The news has been frenetic lately for reporters at the Los Angeles Times. Massive wildfires swept a region just getting over a historic drought, followed by deadly mudslides, and then the explosive Turpin family child-abuse saga — a chain of events that tested the chops of the prizewinning newsroom.
But some of the biggest news at the Times has been coming from within its downtown headquarters. The paper — one of the largest and most important news organizations in America — has been beset by turmoil the past two weeks, prompting questions about its future.
After decades of successful resistance by management and years of demoralizing cutbacks, the Times’s journalists voted overwhelmingly last week to unionize. Before bargaining can begin, however, reporters are concerned about a plan by the Times’s management to reorganize the way the paper produces news.
Under a new “pyramid” structure proposed this month, a network of nonstaff contributors would produce the bulk of the information the Times publishes online. Reporters say the paper has quietly begun hiring a cadre of editors to supervise the reorganization, which would effectively create a new company within the company.
The man who introduced the plan — blindsiding the newsroom when he presented it to an investor conference in New York — was publisher Ross Levinsohn, the fifth person to hold that title in the past five years. Last week, Levinsohn was suspended by the paper’s owner, Chicago-based Tronc, after NPR revealed a series of sexual harassment allegations against him in previous jobs. The company said it is investigating.
The state of play at the Times, as well as the existential dread swirling around it, was neatly summarized in a tweet this week by Matt Pearce, a Times national reporter and an organizer of the union effort: “Basically, anything could happen at this point at the L.A. Times and people in the newsroom could only be half surprised by it. We’re hiring [editors] that aren’t being announced to the newsroom, our publisher wants to turn us into a pyramid, and by the way, he’s under investigation.”
In fact, more shoes are dropping.
On Thursday, reporters protested after top editor Lewis D’Vorkin suspended Kimi Yoshino, the Times’s financial editor. His reason was unclear — neither party would comment — but Times reporters say D’Vorkin suspected that Yoshino had been a source for other media reports about the Times, including an unflattering profile of D’Vorkin in the Columbia Journalism Review, which dubbed him “LA journalism’s ‘Prince of Darkness.’ ”
“We were very upset to learn yesterday that Kimi was abruptly asked to take a leave of absence and not even permitted to return to her office to collect her belongings and turn off her laptop,” said a letter signed by Times business journalists and promptly disseminated online. “This treatment of Kimi is a serious cause for concern.”
A spokeswoman for Tronc said it could not comment on employee matters.
D’Vorkin, who took over as Times editor in November, is a controversial figure in media circles. At Forbes, he undertook some unorthodox steps to arrest the magazine’s declining fortunes — including setting up a network of outside contributors to write stories for Forbes.com, some unpaid and some compensated on the basis of how many readers their stories attracted. He also permitted ads that blurred the lines between promotional content and news stories.
As the Times newsroom organizing committee characterized it in a letter to Tronc’s board on Tuesday, D’Vorkin “devalued Forbes’ journalism by sullying it with unpaid contributor content, pay-for-clicks schemes and troubling presentations of advertorial.”
Only days into his new job at the Times, D’Vorkin drew the enmity of many in his newsroom by his response to complaints lodged by the Disney Co. over a Times series that detailed Disney’s influence over city officials in Anaheim, home of Disneyland. In the face of Disney executives’ protests, D’Vorkin ordered his journalists not to promote the Times’s own stories on social media. The entertainment giant is a key advertiser as well as a news source for the Times.
He also declined to reveal details of his meeting with Disney executives about the issue or to publish more than a few paragraphs about the paper’s discussions with the company, which had drawn national attention. D’Vorkin declined to comment for this article, referring a reporter to Tronc’s corporate spokesman.
The nonresponse appears to go to the heart of one of the central complaints by people at the paper: that a company engaged in communications doesn’t communicate very well with its own employees.
“It’s frustrating to hear about plans that we weren’t consulted about,” Anthony Pesce, a Times data journalist, told The Washington Post. “This paper is comprised of smart and engaged journalists who want nothing more than to see [the paper] succeed.”
Amid the tumult, the Times has produced some of the best journalism in its 136-year history. In addition to its penetrating series about Disney, it broke a huge scandal in July involving a former dean at the University of Southern California’s medical school. It has been a leader in revealing sexual harassment allegations against leading Hollywood figures, such as directors James Toback and Brett Ratner. And in 2016, it won the Pulitzer Prize for breaking news for its coverage of the mass shooting in San Bernardino, its 44th Pulitzer.
But even those triumphs have come at a price. In August, Tronc fired the paper’s four top editors following an investigation triggered by staff complaints about the handling of major stories, including those about the USC dean.
Tronc (the unusual new name is shorthand for Tribune Online Content) is an offshoot of the long-troubled Tribune Co., which emerged from bankruptcy protection in 2012. Tronc owns what had been Tribune Co.’s newspaper assets, including the Times, the Baltimore Sun and Chicago Tribune, and New York Daily News.
Like almost every newspaper in the United States, the Times and its parent company has been buffeted for years by a precipitous decline in advertising and the flight of subscribers. During the 1990s, the Times had more than 1,000 journalists. It now employs about 400. Still, the events of recent days seem to have left both the newsroom and its readers a bit dazed and unsure of what’s coming next.
One Times reader conveyed the bafflement in a tweet on Friday: “I subscribe to LAT b/c I think it’s impt to support my local paper, & their journalists do great work. But what’s going on there is awful. Is it helpful or counterproductive for me to cancel my subscription?”