BY Jonathan Griffin in Opinion | 21 MAR 18

After the Storm: Some Glimmers of Hope Following LA’s Media Crisis

Events that have pummelled Southern California’s news organizations over the past two years seem to have galvanized its local readership

BY Jonathan Griffin in Opinion | 21 MAR 18

‘A perfect storm’ is how Carolina Miranda, Los Angeles Times staff writer and co-chair of the newly formed Los Angeles Times Guild, describes the events that have pummelled Southern California’s news organizations over the past two years. Happenstance, incompetence, greed and bad luck have coincided with broader challenges in the global digital media landscape, causing three of the region’s main print publications to come close to ruination, and a popular local news website to shut down.

Around the end of last year, things looked especially bleak for news media in Los Angeles. In November, the new owners of the leading free culture paper, LA Weekly, announced they were laying off all its top editors and all but one of its staff writers. When outraged readers started asking who the secretive new owners were, exactly, it emerged that they were mostly attorneys and real estate developers with scant media experience and conservative political ties.

A month earlier, Joe Ricketts, the new owner of the website LAist (part of the Gothamist and DNAinfo network) had closed down his entire company after Gothamist employees voted to unionize. (In 2016, after spending millions on adverts denigrating him, Ricketts donated USD$1 million to Donald Trump after he secured the presidential nomination.)

An abandoned Los Angeles Times vending machine in Covina, California, October 2011. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Also in October 2017, long-time editor of the irreverent OC Weekly, Gustavo Arellano, resigned from the Orange County-based paper (owned like LA Weekly up to 2016 by Voice Media Group, former owners of the Village Voice) because his new bosses would not accept his alternative plan for cost-cutting without laying off half the paper’s staff. (He even offered to halve his own salary.)

Meanwhile, over at the LA Times – the region’s journal of record – staff were moving to unionize following years of increasingly mendacious and inept management by the paper’s Chicago-based parent company Tronc, known prior to 2016 as Tribune Publishing. (Tronc’s cretinous name is a derivation of ‘Tribune online content’.)

Following a shake-up of The Times’ top editors in August 2017, including the firing of publisher and editor-in-chief Davan Maharaj, in November the new publisher and CEO Ross Levinsohn replaced interim editor-in-chief Jim Kirk with Lewis D’Vorkin, an abrasive digital media disruptor who had transformed through a profitable (though ethically questionable) mix of paid journalism, unedited posted content and advertising. D’Vorkin was reviled in the newsroom. On 18 January, a story on National Public Radio exposed Levinsohn as having been repeatedly accused of sexual misconduct and inappropriate behaviour in previous jobs, and Tronc put him on unpaid leave. (He was later cleared and reassigned to a different area of the company.)

The day after Levinsohn’s removal, it was announced that the Los Angeles Times newsroom had voted in favour of unionization 248 votes to 44. The Los Angeles Times Guild was formed, an independent union affiliated with the NewsGuild-Communications Workers of America.

‘You can’t make a newspaper succeed just by cost-cutting.’
- Carolina Miranda

Nine days later, D’Vorkin was fired, and Kirk reinstated. (The poor man had been relocated by Tronc to New York only two months earlier.) Another nine days after that, on 6 February, The Times broke the story that Los Angeles-based biotech billionaire Patrick Soon-Shiong – a major Tronc shareholder who had clashed with its leadership – was in talks to buy the paper along with The San Diego Union-Tribune. The news was greeted by staff at the paper with cautious jubilation.

Another reason for optimism: On 23 February, Pasadena-based public radio station KPCC announced that it was buying LAist, which it will resurrect along with its archives. Two other National Public Radio stations bought the other sites in the Gothamist and DNAinfo network; it is estimated that KPCC paid around USD$50,000 for LAist, a price that its President and Chief Executive Bill Davis called ‘very, very affordable’.

Indeed, naysayers who lament the ill health of Southern California’s local media might do well to consider the strength of donor-supported nonprofits such as radio stations KPCC and Santa Monica-based KCRW, as well as the cable news channel KCET. It is the for-profit local media that is undoubtedly struggling, however.

‘You can’t make a newspaper succeed just by cost-cutting,’ says Miranda. ‘That cost-cutting may make shareholders happy temporarily, but it doesn’t necessarily make a viable news organization in the long term.’

The LA Times Building. Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons

She notes that extreme layoffs ‘cut into the bones of the operation’, often while executives continue to reward themselves with higher and higher salaries and bonuses. During the course of unionization at the LA Times, investigations revealed that the CEO of Tronc, Justin Dearborn, was paying himself more than the CEO of The New York Times, a company with a much higher capitalization. The use of a private jet for Tronc chairman Michael Ferro had cost USD$4.6 million in less than two years.

‘The feeling among the staff was one of powerlessness. We want to find ways to make this work, to find new models; we’re open to doing things differently, but we want to feel that it’s not just a strip-mining operation.’

The Los Angeles Times Guild, says Miranda, will protect workers from cuts such as the changes in rules about vacation days which partly instigated unionization discussions back in 2016. The union will also generate studies into equal pay at the paper between genders and ethnicities. Most importantly, it will allow staff to voice their dissent towards corporate management without fear of retaliation.

One unexpected positive outcome of the turmoil simultaneously afflicting so many of the region’s media outlets, however, is that consumers have realized how precious those publications are to them and their community. LA Times subscriptions have gone up. A recent article about Los Angeles in The New York Times by Tim Narango and Adam Nagourney drew the ire of local readers who objected to its use of clichéd tropes and its lazy mischaracterization of LA as a sprawling, traffic-snarled metropolis that is too atomized and politically apathetic to rally around its ailing main newspaper.

‘Patrick Soon-Shiong’s purchase of the paper completely counters that narrative,’ says Miranda. ‘It shows that someone who lives in the region cares deeply about what happens to the LA Times. And the public support that the union got while we were unionizing also contradicts that narrative, and shows that people here very much care. I hope that this new future represents an LA Times that is born and bred and raised and written in Los Angeles. This is a unique city that can be really easy to misinterpret from the outside.’

Jonathan Griffin is a writer based in Los Angeles, USA, and a contributing editor of frieze.