Newspapers have enough problems these days without constantly shooting themselves in the foot and punching themselves in the eye.
But self-inflicted wounds have become a sorry specialty at the Los Angeles Times. At this storied newspaper, where more than 40 Pulitzer Prizes hang on the wall, talented reporters and editors manage to produce outstanding journalism, even as the business side seems intent on tripping them up. (The paper’s publicly traded parent company is the unfortunately named Tronc, whose newspapers include the Chicago Tribune, the Baltimore Sun and the New York Daily News.)
“We’re still a leading news organization and we still have a very large group of dedicated journalists who just want to do their best work,” Times investigative reporter Paul Pringle told me. Although much smaller than in its heyday, the Times has a big and capable newsroom of more than 400.
Here’s a taste of the recent turmoil:
●Multiple reporters and editors told me last week they are convinced that their email and cellphones are being monitored by management, as part of an investigation into leaks to the media coming out of the newsroom. Some have taken to buying “burners,” disposable phones, so they can speak freely with colleagues and outsiders.
In newsroom culture, which thrives on trust and transparency, this rubs the wrong way.
When I wrote to Tronc CEO Justin Dearborn, requesting a phone interview to respond to this and other concerns, I heard only from communications Vice President Marisa Kollias, who said Dearborn wasn’t available to talk.
She told me in writing that Tronc does not “routinely and actively” monitor calls and emails, but may look at records when it is doing an internal investigation. And there’s no such investigation at the moment, she said Thursday.
So maybe Times journalists are imagining things. I doubt it.
●Remarkably, the Times has cycled through three top editors in less than six months. The last one, Lewis D’Vorkin, was removed after a couple of tumultuous staff meetings and the abrupt suspension — without explanation to the staff — of the highly respected business editor, Kimi Yoshino. (Yoshino had supervised a recent investigation into Disney’s questionable business ties to the city of Anaheim, a story that caused Disney to temporarily bar Times writers from advance movie screenings; she came back to work Thursday to the sound of newsroom applause.)
D’Vorkin, who once opined that “speed is the new accuracy” and whom Columbia Journalism Review dubbed “The L.A. Times’ Prince of Darkness,” has been given a new title at Tronc: chief content officer.
●Times publisher Ross Levinsohn is taking an unpaid leave of absence while a law firm investigates allegations of sexual harassment at two previous employers. NPR’s David Folkenflik reported that Levinsohn, by his own sworn testimony as a defendant in two lawsuits, rated the “hotness” of his female colleagues and speculated about whether one of them worked as a stripper on the side.
Times national correspondent Matt Pearce described what has been “an atmosphere of incredible distrust.”
“We’re screaming for some adult supervision,” he told me.
Pearce expressed modest hope, though, given the appointment as top editor last week of Jim Kirk, a veteran newsman and the former publisher and editor of the Chicago Sun-Times.
But even he has a spotty history, after overseeing the dismissal of the entire Sun-Times photo staff in 2013 and recently discouraging L.A. Times journalists from unionizing. (They did so anyway by an overwhelming vote.) Kirk didn’t respond to my request to talk.
As for the future, a Tronc business plan that I obtained promises a future of “gravitas with scale.” Touting Tronc newspapers’ 105 Pulitzer Prizes, it depicts a pyramid with journalists in a small top section. A network of “entrepreneurs” anchors the biggest portion at the bottom and an addendum promises: “The approach allows us to be less dependent on the newsroom transformation as we pursue other growth opportunities.”
Gallows humor abounds in newsrooms, and so staffers are sharing dark jokes that the pyramid is actually just a funnel turned upside down.
The Tronc funnel became an industry-wide joke in 2016 after a company video, bursting with buzzwords and silly graphics, featured two technology officers explaining how they would “harness the power of local journalism, feed it into a funnel and then optimize.”
Ridiculous, yes, but there’s actually a serious concern here. Will journalists be replaced by unpaid or barely paid contributors, bypassing the newsroom in a quest for “scale”?
New York Times journalist Louise Story recently accepted a job at the L.A. Times billed as “managing editor” and last week withdrew her acceptance — apparently after it became clear that she wasn’t going to work in the regular newsroom but would report to the business side.
So I asked Dearborn whether reports of a union-busting “shadow newsroom” were accurate?
Kollias said no, adding corporate opacity with phrases like “leveraging our scale” and “developing new revenue streams.” She said the company would “fully comply with the collective bargaining process.” It’s sounding like a better idea all the time that they’ll have to.
I also asked Dearborn how the company apparently failed to vet some tainted high-ranking executives — Levinsohn is Exhibit A — before hiring them and whether a more rigorous process will prevent a repeat. The full answer: “The company follows standard practice with background and credit checks with third-party agencies prior to employment. But other than that, we don’t comment on employee matters.”
And what about Times journalism with its legendary history and its still-strong staff? How does that fit into the business model, and what plans are there to invest in it?
After all, a news company that brags about its gravitas and its Pulitzers should be fiercely safeguarding its most valuable asset, shouldn’t it?
Kollias gave no specifics but said that Tronc is proud of its journalism and “energized by our ability to transform and grow.”
It’s hard, however, to transform and grow when you’re demoralized and your head is spinning. As Ken Doctor wrote in a Nieman Lab piece: “The pace of crazy-making change at the Times cannot be overstated.”
This past week has been no exception. But with the appointment of Kirk and the return of Yoshino, there are some vague rays of hope — or at least stability.
I don’t know how it could get much worse. But in the chaotic world of 21st-century newspapering, there’s always a chance it will.
For more by Margaret Sullivan visit wapo.st/sullivan