Having survived a foul-mouthed owner, “frat boys,” and new-media loopiness, L.A.’s paper of record is now journalism happy-news, with a passel of prestige hires and a billionaire running it “like a family project.” But not everything is rosy in El Segundo.
Of all the once-mighty media organizations that have been brought to their knees, you’d be hard-pressed to find a more tragic saga than that of the Los Angeles Times. The 138-year-old broadsheet was decimated by the same market pressures that have turned newspapers all over America into sad shells of their former selves. Print advertising? Off a cliff. Newsroom headcount? Down by hundreds. Foreign bureaus? Poof.
But the story of the Los Angeles Times over the past 15 years is far more Shakespearean than most. The latter-day management of the Tribune Company, and all of its subsequent corporate permutations, resulted in a well-documented series of scandals, disasters, and embarrassments for the Times and its then-sister titles (the Chicago Tribune, The Baltimore Sun, etc.). There was the profanity-laced reign of Sam Zell, who landed Tribune in bankruptcy and famously remarked to a journalist during a meeting in one of the company’s newsrooms, “Fuck you.” There was the downfall of various top Tribune executives, who were exposed for running the company like a boys’ locker room, as opposed to a respected institution bearing the legacy of L.A.’s legendary Chandler family.
More recently, the “Tronc” era, under Chicago businessman Michael Ferro, was a combination of ludicrous digital jargon (“harness the power of our local journalism, feed it into a funnel, and then optimize it”), head-scratching strategy dictums (remember when the L.A. Times was supposed to go global with bureaus in Hong Kong, Seoul, Rio de Janeiro, Mumbai, Lagos, Moscow, and Mexico City?), and, of course, more bad behavior. NPR revealed two sexual harassment lawsuits and accusations of inappropriate conduct involving newly installed L.A. Times publisher Ross Levinsohn (he denied the charges, was cleared by an internal probe, and moved to a different job within Tronc). Additionally, two women accused Ferro of sexual harassment and inappropriate advances, and to top it off, as NPR also reported, there was a dinner with a group of company executives to whom Ferro allegedly complainedthat Los Angeles was run by a “Jewish cabal.” (Ferro denied the allegations.)
In the midst of it all, the Times newsroom was on the verge of insurrection last year over an ill-fated leadership shake-up, the unexplained suspension of a popular business editor, and an apparent effort to build a shadow newsroom while the existing staff was unionizing. “They just had an unbelievable string of assholes running the place,” one former L.A. Times journalist told me. “Those frat-boy sexual harassers were the pits,” said another. There’s a saying that has caught on among journalists at the embattled paper to sum up all of the turmoil, controversy, and abuse they’ve endured: “We’ve been through the Twenty Years’ War.”
Finally, the war appears to be over, and the script at the L.A. Times is being re-written in a way that would have seemed laughable just a year or two ago. As of last summer, the publication’s new owner is Patrick Soon-Shiong, a philanthropic Los Angeles billionaire, surgeon, and health-care entrepreneur who now runs the Times along with his wife, Michele Chan, a former actress who once starred in several episodes of MacGyver. Soon-Shiong says he is spending $50 million this year as he begins the herculean task of reviving the organization. That’s after rescuing the paper from the clutches of Tronc—which has since changed its name back to Tribune Publishing—for $500 million. The place is starting to feel flush. New hires are flooding in. The publicity has been good. Happy times are here again.
At the same time, there’s been a cloud hanging over Soon-Shiong’s rescue operation. After unionizing with the NewsGuild last year, non-management Times journalists have been working without a contract, which means that salary increases have been held up for many employees who were hired below market value compared to other major newspapers. (At the bottom of the pile, some reporters in the $50,000-$60,000 range are awaiting raises that will bring them into the 80s and 90s.) The newsroom rank-and-file has grown restive as a result of the protracted negotiations, which stalled over several key issues. The most controversial of the bunch was a proposal that would give the company excessive control over book deals and other intellectual-property rights. On Wednesday, union members dialed up the pressure with a coordinated lunchtime walkout and a flurry of social-media activity. The following morning, newsroom managers met to go over the final batch of concessions and proposals the company was prepared to offer to get the ball moving again. As of Thursday afternoon, the latest bargaining session was underway. “It’s an exciting moment to be at the L.A. Times, but that doesn’t mean we’re gonna roll over,” said Carolina Miranda, a culture reporter and co-chair of the L.A. Times Guild.
