What Just Happened at the LA Times?
When you have a rich owner, it depends on who they are.
Welcome to Second Rough Draft, a newsletter about journalism in our time, how it (often its business) is evolving, and the challenges it faces.
This week I want to try to help make sense of the disaster that is unfolding at the Los Angeles Times, where about one third of the news staff-- nearly 200 people-- has now been let go in two major cuts over the last eight months.
In short, I think what we have here is mostly an ownership failure, the wages of arrogance and ignorance, admittedly accelerated by unfavorable current trends in both advertising sales and news consumption. What has already happened in LA—and the worst for the Times is likely ahead, as it’s hard to see how the paper hasn’t now been launched into a downward spiral—is not so much a refutation of the notion that rich people can save important publications as a reminder that it matters which rich people are involved.
The LA Times has been in existential trouble for decades, certainly since Times Mirror and the Chandler family sold out to the Tribune Company in 2000. An assortment of local billionaires have periodically sought ever since to rescue it, while the significant footprint it retained has acted as something of a check on new entrants who might have better served its current and potential audience. (With luck, potential new entrants may now see a green light.)
Meanwhile, looking to the long term trend, the paper steadily receded from its glory days under people like publisher Otis Chandler (1960-80) and editor John Carroll (2000-2005). Its often stellar news leadership has been repeatedly stymied. When Kevin Merida, only the second Black editor in the paper’s history, left last month rather than follow the owner’s mandate to cut the staff, he wasn’t its first editor, or even its first Black editor, to do that—Dean Baquet, who went on to run the New York Times, had done the same in 2006.
In 2008, ProPublica, which I was helping to start, was a particular beneficiary of this hemorrhaging of talent. Sam Zell, a predatory real estate investor with the endearing nickname of “the grave dancer,” gained control of Tribune at that moment and made sport of disparaging reporters as he drove the company into bankruptcy. All three of the brilliant journalists since named to managing editor roles at ProPublica were included in the extraordinary crew we were able to recruit just from the LA Times.
What’s up with the owner?
The latest owner, Patrick Soon-Shiong, has always been a bit hard to pin down. He was said to be worth $8 billion (the Wall Street Journal) or $9 billion (Bloomberg) or $12 billion (Forbes)—no, it was $18 billion (the LA Business Journal). He was “the wealthiest physician in the world and the richest person in [LA],” (the New York Times) and said he was going to “solve health care” and “win the war on cancer.” Let’s just say the jury is still out on those. Whatever his net worth was, the value of his stake in one public company, ImmunityBio, has fallen by about $10 billion in the last three years, a fact that seems like it should have been the focus of more attention in recent weeks. Surprisingly (at least to me), the most probing journalism on Soon-Shiong was done a year before he became a publisher, not since then.
As with Jeff Bezos’s acquisition of the Washington Post, Soon-Shiong was going to use new technology—in his case, he said in 2018, “cloud computing, machine vision and artificial intelligence” (in which he had experience from other investments)—to transform the publication. Almost six years after Soon-Shiong’s purchase, and ten years after that by Bezos, neither paper appears to have any technological advantage at all over competitors. (The same goes for Time after its 2018 purchase by Marc Benioff of Salesforce.)
Soon-Shiong said on the day he closed the purchase of the Times that in a few years it would be competitive with the New York Times and Washington Post. No one thinks he got anywhere close, or even made a serious run at this goal. Digital subscriptions have doubled, but he said they would grow more than thirty-fold.
What he claimed he did know was that his investment in new offices for the paper paled beside the importance of investing in its staff. “The real strength,” he also said in 2018, “is going to be in the intellectually curious and intellectually honest strong journalistic skill sets.” The offices remain; the human capital investment has been written off.
How did this happen? Or, more to the point, what did Soon-Shiong get wrong? Three things, so far as I can tell. First, he couldn’t quite ever decide if he wanted to run the business itself, even while he continued work in other fields, or to have it run by others—and no one else was sufficiently empowered to do so. Second, he knew just enough about publishing to give speeches or interviews, but not nearly enough to actually plan and lead change. Third, when the going got tough, he either lost interest or recognized he was in over his head (maybe both)-- or perhaps decided he didn’t have enough available cash to mount a concerted turnaround. His and his family’s clumsy attempts at editorial meddling seem to me pretty much beside the point.
The other factors
Of course, it isn’t just one man’s fault. And things would certainly have gone even worse if the paper had stayed in hedge fund hands six years ago, as it might have. During Soon-Shiong’s ownership, the Times has already won seven Pulitzers, which is some reminder of the good it has done in and for its community.
Moreover, as noted above, the advertising climate is poor, which has been enough to cause layoffs elsewhere, and news avoidance seems epidemic, which isn’t helping subscription sales—although, let’s be honest, who can blame many readers at this point for wanting to know just a bit less?
Finally, of the many awful consequences of the contraction in Los Angeles, one that ought to be of special concern is the undoing of much of the progress the paper had made on diversity in recent years. As I have said before, however, some of the responsibility for this rests with the paper’s union, which proclaims (of course) that it would have preferred buyouts, but refused, when those weren’t forthcoming from ownership, to alter any seniority rules to preserve diversity gains.
I do not, by any means, come away from pondering conditions at the LA Times with the thought that wealthy proprietors are a bad idea in journalism today. The leading newspapers in Boston, Minneapolis and Washington, to name just a few, remain counter-examples. On the nonprofit side, successes catalyzed by single donors include ProPublica, CalMatters, the Marshall Project and the Baltimore Banner.
But I do think we all need to be less credulous, and more attentive, when people offer themselves up in the role of savior. The test of such ownership, the Los Angeles case reminds us, is not so much in saying the right things at the start, as in doing the work— and empowering others to do it— in the years that follow.
Thanks for reading Second Rough Draft! Subscribe for free.