16 markets publishing on a daily basis,” he said.

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