Assuming the two sides are able to come to an amicable resolution, the revival can proceed without baggage. First and foremost, the L.A. Times, like its larger and more robust counterparts back east, is concentrating on growing its digital-subscriber base—to an ambitious goal of 5 million customers from the roughly 150,000 who currently pay for latimes.com on their computers and smartphones. The idea isn’t to go head-to-head on national and global coverage with The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Wall Street Journal, but rather to double down on being California’s paper of record, while also increasing the Times’s manpower in Washington and becoming a bigger part of the national conversation overall.
Meanwhile, the Times has gone from a newsroom where journalists were getting laid off, quitting, or hanging on for dear life, to a newsroom that’s locked down enough prestige hires lately to feel like one of the hottest tickets on the job market. Twelve months ago, it would have been unfathomable for the L.A. Times to land a young digital star like BuzzFeed executive editor Shani Hilton, who was appointed last week as a deputy managing editor. “You don’t get many promises in this industry, what you get is a vibe, and I liked the vibe that I got from the leadership team,” said Hilton, whose courtship included a lunch with Soon-Shiong and Chan. “Patrick and Michele really are running this like a family project. I just felt like, they have a ton of energy and a ton of great ideas.”
Hilton joins the upper ranks of a masthead that has also come to include veteran former New York Timeseditors Sewell Chan and Stuart Emmrich; former Slate editor in chief Julia Turner; and a cabal of journalists who were promoted from within, like Scott Kraft and Kimi Yoshino. Other buzzy recruits include Lucky Peach co-founder Peter Meehan, former Eater national critic Bill Addison, and former New York Times “Frugal Traveler” columnist Lucas Peterson, all on the food beat, which Soon-Shiong sees as a growth area, as well as ESPN host LZ Granderson as a sports and culture columnist. To date, there have been about a hundred new hires in total.
The man in the driver’s seat is Pearlstine, a former top editor of The Wall Street Journal and Time Inc., whom Soon-Shiong installed as the Times’s newsroom boss when the Tronc sale closed last June. At 76, Pearlstine is in the sunset of his career, but he’s a seasoned and well-respected media figure with a huge Rolodex, and his appointment was taken as a signal that Soon-Shiong is serious about making the Los Angeles Times great again. (For some context, Pearlstine is the ninth Times editor in the past 19 years and the fourth in the past 24 months.) “One of the things Patrick and Michele asked me to do was create a next generation of leadership,” said Pearlstine, who is on contract through 2021. “There’s a fascination with the region we’re in that makes it an exciting time to be here. This is a great news town with phenomenal stories right now. It’s just a great time to be a journalist in Los Angeles, with an owner who bought the Times to run it like a business, but not with a return-on-investment as his main focus.”
That’s not to say there haven’t been any downsides under the new regime. Most glaringly, the soaring cost of L.A. real estate forced Soon-Shiong to relocate the Times from the historic Art Deco campus that had been a downtown staple since 1935, to a rather generic eight-story office building—owned by Soon-Shiong—in the southern sprawl of El Segundo, where the Times’s nearest neighbors are the 105 freeway and Los Angeles International Airport. (Tronc’s plan had been to move everyone to nearby Playa Vista, which wouldn’t have been all that much better.) Aside from the glum industrial landscape and woeful lack of food options, the main bummer is that the daily commuting time for many employees is now between two and three hours. And the contract impasses have created some tension as well. But even these grievances feel comparatively paradisal in light of what the Times was up against before its new owner arrived. “Everything has to be taken in context,” said Matt Pearce, a national reporter who is active in the guild. “Of the two universes, this is the better universe.”
There were a couple of skeptical notes that came across in my conversations with Times journalists. Overall, Soon-Shiong got positive reviews. Times staffers seem to believe that his interest in owning their newspaper is rooted in civic-mindedness—a genuine respect for the press and the role it plays in California and the world. But it’s hard to ignore headlines about the bankruptcy of Soon-Shiong’s hospital system, or the lawsuits he’s been slapped with, including two that Times journalists were covering just last week, in which a biopharmaceutical firm accused Soon-Shiong of keeping a promising cancer drug off the market. (Soon-Shiong has denied the charges and said the suits are without merit.) Additionally, as one newsroom source put it, “One of the big questions that lingers in people’s minds is: what’s the business strategy? Could this be the Bezos turnaround, or are we gonna end up like the Orange County Register? The jury’s still out.”
Maer Roshan, an erstwhile New York media hotshot who is now leading a parallel makeover of Los Angeles magazine, said the buzz around town about the L.A. Times has increased. He told me he’s been impressed with the recent hires, but that it’s still too early to say how it will all turn out. “It’s kind of like when a studio announces a cast, and it’s a really good cast, and you have high expectations,” he said. “Now you’re just waiting to see the actual movie.”