“The Staff Wants a Stake in Who Their Next Editor Is”:
header-image

After chronicling its “summer of turmoil and scandals,” change appears on the horizon. Norm Pearlstine expects to have to “have a conversation about what’s next” with owner Patrick Soon-Shiong around the election.

Even after months of political and social upheaval, and as fires rage across California, the Los Angeles Times managed to shock readers this week by journeying down the rabbit hole into its newsroom’s “summer of turmoil and scandals.” The 4,800-word self-exposé was a juicy tale documenting how the buoyant aspirations of the 139-year-old broadsheet’s latest era, under the stewardship of owner Patrick Soon-Shiong and executive editor Norman Pearlstine, were dashed by a string of controversies that transpired within different pockets of the organization, ranging from journalistic malpractice to management missteps to complaints of harassment and a hostile workplace. “If we’re going to want to shine a light on others,” Pearlstine told Meg James and Daniel Hernandez, the writers assigned to the investigation, “we have to be willing to shine a light on ourselves.”

Even in an industry where indignity has become ingrained in the psyche, the L.A. Times has suffered more indignities than most. This is the same newsroom where Dean Baquet once stood atop a desk and announced he was stepping down as editor because he refused to enforce the steep cuts management was demanding. Where Sam Zell’s disastrous and famously foul-mouthed Tribune Company ownership nearly ran the paper and its sister titles into the ground. Where the brief but no less demoralizing reign of “Tronc” flamed out in a failure of ludicrous digital jargon and frat-boy management behavior. By those standards, the most recent turmoil at the Times arguably looks like child’s play. But the tumult was magnified by a sense of hope and optimism that had taken hold after Soon-Shiong, a billionaire philanthropist doctor and health care entrepreneur, rescued the paper and installed Pearlstine, a highly respected veteran of the Wall Street Journal, Time Inc., and Bloomberg, as its top editor.

“I think generally people recognize, especially people who’ve been here a long time, they know how much worse things were,” a Times journalist told me. “The issue is less that the problems are so great, it’s that the hope was so great. People really felt hopeful for the first time in a long time, and therefore the disappointment is that much greater.” Pearlstine, for his part, has been wounded by the imbroglio, but not mortally so. “There have been bad editors here, like truly villainous editors,” this same journalist told me. “Norm is not that.”

In the kicker of the Times’ summer-of-scandal feature, Soon-Shiong intimated that the search for Pearlstine’s successor would commence before the end of the year, which raised eyebrows inside the newsroom. “The big news was the accelerated timetable,” said another Times journalist. Pearlstine, now 77, became the ninth Times editor in 19 years and the fourth in 24 months when he was appointed in June 2018. He was hired as a transitional figure who could pave the way for the newsroom’s next leader, but his initial one-year contract was extended through 2021, with the possibility that he could continue longer or take on a different role after that. When I got ahold of Pearlstine on his cell this week, he didn’t have much to add about the process or timetable for naming his replacement, other than to say it hasn’t really begun in earnest. “Patrick and I have said that sometime around the election, we’d sit down and have a conversation about what’s next, and we’ll do that,” he told me.

Soon-Shiong, who runs the Times with his wife, Michele Chan, has lately been heavily focussed on something other than newspaper strategy and newsroom budgets and digital subscriptions (of which I’m told the Times now has more than 340,000). Through his other companies, NantKwest and ImmunityBio, he’s been working on a COVID-19 vaccine, described by Science as a “dark horse entrant” in the race to end the coronavirus pandemic. It made the short list of vaccines being evaluated as part of the Trump administration’s Operation Warp Speed, but does not appear to have gone to human trials. Needless to say, Soon-Shiong has been a bit distracted, but he told the Times, “It’s not good for any of us to continue this squabbling. We’ve got to work together because there’s an opportunity here for us to thrive.”

When Soon-Shiong is able to come up for air and start talking to candidates to replace Pearlstine, he might save himself a future headache by making the process as transparent as possible. “The staff wants a stake in who their next editor is,” one of my Times sources said. “The next editor will be stronger if they have buy-in.” Whoever that editor ends up being—whether a long-groomed insider like Kimi Yoshino, a more recent senior recruit, such as Shani Hilton, Julia Turner, or Sewell Chan, or some imported all-star (Soon-Shiong made sky-high passes at Baquet and Marty Baron the last time around)—he or she will inherit an institution that still hasn’t quite fully regained its footing, but one that people are rooting for.

“They’ve managed to bring together such an accomplished group of editors and writers,” a prominent L.A. media figure told me, “and while the paper is better, I guess it has not yet lived up to the tremendous expectations set for it. You want this alchemy to work somehow. It sparks, but it never lights a flame.”

— Melania Trump Sounds a Lot Like Her Husband in Stephanie Winston Wolkoff’s New Book
Jesmyn Ward Writes Through Grief Amid Protests and Pandemic
— How Trump’s Handling of White Supremacists Could Create a Homegrown Crisis
— Ashley Etienne May Be Biden’s Deadliest Weapon Against Trump
— What’s the Reality Behind Netflix Hit Selling Sunset?
How to Abolish the Police, According to Josie Duffy Rice
— The Pandemic Is Creating an Endless Summer in the Hamptons
— From the Archive: The Perks and Perils of Being Donald Trump’s Daughter

Looking for more? Sign up for our daily Hive newsletter and never miss a story.

From: VANITYFAIR