There's Trouble Brewing at the LA Times

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Posted: Sep 21, 2022 11:05 AM
There's Trouble Brewing at the LA Times

Source: AP Photo/Richard Vogel

Like many legacy publications, The Los Angeles Times faces an uncertain future with the media industry’s changing environment. The surge towards digitalization and the integration of video and social media has forced every media company, large and small, to adapt. Some succeed while others fail, which is the nature of the market. 

The LA Times reportedly was in a period of limbo, a shell of its former self with a staff of over a little over 500 employees. It used to be a well-oiled journalistic machine with some 1,200 writers. That changed in 2018 when wealthy pharmaceutical executive Patrick Soon-Shiong purchased the paper and promised stability and a journalistic plan for the 21st Century. He promised new offices and what could only be described as a blank check regarding returning this paper to its former glory. Yet, the Soon-Shiong ownership has also come with a healthy dose of internal strife and drama, some of which border ethical boundaries.

Politico did a deep-dive on the internal conflicts engulfing the LA Times, speaking with dozens of former and current staffers off the record who describe the work environment as tense, especially with Nika Soon-Shiong allegedly meddling regarding the paper’s endorsement and its coverage. Nika is a ‘woke’ lefty who is an associate of the non-profit Fund for Guaranteed Income, which you could guess advocates for free money to be given to “vulnerable people.” She also spearheaded the move to cut funding to the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department and was appointed to become West Hollywood Public Safety Commissioner. The latter has been a gray area regarding journalistic ethics because she has pitched what the commission is doing to the paper’s reporters, asking them to do articles about their work.

Ms. Soon-Shiong has also instructed reporters on a new lefty guideline regarding reporting on crime in the city. She wants writers to eschew using words like “looting” and lambasted a junior LA Times reporter for a story about suspects stealing watches and then fleeing in a Black Rolls-Royce. According to Politico, Activist Los Angeles torched the 190-word story as being a press release by the police, and Ms. Soon-Shiong also joined in raking the writer over the coals. Later, the paper won a Pulitzer for photography and held an awkward all-staff meeting to celebrate the award and praise its photographer. You can’t bash your newspaper and love it too—that’s not healthy. That’s schizophrenia.

The younger Soon-Shiong has been accused of meddling in the paper’s endorsement process in local elections, with every candidate being connected to the family in some fashion. Nika isn’t the only family member who has skirted perilously close to unethical uses of their medium. Patrick Soon-Shiong was featured in an LA Times video promoting a COVID vaccine that his company was manufacturing but had not been approved in the United States. That’s one flaw this father-daughter duo reportedly shares. Still, while Nika’s meddling in the reporting side—allegedly—has raised eyebrows, the elder Soon-Shiong’s management skills have also increased the staff’s blood pressure. The word that describes Mr. Soon Shiong’s handling of the paper is purely paradoxical. One word tossed around in the Politico piece was “ephemeral,” and marked by the drop-in of the big boss with other vested interests like his other paper, the San Diego Union-Tribune. He’s also reportedly a potential buyer for the Los Angeles Angels.

Mr. Soon-Shiong is an “absentee landlord and also a micromanager” who— according to Politico—is also paralyzed by indecision. Those attributes are not ones you want to hear about a newspaper’s general manager in the face of an ever-changing business landscape that requires swift and sweeping decisions. Soon-Shiong has made some regarding the latter but is marked by a come-and-go attitude. It’s like a media-based hurricane season with Soon-Shiong.

One of the more damning aspects of the new ownership is that they don’t care about the history of the paper. There’s no plan to update its publishing infrastructure into a more efficient, technologically up-to-date operation. It’s reportedly still antiquated in some essential areas. What’s the mission of the LA Times? What’s the plan regarding the administrative and business side of the paper? What’s the plan, Stan? Those are unknown qualities right now. Nika is set to leave the States to pursue a doctoral degree in the UK, but the ongoing managerial issues will remain. The DC Bureau has also gone astray, with scores of reporters leaving to greener pastures. While the Soon-Shiong family has the money to turn things around—they don’t know the business, which could exacerbate these ongoing internal grievances.

The hiring of Kevin Merida as the paper’s new executive editor was seen as a top move, as he’s one of the most sought-after editors in the country. He’s also decided to step into the interlocutor role between the Soon-Shiong family and the rest of the staff, which is no easy task.

While liberal bias is always an issue, the cancer at the LA Times appears to be grounded in its direction and what it wants to do more than anything else. The owner's daughter being a full-throated lefty activist also didn’t help, presenting ethical quandaries that were wholly unforced errors. The LA Times is a ship with a partial rudder which, based on this piece, is in dire need of repairs or it will hit the rocks—a concern that seems to be shared by the publication’s employees.

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